As part of her introduction, Deborah Yaffe describes an only moderately successful attempt at running a Jane Austen book club: “We had a great time, and they liked the books, but—well, they didn’t like them quite the way I did. They didn’t seem to put themselves to sleep at night by composing dialogue for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet… They didn’t worry about whether Marianne Dashwood is really happy at the end of Sense and Sensibility. In other words, they weren’t nuts.”
Girl, I know what you mean.
As Austen herself has written, “One half the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” And, as Yaffe accurately points out, sometimes, even Austen fans have trouble comprehending one another. She writes of “the tension between people who truly understand Jane Austen—people like me!—and those other, lesser fans who like her for all the wrong reasons, because of the movies, or the zombies.” But somewhere along the line—perhaps it’s when Yaffe goes from proclaiming she will never be caught dead in period costume to worrying about whether she’s chosen the right fabric to send to her custom dressmaker, or when fan-fiction writer Linda Berdoll discovers various Regency euphemisms with which to describe Mr. Darcy’s penis (“larydoodle” is the best of these)—I realized, if we’re all on the same ward, what’s the point of arguing over which of us is craziest? Let’s all just pop a pill and go nuts together.
Before we get too far into the fray, however, it’s important for Yaffe to establish her credibility early on, which she does effectively, describing a child version of herself as “the ultimate literature nerd”, who “earned good grades, hated gym class, and read with a ravenous hunger”. It’s a clever narrative device, as it mirrors the personality of the kind of reader most likely to pick up her book: well-read, discriminating, and well, nerdy. In this way, Yaffe assures the reader that he will have a steady Virgil to guide him through the circles of fandom, of which there are many. To list a few, Yaffe attends the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting, tours Jane Austen’s England, posts in Jane Austen weblists, and gads about academia.
We can share in Yaffe’s skepticism when she meets a man who claims to have a Grand Unified Theory of Jane Austen. We can also share in her sense of awe as Yaffe strolls the streets of Bath, turning the same corner where Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot of Persuasion walked, while she reads the words from her Kindle describing that walk. And again, when she is on a Jane Austen tour in Lyme, a fellow tourist notes, “You’re walking where Jane walked”, and we are as lulled into blissful contemplation of that fact as if we were there ourselves.
Like Yaffe, every Jane Austen fan will see herself somewhere along the spectrum of human curiosities Yaffe encounters. Though comparatively restrained in her demonstrativeness, Yaffe exudes such joy as a narrator, such real interest in the people she meets, that most readers will be too entertained to harshly judge what they might see as those “other” fans. It’s hard to pass judgment, for instance, on a woman who, through writing Mr. Darcy fan-fiction, finds the strength to abandon an abusive marriage. And it’s hard to maintain that Austen should only be regarded with utter academic rigor when even eminent scholars find themselves falling in love over Mansfield Park: George Justice, professor at University of Missouri at Columbia as of Yaffe’s writing, meets professor Devoney Looser and realizes he’s going to marry her when she proclaims that she is too much like Fanny Price.
The point of writing such a book, I suppose, is simply that the truly obsessed can never get enough of what they love. A person who collects porcelain cat figurines will never have enough shelves to hold all his porcelain cat figurines. One imagines Deborah Yaffe chortling to herself wickedly as she realizes she’s actually getting paid to do this stuff, and meanwhile she’s snorting up every book, every event, every person with the fervor of an addict.
Even when goaded into raising an eyebrow over some rather outlandish interpretations (Mr. Darcy was introverted, not autistic, and I’m pretty sure Jane Fairfax was not pregnant with the child of Mr. John Knightley), Austen readers will recognize the kind of obsession and over-analysis her novels inspire. And those who aren’t fans, though I can’t imagine why they’d pick up a book about fandom, will at least recognize the heightened sense of being, that kicked-up vitality that is the result of immersion in what one loves. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen once described her most famous book, Pride and Prejudice, as “too light, and bright, and sparkling.” Omit the “too”, and you have a fair description of Pride and Prejudice, and of Yaffe’s delightful book, as well.