Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, by Deborah Yaffe – A Review

Among the Janeites, by Deborah Yaffe 2013 There are Trekkies and Potterheads and Twifans, but nothing in the pop culture universe can compare to the passion, dedication and eccentricity of a Janeite. I know this because I am one.

For the benefit of the un-indoctrinated, a Janeite is a fan of English author Jane Austen (1775-1817) who wrote six novels before her untimely death at age 41. Many have read Pride and Prejudice for a school assignment and then moved on. Others, like myself and former journalist Deborah Yaffe, were so enchanted by her humor, characters and Regency world that we read not only her major works, but everything she wrote: juvenilia, minor works, novella, fragments and letters. That was not enough. We were compelled to become her fans.

In Among the Janeites, a new nonfiction book to be released next week by Mariner Books, Yaffe boldly ventures into the land of Janeites to discover what makes them tick and why they “feel an intensely personal affection for the writer and her books…whom they often call “Jane,” as if she were a neighbor whose kitchen door they could knock on to borrow a cup of sugar.” Yaffe’s journalist background gives her the perfect training for such a task, striving to form an impression of what it is like to live with the obsession and “tease out some common threads that weave this diverse array of individuals into a community.” And tease she does, interviewing and meeting a wide range of her fans, traveling to England for a Jane Austen pilgrimage to her homes and haunts, and attending Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) Annual General Meetings in Portland, Oregon and Fort Worth, Texas.

After the lively introduction which explores her motivations for writing the book, it is broken down into three parts, much like dramatic structure of Austen’s three volume novels. Within the ten chapters one or two different personalities in the Janeite world are featured as an example of the diversity of Austen’s fans and how they express their passion. First we meet Regency fashion aficionados Baronda Bradley and seamstress Maureen O’Connor and learn all about corsets, pelisses and the lives of these two fashionistas. Multimillionaire Cisco founder and Chawton House Library creator Sandy Lerner has her share of the conversation in a chapter called “Sandy’s Pemberley,” writers Pamela Aidan and Linda Berdol are included in the chapter on Jane Austen fanfiction, and Austen scholar Devoney Looser rattles the ivory tower of academia by admitting to Austen fandom and expressing it with the roller derby persona “Stone Cold Austen” in “The Knowledge Business.”

While many of the chapters contain a combination of personalities, “The Jane Austen Code” contains only one: the unique and outspoken Arnie Perlstein, whose way-out theories on the “shadow stories” within Austen’s novels (an underpinning of subtext to sex, hidden pregnancies, and other sordid tidbits) litter Austen’s narrative. We understand. Who else could Yaffe possibly pair with such a character? In “Austen Therapy” we meet Christine Shih and Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer who are proponents of using Austen to help borderline personality disorder and autistic patients, then we learn about the creation of JASNA by founders Joan Austen Leigh and Jack Grey in “Talking Jane Austen,” and relive the creation of the Republic of Pemberley, the online haven for Austen addicts, with co-founders Myretta Robens and Amy Bellinger in “Austen.net.” The book’s denouement culminates at the 2011 JASNA Annual General Meeting in Fort Worth where the newly corseted author attends scholarly talks, shops in the Regency Emporium and exhibits her new frock while dancing to Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot.

“Janeites are rational people, perfectly capable of drawing firm lines between fiction and reality, and yet that distinction seems to melt into insignificance when they begin thinking about Jane Austen’s characters.” p. xxi

And think we do…and have our share of the conversation…and express our decided opinions in so many diverse ways. Like Austen and her finely drawn characters, Yaffe has chosen her cast of players in Among the Janeites so well. There are your Mr. Darcy-like heroes and Elizabeth Bennet-like feisty heroines, but there are also many poignant stories of individuals that make this book so much more than an opportunity to be Mrs. Elton name dropping and rubbing the right elbows. Yaffe is a talented writer whose lively eye and measured humor permeates like brandy in this Austen trifle cutting through the thick cloying cream. We are served up all of the quirks and eccentricities of what comes with obsessive fandom yet she never chides or looks down her nose at any faction. Her wit and humor really shine. In the second chapter entitled “Walking Where Jane Walked” she ventures on an Austen tour to England. Here we experience first-hand her observational skills and dry wit as she describes her reactions to the sites and people she meets in London, Lyme Regis, Bath, Chawton and Winchester, where Austen died and was buried in the great cathedral. As their group assembles for a solemn graveside ceremony conducted by an Anglican priest, JASNA president Iris Lutz hands each of the group a thornless (irony here) pink rose to be placed in a vase on a nearby wall. She was not moved, at all, feeling too crowded for reflection. ““This is a club?” asks an American tourist in a leopard-print coat. “Or what are you guys?”” p. 34 HA! Good question. You will have more than a passing notion after you finish this exploration of how Janeites are born and express their passion.

If you don’t blink while reading page 195, you might catch a few words about me. No, I am not as obsessive as those Janeites given a full chapter. I have just spent thousands and thousands of hours chatting in person and online message boards, reading everything about Austen or inspired by her in print, creating, writing and managing a blog for over five years dedicated to her, editing a short story collection inspired by her, and, collecting anything that suits my fancy from the great big Jane Austen brand out there. Nope. Not quirky, eccentric, or interesting enough (I guess) to warrant much more. ;-) I will, however, concede that the competition is very stiff. I am not a bazillionaire who can buy the crumbling Chawton House and resurrect it into a library, nor am I an Austen scholar moonlighting as a roller derby queen named “Stone Cold Austen”, nor do I have 30 Regency frocks and an unmentionable number of bonnets, gloves, parasols and corsets tucked away in my tiny Woodston Cottage closet. I am just your average run-of-the mill Janeite who proudly wears her JASNA Life Member pin and can be called one of the tribe.

Among the Janeites is a delightfully entertaining and perceptive romp with Jane Austen’s disciples. I laughed so hard I startled my cat, dropped a stitch in my knitting and turned over my cup of Captain Wentworth tea. Anyone who is amused by sub-culture insights and the human propensity for healthy (and not so) admiration/addiction will find themselves turning off their Candy Crush Saga game or the upteenth viewing of Downton Abbey and reading into the wee hours of the night. Yaffe is as an astute observer of human nature and its intricacies as the great master herself.

6 out of 5 Regency Stars

Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, by Deborah Yaffe
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2013)
Trade paperback (272) pages
ISBN: 9780547757735

Cover image courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2013, Austenprose.com

The List Lover’s Guide to Jane Austen, by Joan Strasbaugh – A Review

The List Lovers Guide to Jane Austen by Joan Strasbaugh 2013Every wonder what books Jane Austen read, who her relations were, where she lived and traveled, or what were her pet peeves? Well, what true Janeite doesn’t? Do you want to learn more about your favorite author than you ever expected to discover all packed up and neatly arrange in one tidy volume? Then read on…

The List Lover’s Guide to Jane Austen is a delightful little fact book on the famous author and her world that was a welcome diversion from the drama and angst of the current Austenesque fiction book that I am entrenched in. Packed full of information compiled in list format, even this die-hard Janeite learned more than a few new tidbits about Austen’s novels, characters, family, Regency culture and her life.

This beautifully designed reference book would be the perfect primer and or fact checker for a Jane Austen quiz. Broken down into categories like:

  • Forward: (including ten reasons for reading this book!)
  • Her Life: (including what she looked like, books she read, who she met on her travels and much more)
  • Her Correspondence: (great selected quotes)
  • Timeline for Jane Austen: (featuring events from every year of her life)
  • Her Writing: (from her juvenilia to her novels to her last poem)
  • Bonus List: Jane’s Royal Ancestors: (who knew?)
  • Bibliography: (exclusive and the best)

What a powerful wallop this tidy little volume delivers. All this information now together in one place? It is a researcher, fact-checker, game-player, and all-around Janeite’s dream! Strasbaugh has done a thorough job researching, compiling and arranging information in a friendly and intuitive way. My only quibbles, and they are minor ones, is in the book design and format. I wish that they had placed the name of the chapter at the top of the left hand page so that the reader could search and locate categories within the book more easily. Sadly, it also lacks a general index. Please, even though this is a book of lists, all nonfiction books need an index. And NO eBook format? Really? How am I to cite all the balls and dances she attended when questioned on the run?

I am delighted to highly recommend this perky gem of a Jane Austen resource book to readers who seek facts and entertainment.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The List Lover’s Guide to Jane Austen, by Joan Strasbaugh
Sourcebooks (2013)
Trade paperback (212) pages
ISBN: 9781402282034

Cover image courtesy Sourcebooks © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2013, Austenprose

Pride & Prejudice: Little Miss Austen (BabyLit), by Jennifer Adams – A Review

Pride & Prejudice: BabyLit Boad Book, by Jennifer Adams (2011)I have read all of Jane Austen works, many biographies, nonfiction, and oodles of sequels —  but an Austen-inspired children’s board book? Whoa! Curious? I was. Don’t ya just love the creativity that our Jane inspires?

When I first heard about Pride & Prejudice: Little Miss Austen (BabyLit) by Jennifer Adams, the same author who wrote the lovely Remarkably Jane: Notable Quotations on Jane Austen, I was quite intrigued. Would this be a retelling of one of my favorite classic novels for very young readers? How would it translate into a children’s counting primer? And, how the heck would I review a children’s book – total virgin territory for me.

Once I had a copy of the book in hand, many of my concerns were immediately dispelled. It was indeed a board book, a small compact cardboard version of a book — easy for a child to hold, unrippable and chewable. (Yes. As a bookseller, I have seen many a toddler stick a board book in their mouth and gnaw on it like a teething ring.) At 22 pages, it was both compact and lightweight, but what will ultimately appeal to parent and child is the total Pride and Prejudice theme that author Jennifer Adams and illustrator Alison Oliver have embraced. From the bright and cheery front cover displaying an image of (one assumes) a wide eyed, and very young Miss Austen, to the 20 clever and striking illustrations inside, I was awed by the choice of characters, Regency clothing and objects used and the ease of the text. Here is an excellent example of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy as 2 rich gentleman!

Pride & Prejudice: Little Miss Austen, illustration, 2 rich gentlemen

Delightful. Of course no book about P&P could possibly NOT include mention of ball gowns, so here is the beautiful illustration that would make Lydia and Kitty Bennet squee.

Pride & Prejudice: Little Miss Austen, illustration, 9 fancy ball gowns

As we progress through the book, each of the pages also moves through the opening chapters of Pride and Prejudice, ending at 10,000 pounds a year. Jennifer Adams has selected key points and characters admirably. Parents, grandparents and anyone who is an Austen fan will recognize their favorite characters and scenes, and children will be enchanted by the illustrations and the counting theme. Of course this board book format could not be a full retelling of the entire narrative, but it gives the very young reader an introduction to characters, images, and a bit of the story that they can remember when they watch the movie adaptation and later move into the full novel.

Charming, whimsical and historical accurate, Pride & Prejudice: Little Miss Austen, offers the very young reader an early introduction to Jane Austen – planting seeds for her total world take-over!

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Pride & Prejudice: Little Miss Austen (BabyLit), by Jennifer Adams, illustrations by Alison Oliver
Gibbs Smith (2011)
Board Book (22) pages
ISBN: 978-1423622024

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors, by Nava Atlas – A Review

Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Judging by the number of writing guides available in bookstores today, as compared to the number of guides available twenty or thirty years ago, it would seem that there has been an increase in demand for books about writing.  Admittedly, many of these guides are similar in scope and advice although their continued consumption would suggest that they are serving their purpose to some aspiring writers out there.  Imagine, though, a writing guide written by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë, a detailed account of where they wrote and how often, how they dealt with rejection, and how they juggled their domestic responsibilities with their need to write.  Alas, no such book exists but something close has just been written which will be of interest to aspiring writers as well as readers interested in learning more about their favorite authors.

Nava Atlas, well-known author and illustrator of cookbooks including the highly regarded Vegetariana, presents an intimate glimpse into the writing process of twelve beloved women writers in The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors. Drawing from journals, letters, memoirs, and interviews, Atlas organizes the thoughts and advice of twelve successful women authors into eight chapters that specifically address relevant aspects of the writing process such as developing a voice, finding the time to write, and dealing with rejection.  More importantly, she includes chapters of particular significance to some aspiring women writers, such as “The Writer Mother,” which draws from the experiences of women authors who juggled the responsibilities of motherhood and writing.

In Atlas’ words, her book is not merely a “how-to of writing” but, rather, “something that might prove even more valuable – a treasury of intimate glimpses into the unfolding creative process across twelve brilliant careers” which includes that of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L. M. Montgomery, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf.

Such intimate treasures include Charlotte Brontë’s 1846 query letter to a prospective publisher, excerpts from Louisa May Alcott’s journal where she admits that she, herself, didn’t enjoy stories like Little Women, and a spotlight on Jane Austen’s inner critic which led her to write in a 1815 letter to James Stanier “I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.”  In addition to well-placed quotes and excerpts from the writings of these twelve classic authors, Atlas, departing from many how-to writing guides, draws from original images and photos to further captivate the interest of the reader.  Such images include one of Steventon, the birthplace of Jane Austen, and a number of author photos, including one of L. M. Montgomery in a wonderful, feathery hat.  Atlas also provides her own commentary which helps gives a sense of overall structure to the book.

There is something to turning to beloved authors for advice about the writing and creative process.  Not content to merely glamorize or romanticize the writing process, which happens all too often in author biographies, Atlas makes a point to highlight the frustration and self-doubt that almost always accompanies any writing attempt, even attempts by classic authors.  Madeleine L’Engle’s assertion that a rejection letter was “like the rejection of me, myself” will resonate with many writers out there.  Admittedly, Atlas’ ambitious attempt to organize the thoughts and advice of twelve writers undoubtedly means that readers will find themselves sifting through the book to get to the parts about their favorite writers but that’s to be expected.

A small complaint, which Atlas wisely anticipates, is the conspicuous lack of writers who are not either European or of European origins.  Citing that the increased odds against any female of color in the nineteenth century as compared to their white counterparts is what ultimately led to her decision, Atlas fails to realize that these increased odds could have been a point of interest in their own right for contemporary writers and readers.  It is important to note that she does occasionally offer the insights of Zora Neale Hurston or Maya Angelou but they are embedded within blocks of text and easy to miss.

Nevertheless, Atlas’ The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life is an absorbing book that will make even those who have never dreamt of pursuing a writing life want to pick up paper and pen (or, more accurately, turn on the computer) and begin a work of their own.

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

4 out of 5 Stars

The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas
Sellers Publishing, Inc. (2011)
Hardcover (176) pages
ISBN: 978-1416206323

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Pocket Posh® Jane Austen: 100 Puzzles & Quizzes, by The Puzzle Society™ – A Review

Pocket Posh Jane Austen: 100 Puzzles and Quizzes, by The Puzzle Society (2011)For those addicted to brain teasers and Jane Austen, I have the prefect diversion for you. The Puzzle Society™ has assembled this tidy Pocket Posh® edition of crosswords, quizzes, word searches, codewords and more, all inspired by Jane Austen, her novels and her world.

Challenge your knowledge of “our” Jane in this compact pocket edition wrapped in a beautiful Renaissance rose pattern cover design, bound by elastic band closure with smooth rounded edges.  Slip it in your purse, backpack or brief case Janeites with the assurance that you will expand your knowledge and appreciation of our favorite author while on the go.

I confess that I might rival Austen’s ditzy character Harriet Smith in the lack of analytical skills department.  Without Miss Woodhouse’s help she was not able to decode the riddle that Mr. Elton presented to her for her riddle book collection. I was able to answer some of the quiz questions and catch a few errors in the text, but please, please, I beg you, don’t even ask me to attempt a crossword or codeword puzzle.  I could quite possibly be the worst Janeite in the world to review this lovely little edition, so I am totally taking The Puzzle Society’s reputation at face value and leaving the solving to the higher IQ Janeites in the crowd. Have fun!

About the Author

The Puzzle Society™ is the Web’s premier source for challenging, professionally constructed puzzles and games. Updated daily and boasting a gaming archive of more than 8,000 puzzles, the Puzzle Society offers more than 70 nationally syndicated puzzles, including the Washington Post Crossword, L.A. Times Crossword, Universal Crossword, Universal Jigsaw, and Daily Jumble.

Watch Vic, of Jane Austen’s World’s great video of Pocket Posh Jane Austen.

Pocket Posh® Jane Austen:100 Puzzles & Quizzes, by The Puzzle Society™
Andrews McMeel Publishing (2011)
Paperback (160) pages, trim size: 4 x 6 in.
ISBN: 978-1449401238