In Jane Austen 2.0, the Heroines And Heroes Friend Each Other
The Young Seek ‘Sense and Sensibility’ On Dating, ‘Crazy Parents’ Via the Web
By ARDEN DALE And MARY PILON
Ben Kemper, 19, plans to wear a frock coat with cuffs to the annual Jane Austen birthday tea in Boise, Idaho, on Saturday.
Watch the faux movie trailer “Jane Austen’s Fight Club,” a creation of Austen-fans Emily Janice Card, Keith Paugh and Jeff Dickson.
The outfit will be “the whole shebang,” says Mr. Kemper, who hopes to scare up some yard work so he can pay for the new threads. He says his costume may include riding boots, a cane, gloves and a buttoned vest.
Mr. Kemper is among an unlikely set of fans of the long-dead Ms. Austen—young people. The English novelist best known for “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” has been dead since 1817, yet she is drawing a cultish pack of young people, especially young women, known as “Janeites” who are dedicated to celebrating all things Austen.
The appeal? Ms. Austen’s tales of courtship and manners resonate with dating-obsessed and social-media-savvy 21st-century youths, says Nili Olay, regional coordinator for the New York Metro chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America, or JASNA.
Other renowned English authors aren’t so posthumously popular—at least among the Web set. Ms. Austen counts roughly 89,000 fans on Facebook, compared with 45,000 for Charles Dickens, and just 9,000 for the Brontë sisters.
Young women, in particular, find meaning in Ms. Austen’s work, according to Joan Klingel Ray, author of “Jane Austen for Dummies.” They may be “trying to figure out how to find Mr. Right,” says Ms. Ray, an English professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. “You can almost vicariously experience this through her heroines.”
Jennifer Potter, 24, a member of JASNA’s New York chapter, says Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” feels antiquated. She finds Jane Austen’s writing more relevant to her life. “Marrying for money, crazy parents, dating—these are all basic themes,” Ms. Potter said, sipping tea near the sandwich table at a recent Austen meeting that drew 200 members.
Lindsey Hanlon, 22, is part of an Austen group at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, in which members sit for hours over dinner discussing the author’s work and give each other quizzes. Earlier this year, during spring break, they traveled to England for a visit of old Austen haunts, including Bath, where some of her characters disported themselves.
“Every girl in the world has had a crush on an inappropriate suitor or the man she sees as above her, or even the local bad boy,” says Ms. Hanlon. “Whoever you are, there is a love story for you in Austen.”
Ms. Olay, 66, is trying to tap into that passion to ensure that the Austen Society, formed in 1979, endures. In 2008, at the suggestion of member Cattleya Concepcion, 27, Ms. Olay set up a Facebook page. She quickly found that the Web was already a hotbed of Austen activity.
A scene from a mock movie trailer called ‘Jane Austen’s Fight Club,’ made by Austen fans Emily Janice Card, Keith Paugh and Jeff Dickson.
“Using the Web and Facebook, we were able to reach younger members,” says Ms. Olay. “They are forming friendships and learning how to plan events.”
DeeDee Baldwin, 31, of Starkville, Miss., created in 2008 “AustenBook,” a Web spoof of Facebook that digitally chronicles the happenings of Elizabeth Bennet and the other characters in “Pride and Prejudice.” “When you read her books, you feel like the characters could be with you right now,” says Ms. Baldwin.
The Austen Society is reaching young people in other ways, too. For the past three years the group has bought space at the Brooklyn Book Festival, making Ms. Austen the only deceased author with her own booth at the ultra-hip event.
Jaclyn Green-Stock, 23, co-heads the New York “Juvenilia” chapter of the Austen Society, a 50-member group of Janeites in their 20s and 30s. Ms. Green-Stock is also writing a screenplay about gentrification in New York, using “Persuasion” as her chief inspiration.
The Juvenilia members take walking tours in lower Manhattan and gather at each other’s apartments to watch DVDs of Austen-themed movies such as a Bollywood version of “Sense and Sensibility” called “I Have Found It.”
Media companies are tapping into the Austen craze as well. Quirk Books in Philadelphia in 2008 commissioned author Seth Grahame-Smith to write “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a work that adds the undead to Ms. Austen’s classic novel. The book is slated to become a film next year.
The seeds of the Austen resurgence were sown during the 1990s. In 1995 came two big film and TV adaptations: the BBC miniseries of “Pride and Prejudice,” featuring actor Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy; and director Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility,” starring Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant and Kate Winslet. A year later Gwyneth Paltrow starred in “Emma.”
“Clueless,” a 1995 movie starring Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, was a thinly disguised adaptation of “Emma,” set in modern-day California.
But while those movies stirred young people’s passions for Ms. Austen’s works, the Web is allowing fans to connect in new ways.
Among the Jane Austen Twitter feeds, blogs and chat rooms that have cropped up is “Jane Austen’s Fight Club,” a faux movie trailer that juxtaposes women in Austen-era frocks with the bruises and blood of the cult classic “Fight Club.” There’s also dwiggie.com, a hub of fan fiction overseen by Crystal Shih, 29. Ms. Shih and her college roommate discovered Ms. Austen a decade ago and began writing Austenesque prose in their Massachusetts Institute of Technology dorm room. Now her site boasts about 1,000 registered users. Everything from “Clueless” to Colin Firth is fair game for debate.
“The movie adaptations created a lot of fanatics,” says Ms. Shih, now doing postdoctoral work in biochemistry at MIT. “In some of the forums, there are throw-downs about who is their favorite Darcy…At one conference an 80-year-old said Laurence Olivier was the only one for her, but Colin Firth definitely propagates that Darcy image today.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Firth declined to comment.
Laurie Viera Rigler has written two Austen-theme novels, “Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict” and “Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict.” In May she launched “Sex and the Austen Girl,” a Web series at babelgum.com that plays on the differences between life today and in the Austen era.
The two-and-a-half minute webisodes include such titles as “The 200-Year-Old Virgin.”
Young people, says Ms. Viera Rigler, are deep into Austen’s universe and obsessive fandom “is normal to them.”
“It’s true,” she says. “We are a little crazy.”
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