Sunday 18 February 2018

Meet the Jane Austen fan club

Today marks the second-ever Jane Austen Day, 240 years after the birth of the novelist. Our self-confessed 'Janeite' writes on what the novelist means to her - and meets her fellow fans

Janeites: Sinead Coughlin, Rebecca Webb, Ruth Lyons and Michelle Burrowes at a Jane Austen Book Club meeting.
Janeites: Sinead Coughlin, Rebecca Webb, Ruth Lyons and Michelle Burrowes at a Jane Austen Book Club meeting.
Number one fan: Jane O’Faherty shares a name with her idol.

Jane O'Faherty

Have you ever wished you could attend a Regency ball instead of yet another raucous nightclub? Perhaps you've quoted one of Elizabeth Bennet's cutting one-liners in an argument with that annoying co-worker? Maybe, in the midst of a personal crisis, you have uttered the mantra "What would Jane Austen do?"

I have done all of the above, but not just because I'm honoured to have the same first name as the prolific author.

My Jane Austen fandom began at the tender age of 12. It was a rainy Sunday, and my mother had coerced me into a binge-watch of the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Rather like that novel's heroine, I had resolved to dislike Jane Austen. I was a tomboy, and it seemed unnatural for me to be impressed by a troupe of five sisters who talked about marriage all the time.

But as my mother and I progressed through the six-hour series, my crossed arms unfolded and my curled lip relaxed. I was surprisingly taken with this world of refined stately homes and long country walks.

Is it sad that the most vivid rite of passage of my adolescence was Colin Firth's wet shirt scene? Probably, but I regret nothing.

But the biggest influence was probably the fact it was my first introduction to her characters, who I wanted to have as best friends.

Throughout my teens, I kept my Jane Austen fandom to myself. I often treated her novels as romantic indulgences on a quiet night in.

As I grew up, I came to believe she was a feminist heroine. Her leading ladies were role models, but I feared my peers wouldn't share my opinion.

But on the occasion of the second-ever Jane Austen Day on December 16, it's time to be more open. It seems only right, given that the huge interest in the author keeps on growing.

December 16 is Jane's 240th birthday. It comes as her legions of fans - known as Janeites - attend major festivals, massive conventions and, of course, afternoon tea parties in her name.

Interestingly enough, the first thing that popped up while I researched this piece was a slew of giddy Buzzfeed articles about Jane Austen.

Knowing that I was not the only person who wondered what Marianne Dashwood would be like on Snapchat was oddly comforting.

The official Jane Austen Facebook page has so far attracted more than 1.5million likes. It is, of course dwarfed by Beyoncé's 63.7m and Taylor Swift's 73m. However, it's hard not to be impressed with Jane, who died almost 200 years ago and wrote just six books.

Jane never saw much financial recognition for her work in her lifetime. But today her novels have spawned an industry of films, TV dramas and even Christmas decorations.

And Irish fans are catching up with Austen aficionados across the world.

Michelle Burrowes, a teacher based in Dublin, set up the Jane Austen Society of Ireland (JASI) three years ago. What started out with a small committee soon grew to hundreds of members from Ireland and further afield.

"When they heard about it, people just came along and joined," she said. "Someone has joined it from Newfoundland and we have about 200 people now who are members."

But Michelle stresses that Jane Austen's appeal isn't just down to swooning ladies and brooding heartthrobs.

"When you get beyond the barouches, and the breeches and the costumes that people are wearing, you see that the books are timeless," she said.

"Her books feel so modern because people are making bad choices," she explains.

"Everybody knows a Lydia Bennett. Everyone knows a Marianne, who is marrying the wrong guy. Everybody knows bossy women like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is always telling people what to do."

Although Jane's last novel was written towards the end of the 1810s, Michelle feels that her works remains a cure-all even in modern times.

"It's very soothing in a world of upheaval, especially in wartime. Here we are again entering into a very unstable Europe," she said.

"Jane Austen wrote the books in wartime," she added. "I think it isn't just a coincidence that she's so popular right now."

Indeed, it's a well-cited fact that Jane's novels were the most popular books rented from libraries during World War I. Soldiers in the trenches across Europe are said to have been her biggest fans at that time.

Many Irish Janeites are also members of the Irish Historical Costumers Meetup Group, which organises house parties and dance lessons in Georgian and Regency garb.

Founder Laura Thorp is a self-taught costume maker and says the styles of the Bennet and Dashwood sisters are particularly favoured by the group's 250 members.

"Regency is very popular obviously because of the influence of Jane Austen and how prolific her works are, and how they are being used and reimagined," she said.

The highlight of the members' year is the group's historical house party, which takes place over a weekend in March in a hired Georgian estate.

"It's all beautiful four-course meals, candlelight and canopy beds," Laura said. "We're in period costume the entire time - we've done carriage rides, we've done croquet and archery competitions."

"It's great fun but it's the people who will actually make it. Predominantly, Regency will probably be what people will wear, but it's quite flexible," she added.

And it's not just the female fans who are eager to dress up.

"In our dancing classes at one stage, we had too many men and not enough women," Laura recalled.

"The teacher had to phone up one of his old pupils to come in so that two men wouldn't have to dance together."

For Professor Darryl Jones of Trinity College Dublin, Jane occupies a coveted space among influential British artists.

"The Beatles are one of the only examples I can think of who had a sustained burst of creativity in such a short space of time," he said. "They gave masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece over a career of 10 years.

"What The Beatles did to the 1960s, Jane Austen did to the 1810s," he added.

But Darryl wasn't as convinced when he read his first Austen novel in his teens.

"The first Jane Austen novel I read was Emma, which I read for my English literature A-level in the early 1980s," he said. "My first impression was: 'Why are they making me read this book?'

"At first, in my teenage way, I thought it was trivial." But after a few years, Darryl recalls that something clicked and he was "hooked".

He later graduated with a degree in English literature after writing a dissertation on Jane Austen's work.

Personally, I've always thought that Jane Austen was an inspiration herself. Not only was she writing at a time where women would rarely publish a book, her incisive irony could be described as pretty outspoken for her time.

I'm slightly reassured when I ask Darryl if Jane should be seen as a champion for women's rights.

"Calling her a feminist icon seems absolutely right for me, but in a very particular way," he said, adding that it is Jane Austen's acerbic style that keeps her appeal alive.

"No reader of Pride and Prejudice could dream that women were inferior to men in that novel," Darryl explains. "But then you find characters like Charlotte Lucas, who are forced into marriages with men who are definitely not their equal."

Jane Austen will always be my go-to gal for a bit of light-hearted romantic fiction when chilling out with Netflix simply won't do.

But there's also much more to her, and Michelle Burrowes could probably put it better than I could. "The stories are, quintessentially, fairytales," she says. "If you want something romantic in the novel, that's what you'll get out of it. If you are looking for a feminist critique of society, you'll find that there as well.

"It all depends on the reader, and that's what her ultimate genius is," she adds. And that idea should be a truth universally acknowledged.

Forever young: modern versions of Austen

One of the reasons for Austen's enduring popularity is that her six novels have been a favourite of modern movie directors, and has been reinterpreted and reinvented time and time again. Here are some of the best:

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

With around 30 film and television adaptations of Austen's work to date, you might think it would be hard to choose the best one. There is, however, one leader among them. When the BBC aired its version of Pride and Prejudice in 1995, Jane Austen was jettisoned back into pop culture. Maybe it was down to the infamous lake scene with Colin Firth. Perhaps it was due to its strong-willed female characters. Either way, it can't be a coincidence that the Jane Austen Society in North America saw a 50pc increase in membership that year.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

1995 also saw the release of Ang Lee's vision of Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility. Telling the tale of two very different sisters left without fortune after their father's death, it earned its star and screenwriter Emma Thompson an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Featuring stellar turns from Thompson herself, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant, it earned a coveted place in the DVD collection of Janeites.

Clueless (1995)

But the 1990s weren't just about faithful adaptations. Clueless saw the character of Emma Woodhouse transported from Surrey to the San Fernando Valley, with hilarious consequences. Alicia Silverstone plays Cher, the cosseted daughter of a high-flying lawyer whose matchmaking schemes spiral out of control in her high school. The comedy is one of the most quotable teen movies out there, while retaining some of Austen's razor-sharp wit.

Irish Independent

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