“Some are born Janeites, some achieve Janeism, and some have Janeism thrust upon them,” Ted Scheinman writes in his charming new book, Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan. For Scheinman, his temporary entry into Austen fandom was a bit of all three, done “half willingly and half accidentally.”
The son of an Austen scholar, Scheinman found himself in Austenworld after circumstances of both money and familial duty conspired against him, a plotline worthy of Austen herself. While a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Scheinman took a job at the university-hosted Jane Austen Summer Camp, a four-day conference where he also finds himself serving as his mother’s surrogate in the world of Janeties—both academics and non-academic superfans alike. His initial entry into Austenworld leads to annual meetings of the Jane Austen Society of North America. The Janeites here aren’t mere enthusiasts, but rather almost Trekkie-like in their devotion to Austen and her novels. They dress in Regency clothes, freely quote even the minor works, and gather to “dance and to listen, to admire and to be admired.” But they also come to admire Austen, “to teach, and to be taught; to question their assumptions about Jane, and to confirm them,” Scheinman writes.
Since Scheinman finds himself in Austenworld, he does as the Austenites do. In Camp Austen, he recounts dressing as Mr. Darcy in period-appropriate clothing (“I could have been dressing as Darcy or as Prince”). He learns Regency dances and performs the kind of domestic plays that Austen wrote for her family. But despite his immersion, Scheinman finds that he is never truly at home in Austenworld. “The age when such men could be heroes has passed, and even if it hasn’t, such a role is not for me,” he writes.
Though Scheinman’s foray into Austenworld was both temporary and fortuitous, his observations of its residents (overwhelmingly women) are empathetic. There are no caricatures here, only portraits of adoring Janeites, sprinkled with a bit of memoir, history, and literary criticism, rendered with an observational wit that pays homage to Austen herself. “Where else on earth could you see this shit,” a Janeite asks Scheinman. The answer, in the literary world at least, is nowhere else; only Austen and her novels could inspire such devotion.
Camp Austen might not leave you wanting to stitch a Regency dress and go full Austen superfan, but it will leave you searching for an old copy of your favorite Austen novel (In my case, Persuasion).
I spoke to Scheinman about Austenworld, Regency dress, and the particular appeal of Austen herself. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Let’s get this out of the way and note that you are, in fact, a man.
Ted Scheinman: Yes, indeed. I am a man.
When we think of Jane Austen fans the assumption (or, at least the stereotype) is generally a group of adoring women. Can you tell me a bit about how you ended up in Austenworld?
My mother is the first Janeite I ever met. She is a devoted reader of Austen who also teaches Jane Austen at Colgate University, so she’s a scholar and also a fan. I was raised with Austen as a sort of ambient presence but I didn’t read that much Austen. I read the Juvenilia when I was super young and full of violent comedy. It works really well for someone who has been watching Monty Python as a 9-year-old. I never read the serious novels until I was in my teens.
I should also say that I have a sister named Jane. I was actually supposed to be named Jane until I came out and surprised everyone by being a boy. The Austen love runs deep in my family. My mom was supposed to talk at the Jane Austen Summer Camp and, because of a bunch of knee surgeries, she was unable to. In addition to doing graduate work there for the money, I sort of attended as her surrogate. It’s something of an inheritance in the family, but also something that I stumbled back upon after ignoring it for a long time.
You write about how these inherited duties, which are so central to Austen’s novels, reappear to Austenworld. In many ways, this book is kind of a love letter to your mom. I was wondering what it was like to inherit these duties from your mom?
I think when I was growing up, to the extent that I associated Austen with my mom, it was maybe in a simplistic way, a sort of refinement and elegance, a style more than a particular setting in geography or time. Austen wasn’t necessarily of the Regency when I was growing up, rather she was this sly and perceptive style. I really only knew her through my mom reading the books aloud and watching all of the adaptations.
I will say that it was very gratifying to find myself in this scenario that seemed to reflect this parody or funhouse version of the inherited duties in the novels where, instead of having to traipse across Kent looking for my sister because she fell sick at someone else’s house, my duty to my mother involved putting on tights, going to a ball, and talking in quotations from these early 19th century novels.
You brought up putting on tights, so let’s dwell there for a moment. What was it like to transform into character, in this case, Mr. Darcy? Clothes make the man, but what does that mean in Austenworld?
I should say that when they chose me to be Mr. Darcy, I was the only guy. They weren’t pulling from a huge pile so it was more a distinction of necessity, not that I actually look like Colin Firth. So, there’s that.
It was very fun. I will say that with the exception of a couple of moments when I got conceptually confused by the notion of tights, it didn’t really otherwise feel emasculating at all. When you put on those clothes, especially since they’re really fitted to your body (I was fortunate enough to have wonderful friends in the theater department at University North Carolina who lent me costumes for free and fit them and everything) you have to have really good posture since the shoulders can be quite tight. Obviously, men aren’t wearing a corset, a lot of women aren’t either, but there’s sort of rectitude to the posture, which is really fitting if you’re supposed to be playing this patrician hero. To that extent, what you said about clothes making the man, is sort of true.
There’s this quote, a Goethe quote about how to speak another language is to have a second soul, and as goofy as it sounds, I think there is something to that. When you’re dressing up in these very stylish costumes along with other people, and all of these people are quoting Regency dialogue at you in this wonderful imitation of the formalism of Austen dialogue, you really do start to become a bit more proper—more likely to offer to get a woman or refreshing glass of water, or step out about put yourself forward and step out on the dance floor, because you’re essentially dressed in the skin of this other period.
You write about the “absurd exoticism” of being one of the few men the room or describe promotion to Mr. Darcy (if that’s a promotion, I’m not really sure) as “affirmative action.” I was wondering as I read this book—and maybe you have some insight: Why is Austenworld overwhelmingly women? You briefly explore this history of men reading Austen during World War I and the history of editing her books. There hasn’t always been this perception that Austen is for women...
Absolutely. Austen’s earliest champions were mostly men. As she says in Persuasion, “the pen has been in [men’s] hands,” so her earliest champions were of course men, but you have Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, and E.M. Forster, and all of the rest. As Virginia Woolf said, “there are 25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighborhood of London who resent any slight upon [Austen’s] genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.” For a long time, Janeism was a place not necessarily dominated by men but it was thick with men. I think there are a number of reasons that nowadays, it’s less so.
First of all, at the Austen Summer Camp or at the big annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, I think the dress up does tend to offend or endanger a certain kind of highly protected masculine dignity. You do have to put yourself out there and wear clothes that, in this century, might be associated with women. I also think—though I don’t have hard numbers—women read more novels than men. There’s a lot to recommend Austen to any reader, but I do think that she has a style of dramatizing friendship between women that has proven enduringly special.
I also suspect that if you look at a lot of those male enthusiasts from the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were enjoying different aspects of her work from the ones we celebrate today. Scott, for example, when he wrote his big celebration of Emma, focused a lot on technique. It was essentially as if he were mining her novels for tools that he could use or steal. It feels a little bit like that’s what he’s doing. He doesn’t get quite so much into the psychology of the novels, though he does briefly touch on it. Now, we talk about psychology as an area in which Austen was, of course, a pioneer. Robert Chapman is the same way—it’s not a bad thing—he’s very perceptive about her technique, and it’s really fantastic.
Occasionally it does feel as though in their scholarly writings or commentaries that these men are somehow trying to implicitly justify Austen among a pantheon of “Serious” English writers, as opposed to say a no less valuable enjoyment of recognizable realism or relatability. I don’t want to be super essential and imply that men read Austen one way and women read her in another way, but the public profile of the male Austen scholar I think was quite different from what you see among civilian enthusiasts nowadays, whether they’re men or women.
Definitely, Forster has this real appreciation for her technical acumen…
Absolutely, and he mined that really well. Howards End owes almost everything to Sense and Sensibility.
That brings me to a broader point that you make in the book, namely that there is a multitude of Jane Austens. There’s this technically accomplished Jane celebrated by these men, but for the women of Austenworld, she can be many things. I read your book thinking that this flexibility that allows for her to inhabit multiple identities depending on the reader seems really particular to Austen. Why is it Austen and not, say, a Bronte sister?
This is an enduring question. I don’t have a complete answer, but I think there are a few things. One of them is the sort of perfect degree of negative space left around her biography. We know a whole lot about how she spoke to her family, we have a great sense of how she wrote to them because we have a bunch of her letters, but we don’t have most of them. We’ve been told specifically that the most interesting letters were all burned. We can take that with a grain of salt, but there’s a lot of space around what we know about her and a lot of questions.
One example of choosing your Jane or the imaginative work that goes into trying to figure out who Austen was in the absence of a full account is looking at her suitors. Austen had a number of suitors throughout her life, but we actually know quite little about any of them. We know a bit about Tom Lefroy, who she flirted with a whole lot; she writes about him in the letters well before he becomes Chief Justice of Ireland. There’s famously Harris Bigg-Wither, this man with a ridiculous last name—he sounds like a vacuum cleaner—and she accepted a marriage proposal from him only to rescind it the next day. There’s also an allusion to a seaside romance.
There are holes in any author’s biography, particularly any author’s erotic biography, but there’s a special number of holes in Austen. I also think that the marriage plots, the fairy tale brought down to earth, of the novels make us want to believe that this is a woman who is really wise in the ways of love. You meet people at these conferences and each of them has a very persuasive, lively, and interesting take on what their best estimate is of Jane Austen’s amorous biography.
This is all so subjective, but there’s this fairy tale trick that Austen does in the novels. In the fairy tale, the princess kisses the frog and he is revealed to be a prince and, I think in many of Austen’s book, you see a similar clarification or adjustment where, through the magic of her narration, an apparent frog reveals themselves as princes, and princes reveal themselves as the worst sort of frog. I think there’s an impulse to find the fairy tale in Austen’s own life; failing that, to imagine one for her.
So you have a lot of revisionist biographies, you have a lot of fan fiction about Austen herself, and you have all of these interesting remixes. There’s the YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which is maybe the high water mark. I wouldn’t say that there’s an infinite elasticity to Austen, but there’s a capaciousness there. Her world is so rich, but she leaves us so much room to fill in the margins around it. I think it offers a lot to the imagination and it’s really appealing. That’s the reason we have so many Austens.
To return for a moment to the novels, I was wondering if you think the novels themselves lend themselves to this particular fandom, especially the dress up? To play a character in an Austen novel seems maybe easier to do in some sense since even the most villainous character in an Austen novel isn’t that bad—or, at least not this monstrous character from Gothic fiction. To give you an example, I love Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, but the idea of dressing up as one of the characters from that book seems psychotic. I can’t imagine that there are a lot of people who want to dress up as Lucy Snowe.
Do you think it’s the novels paired with Austen that makes this kind of enthusiasm more pleasurable or perhaps less conflicted? Dressing up like as George Wickham from Pride and Prejudice seems a lot more acceptable than, say, dressing up like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights.
I bet you could find plenty of people!
But what you’re saying is a really important point, that it is less morally compromised to dress up as an Austen character. No one is, as you say, truly terrible but there are some villains in there. They’re not murderers, they’re womanizers and they’re secret ones who are not conspicuously brooding. I also think that’s part of the identification that these particular fans have with Austen. You’re probably not going to run into a madwoman in the attic in your daily life or a set of twins or you’re not going to get locked in some Spanish castle. You will probably be secretly disappointed by the person your best friend chooses to marry, or you will see your neighbors disgraced and you’ll have to figure out how to be a good neighbor without partaking in their disgrace.
Maybe this is just me, but I do think that whenever I’ve been reading Austen for awhile, I come back with a much more Austenian-like way of thinking about my friends and my duties to them. In a way that sounds conservative, but maybe that’s why it’s appealing to dress as these characters. However far down the scale you go, at no point are you ever going to become a monster.
You spent a lot of time in Austenworld, and you present the idea of an endless number of Janes, arguing that this democratic engagement from academic to superfan brings you closer to the real thing. But you never really say what for you is the most authentic version of Jane Austen. So I wonder, what is the real Jane for you?
That’s such a difficult question. I tend to be cautious which means that I accept portions of most accounts.
When one writer wrote a book called Jane Austen: Secret Radical, I can appreciate very much where she is coming from. I tend not think that any single phase of Austen’s life defined her. There are people who really latch onto a very serious turn toward English evangelism in the last years of her life. There are other people who read her Juvenilia and look at how aggressively she wrote against Elizabeth I and extrapolate a whole lot of politics out of that. There are people who have made the persuasive argument that she was much more globally involved than you would think, given how provincially her life seems to have been described.
I think all of it is true, and I’m also skeptical of any account that takes them too far. I agree that she read a lot of newspapers and had brothers in the Navy and wrote to them all of the time. I do think she had a consciousness of the East and West Indies that was pretty sophisticated. I also think that she was really speaking the truth when she said that she couldn’t write an epic or a war novel.
I think of Austen as a virtuoso of her own limitations—geographically and financially. She was essentially a dependent her entire life, even after she made a little bit of money from her novels. But she made it work. I suppose I do think of her as a bit of revolutionary if only because it was a bit radical to shape your life that way and to be bold enough to say, especially from her position, I want to be an author. But I will say that Austen was about the acceptable administration of hierarchies, so if you really want to call her a radical, you have a bit of a steep hill to climb.
But certainly, I’ll join with Forster and insist that she was not a “spinster in a backwater,” which is his line, but she was a great artist.
You spend some time in Austenworld, but you’re never completely converted. Why didn’t you transform into a superfan writing fanfiction?
I don’t think it’s because I don’t love the novels enough, I really do love them. I think it requires an extraordinary personal identification with the author and the material and I’m reasonably obsessed, but it’s not the sort of thing I would have done in the first place if circumstances hadn’t conspired to put me into those tights. To me, it remains an affectation. But for other people, as silly as this sounds, it’s the most natural thing in the world. That’s not to say that there’s one kind of Janeite that’s perfectly attuned to the clothes. It’s a whole big tent. There were moments too at the last couple of balls where I looked around and everyone was having a lovely time and I thought, “I’m a bit superfluous here and just a tiny bit bored.”
That’s a frank answer, if maybe an incomplete one. My preferred version is to engage with the novels in a kind of solitary way. I don’t think that will ever get old or tired.
After all of this talk about Austen, I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: What’s your favorite Jane Austen novel?
I think it has to be Persuasion. I will say that there are days that Pride and Prejudice actually jockeys up there, and I have a soft spot for Sense and Sensibility. Nonetheless, my desert island one is going to be Persuasion.