A longstanding myth about the devoted superfan following of Jane Austen — a myth fed by the apparently terrible film Austenland, which opens today, the Times calls “embarrassingly juvenile,” and that’s all we’re likely to say about it — is that it arose from the 1990s A&E adaptation starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. In fact, as early as the 1930s, you can find critics in no less than The New York Times complaining about the nitpicking of Janeites, as with this review referring to a new stage production of Pride and Prejudice:
It is remarkable that Miss Jerome’s work has survived the fierce ordeal to which the English addicts of Jane Austen were bound to submit it, for Janeism is a cult, a religion, the Janeites are fanatics, and those who tread on their holy ground do so at their peril.
Morgan liked Austen’s work itself, but it was the fans who annoyed him. He continued:
She is praised by many because their own prejudices are flattered by her limitations — by spinsters because she is spinsterish, by petits maitres because she does not challenge them, by sneerers because sometimes her irony is ungenerous, by those who fear passion because she treats it as if it were a puppy dog on a leash… They like her for the same reason that enables a lady who is disconcerted by a nude of Titian to be a delighted connoisseur of cross-stitch fire screens. In a word, they can fit her into their own drawing rooms and direct her irony against everyone one but themselves.
In other words: as early as the 1930s, people suspected that Austen inspired devotion in the small-minded, frigid, and pathetic. It’s certainly true that as in any community of worship, there are dogmatics and fundamentalists in Janeism whose habits are certainly quite funny, and worth covering. But that these all happen to be the way people stigmatized unmarried women on the whole before the advent of feminism, and in many ways still do, is no coincidence. And in fact the prissiness alluded to here isn’t as gendered as one might think, considering that we now think of Janeites as primarily women. It wasn’t always that way.
Virginia Woolf alluded to this when she wrote of her qualms about Austen:
Anyone who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of [two] facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.
Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Janeites,” also turns on a joke in which a bunch of men who speak in blunt and inarticulate terms about life and love turn out to be Janeites themselves. To wit:
But, as I was sayin’, ’Ammick says what a pity ’twas Jane ’ad died barren. “I deny that,” says Mosse. “I maintain she was fruitful in the ’ighest sense o’ the word.” An’ Mosse knew about such things, too. “I’m inclined to agree with ’Ammick,” says young Gander. “Any’ow, she’s left no direct an’ lawful prog’ny.” I remember every word they said, on account o’ what ’appened subsequently. I ’adn’t noticed Macklin much, or I’d ha’ seen he was bosko absoluto. Then ’e cut in, leanin’ over a packin’-case with a face on ’im like a dead mackerel in the dark. “Pa-hardon me, gents,” Macklin says, “but this is a matter on which I do ’appen to be moderately well-informed. She did leave lawful issue in the shape o’ one son; an’ ’is name was ’Enery James.” ‘“By what sire? Prove it,” says Gander, before ’is senior officers could get in a word.
C.S. Lewis (yes, that C.S. Lewis) once mused that he thought Jane’s appeal lay in her moralism. In her work, he wrote “[a]ll is hard, clear, definable; by some modern standards, even naively so.” It is perhaps that rigidity which appealed to some of these men. I don’t mean that men are in any real way more rule-bound than women, but the idea that there are clear moral laws which govern the world has a certain larger appeal to the people who have it within their power to set them. I’ve also never heard a woman praise Jane in quite the same way; for most female Janeites (which class I should admit I belong to) the appeal seems to come in the slyness with which she skewers all the expectations women have, and are placed under, while dating. That doesn’t, to me, manifest as moralism so much as an observation that every rule has its loopholes and exceptions. It’s interesting, the way this different relationship to power gives them a different relationship to Jane.
Which perhaps, after all, explains why Martin “Backhanded Compliment” Amis loves Austen. He once philosophized incoherently that “You are omnipotent and the question of potency is embarrassing for men. It is the great hidden weakness in men, that potency can fail, and it’s not something that troubles women. They have a lot else to worry about, but not that.” Someone like him no doubt enjoys the vacation from the bonds of masculinity.