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Tuesday
Apr212009

The Janeites

Austen's tiny writing deskIn "Jane Addiction" in The National, Peter Terzian reviews Clare Harman's Jane's Fame: How Austen Conquered the World:

Our obsession with Jane Austen has turned a dark corner. February brought news of a new book titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which splices Austen’s original text with scenes where, according to the publisher’s website, Elizabeth Bennet “wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead”. Weeks later, word came that a film called Pride and Predator, in which a space alien claws up Regency England, was in preproduction, to be scored by Elton John. The forthcoming Jane Bites Back is the first book of a proposed series that imagines the early 19th-century novelist as a vampire, now 200 years old and ticked off at the profitable Austen industry.

Terzian mentions a Rudyard Kipling short story entitled "The Janeites" about a WWI vet reminiscing about the secret Austen society of his battalion. Members would give certain passwords related to the novels and receive Turkish cigarettes in return (I propose this practice be reinstated) and would chalk character names on their artillery guns. When one of the soldiers claims that Jane never had children, the other responds (in his cockney dialect):

“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.”

James Heldman writes about his discovery of Kipling's story along with a cheeky poem about Jane in Heaven, "Jane's Marriage" for the Austen Society of North America. Heldman observes, "But the principal secret society in the story is made up of Humberstall and his four companions in combat whose devotion to Jane Austen gives them a common bond of civilization and humanity in the face of the demoralization of war." It's this same kind of thrill that, I think, still unites many Janeites, although for them, modern culture is substituted for The Great War.

Kipling's "The Janeites" and his poem "Jane's Marriage."

‘Well, as pore Macklin said, it’s a very select Society, an’ you’ve got to be a Janeite in your ’eart, or you won’t have any success. An’ yet he made me a Janeite! I read all her six books now for pleasure ‘tween times in the shop; an’ it brings it all back—down to the smell of the glue-paint on the screens. You take it from me, Brethren, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. Gawd bless ‘er, whoever she was.’ 

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