Fans and Fanatics: Why we just can’t get enough Jane Austen Fan Fiction
The world of Jane Austen-inspired ‘pop lit’ is, unarguably, a huge one. So large, in fact, it seems almost limitless. There are a sizable number of fan fiction works available to purchase on sites like Amazon, and with the dubious advent of self-publishing some years back, this number increases exponentially each year.
A quick search on Wikipedia tells us that even back in 2003 there were already over 900 Pride and Prejudice-inspired fan fiction works alone, and who knows what that number is now as I write in June 2021. From sequels and prequels, alternate views and spin-offs, to stand-alone romances in the style of, we are voracious readers, and loquacious writers, of it all. Some of these works seek to emulate or even directly imitate, Austen’s style. Conversely, some take a fair bit of the modern world back to the regency era, in the use of modern language and idiom, and the misrepresentation, deliberate or unintentional, of the historic period in which her works are set.
Despite these differences in style and approach, it cannot be ignored that Austen fan fiction is a now a fully-fledged alternate universe, in and of itself, one where we, the reader, can escape to when the hard realities of life have us yearning for afternoon teas on the lawn, sprigged muslin gowns, silk cravats and waistcoats, candlelit balls, long solitary walks over the moors, and heart-fluttering romances between restrainedly sexy nineteenth-century hotties and babes. This absolute fervour for Austen fan fiction can easily be said to parallel that for other cult followings like Harry Potter, Star Trek and Star Wars, to name a few. So just what is our fascination, as readers and writers, with Austen fan fiction? Why do writers write Austen fan fiction, and why do readers read it?
As a reader and a writer of Austen fan fiction myself, I would suggest that a large part of this growing fascination for Austen-inspired literature–the spin offs, continuations, sequels and prequels—originates in Austen’s own intense focus on domestic, middle-class English life, manners and culture. There is something which we are attracted to in Austen’s comfortable, cosy world, where fires burn cheerfully and long walks can be had to wile away the endless hours of leisure which denote a middle-class, genteel lifestyle. We are, I suggest, fascinated by the idle, pleasure-seeking lifestyle of the moderately wealthy. Deny it if you will, but consider this: neither the Brontes, nor Dickens nor Hardy, nor any other nineteenth century author who wrote primarily about the poverty-stricken English lower classes, could boast the cult post-humous following which Austen can. I’m not saying that is the only reason for her cult following, but there is a certain charm in being swept away by one’s imagination to an Austenian world where one doesn’t have to worry about having to work, nor where your next dish of roast beef is coming from. Granted, Marianne and Elinor were pretty poor, but even they did not have to work! There is something fascinating in reading about people like us, people who could have been us, and whose lives we could easily slip into, given a time machine and the right muslin gown and spencer. Deny it as much as you like, I hold that we really just want to be them, even if only for a day.
In many ways, Austen was pretty avant-garde for her time. One of the attractions to her work is, I think, the way she approaches women’s issues. Austen wrote about a world where women existed, for the most part, behind closed doors; the front door of a Georgian house hid the secret domestic world of women. Women were, in most homes, especially those of the middle and upper classes, cloistered –waiting for marriage or spinsterhood, whichever came first. As Anne Elliot reminds us in Persuasion, ‘we live at home, confined, and our feeling prey upon us.’ And yet Austen balances these few and far between poignant moments with acerbic wit and without a hint of cloying sentimentality. She simply gets on with the business of living—and telling it as it is. Perhaps it is this attitude, this determination not to be a victim, and to present women as courageous beings with agency to grow and flourish, despite their social circumstances, which attracts us to her work as much as anything else.
There is another aspect of English culture which I feel holds the secret to Austen’s fanatical fan-fiction following. It is not surprising that we, living in an era where sexuality and passion are expressed without reservation, we might be drawn toward a binary opposite, a culture which has typically represented itself, in literature of the nineteenth century middle class particularly, as cool, refined, passionless, circumspect and hidden. That cool, passive English protagonist has been typified in characters such as Thomas Hardy’s protagonists both male and female, and in even earlier literary works which would have influenced Austen’s writing, such as those by Fanny Burney, Grandison, and so on. This refined, cool, completely controlled Englishman or woman, I would argue, is the skeletal protagonist for all Austen’s major characters. If Austen ever represents any warmth of passion, any overtly sexual behaviours in her characters, it is severely punished; even the ‘secondary’ character of the coquettish Lydia Bennet, who is overtly sexual and passionate arguably gets her just desserts at Austen’s hand, by inciting her sisters’ clucking disapproval, and being forced to marry a loser. Austen makes use of this stereotype of the English ethos and makes it the backbone from which she works to flesh out her characters. Her novels are populated with proper, refined, sometimes prim, females and males, who if they ever lose their shit, either do it behind closed doors, where readers are not invited to peer, or are relegated to playing bit roles, NPCs, the non-playing characters she can afford to take punitive measures with. This is, both in a literary sense and a cultural one, the opposite of many of our 21st century values, where openness, warmth, passion and sexuality are freely expressed.
I am not, of course, ignoring the countless number of racy ‘regency’ romances that have been written and are still being churned out onto Amazon websites like pizzas out of a Domino’s on a Saturday night. Those are not Austen fan fiction, however. They are a different genre. But in purist Austen fan fiction, especially ones which aspire to emulation or imitation of style and narrative subject, sex before marriage is rarely mentioned, and if it is, it is usually represented as shameful. I’m not saying all Austen fan fiction should treat passion and sexuality as taboo, to be imagined only, behind the bedroom door. Some writers have done a very good job of such scenes of connubial bliss, but part of the pleasure of immersing oneself in the world of nineteenth century middle class manners and everyday life, is remaining as true as possible to the social mores of the day, of preserving the credibility of the ‘Austenesque’ narrative, and that means no orgies in the drawing room. Austen fan fiction, when it is traditional fan fiction, never dreams of writing such scenes, and few purist readers want to see it. For that, they will go to another sub-genre of regency romance.
Of course, we love to love the gowns, the clothes, the food, the balls, the card parties and so on, which are described in Austen’s novels and which a lot of the fan fiction strives to recreate. These things, according to Austen’s works, are the material evidence of English life, culture and manners. I suspect this is a significant part of the attraction to Austen’s work too, and similar types of contemporary fiction, that we are drawn to those old morals and values and simple ways of life. In the 21st century, where life is a lot less ‘civil’ on the whole, we have to a great extent lost those societal values which proliferate Austen’s novels; politeness in all circumstances, behavioural rules of etiquette in social situations, modesty in dressing in both sexes but particularly females, good old-fashioned values, advice and go-to remedies for what ails mankind. We love fan fiction because it strives to recreate these values, particularly in the purist fan fiction, which is so traditionally focussed. I know that I am personally drawn to read and write fan fiction which seeks to express these old-fashioned values and social mores.
I have only touched on some of the characteristics of Austen fan fiction which may make it so fascinating for readers and writers alike. Reading Austen and Austen-inspired fiction gives us a sense of a culture which existed 200 years ago, and perhaps we yearn, even subconsciously, to be a part of it. Of course, there were many aspects of English middle-class life which today would not be seen as positive, such as the sometimes blatant denigration of women. Austen certainly used her novels as platforms to highlight the plight of women in her society. But despite this truth, she creates for us a world which is so different to our own, populated by people with different, almost enviable values, living a life of leisure, where each level of society has its hierarchy in the greater social system. No matter the motivation for each individual reader or writer, the bottom line is that we love to see the lifestyle, culture and manners of the Georgian era through Austen’s lens, and we want more of it. We will take anything which looks, feels, sounds and tastes like Jane. We are addicted.