The Joys of Being a Jane Austen Bro

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“I’m sorry,” said the woman, drawing her lacy bonnet back from her forehead and gawking at me. I almost expected her to continue this examination through a lorgnette. “It’s just a bit like encountering an endangered species.”

I looked down at my own getup: prim and shiny black shoes with gleaming brass buckles, a pair of tights that felt every inch as restrictive as they looked, and a waistcoat and cravat under a stiff-shouldered gentleman’s jacket of the Regency period.

“You mean it’s odd to see men dressed like members of the Austen family?”

“I mean it’s odd to see men at an Austen conference, period.”

Not every artist gets the cult they deserve, but Jane Austen certainly did. Today, a motivated Austen-lover—or “Janeite,” as the insiders say—could spend most of their waking moments jet-setting from one Austen symposium to another. Between colloquia in the Americas and the usual international conferences in Mumbai and Tokyo etc., one could essentially live out a Jane Austen fantasy camp year-round, provided one had the cash. I visited half a dozen while researching a book about the novelist’s most fervent fans and often sought to blend in by adopting the proper wardrobe.

Of course, I stuck out like a penguin in the tropics. Because at all these conferences, there’s always one pronounced shortage: men.

There are plenty of dismissive male outsiders who find this a natural state of affairs: Austen is for the birds, they say with indulgent smiles, an undeniably lively author but too concerned with minute questions of manners to be a great novelist like those moody 19th-century Russians. It’s perfectly understandable, they continue, that she is enjoyed by those who like their romantic comedies with a bit of class or history—which is to say, mostly by women.

Netflix’s new adaptation of Persuasion, the last of Austen’s six so-called mature novels, has made headlines for the mockery and opprobrium with which various quarters of the Janeite universe greeted the trailer. It was a travesty, many said, that had turned the novelist’s most complex and melancholy work into a cringey sitcom. Yet the outcry over the film also gives us a chance to recognize a perennial truth: Being an Austen bro is a joy that confers untold benefits both literary and moral.

I do not always know how to respond to benighted male readers who dismiss Austen as a peddler of marriage fantasies, except to say that if Austen isn’t a great novelist, then no one is—and that she might even offer more pleasure and wisdom to her male readers than to anyone else. Further, a guy doesn’t have to attend an Austen conference, still less to shimmy into a pair of tights, if he wishes to enjoy and benefit from the novelist’s unsparing moral vision. Today, as in 1815 or 1924, there remains a special, if occasionally complicated, joy in being an Austen bro, and men who avoid the author are robbing themselves of communion with a writer who, more than any other novelist of her period, captured the minute but critical elements of sociability that inevitably lead to the flourishing or decline of a given community.

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