Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2017 01:00PM

“At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy,” the 20-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister in January 1796. “My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.”


Even with no flirtatious suitor in the picture, it’s hard not to channel Jane Austen’s melancholy tears, for today – just six weeks after the bicentenary of Austen’s death -- the day is come that will see the end of the discussion boards at the Republic of Pemberley, the web’s largest Austen fan site for the past twenty years. Although the site’s static content – including the archive of original fan fiction and the compilation of well-researched posts on Austen’s life and times – will remain, evolving discussions among Janeite obsessives have been relocated to Pemberley’s Facebook group.


I was shocked and saddened when I learned the news earlier this month, via an announcement from Pemberley’s volunteer site manager, Myretta Robens, but the fiscal writing has been on the wall for some time now. Five years ago, a change in Google’s ad policy threatened the community’s survival. Three years ago, Pemberley downsized from its expansive original site to a more streamlined version. Last year, only a spate of last-minute contributions saved it from going dark.


When Robens, a New England technology manager, and Amy Bellinger, a Chicago freelance writer, founded Pemberley in May 1997, Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt Austenmania was at its height. By the time I wrote about it in Among the Janeites, years after I’d fallen in love with the place myself, Pemberley was getting five to ten million hits per month from 150,000 unique visitors hailing from 165 countries.


But times change. The Austen frenzy may have cooled – though you wouldn’t know it from the voluminous and enthusiastic coverage of last month’s bicentenary – and other forms of social media have siphoned off some of the community-building impulses that drew so many Janeites to the conversations at Pemberley.


Will Pemberley’s polite and literate ethos flourish on Facebook? Not everyone plans to find out: In the month since Robens announced the changes, a number of Pemberleans have given notice that they won’t be coming along to the new venue -- because of privacy concerns, disdain for Facebook’s corporate policies, or fear that Pemberley’s uniquely civilized form of discourse will be coarsened and corrupted in a more freewheeling social media space.


Although I’ve joined the Facebook group, I’m not acclimated yet. It still feels like a Dashwood-level comedown – renting a room in a noisy boarding house, when we’ve been accustomed to living in a quiet cottage of our own. But Facebook is free, and presumably moderating the discussions there will demand far less unpaid labor from the dedicated volunteers who have run Pemberley for so long.


As of last night, Pemberley’s discussion groups were still active. At the Pride & Prejudice board, posters were debating the likely quality of the planned new ITV adaptation of the novel. At the All Other Austen board, they were recommending Austen biographies and wondering about the size of Anne Elliot’s dowry. On Read & View, they were discussing Poldark, Dunkirk, Game of Thrones, and The Handmaid’s Tale.


It felt poignant to eavesdrop on all these conversations, knowing that they would fall silent so soon. The death of a community – or even its metamorphosis into a different kind of community -- isn’t quite like the death of a person, but it’s not entirely dissimilar, either. It’s still an ending, and endings are sad.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 1 2016 01:00PM

Phew!


After a near-death experience earlier this summer, the beloved Republic of Pemberley, the largest online Jane Austen fan site, has raised enough money to keep going for at least one more year, site manager Myretta Robens announced on Tuesday.


Apparently, enough people who value this haven of literate civility ponied up enough dough to close a looming $2,000 budget gap. This time. But it’s hard to ignore the niggling fear that Pemberley’s brushes with death could become an annual occurrence unless the site acquires a larger financial cushion.


Which is my way of gently nudging any Pemberley fans who haven’t yet donated to give whatever they can. As someone noted during the recent cliffhanger of a fundraiser, it’s a bit like public television: if we care about it, we need to support it. Maybe it’s time for Pemberley to start giving away mugs and umbrellas.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 15 2016 01:00PM

Two years ago, under intense financial pressure, the Republic of Pemberley, the largest online Jane Austen fan community, downsized to a less expansive website on a smaller server. For us longtime Pemberleans, the move was wrenching.


But in just two weeks, we could face something even worse: the demise of this nineteen-year-old haven of literate, civil conversation. Last month, site manager Myretta Robens announced that unless Pemberley can plug a $2,000 budget hole by September 1, the volunteer-run site will close down.


Say it ain’t so, Janeites! Pemberley is that rarest of creatures, a web community where people who share a common interest – dare I say obsession? – manage to discuss and disagree without yelling. It’s a digital water cooler where you can learn about new books to read, movies to see and TV shows to watch. And it’s one of the few places in this benighted, illiterate world where no one will ever ask you why you care so much about the doings of a bunch of fictional characters.


As of last Wednesday, Pemberley’s fundraising appeal had netted about a quarter of the necessary amount. Support can come in the form of a lump-sum donation or a regular subscription funneled through Amazon or Paypal. (Perhaps websites, like people, always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them?) Instructions on how to make either type of contribution can be found on Pemberley’s Support page.


To any one of us, $2,000 may seem like a lot of money – it certainly does to me – but for our community as a whole? Surely this amount isn’t beyond our collective means. Skip your latte once a week and dedicate the proceeds to keeping Pemberley alive! No Fanny Dashwoods here -- now is the time to channel our inner Sir John Middletons.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 13 2016 01:00PM

About fourteen months ago, as loyal readers may remember, I blogged about an online effort to launch something called the Jane Austen Letter Writing Society, which aimed to create a social network based on that creakiest of dinosaurs, the hand-written letter.


No idea how that project is going, but given the web’s impulse to replicate and monetize all things, perhaps it should come as no surprise that a second Austen-themed letter-writing club has appeared online. The most salient difference between the Letter Writing Society and the newer entrant, the Jane Austen Pen Pal Club, seems to be money: you could join the Society for free, but the Club costs $39 a year.


In exchange, members will get access to a list of fellow Janeites interested in corresponding (unlike the Society, the Club permits email), as well as to pages dedicated to Austen-related news, blogs and member-penned fanfic. “The 'Jane Austen Pen Pal Club' was created to facilitate the connection of Austen fans the world over,” the site explains.


Although the Club’s web site is stylish and well-designed, circumstantial evidence suggests that there have been few takers so far: my exploratory clicks a few days ago brought me the offer a free one-year membership, even though the site’s “Get Started” page describes that deal as a “holiday season” gift to the first twenty-five people to sign up. In the world of free membership in Facebook, the Republic of Pemberley and, indeed, the Jane Austen Letter Writing Society, getting anyone to pay to join a social network – at least one that doesn’t involve dating -- seems an uphill task.


Hey! An online dating service just for Janeites! Why has no one thought of this? We’ll call it OkJane, or austenHarmony, or RegencyMatch.com. I invite proposals – for investment, I mean! Not those kinds of proposals! -- from all you Janeite venture capitalists out there.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 18 2014 01:00PM

I first discovered the Republic of Pemberley in 2005, when I went looking for background information on the entail, to supplement my neighborhood book club’s discussion of Pride and Prejudice.


It was love at first sight. The elegant interface, the civilized and literate tone, the company of fellow Austen obsessives – immediately, I found myself in mortal danger of spending whole afternoons doing nothing but arguing over whether Henry Crawford could ever have made good husband material.


Eventually, my enthusiastic tales about Pemberley’s citizens inspired my own husband to suggest that I write a book about Jane Austen fans, which was eventually published as Among the Janeites.


During my research, I learned more about the intrepid band of Austen-lovers who created Pemberley in 1997, at the height of wet-shirt Jane-mania. Many of them stayed on to run the place as it grew into the web’s largest Austen fan community, demanding countless hours of unpaid labor from its selfless management committee.


Two years ago, when the committee reported that a change in Google’s ad policy had brought Pemberley to the brink of financial ruin, I finally did what I knew I should have done years earlier and arranged a monthly donation to help keep the site running. Others did the same.


But the fix proved temporary, and this month, the committee announced that continuing financial pressures would force Pemberley to downsize as it moves to a new, less expensive place on the web. “We are no longer the 10,000,000 page views a month site that required a dedicated server,” site manager Myretta Robens wrote on one of her blogs. “We are down to about 3,000,000 that we hope, in conjunction with a more streamlined platform, will live happily on a smaller, less expensive, server.”


Although closing Pemberley entirely – an option the committee considered – would have been far worse, the downsizing is nevertheless wrenching news for those of us who’ve loved the community for years. Whenever you move to a smaller place with less closet space, once-treasured possessions end up on the curb; similarly, the new site will have fewer discussion boards and no room for some portion of Pemberley’s vast archives, with their vibrant literary conversations, well-researched historical posts, and fan fiction both good and bad.


Like Marianne Dashwood, forced to leave her expansive childhood home for more straitened confines, I feel like mourning every dead leaf, every discussion thread I never bothered to read when I had the chance. And, inevitably, I wonder if this is a sustainable fix or a waystation to Pemberley’s obsolescence.


The frenzied Austen-mania of the mid-‘90s has quieted, and Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have absorbed some of the community-building impulses that fueled Pemberley’s growth. The conversations are quieter now.


Still, Pemberley is a special place. I wish a Janeite with Darcy-esque wealth would bequeath it an endowment in perpetuity.


As the devoted techie Janeites move the site to its new home this week, the old site is still accessible at www.pemberley.net (the new site will eventually be found at Pemberley’s old URL, www.pemberley.com). Meanwhile, we Pemberleyeans can’t help joining Marianne in wailing, as we gaze at our beloved old place, "When shall I cease to regret you? -- when learn to feel a home elsewhere?”


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