I was a bright, bespectacled child, with a head of wiry, unmanageable dark curls
that refused to grow into the waist-length cascade I longed for. I lived in sleepy
Colorado Springs, in an old white house with red shutters; my bedroom window
framed the snow-capped summit of Pikes Peak. Through sixth grade, I weathered
the big, team-taught classes in the open-plan rooms of the neighborhood public school,
where, one year, most of the girls had a crush on a teacher with groovy ‘70s sideburns named – yes, really – Mr. Darcy. Then my parents transferred me to a crunchy-granola private school, where camping in the mountains was part of the curriculum and we called all the teachers by their first names. As far back as I can remember, I earned good grades, hated gym class, and read with a ravenous hunger.
I was the ultimate literature nerd. Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, George Eliot, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Mary Shelley, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edith Wharton: throughout my tweens and teens, I mainlined classic fiction, finishing one thick novel only to start another, like a chain-smoker lighting her next cigarette from the embers of its predecessor. “I finished ‘Hard Times,’ began ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset,’ and went to the dentist,” ran a typical diary entry by my eleven-year-old self. A month later: “I have started a book called ‘Black and Blue Magic’ for school, because Katie recommended it. For pleasure I am reading ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ by Trollope.”
By fifth grade, I was spending every recess sitting cross-legged on the playground, engrossed in a book, while the other kids played foursquare. My teacher prohibited me from reading during the time set aside for wholesome physical activity, and, good girl that I was, I initially obeyed. But addicts have no morals. Soon, I was sneaking books outside under my coat and pursuing my disreputable habit in dark corners of the playground, one eye cocked for patrolling adults. I finished A Tale of Two Cities that way, curled up in a doorway during lunch period, weeping over Sydney Carton’s noble sacrifice.
My laconic diary entries and fragmentary memories provide few clues to what I loved in all these books, and I can’t remember when Jane Austen’s witty courtship novels emerged from the illustrious pack to become something special. Perhaps it was the winter’s day that, age eleven, I finished Mansfield Park, arguably Austen’s least accessible novel, and told my diary, “It is a wonderful book. I love Jane Austen.” Or perhaps it was the summer I was sixteen, when my parents and I visited Chawton cottage, the house in southern England where Austen wrote or revised all six of her novels and which is now a museum of her life. I spent hours wandering through the quiet rooms, reading every caption, gazing at the household objects she might have touched, steeping in a magical sense of connection.
Back home that September, I persuaded a teacher at my high school to add Emma to the syllabus of her “Women in Literature” class. (I’m not sure how the other kids liked the book. One fellow student, unfamiliar with nineteenth-century language, read Austen’s account of Mr. Elton “making violent love” to the heroine and thought he was committing rape, not proposing marriage.) Sometime that fall, my parents bought me a membership in the three-year-old Jane Austen Society of North America, and a year later I took a weekend off during my first semester of college to attend JASNA’s fifth annual convention in nearby Philadelphia. I think I was the youngest participant ― one woman told me I looked “charming” in the black velvet dress I wore to the banquet ― but by then I had been reading Austen nearly half my life, and it was thrilling to meet two hundred other people who wanted to talk about her. Still, I felt mildly surprised when JASNA’s president rose to his feet at the conclusion of the conference and reminded us that our efforts to honor Austen were more for our benefit than hers – that, by now, she was so famous that she didn’t need us to keep her name alive. Jane Austen – famous? I wondered. Somehow, I had always thought of her as my own private possession.
That illusion was easier to maintain back when I first discovered Jane Austen. In July 1976, she had been dead for exactly 159 years, but she was not yet the global brand she would become. Nearly twenty years would have to go by before Austenmania’s Big Bang—the shot of a wet, white shirt clinging seductively to the chest of British actor Colin Firth, in the BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice. Much as I loved the novels, back then I could not buy Jane Austen tote bags, mugs, board games, T-shirts, or bumper stickers, let alone the Jane Austen Action Figure (five inches of molded plastic, complete with quill pen). I could not watch and re-watch movie versions of her books, or devour hordes of literary spinoffs and sequels, or log on to the Republic of Pemberley at midnight to post my analysis of a key passage in Persuasion. All that would come later, after the world had caught up to my obsession.
In the years after college, my Austen-love percolated just below the surface, as I launched a journalism career, moved to suburban New Jersey, and started a family. (My husband is British – he even read Austen in high school – but we met, not at a ball, but over cold toast in the dining hall of an Oxford college.) I rushed to all the Austen movies and tuned in to all the miniseries, and I reread the books whenever my life needed a bracing dose of Austen’s clarity and wit. When the JASNA conference came to Colorado Springs, I flew home, dropped my toddler son with his grandparents, and, with nary a backward glance, spent a joyful weekend absorbed in Emma.
A few years later, inspired by Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club, I roped five neighbors into reading the novels with me once a month, over tea and cake. We had a great time, and they liked the books, but — well, they didn’t like them quite the way I did. They didn’t seem to put themselves to sleep at night by composing dialogue for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet to say during the Pride and Prejudice proposal scene that Austen sketches with characteristic indirection (“He expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do”). They showed no inclination to memorize the passionate love letter (“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope”) that Captain Wentworth gives Anne Elliot in the climactic scene of Persuasion. They didn’t worry about whether Marianne Dashwood is really happy at the end of Sense and Sensibility. In other words, they weren’t nuts.
It was only a matter of time before I found my way to the Republic of Pemberley, the Internet’s largest Jane Austen fan community. The first time I read Pemberley’s epigraph (“Your haven in a world programmed to misunderstand obsession with things Austen”), I knew I was home.
From “Introduction: The Tarot of Jane Austen”:
The summer I was ten, I inserted a tiny key into the lock of my diary, turned to the gilt-edged page reserved for July 28, and wrote, “I woke up at 5:30 and read ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ We went to Central Park after breakfast, and I read some more.”
That bicentennial summer of 1976, we were visiting relatives in New York, at the end of a family vacation during which I’d spent every spare minute inhaling a suitcase’s worth of books. Next to the cot in my grandfather’s apartment, I had stacked a few last volumes, to tide me over the long days until the flight home to Colorado. My father was a college English professor and inveterate book-buyer, and it was he who had added Pride and Prejudice to my stack. History will record that this was my first Jane Austen novel. I was about to become a junior Janeite.