Meet the Jane Austen Fashion Obsessivess
Meet the Jane Austen obsessives
It’s now 200 years since 'Pride and Prejudice' was published, but anyone who thinks Jane Austen-mania might be waning clearly hasn’t met a true 'Janeite’.
Natalie Garbett's love of Jane Austen was inspired by the BBC Pride and Prejudice series
By Julia Llewellyn Smith
Claire-Violet Hanley has had some interesting moments in petrol stations. ‘I’ll be driving to, say, a ball and need to fill up, so I’ll go into Asda in my Empire-line frock. Everyone’s looking, so I make a joke of it. I’ll say, “Good day, sir, this is a fine establishment. My carriage requires some adjustments.”
‘My neighbours are real party animals in their twenties and they see me coming out of the house in costume. They say, “Hi, Claire, like your bonnet.” I say, “It’s not a bonnet, it’s a fichu.”’
Hanley, 34, is a social anthropologist from Southampton who’s worked for the United Nations. She is also a Janeite, one of the numerous Jane Austen devotees around the world whose passion for the author easily rivals the subcultures of, say, Star Trek or Harry Potter.
‘We learn all the Regency dances and songs,’ explains Hanley, who recently lost eight stone so she could elegantly wear the period’s Empire-line dresses.
‘We talk to each other and write letters in Regency-style language. I bake traditional Regency food for our picnics by the river, though sometimes I do cheat and just stick something from M&S on a Regency plate and hide the bag. I’ve learnt fan language, which is how people secretly communicated with each other under the noses of chaperones, though when I try it out at balls, most blokes just think, “What are you doing?”’
It’s not only the original Austen novels that are read avidly.
From Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Bridget Jones’s Diary, both of which sold in their millions, there are hundreds of Austen-inspired novels. Currently six well-known authors, including Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid, are writing a new version of every Austen novel for HarperCollins. Then there are the scores of Hollywood – and Bollywood – riffs on Austen plots (Clueless based on Emma, From Prada to Nada in which Sense and Sensibility is reworked in Los Angeles). Online The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has received more than one million YouTube hits.
‘Austen’s appeal is not just enduring, it’s exponentially growing,’ says Claire Harman, the author of Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. ‘You’d expect fatigue to set in, but the opposite happens: the more films and books there are, the more follow.’
Now, 200 years after the publication of her most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, which still sells about 50,000 copies per year, Austen mania is reaching new heights.
Claire-Violet Hanley, 34, has over 50 Regency costumes
A set of stamps has been issued to mark the anniversary. In September the film Austenland, starring Keri Russell and Jane Seymour, is released, about a young woman obsessed by Mr Darcy, visiting an Austen theme park in England. On Saturday the Jane Austen Society in Bath is re-enacting the Netherfield Ball, a turning-point in the relationship between Lizzie and Mr Darcy. On the same day Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, is throwing a costumed ball attended by fans from as far as Singapore, America and Japan, the culmination of a three-day Pride and Prejudice conference.
‘The ball’s a kitsch idea, but I think it’s going to be rather good,’ says Prof Janet Todd, the college’s president and author of several tomes on the author, including Jane Austen in Context.
‘I had the idea after I gave a talk to the Jane Austen Society of North America and afterwards they all dressed up for their ball. At first I thought, “This is really silly,” but then I thought, “But it’s very beautiful.”’
What is it about the daughter of a provincial clergyman that inspires such adoration?
Austen died aged 41 in 1817. Her books were well received, yet, writing anonymously, she achieved no fame in her lifetime. But after her nephew published a biography of his ‘dear Aunt Jane’ in 1869 a cult grew. By the time of the First World War, doctors were prescribing her novels to shellshocked patients as therapy.
Austen experts universally acknowledge that the mania hit unprecedented, global heights in 1995 with the BBC adapatation of Pride and Prejudice. The scene where Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy emerges drenched from a lake has been viewed nearly three million times on YouTube. Every Janeite I speak to cites a screen version – be it the 1940 Laurence Olivier version or the 2005 adaptation with Keira Knightley – as the spark for their passion.
Prof Todd says the novels are eternally popular because of their universal themes of love, money and class and their happy endings, which belie Austen’s ironic tone. ‘But, more than that, Austen’s world fits in with a lot of things that people really enjoy, such as the National Trust and pretty clothes,’ she says. ‘I think those things have a lot more bearing on the Janeites than the actual novels themselves.’
Claire-Violet Hanley agrees. ‘I love the novels, of course, but my obsession’s moved on to embrace the whole of Regency culture and history.’ She estimates that about 80 per cent of Janeites are female.
Austen’s novels stressed the desperate fate of unmarried women, but for many Janeites the attraction of her world is the freedom it grants them from the pressures of modern womanhood.
‘At university, I was rubbish at clubbing. I didn’t like all that short-skirts stuff. I just didn’t feel safe,’ Hanley says. ‘But in the Regency scene there are really clear boundaries and rules which I follow, and so do the guys. They have to behave properly. If they pinch a girl’s bum or are rude about her they’d be ostracised.
‘At Austen events, you talk loads, and eye contact is really important. Some people say the sense of forbiddenness is almost tantric. If you like someone you can be really flirtatious but know it’s OK, they’re going to respect you. I was never confident with men before. I can flirt properly for the first time.’
Sam Froudist, 24, originally from Perth, Australia, but now living in Rochester, Kent, where she runs a business making bunting, feels the same way.
Sam Froudist, 24, pines to live in Austen's era
‘I became totally obsessed after seeing the Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice when I was 16. I fell passionately in love with Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy,’ she says. ‘I loved the restraint of that world. It was so different to my teenage reality where everything was changing. This was all about structure and social etiquette.’
Froudist, who will be dragging her partner to the Bath Netherfield ball (‘like the total “tragic” that I am,’ she says) admits that one of her reasons for moving to Britain was to discover Austen’s world.
‘The films put this idea in my head about living in a little cottage with a piece of land, though of course England’s not like that at all. But there’s history everywhere, unlike in Australia. It means so much to me to visit the house in Hampshire where Jane Austen grew up, to know that world actually existed.’
Prof Todd agrees that a huge part of Austen’s appeal lies in her dainty world of parlours, tea parties and cultivated gardens. ‘Provincial England is something we’re very keen on – it’s why programmes like Midsomer Murders are so popular.
Jane Austen was one of the last chroniclers of this world on the eve of the industrial and agricultural revolutions. She died young – had she lived longer, she would have travelled on a train, had her photograph taken. Hers would have been a different world.’
True Janeites disapprove of attempts to make their idol contemporary. ‘I speak for everyone when I say we hate modern versions,’ says Hanley.
‘There was one girl who went to a conference in an Austen zombie outfit, smeared in strawberries to look like blood, and she was the subject of gossip for about a year – “How weird of her!” Because,’ she adds jokingly, ‘obviously we’re not weird at all.’
What would the sardonic Austen make of it all? In his seminal 1940 essay ‘Regulated Hatred’, the critic DW Harding suggested that Austen’s novels ‘are read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked’.
‘Austen seems so safe and so English, all the things people like, but she had a profoundly cynical view of society,’ says Harman. ‘She liked fun and dancing, but she was a real analyst.
Her novels are not at all about the sort of thing the chick-lit spin-offs seem to think. But she did her satire in an extremely palatable way, so people forgive her.’
Isabel Martin, 25, owns eight Regency day dresses and two ball gowns
The more I learn about the Janeite world, with its feuds, factions and romances, the more I can imagine their idol making merry with such material.
‘I think she would have been completely frosty towards Janeites and regarded them as fools – all except the ones who happened to be her friends, and those she would have loved illimitably,’ Harman says. ‘What the books do is let us imagine that we are those friends.’
‘We do feel like we’re characters in the novels, we’re a tight-knit bunch and very gossipy,’ agrees Hanley. ‘It’s all, “Did you hear so-and-so got off with so-and-so at the other ball?”’
What does she think Austen would make of their antics? Hanley pauses for a moment. ‘She had quite a sharp tongue; I think she’d have taken the mickey. But I don’t care – my Austen friends are the greatest friends I’ll ever have.
I’ve danced in fresco-painted villas in Italy. I’ve spoken to aristocrats. I’ve been invited to palaces. Everything that used to only be romantic in a fictional sense has become real.’
Natalie Garbett, 34, costume maker and tour guide from Weymouth
'I had no interest in Jane Austen, until I saw the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. I was just leaving school and I was inspired.
'I started attending re-enactments and making my own clothes, based on original patterns from the period. I spent a lot of time studying the collections at the V&A, they’re as authentic as possible.
I’ve worked for the BBC, the National Trust and English Heritage. I own more period clothes than modern clothes. Jane Austen couldn’t have realised the big effect she would have on people, the great joy she’d bring. She truly changed my life.'
Claire-Violet Hanley, 34, is a social anthropologist and lives in Southampton
‘I’ve been obsessed with Austen since seeing the BBC adaptation. I grew up near Winchester, so all the locations felt very familiar to me. Now, for me, it’s not just about Jane Austen – it’s about the Regency period, Napoleonic history, the costumes.
I really, really love the costumes and I own an embarrassing number – about 50. I need a new house to store them in! I go to Regency dances and took my best friend to one. He is gay and really urban – he loves edgy music and hanging out in east London – and he was really moaning about it.
But he loved it! He said, "Do not tell anyone. Do not Facebook this or I'll kill you."
Sam Froudist, 24, runs a bunting business in Rochester
‘I’m a really big reader and my best friend and I became totally obsessed with Pride and Prejudice. I joined a [Jane Austen] book club and was the youngest person there by 20 years. Austen’s was a totally different type of world – and there is a pining for that.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I think women have it better these days and I have no genuine desire to live back then. I like being in control of my destiny instead of waiting for someone to marry me. I’m making my costume for the Netherfield Ball in Bath. My obsession has totally passed my partner by but he's a bit of a dandy and I think he'll look good in his cravat and breeches.'
Isabel Martin, 25, is a nursery school teaching assistant from south-west London
‘I watched the 1995 Pride and Prejudice when I was 12 and absolutely adored it. I then went out and read everything by Austen, even the juvenilia. I was fascinated by Austen’s way of life. My father is a diplomat, so I had a very sheltered upbringing abroad.
Coming back to Britain was a big shock. Modern activities didn’t appeal, and I felt I’d fit more into that era. When I was 18 I started attending festivals and re-enactments, and it was amazing to find all these people who felt the same way, to find all these Regency activities going on.
I have eight Regency day dresses, four Spencer jackets and two ball gowns, and I’m having another one made. It can get very expensive. I blog about my interests because I like to share them, but I don’t talk about them on Facebook – I’d get some very odd comments.’(telegraph.co.uk)
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Last edited by lucy92; 17-06-2013 at 08:10 AM.
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