Ted Scheinman never meant to dress as Mr. Darcy and dance the “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot” at a Jane Austen-themed conference. Really.
What happened was, it was his mother’s fault: She is a devoted Jane scholar who raised him in a world steeped with Austen culture. Scheinman was in graduate school, attempting to find his own way, when an injury kept his mother from participating in the first-ever University of North Carolina Jane Austen Summer Camp. She sent him as a surrogate, and he became more involved than he could have foreseen.
The result is a slim volume that is both funny and thoughtful, delving into Jane Austen superfan culture with a wink. As the back matter reads, “Camp Austen is perhaps the most comprehensive study of Austen that can be read in a single sitting.”
Scheinman, an outsider dipping into an insular and passionate fandom, serves as an entertaining tour guide, and throughout the book nudges at the question: what is the overlap between how academics and common readers love literature?
The Rumpus: What made you want to write this book?
Ted Scheinman: It’s actually right there in the subtitle—the book really did begin as a sort of accident! One summer in grad school my advisor conscripted me to help organize the first Jane Austen Summer Program (known informally as the ″Jane Austen summer camp″) at the University of North Carolina. I ended up pitching and writing a short reported essay about the camp, after which I figured that was the end of it. But a book editor took notice and gave me a call to ask if I’d be interested in expanding the material. Of course that’s the sort of surprise that writers dream about, so I leapt at the opportunity.
Rumpus: What was your relationship with the writing of Jane Austen before you attended the Jane Austen Summer Camp?
Scheinman: It was a family thing. I had an odd sort of Anglophilic childhood. My sister and I spent parts of our formative years in London, whenever my mother would teach American students abroad, and we’d go to English schools and accompany Mom and her students on various day-trips to Oxford and Winchester and so forth. Mom is all about Austen, both as scholar and as pleasure-reader, and when she was pregnant with me she became convinced that I’d be a girl, and that she’d name me Jane. Upon my birth, Mom discovered quite quickly that I was a boy. Unfazed, she saved the name for my younger sister.
I read Austen’s juvenilia when I was very young, and Mansfield Park at thirteen, and Pride & Prejudice shortly thereafter. But in my childhood Austen was less a set of books and more an ambient spirit. She was Jennifer Ehle in the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice, or the little action figure that my mom kept on her desk. She was a presence, a style. I didn’t really begin to understand the novels properly until I’d reread them all, at the beginning of grad school.
Rumpus: You write that having an assignment to cover that original Jane Austen Summer Camp weekend in North Carolina gave you a sense of direction: “I would chronicle the weekend as a surreptitious participant-observer and gossip collector.” Do you think this made it harder for you to really dig in to your role as the de facto Mr. Darcy? Or did it put you more in the mind of Austen, herself an inveterate participant-observer?
Scheinman: It’s possible that the slight distance required by a participant-reporter actually made it easier for me to inhabit the Darcy role—he’s sort of a master of distance himself, often for good reason but sometimes to a fault. It’s a fair question. I think one thing that helped is that I felt passionately about making sure the camp came off a success, so if there was ever a choice between hiding and working on my notes or helping serve elevenses on Saturday, I would inevitably choose the latter. When I attended later Austen festivals in Minneapolis and Montréal, many of the attendees knew that I was there in a dual capacity, and that consciousness didn’t seem to make them any more guarded around me. It’s funny, this is something people worried about when they hung out with Austen herself: more than one visitor at her family’s table expressed self-consciousness, or suspicion, believing that Austen was scrutinizing them to prepare material for her next book.
Rumpus: Why do you think Jane Austen, of all writers, has inspired such lasting and passionate fandom?
Scheinman: There are a few answers here, none of them satisfying and all of them rather subjective. It’s a commonplace that Austen developed new techniques of psychology in fiction, and in Austen you get the benefits of two quite different styles of English letters: you get the acid wit of Pope and the Augustan satirists, which entered the novel through antic riffs on the mock-heroic such as one finds in Fielding, but you also get the earnest psychological and emotional richness of Samuel Richardson. At the same time, a lot of the interpersonal business in her novels can feel very modern, once you get past the fastidiousness of Regency manners; whenever I’ve been reading Austen, I tend to get a lot of insight into my own friendships (and enmities!). There’s also a very obvious (and more than a bit reactionary) moral nostalgia, or at least an aesthetic nostalgia for a more georgic, pre-industrial period of apparently elevated manners, though most Janeites tend to think of Austen more as a funny critic of manners than as a prescriptivist.
Rumpus: I feel like fandom in general has gotten more culturally significant in the past few decades; my inexpert observation is that it started with Star Trek conventions and has since diversified to the point that there are cosplay-friendly conventions for almost anything you’re in to. Basically I guess I’m asking: do you think there would have been Jane Austen Camp had there never been a Star Trek convention?
Scheinman: I think what you say about fandom intensifying in the past few decades is absolutely true. I also think it has much more to do with the Internet than with Star Trek. Janeites have been networking across state lines and across oceans ever since the 19th century—there are one or two instances of American heiresses writing fan mail to Austen’s descendants and receiving one of Austen’s original letters in return. Austen herself made hay out of this kind of fandom in her letters; she mocks an early suitor, Tom LeFroy, for dressing like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. With the Internet, superfans of anything, whether it’s the Insane Clown Posse or the Grateful Dead or Rick and Morty or Jane Austen, have an easier time creating networks for enthusiasts, so fandom necessarily tends to become less solitary and a bit more collectively frenzied. But we also shouldn’t kid ourselves that this didn’t happen before. Literary clubs are sort of adjacent to theater, and have long involved various kinds of pantomime or dress-up; I’m thinking now of the Kit-Kat Club in the early 18th century, but Austen’s own family dramatized their own fannish obsessions in the family theatricals that they wrote and enacted all the time. Maybe that’s a better answer: family is often the seat of fandom, and fandom itself creates a sort of family, and that holds whether you love high literature or pop TV.
Rumpus: You also write in the book about how these camps and conferences devoted to Austen are largely attended by women “dedicated to a conjuring a period during which few to none of them would have owned property, and many would have been married off to a dullard of a clergyman…” Why do women in particular fetishize this time period, when women’s lives were not particularly enviable?
Scheinman: I don’t wish to speak on behalf of women, but I can tell you what they’ve told me. There’s an attentiveness in these novels to the nature of friendships between women, and while those friendships don’t always pass the Bechdel Test, they’re perceptive, often brilliant, and they mean a lot to a lot of people. Austenworld is also a relatively safe space for women, and it’s a place where they are the majority. As Anne Elliott says in Persuasion:
Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.
In Austenworld, the pen is often in the women’s hands, which is why it can feel refreshing and reclamatory. Also, a lot of women in Austenworld are keenly aware of the irony you’ve noted, and they render it partially moot by pointing out that one can enjoy the anachronisms without submitting to their politics. As one woman told me: “It’s like you get the best of then and now! You can dress like Emma but still go to bed with Frank Churchill.”
Rumpus: You allude to the schism between people who love Jane Austen and people who love the Brontës—dare I ask, what is that schism about?
Scheinman: I think it’s natural for fans to become clannish, and it certainly helps stir up solidarity among the in-group—nothing so useful as an external enemy. But I’m also not convinced that one ever has to choose. To oversimplify, it’s a little like the Beatles/Stones flame wars among American teens in the early 1960s. The Beatles were controlled and contained, arranging R&B styles within a sort of hallowed pop chamber. The Stones were dirty (they didn’t even wear ties!) and their music darker—the Dionysians to the mop-top Apollonians from Liverpool. That division of order vs. passion and classicism vs. Romanticism is a powerful organizing principle, and it obtains in the Austen/Brontë schsim. My impression is that a lot of the Janeites prefer the precision of Austen, and are able to find plenty of passion in those novels; it’s just passion of a different sort.
But this is a larger question that pertains to all sorts of fandom. Loving one thing often means disdaining its supposed antithesis, but once you get past that sort of blind dualism, you also start to enjoy things more. So I’m sympathetic to literary tribalism, but I also think fandom should be about enjoyment, not triumphalism.
Rumpus: There is somehow still, even in America’s current #fakenews, book-averse, anti-intellectual moment, a funny kind of tension between the academic and the common reader. Why do you think this tension persists? Aren’t we all kind of on the same side, which is the side of literature?
Scheinman: Well I certainly think we ought to be on the same side, but the very question of what constitutes ″literature″ still involves aggressive dispute. The academy has opened itself admirably, if selectively, to a variety of pop forms, but I do sometimes meet scholars who seem to think that fan-groups like the Janeites somehow give the discipline a bad name. Personally I don’t think they could be more wrong, but the gatekeepers can be dogmatical on this point, and there’s little reasoning with them. I must say it’s ironic that some professors still consider themselves mediators between true literature and some imagined great unwashed mass of readers—Catholic priests in the 16th century experienced a similar sort of frustration. It is a specific kind of snobbery that Austen could have written about with wicked delight.
Rumpus: By the end of the book, it seems like you’ve tired of Janeite culture. Do you think you’ll ever go back?
Scheinman: I’m actually going back to the Austen camp in June. This year’s theme is ″Northanger Abbey and Frankenstein,″ and I’m pleased to say that I’ll basically be the opening act for my mom: I’m doing a talk and short signing one day, with a talk by my mother to follow. Plus she might actually dance this year, in which case I’ll absolutely spin the floor with her.
Rumpus: You work as an editor for Pacific Standard, where you cover some pretty hard-hitting topics, like climate change and social justice. How do you keep from getting depressed about the state of the world?
Scheinman: I struggle with this daily, to be honest, especially with my work on climate stories. I try to take heart from some really amazing and impressive people working on these issues, and to find optimism in watching these people work—whether they’re indigenous activists in Wisconsin or South Dakota or southern Morocco, or surveyors and scientists with good ideas about adapting development plans to account for coastal erosion or disappearing islands. It helps that some of the people I most admire actually work in our office, and they’re a plucky bunch. But I should also admit that more and more I do begin to entertain survivalist fantasies. The current one involves retreating to Colorado, parts of which boast excellent food and water security, with fewer fires and earthquakes than we tend to get in California. Of course that’s a deeply selfish fantasy—though if somehow I came into loads of money I would probably try to start some sort of dreadful artists’ collective where we live off the land in the mountain West and maintain a carbon-negative footprint, &c. I’ll let you know if it works out.
Rumpus: How does working as an editor affect you as a writer, and vice versa? I do both, too, and I find that they inform one another in incredibly useful ways. I often think every editor should write, and every writer should edit, if only as an experiment.
Scheinman: I think it’s helped, though on occasion I’ve also become paralyzed—the writer fearing the editor, and using that fear as excuse for inaction. When I’m in a good flow I can write without editing as I go, which for longer projects is really quite important. I’m a much better and more supportive editor to other people than I am to myself, and that’s the trick, I think: to remember that the editor is a guide and a coach and a supporter, not a censor or a judge, and then to treat oneself accordingly. Writers are often their own enemies to begin with, so a writer-editor thereby has two internal enemies if she’s not careful. All that said, I love few things better than a trustworthy outside editor. It’s a real relief to outsource some of that responsibility, to submit yourself a bit, to say, ″I am in your hands.” Once you’ve got a full manuscript, then you can go back and argue with the outside editor (and with yourself!) about the smaller quibbles. There is something immensely liberating about being edited by someone you trust. Nearly always I love it.
Rumpus: What does your mother, the Janeite responsible for all this, think of the book? And how are her knees?
Scheinman: She likes the book, perhaps more than it deserves, which pleases me—if only one person in the world likes the book, I’m glad it is her. And her knees are much better, though she’s still adjusting to a recent hip replacement, all while leading a gaggle of American college students around London this semester. So she’s a bit of a superhero.
Rumpus: Oh, and this one’s an easy question: what is the best Austen novel?
Scheinman: Emma is the most technically innovative and assured, and Pride & Prejudice is the most perfect, but Persuasion gets me where I live.
Author photograph © Lindsay Starck.