A raucous tour through the world of Mr. Darcy imitations, tailored gowns, and tipsy ballroom dancing
The son of a devoted Jane Austen scholar, Ted Scheinman spent his childhood summers eating Yorkshire pudding, singing in an Anglican choir, and watching Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy. Determined to leave his mother’s world behind, he nonetheless found himself in grad school organizing the first ever UNC-Chapel Hill Jane Austen Summer Camp, a weekend-long event that sits somewhere between an academic conference and superfan extravaganza.
While the long tradition of Austen devotees includes the likes of Henry James and E. M. Forster, it is at the conferences and reenactments where Janeism truly lives. In Camp Austen, Scheinman tells the story of his indoctrination into this enthusiastic world and his struggle to shake his mother’s influence while navigating hasty theatrical adaptations, undaunted scholars in cravats, and unseemly petticoat fittings.
In a haze of morning crumpets and restrictive tights, Scheinman delivers a hilarious and poignant survey of one of the most enduring and passionate literary coteries in history. Combining clandestine journalism with frank memoir, academic savvy with insider knowledge, Camp Austen is perhaps the most comprehensive study of Austen that can also be read in a single sitting. Brimming with stockings, culinary etiquette, and scandalous dance partners, this is summer camp like you’ve never seen it before.
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About the Author
Ted Scheinman is a writer and scholar based in Washington, D.C., where he works as a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine. He has taught courses on journalism, satire, and poetry at the University of North Carolina and has written for The New York Times, the Oxford American, Playboy, Slate, Pacific Standard and many others. Ted is the author of Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan.
Read an Excerpt
A Shared Inheritance
"Are you Mr. Darcy?"
The girl in short braids could not have been more than ten years old. We were standing by the registration table in a small anteroom, surrounded by a tweedy gaggle of tenured scholars and one or two graduate students. Posters of Jane Austen adorned the walls in silent observation. I looked down at this tiny and quite serious lady, whose expression matched her question: curt and businesslike, the soul of efficiency. She might have been a private detective or a tax collector. A brief parade of women in sundresses brushed past us en route to the weekend's first lecture.
"Are you Mr. Darcy?" she repeated. It was a kind of accusation that had the momentary effect of silencing the company. "A lady over there told me you were." She stabbed her finger in the direction of the main room. A lot seemed to depend on my answer.
"Not yet," I informed the girl. "But I will be tomorrow."
She nodded, as though I had affirmed a long-held suspicion. "I told my friends that I would dance with Mr. Darcy. Do you dance?"
I decided to tell her the truth. "Very badly." The girl finally smiled but looked somewhat vexed.
"But you know they're giving dance lessons today and tomorrow, right?"
I said I did, and promised to be there, and to save her a dance at the weekend's grand ball. She nodded and introduced herself, shaking my hand with a worldly sort of professionalism. Just as I was about to laugh, a volunteer usher swept past us, saying that the opening plenary was about to begin. The girl went off in search of the mother she'd left unsupervised, and I joined the flow of people entering the lecture space, which the conference organizers had dubbed "Pemberley."
* * *
Such moments are representative of the year and a half that I spent in the world of Jane Austen fandom. They were also its best part. Throughout the bicentennial of Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen's most famous novel, I bounced from one Austen extravaganza to another — observing, dancing, listening to and delivering talks — but for me the story still begins and ends with a single conference, a four-day affair in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that introduced me to a world of which I'd been only dimly aware, and that I still have not fully escaped.
At the time, just a few years ago, I was teaching courses in journalism and English literature while doing graduate work at the University of North Carolina. My advisor, James Thompson — a compact, ruddy-faced man with an immortal smile, an earring, and a motorcycle — had decided to establish the Jane Austen Summer Program, known unofficially as "Jane Austen Summer Camp." James pitched it as a sort of quasi-academic gathering that could nonetheless attract the proles — the civilian enthusiasts who take part in the special universe of Austen fan-fiction and web series and bumper stickers and action figures, and who (James assured me) are capable of reading Austen as seriously as the most humorless poststructuralist.
The idea struck me as fantastical: a Jane Austen Summer Camp! Yet I didn't doubt for a moment that James and Inger Brodey, his colleague and coconspirator, would attract a crowd. Austen mania is simmering even in a slow year; for the bicentennial of Pride & Prejudice, the turnout was assured. American enthusiasm for Austen is (as I would soon learn) passionate to the point of obsession, and Austen is considered by universities, film studios, and publishers alike as a sure thing. And I was more than a little bewitched by James's description. The projected conference sounded dreamlike, a little unreal: We would dine together. Nearly all attendees would bring Regency costumes. There would be dancing. There would be a one-act play. There would be afternoon tea. There would be a harp. Maybe two. Fancy scholars would give talks, but so would costumers and graduate students and "independent scholars." The whole idea of a Jane Austen Summer Camp jangled with friendly dissonance. It managed to suggest Jane Austen at a sleepaway camp in the Catskills or the Great Lakes, winning the archery competition, fiddling with the reverse-osmosis water filter, and refusing to participate in kickball.
Hearing James and Inger plotting the weekend, I was impressed by their close attention to material detail: finding the right harpist; naming the four main conference rooms after the four main estates in Pride & Prejudice; ensuring that Inger's children had suitable costumes. And I was thoroughly seduced by the levity with which they approached this work: all giddy mischief. At the same time, I remained a little distrustful of anyone who would pay good money to spend a summer weekend wearing silly clothes and discussing the importance of (say) eighteenth-century agrarian philosophy in Pride & Prejudice. Who were these wonderful weirdos?
Most important, James and Inger said they were prepared to pay graduate students for helping organize the weekend. I was fascinated. I was broke. I was in.
* * *
A few days before the Janeites arrived, during preparations with Inger and James, it occurred to me that the camp would provide material for a light magazine piece — that I would in fact be crazy if I didn't sell someone an account of the imminent bedlam — so I e-mailed an editor, describing the juiciest bits of the weekend: the clothes, the dances, the period food and drink, the theatricals that the graduate students would perform. "I think they might make me dress as Mr. Darcy," I wrote.
The editor responded within five minutes: "OH MY GOODNESS YES!!!" Suddenly I had another role: I would chronicle the weekend as a surreptitious participant-observer and gossip collector. Already I'd been anticipating the event with bemused skepticism, and the assignment merely lent professional credibility to the semi-satiric outlook I had been cultivating. I was prepared to play dress-up, to observe a group of literary eccentrics, to be amused by them, and, having mined them for excellent comic material, to write an essay and be done. I was prepared to find everything ridiculous, and anticipated that by the end of the weekend I would be thoroughly sick of Austen.
This was more or less my frame of mind when my mother called. James had invited her to speak — they've been seeing each other at Austen symposia for a couple of decades, and are on friendly terms — but Mom was recovering from replacement surgery on one of her knees (the other would soon suffer the same fate), and she sent James her regrets while assuring him that I would represent the family "with distinction." I couldn't help but feel that she had overpromised.
On the telephone, as I described my excitement and trepidation at the weekend's approach, Mom informed me that having to use a walker had given her "great triceps" —"the last time my arms were this strong was when I was lifting toddlers all day"— and asked that I not disgrace her at the summer camp. She rattled off the names of all the people she knew who'd be attending; their credentials; their spouses' various eccentricities; what journals they edited, and what conferences they'd been blacklisted from — all with stern instructions that I was to be "presentable" at all times, and especially that I wouldn't forget to iron my shirts.
"I'm not a child, Mom," I said. "I can be trusted in company."
"Yes, dear, but you do realize some of these people have seen your baby pictures."
I groaned. Mom was having none of it. "Don't be silly; you're getting paid. I don't want to hear that you were aloof, or that you refused to dance. Remember that you're my surrogate —"
"— and you don't want me to sully the family name."
"Well, not if you can help it."
She extracted the relevant promises: that my outfits would be immaculate; my bearing, courteous and attentive. But I also pointed out that the summer camp might eventually lead to Austen overload. "What if I reach a point where I just can't take it anymore?"
My mother made a noise indicating contempt for the possibility. "It's just four days," she said. "You'll be great."
"This is your world, Mom," I said, needling her.
"You might just like it."
* * *
"We long for an age when people knew the rules of deportment, and followed them. It is a truth universally acknowledged that there was once a time when all children were well behaved and congressmen all told the truth."
James was at the front of the room in Pemberley, discussing the widespread idea that Austen's appeal depends on a kind of moral nostalgia: "Readers often claim that they are drawn to Austen by her sense of order, that conduct has rules and consequences."
It was the opening talk, titled "Manners Envy," and had all the markings of a hit for this crowd. The day was also very hot, the kind of hot where you start reading your own suffering into other people. We were in the great room in one of the university's more extravagant brick piles. Many in the audience raised a Regency-style pocket fan against the late-afternoon sun declining through the French windows. The thick heat of a Carolina summer pressed in. Some removed their bonnets, and more than one man loosened his collar; ties were rare, and became rarer as the talk proceeded. A trio of older women laughed over a photograph, then silenced one another, rapping each other on the knuckles with fans and brochures. A row ahead of them, the girl in short braids maintained a stoic impression, as though willing herself to forbear the juvenile behavior of her neighbors; a row ahead of her, I spotted one of my mother's spies.
Toward the front of the room, congregated beside and behind the lectern, sat a handful of people who could only be professors of English literature, and who spent the moments before James's talk behaving like schoolchildren reunited after a very long break as they laughed at private jokes likely hatched decades ago in a room — and on an occasion — much like this one. Certain women, defiant of the heat, kept bonnets glued to their heads, and no one looked more serious than the gentleman at the rear with muttonchops framing a face as pink as a grapefruit, apparently having struck a compact with the heat that his soul would sooner depart this earth than the tie from his neck.
Even those accustomed to academic conferences and the eccentric specimens of humanity they attract would find this crowd unusual. The room was divided in dress: the majority wore twenty-first-century attire, but a serious contingent was already repping Regency outfits, and some of the more daring attendees wore the fashions of the 1780s and '90s, when Austen began her literary apprenticeship and came of age. A scholar of colonial economics in the English novel sat between a middle-schooler and an amateur haberdasher; the latter identified as a Marxist and, that evening, would explain to me in passionate terms the political history of the top hat.
From my seat toward the rear of the room, I scanned the backs of heads or sides of faces, playing a sort of bingo: Duke; Arkansas; oof, there's [redacted], whom I've been warned about; to her left that nice dude from the German Department, and the gentleman who's delivering a seminar on "the female gaze in Pride & Prejudice"; there's the New York State contingent, and Susan, who edits Persuasions, and, yesss, the lady who published the funny paper on Sanditon. The heroine in Austen's Persuasion at one point complains privately of a gathering "too numerous for intimacy, too few for variety." Based on my initial reconnaissance, the Austen summer camp would be both deeply intimate and wildly heterogeneous: even among these few dozen people (fewer than eighty, certainly), there was variety to tire the most energetic collector. There were the creamers, the fan-fictioners, the cosplayers, the tea makers, the Tarot readers, the Frenchmen, the bridge players, the hip-hop fans, the Girl Scout, the professors, the middle school teachers, the computer programmers, the law school students, the former punk rockers, the motorcycle freaks, the secret Victorianists, the graphic novelists, the Austen bloggers.
And it wasn't hard to pick out the core graduate students — the rank and file, ready for a weekend of buttling and scuttling. There was Emma, who would soon charm the throngs with her talk about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a web series that retells Pride & Prejudice through the conceits of twenty-first-century social media. There was Michele, of the chestnut curls, who would play Jane in our theatricals. There was Ashley, a born-again Christian who writes about communities of English evangelism in novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and who was in one sense living the plot of a Regency romance, having just gotten married — following a five-day engagement — when her equally Christian husband was suddenly recalled to his post in the armed forces. Then there was Adam, one of those beautiful souls who was probably born scribbling a footnote, an ageless academic with the ageless academic's traditional boyish gravitas. At twenty-seven, with his wire-rim spectacles, an unself-conscious grin, and the western fedora that he wore with his trench coat whenever it rained, Adam presaged the way he would look at forty-seven and at sixty-seven.
James's voice continued from the front, and his ready audience tittered at even the simplest quip: "The novels are undeniably social — Elizabeth is unimaginable on Crusoe's island ..." The beauty of that sentence is that it instantly disproves itself — everyone in the crowd immediately imagines Elizabeth on Crusoe's island, and the image feels somehow in keeping with the idea of the entire weekend.
Before launching into "Manners Envy," James had convened the weekend with a short and awfully sweet speech thanking all the necessary people and institutions but mainly stressing the conference's democratic impulse: you are welcome here, James intimated, whether you have a Ph.D. or not; there are many ways to study Austen, and no one will make you feel stupid for not "doing" Austen in the sanctioned way. He further suggested that next year's gathering would focus on Sense & Sensibility, and floated the idea of one day holding a summer camp about "Austen and the Brontës." It was a bold suggestion — Austen partisans and Brontë partisans are famously opposed — and the crowd caught its breath in shock. (He also expressed gentle alarm over the suspected presence of "crypto-Trollopians" in the audience, a joke that landed with surprising force.)
James's voice was devotional and studiously subdued, as though apologetic for the enthusiasm it worked so hard to efface; in dress, James had honored the gravity of the occasion by abjuring his extensive collection of novelty Jane Austen T-shirts in favor of a casual blazer. He looked ecstatic, and rumpled, in equal measure, and once you know James those little rumples in his appearance take on the quality of something earned through honest labor. There are stylish academics and rock-star academics and antisocial academics and hair-tearing academics and bomb-throwing academics and so on, and then there are academics like James, whose professional status (lofty) seems to exist in precise disproportion to their vanity (indiscernible), with the result that James now goes through life looking accidentally distinguished and deeply tickled by the whole affair.
The room remained rapt throughout this little convocation.
"'We lead, as it were, a double, or if one will, a halved existence,'" James recited, quoting the sociologist Georg Simmel. "'We live as an individual within a social circle, with tangible separation from its other members, but also as a member of this circle, with separation from everything that does not belong to it.'" James's point was that we emulate or inherit social tendencies, and that Austen's characters must all, in one way or another, sort out their behavioral inheritance. I thought again of my mother, and of the attendees that weekend who would report back to her, and began to feel nervous.
* * *
James was concluding his talk with those wonderful rolling sentences that have the footnotes built in — the understanding being that even once we've finished the main business of the sentence, there are whole realms of literature to invoke in a series of nested relative clauses that qualify or embellish the conclusion with a series of knowing jokes, one of which might pertain to Thackeray, another to Mick Jagger — indeed, James tells us, he fears he is beginning to sound like that rambling woman in Emma — and the room leans forward at each parenthesis and subordinate clause, willing the words out. It felt quite unassuming, this opening paper, but it also held all the weekend's possibilities within it. James had presented new scholarship, in which he posited Austen as a foundational figure in sociology (a version of "Manners Envy" would appear in a celebrated book that he published in 2015), and he had done so to a "mixed"— that is, civilian and academic — audience. And he had also served as master of ceremonies and as court jester, while offering a melody for the gathering, a motif of sociability and the not unserious question of whether we can redeem ourselves in one another.
Excerpted from "Camp Austen"
Copyright © 2018 Ted Scheinman.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. A Shared Inheritance,
2. Dressing the Part,
3. Table Talk,
5. The Ball,
A Note About the Author,