LAKE GEORGE - The Grateful Dead has its Deadheads. Justin Bieber has his Beliebers. Jane Austen has her Janeites.
Devotees of Austen, the late 18th- and early 19th-century English writer of the classic novels “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma,” take fandom to a level few authors — living or dead — could ever hope to experience.
Whether writing online fan fiction based on the exploits of characters from “Sense and Sensibility” or holding high teas in period costume on the writer’s birthday, Janeites bring an heir of sophistication to the groupie kingdom.
Ringers, Trekkies, Whovians, Truebies and Twihards take note.
Patricia Friesen of Saratoga Springs is the founder of the Jane Austen Society North America’s New York Capital Region chapter, but she still considers herself a newbie to the writer’s world when compared to other fans.
“I came from Texas, and we didn’t read Jane Austen in high school,” Friesen said. “One woman we have in our group is in her 80s, and she has gone to almost every annual conference. All she reads is Jane Austen — over and over and over again. It’s incredible. You can’t stump her.”
The club will hold its third Jane Austen Retreat from June 29 to 30 at Wiawaka. The conference, which is open to Austen aficionados as well as recent converts, will focus on the author’s third novel “Mansfield Park,” which was first published in 1814. The program features discussions, film screenings and presentations. Susan Jones, a professor of English at Palm Beach Atlantic University, will speak on the subjects of “needlework and domestic arts” and “thrift” in the novel.
“It’s a learning experience, and at the same time, it’s a very relaxing and fun time,” Friesen said.
Catherine Golden, a professor of English at Skidmore College, helped organize the first Austen retreat at Wiawaka in 2012. Her Skidmore course “Jane Austen, Inc.” looks at the author both in her own time and the present.
According to Golden, Austen achieved some success in her lifetime, but she wasn’t considered a serious literary figure until much after death in 1817.
“She was buried in Winchester Cathedral, and on her tomb, richly devoted to her piety, there is no mention of her greatest claim to fame — her literary career,” Golden said. “While she won the praise of many 19th-century authors, such as Sir Walter Scott and George Henry Lewes (George Eliot’s significant other), others like Charlotte Bronte and Henry James found her vision limited. By the mid-20th century, she was recognized as worthy of being included in the canon of English literature.”
Her books originally were published anonymously under the moniker “A Lady,” which let readers know the author’s gender, if not her name.
“In the early to mid 19th century, women began to write, but many wrote under pseudonyms, such as the Bronte sisters. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte wrote under the androgynous pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell,” Golden said.
Although Austen’s work is now considered classic literature, the author’s continued popularity has more to do with movies than the written word.
“I begin the second half of the course with that argument that ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged’ that Jane Austen’s books about life in Regency England and the film adaptations of her six novels have increased her fan base and sparked a multi-million dollar industry,” Golden said.
Many Jadeites pick up the books after first being introduced to Austen through screen adaptations of the stories.
“The films enhance aspects of the novels that appeal to modern readers — romance, for one,” Golden said.
Connie Brooks, owner of Battenkill Books in Cambridge, said Austen’s work inspires generation after generation of readers.
“Austen novels continue to sell. Not only that — there are also many spin-offs and spoofs of her novels that are incredibly popular — take ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,’ for example, or ‘The Trouble with Mr. Darcy.’ There is even a board book for toddlers called ‘Little Miss Austen: Pride and Prejudice — A Counting Primer.’ So, yes, she is perennially popular, as are her themes and the Austen-mystique,” Brooks said.
Brooks is not surprised readers keep going back to Austen.
“There are some wonderfully romantic scenes in Austen’s books that never get stale. The romance between Mr. Darcy and Lizzie Bennett in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ has everything stacked against it — from class distinctions to the two lovers’ own impetuousness and stubbornness — yet love conquers all,” she said.
The 18th and 19th centuries were dominated by male authors, who wrote primarily for a male audience.
Austen, however, captured life from a woman’s perspective, long before the term “chick lit” was coined.
“Austen’s novels are satisfying in that they end in marriage, in most cases marriage for love, which is a modern notion,” Golden said.
“Austen’s novels, too, are rich in male characters, like Mr. Darcy, who cause palpitations among women who appreciate an age of gentility and chivalry. Wentworth’s line ‘You pierce my soul’ spoken to Anne Elliott in ‘Persuasion’ never ceases to make my female Skidmore students’ hearts beat.”
For true Janeites, the world of Austen transcends the page.
“There is a freshness and intimacy to Austen’s writing,” Brooks said. “When I read her, I can’t help but picture her scribbling in the corner of the drawing room, hardly imagining how popular her books would become. She is, simply put, a master — a master of the turn of phrase, a master of wit and a master of creating sympathetic characters — and some not so sympathetic ones.”
If you go
The Jane Austen Society North America — New York Capital Region will hold its third annual Jane Ausen Retreat from June 29 to 30 at Wiawaka in Lake George. Admission is $20 for members and $25 for the general public.
To register, make a check payable to JASNA NYS Capital Region and mail to JASNA NYCY, c/o Nancy Duell, 56 Fifth St., Glens Falls, NY 12801.
For additional information, call Patricia Friesen at 223-3077 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reservations for food and lodging at Wiawaka are $110 per night, which includes lunch and dinner Sunday and breakfast Monday. Day-only reservations also are available. Go to www.wiawaka.org or call 668-9690.