segunda-feira, 30 de dezembro de 2013

For the Love of Jane, and All Her Creations, By BARBARA STEWART

For the Love of Jane, and All Her Creations

YOU want to talk about Jane?" said Barbara Crafton, an Episcopal priest and writer from Metuchen. She could have been referring to an admired elder sister. But the Jane she means is Jane Austen, dead nearly 200 years.
The fans of Jane Austen, unlike those of, say, Ernest Hemingway or Anthony Trollope or the Beastie Boys, call her by her given name. Janeites know they are taking liberties. In Jane Austen's day, the late 1700's and early 1800's, a lady's given name was used only by her family and very close friends. Jane Austen's fans consider themselves intimates -- of Jane Austen and of her characters, who they know in their heads are fictional and in their hearts are real.
Thus, the Jane Austen Society of North America, founded 20 years ago by J. David Grey, a high school English teacher who lived in Spring Lake, consists largely of people who aren't professors or academics, but simply fans. The first little gathering of Janeites has grown to a society of 2,800 across the continent. Mr. Grey, who died at 57 in 1993, was not strictly an academic but an amateur in the finest sense of the word, a man who loved Austen's works simply for themselves.
The society he founded has no New Jersey chapter per se, and members from the state attend meetings mostly in New York or Philadelphia. But that doesn't make them any less devoted.
This has been a good year for Janeites. The movie "Persuasion" received great reviews, as did "Clueless," a ditsy up-to-date rewrite of "Emma" populated by Beverly Hills teen-agers with cellular phones and slick cars. "Sense and Sensibility," starring Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant, is to open in December, and the BBC is producing a new version of "Pride and Prejudice."
Jane Austen, who died before she was 40, completed six novels, all about love and marriage. The heroines are smart young women. The other characters are ladies and gentlemen, including buffoons, pretentious people and the Oxford version of beer-swigging college guys. The language is elegant. The wit is arch and crackling, but not vicious.
Love, hate, irritation, longing, the chasing of attractive men are conveyed in beautifully formed sentences, full of implication. There's no hitting, no kissing. There's lots of concern about money, and appreciation for rolling green lawns and hedged-in gardens and parlors with pianofortes. The big historic events -- the Napoleonic Wars, the slave trade, Dickensian poverty -- do not brush the novels' surface. The novels, all of them, end with appropriate marriages. The plots are getting the young women there.
"She's coming back," said Natalie Fine, 73, an Austen Society member who lives in a retirement home in Monroe Township. "She talks about three or four ordinary families in a village. It's the people; it's the words. It doesn't need sex or violence."
Certainly, many writers have fan clubs, or literary societies. But Janeites do it with a single-minded ardor the other societies lack.
Ms. Crafton joined the Jane Austen Society of North America after seeing a T-shirt on a parishioner: "I'd rather be reading Jane Austen." She, like 400 others, travels annually to a distant city to spend four days talking, listening, watching plays and movies about, eating the food of, wearing the ball dresses and dancing the dances of Jane Austen and the 18th century. If the characters in "Mansfield Park" ate roast duck for breakfast, so do the Janeites. They are willing to listen to a lecturer read from a list the price of the Austen bed linen.
What Ms. Crafton likes, she says, is the wit of women. Of women on the page and at the banquet table.
"The company of women is so droll," she said. "We get so satiric when we get going. That's what reading her is like: being with great women. Like a great, great lunch. Life is so tawdry and rude and coarse, and this is so civilized."
The Janeites are homemakers, English teachers, proofreaders, librarians, the occasional lawyer or public relations executive. Most are women -- normal women, by all accounts, except when it comes to the novels. One reads a bit of an Austen novel each night before going to sleep, like a devout Christian with the Bible. Another knit herself a sweater with the names of the novels and characters, making sure she would sit on "Pride and Prejudice." The Janeites look forward to newsletters on the health of the cats at the old Austen house in Chawton, England.
"It's like a big family reunion," said Florence Spencer, 68, of Monroe Township, who traveled with Mrs. Fine recently to join 400 others at an Austen convention in Madison, Wis. "There's something about her that the people who like her are people you like."
AT one convention, she said, a speaker, referring to characters in "Sense and Sensibility," announced, "I don't think Elinor should have married Edmund," and 150 heads in the room nodded. "The next hour we spent pairing up people who should have married." People who exist, of course, only on the pages of Austen's novels and in the minds of her fans.
"You know these people," Ms. Fine said. "You meet them in your everyday life. You meet somebody and say, 'That's Emma's father' or 'That's Anne Elliot.' "
That is one reason some academics take a dim view of Janeites, said Claudia Johnson, a Princeton University professor who likes them. Some academics think Janeites are soppy, sloppy readers who reduce proper, elevated literary criticism to literary gossip about fictional characters. Furthermore, they regard reading as sociable, not private, as proper academics do.
"To them she's a living presence, not a dry academic subject," Ms. Johnson said. "But they can be very knowledgeable readers with an incredible eye for details."
And even academics seem to melt a bit in the face of some Austen heroines. "Elizabeth Bennet," said A. Walton Litz, a Princeton University English professor and author of a book on Austen, "is as free a spirit as ever walked into a novel. She is about as attractive a character as ever appeared."
Hollywood, having left Edith Wharton since "The Age of Innocence," will surely drop Jane Austen, too. When that happens, her real fans, the ones who feel they know Anne Elliot of "Persuasion" as well as their college roommates, will still be getting together for cream teas, debate on the type of silk ribbon Emma once bought at the village store, and recreating, for a few emphemeral hours, a world of order, courtesy and understated loyalties and love.
"She shows," Ms. Johnson said, "that adventure is very interior. You don't have to go out and travel. You simply have to be alert to your own life."
Photos: The novelist Jane Austen in a portrait by her sister,Cassandra, and a plaque at her home in Chawton, England, donated by her fans.

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