Books

Book 560: Camp Austen – Ted Scheinman

I reached out to the publisher for a copy of this book when I saw the author, Ted Scheinman, was going to be in Boston giving a talk at the BPL.* Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it as it was the same day we moved houses (in a snow storm no less), but if you’re on the west coast, he’ll be talking about this at Skylight Books in LA this Saturday, July 21! (Skylight Books LA website)

I’m torn about my review. I’m wondering if I had the opportunity to hear him speak about the book and his experience, if my response would be different. I read his interview with the Jane Austen Summer program, but there are things you can only tell when you listen and watch someone interact with others.

As I read this I couldn’t decide, and even now almost a week later as I write this, I still can’t decide whether the subtitle is accurate. Scheinman did a decent job riding the line between deriding Austen fans and revering Austen and yet didn’t quite live up to the subtitle. It’s not that it’s wrong, but I feel like maybe he should throw the word “temporary” instead of “accidental” or “my brief stint” instead of “my life.”

This book clearly stems from his time pimping out his experience of Austen fandom from the straight cis-male perspective. This annoyed me to start with and I assumed would be explained away and/or softened by the end of the novel, but ultimately this part of the book missed the mark for me. I get what he was trying to do in saying that even a failed Janeite is a Janeite, but it didn’t click into place just right for me. All of this being said I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

In short this book is the story of Scheinman’s time at UNC Chapel Hill (whoop – it’s my undergrad) and the creation of the Jane Austen Summer Program. Scheinman gives a first person account of his being coerced into helping out by his mentor at UNC and his mother, a professor with interests Jane Austen and 18th century literature. He broke down his entire experience in the world of the Janeites into concise sections that tied into the three-day weekend.

As much as it drove me nuts, where Scheinman really excels in this book is walking the line of poking fun at from the outside and becoming a Janeite. I never felt at any time was he deriding Janeites even though he came very close to doing so from the white tower of academia, but ultimately he did a decent job of teasing everyone from the high brow academics to the “smut peddling” fan-fictioners.

“…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.” (24)

“Austen is this rare sort of author who makes possible this unaccustomed exchange between academics and civilians; those who think of her as primarily a domestic novelist might be surprised at the extent to which Austen is able to kick scholars out of their armchairs into action.” (35)

“Some are born Janeites, some achieve Janeism, and some have Janeism thrust upon them.” (31)

“There was something coy, too, in these complaints [about smutty Austen fan-fiction], an implicit acknowledgment that our own respective Janeisms were no less frivolous or whimsical than the fan-fictioners’, and a recognition that Janeism is a big tent that takes all kinds. The formal and informal mix together, as do high and low, Marxist analysis rubbing shoulder with culinary history and fan-fiction. Janeism is a pastiche or palimpsest, or a quilt, like the giddy genre-mix of the Juvenilia: deep psychology and potty humor.” (103)

If there was one thing that got me over and over, it was that it felt like Scheinman couldn’t decide if the seminar/his participation/his enjoyment of Austen’s works was a threat to his masculinity. He joked about this, especially when his friends gave him shit for attending and dressing up for the conference, but what felt authentic was his lack of comfort in being a cis straight male in the world of Jane Austen without the protection of a Ph.D or some other scholarly shield.

What really hit this home was how he described the outfit he wore for the conference and again later at other Austen events. He did give it props for making him feel taller, but every time he mentioned the clothing it was to highlight and emphasize the constraints the outfit put on him and by inference his masculinity. Again, I don’t know why this bothered me. Maybe it was the way it war written (maybe the publisher had him play it up), but the way he kept writing about it felt like he wasn’t quite being castrated, but definitely being challenged on something so normative and essential to his identity that he was incredibly uncomfortable with it. Maybe they were butching up his story by having him write something relatable about not having worn tights and his choice of boxers underneath them and the lack of comfort of his testicles or maybe they were just hoping to get a laugh, but either way it didn’t work for me.

And yet, he walks that fine line of respect and almost-derision:

“I do not wish to exaggerate. Dressing as Mr. Darcy at an Austen symposium is like playing Mickey Mouse at Disney World…And it’s effect on me was equally silly, and equally wonderful: I became quieter and somewhat gentler in my manners, and felt at the same time that I was an inch or two taller (the cutaway topcoat with tight shoulders basically requires immaculate posture). And this is the funny part of Austen cosplay—how un-silly it all feels: the escapist element is bound up with the element of discovery, and the costume allows you for a brief and hallowed moment to enter a new version of yourself.” (66)

But really I can’t fault him for this too much, I feel like this with ANY costume even if it is Halloween and it’s expected. You can see Scheinman and his fellow graduate students in the theatricals from that year at the end of this post (thanks YouTube).

I will say that I did find his coming to Austen a fresh perspective. Rather than coming to Austen from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, or Sense and Sensibility (or one of the numerous film adaptations) he came to it from Austen’s hilarious Juvenilia thanks to his mom! So going into Austen later as an adult, he knew the wittiness and sauciness (as she puts it) of Austen. There was no need to read super deep in the novels to find the social criticisms or the hints of her younger more ostentatious self, he knew young Jane. I read Austen’s Juvenilia last summer and it was wonderful, I couldn’t believe it took me so long to read it and that so many people don’t read it.

As he wrapped up, I felt Scheinman tried to tie everything together into a broad overarching any Janeite no matter how they do it is a Janeite,

“There are many paths to the one true Jane—many Janeisms rather than a single prescriptive orthodoxy—and mine is not the world of reenactment; it is the quiet moment reading Persuasion. Still, even if you’re no more than an accidental Janeite—an imperfect reader or a more than an accidental Janeite—an imperfect reader or a bad dancer who is sometimes so selfish that he skips the whole ball because he knows if he hears the Dashwood family name one more time he’ll have a nervous collapse—even for such lost souls, there is a place in the inheritance, a good set of clothes, a seat at the table, a role in the action, and (most important) a partner at the ball, even if she’s just a three-foot-tall version of Fanny Price [from Mansfield Park] in miniature. I stand before you a failed Janeite. Which is to say, a Janeite.” (136)

And it did work, to a point, but again this just shows what to me was the temporariness of his time as a “Jane Austen Superfan” more so than an accidental one. I know I’m getting hung up on that, but if it would’ve been twisted a little bit like adding “every few years” after “reading Persuasion“, catching up on the memorable people from the Austen circuit with my mom, or anything really that would indicate that his new-found appreciation and (begrudging) respect lasts longer than the publication of this book.

Recommendation: I’d highly recommend it. It’s a unique view into the world of modern Jane Austen lovers, academics, and their various hangers-on. Scheinman does writes in an approachable and often-times humorous manner that kept me engaged. Even with the issues I had with the book/writing, I think he did a great job of giving readers a crash course into the worlds Austen brings together from cosplayers and academics to fan-fiction writers and haberdasher. If I ever go to a Jane Austen convention (or hopefully the summer program at UNC), I at least have a bit of an idea of what to expect now.

*I received a copy of Camp Austen from the publisher in return for my honest opinion. No goods or services were exchanged.

Opening Line: “A love for books and mischief is often born in childhood, and it seems impossible that no child in English letters has ever had as much fun pillaging her father’s library as the young Jane Austen; certainly no other child has left such a record of her resulting spoils.”

Closing Line: “My fondest and most selfish hope is that she will remember one summer when she was shorter than the grass, and Mr. Darcy did his best to keep up with her at the ball.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)

Additional Quotes from Camp Austen
“Throughout, I took notes on nearly everything, feeling sometimes like an anthropologist and other times like an embedded reporter, camouflaged in breeches. I didn’t last in Austenworld, but for a time it was ludicrous, intoxicating, and sometimes heartbreaking—what began as satire progressed through sentiment and ended somewhere between the two.” (12)

“There is something unbearably selfish about the two-person romance, about Romeo and Juliet or Heathcliff and Catherine. Austen’s novels do not belong to this species of love story. They are ensemble affairs, not duos against the world, and they’re for more concerned with the question of how to live among our fellow beings than how to marry your best friend. The books end in weddings, but that doesn’t make them love stories—it just makes them comedies.” (49-50)

And because I linked to all the others, but can’t think of a way to tie it in check out my review of Northanger Abbey.

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