It is a truth universally acknowledged that Trekkies were the first fandom. But universal acknowledgment does not make a truth true. In fact, Adrianne Wadewitz, a feminist scholar of 18th-century literature, set Wikipedia straight on this point over a decade ago, when she identified the first fandom subculture as the Janeites, the network of Jane Austen stans who found their prime directive, Austen idolatry, around 1870. Star Trek: TOS didn’t air until 1966.
But what does this matter, except for purposes of quarrels about trivia? Here’s just one reason: Janeites are known for having organized their networks in an almost magically prescient way that didn’t just prefigure Star Trek fan culture, it prefigured the … internet.
Go with me here. Janeites can be seen as internet culture avant la lettre—what Sebastian Heath, an archaeologist and professor of computational humanities and Roman archaeology at New York University, calls a “self-digitizing community.” OK, yes, the Arpanet and packet switching don’t figure much in the misadventures of Emma Woodhouse or the Bennet sisters. But the Janeites represent a critical plot point in the evolution of online sociology.
In the beginning, Janeites were something like an especially enthusiastic book club. They changed as Austen’s work got canonized and exported, but at first they were chiefly English men. In this way, they were unlike Trekkies and perhaps closer to the zealous male fans—many of whom identify as gay—of female superstars like Liza Minnelli or Cher.
In their devotion, according to Claudia Johnson in Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees, Janeites expressed “the ecstasy of the elect.” The novelist E. M. Forster and the literary scholar A. C. Bradley were among the first prominent Janeites, who, with only a touch of self-parody, described themselves as a “cult” devoted to their “dear,” “divine” Jane. The group’s playfulness and ecstasy let them blow past the rules of solemn scholarship. And thus the Janeites set in motion six practices that now define modern fan culture, and in particular the online forums dedicated to phenomena from Star Trek to Game of Thrones to Hamilton to Doctor Who:
Janeites feel free to speak of fictional characters—Miss Bates, Elinor Dashwood, etc.—as though they are real people. (Furthermore, according to latter-day Janeite Ted Scheinman, they speak of Austen herself with “the proprietary vim of a family member.”)
They tolerate gentle teasing of their fandom but balk at criticism of their canon.
They are meticulously detail-oriented, priding themselves on knowing Austen minutiae as much as literary themes. (Among the Janeites are students of Regency suspender buckles, agrarian history, English country dances.)
They are secretive—and often abashed. (Forster once wrote: “I am a Jane Austenite, and, therefore, slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.”)
Their fandom is considered slightly unwholesome. (Just as Trekkies are parodied as pimple-pocked teens in Spock ears, female Janeites today are derided as spinster cat ladies.)
They move comfortably between fiction and reality, the spectral and the solid, the fantastic and the real, the forum and the meetup. They often bridge the gap with fan fiction and cosplay.
To seal their in-group status and steer clear of Muggles who might not get it, Janeites today still use code, handles, jargon, masquerade, memes. Generally speaking, a “Willoughby” is a cad, and a “Darcy” is a catch (though maybe also kind of a dick). The code acts as homage to the days when Janeites flew studiously below the radar. Kipling’s story “The Janeites” tells of a group of World War I vets who were closet Janeites. There’s gender-bending too. Janeites who may be super butch in light of day privately visit spheres coded female: domesticity, romance, social life. All of this has stirred anxiety among out-group traditionalists. In a hatchet job on Austen and her disciples given as a speech in 1928, one critic derided her—and her fans—as sexless, malicious, and girlish. As Forster was gay and other early Janeites—including Bradley—were lifelong bachelors, the homophobia of haters was hard to miss.
Heath coined the phrase “self-digitizing community” in 2011 to describe any group that “takes the time to organize information about itself or information that it cares about” by making its artifacts legible, archivable, and searchable. Ancient numismatics, he has argued, were part of Rome’s self-digitization; the coins made crucial aspects of the Roman Empire retrievable by future historians and archaeologists. In modern times, Heath cites the superb wiki of Game of Thrones aficionados, which makes their community accessible and (mostly) intelligible, even to those outside it.
For their part, Janeites riffed off Jane Austen’s written work, which they made supremely accessible to Austen readers without advanced degrees by creating indices, committing passages to memory, reenacting scenes, anatomizing the film adaptations, and extending the novels with fan fiction in which they, real people, interact with Darcy and Bingley and Knightley and all the rest.
Then there’s Heath’s most challenging view: that digitization is, fundamentally, something he calls “dematerialization.” A community that digitizes itself, in his view, renders its physical self symbolic and nonmaterial when it puts itself “online” or “in the cloud,” where its sense and sensibility will outlive its bodily demise.
The transitions from bodies to spirits, from Austen’s written words about haberdashery to three-dimensional bobkins and petticoats, are well known to Janeites. When Ted Scheinman joined the Janeites, he found himself at a séance, among “those enthusiastic literary necromancers who regularly summon Austen’s ghost.” Note to Trekkies: Dematerialization is akin to being beamed up.
About 10 years ago, I began to suspect technology is the masculine form of the word culture. Among the first projects launched at Dartmouth College by John Kemeny, the coinventor of Basic, was the 1972 digitization of the poetry of Robert Frost, with a complete concordance so anyone could search Frost’s opus by words. Though this was little more than data entry, it looked like a miracle to Frost fans and to the librarian, Edward Connery Lathem, who worked with Kemeny. Suddenly, computers weren’t merely for mathematicians and the military. They were for memorializing, preserving, and extending culture. And yet, in spite of his close attention to Frost, Kemeny will forever be known as a technologist whose work belongs to STEM, and not the humanities.
Which is all why it’s necessary to recognize Janeites as the avant-garde of digital culture. Not only are Janeites fans of literature by a woman and about women, but their organization was forced to become dexterous and ironic (not unlike Austen herself) in response to sexism and homosexism that kept members from taking the main stage at literary lectures. And then later, while STEM and sci-fi have been front and center in the story the internet tells about itself—on Wikipedia and elsewhere—Janeites, who are now in full force on the actual internet, stand for the stubborn persistence of the humanities online.
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Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is a regular contributor to WIRED.
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