'Camp Austen' is the most delightful Jane Austen book of the season

'Camp Austen' is a sharp and wholly affectionate portrait of author-fandom raised to a manic pitch.

Camp Austen By Ted Scheinman Farrar, Straus and Giroux 176 pp.

Casual readers who may have enjoyed Pride and Prejudice when they read it at school and who vaguely remember the old BBC adaptation starring a sultry Colin Firth will have not the faintest conception of the size and sheer fanaticism of Jane Austen fandom that has existed for two centuries and currently spans the globe like a well-mannered and exceedingly well-dressed secret society.

Members of this fandom cosplay with compulsive regularity; they can quote random letters or snatches of the Juvenilia with the casual command baseball addicts reserve for Bill James; they hold their author above the ranks of other mere scribblers. As Virginia Woolf famously remarked almost a century ago, “There are 25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighborhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts.”

Ted Scheinman, senior editor of Pacific Standard magazine and scion of a passionately Janeite family,inadvertently ventured into the world of this fandom when he helped to organize the inaugural meetings of the Jane Austen Summer Camp as a grad student at the University of North Carolina – a summer camp where there would be talks and conferences, but also dancing, amateur theatricals, and lavish Regency costumes. Right from the start, our young author is aware of the fantastic nature of the undertaking: “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.” 

His report takes the form of the most delightful Jane Austen book of the season, Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan. “Some are born Janeites,” Scheinman muses, “some achieve Janeism, and some have Janeism thrust upon them” – and he sees his own experience as a combination of all three.

He was raised in a bookish, Austen-loving home, he's genuinely curious about superfandom, and that superfandom gives him preferred status (he sarcastically refers to it as affirmative action) due to a factor beyond his control – he's male in an intensely female world: “A young man who cleans up nice and can recite Austen when properly motivated, I met certain minimal requirements and was thereby elevated to a sort of absurd exoticism.”

His exploration of that world may have started out with the sardonic remove of a David Sedaris, but it quickly warms to a kind of “embedded” Jane Goodall-style anthropology in which the observer comes to identify so closely with the observed that the distinctions lose their meaning. "Camp Austen" is a sharp and wholly affectionate portrait of author-fandom raised to a manic pitch.

Participants in the Jane Austen Summer Camp come for all kinds of reasons, as Scheinman notes: “They come to laugh and to learn, to dance and to listen, to admire and to be admired; to teach, and to be taught; to question their assumptions about Jane, and to confirm them.”

But throughout "Camp Austen," Scheinman pleasingly never loses sight of the literature that's at the heart of all this over-eager fun. “Our fashioning of Austen always seems to involve higher stakes, or at least a more passionate audience, than it does with other authors.” As a teacher once told him, you don't see bumper stickers that say “I'd rather be reading Tolstoy.”

Scheinman savors the “fortified” punch at these galas. He sports his most convincing Mr. Darcy costume. He listens to the visiting professors lured by the promise of good food (clotted cream!). He receives apropos quotes and makes them in return. He participates in all the Regency-era entertainments. He dances. All the Janeites love to dance. This is the closest thing most readers will likely want to come to such period-fidelity zealotry, but it's all the more fun for that. 

Eventually, Scheinman begins to worry he's a bit of a fraud, someone who's given a pass because he fills out a pair of breeches. “The Janeites' love of the author, their expert and honestly gained knowledge of her age and its manners, their delights in dances that bored me after an hour or so – these all came to feel like an accusation, an indictment of my own dilettantism.”

But his tone throughout the book is anything but melancholy; his depiction of “Austenworld” glows with affection and insight, and his asides about the Austen canon itself are uniformly thought-provoking. "Camp Austen" may not prompt most readers to don their best topcoats and taffeta, but it will certainly send them hurrying back to the novels, to savor again what Scheinman refers to as a world displaced in time.

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