Jane Austen’s worldwide fan club – BBC News
Almost 200 years after Jane Austen’s death, the English writer is still adored around the world. BBC News spoke to some of the fans for whom a love of Austen’s work has evolved into a way of life.
John and Aylwen Gardiner-Garden – Australia
Australia may still have been a penal colony when Jane Austen was writing her novels, but two centuries on, Austen fans Down Under get together each year to recreate Regency England in Canberra.
Aylwen Gardiner-Garden and her husband John have run the annual Jane Austen Festival for 10 years.
The event grew out of their love of Regency dancing and now more than 300 people come from all over Australia and New Zealand for promenades, grand balls, talks and dance workshops.
“Jane Austen is very popular in Australia – especially after the BBC series aired here in the 1990s – Colin Firth just did it for everyone. And it’s generational – there was another whole new set of fans after the Keira Knightley film,” she explained.
“I don’t think it’s harking back to the old country – it’s more the sense of romance and escaping from reality. It’s not the seedy side of England, like Dickens.
“At the festival, the women can dress up, feel feminine and elegant, and the guys are gentlemen. Teenagers grow up overnight on the dance floor – their manners are fantastic.
“It’s people coming together to learn about the costumes, the books, the dancing. It’s become part of people’s lives, so I keep doing it for the love of it.”
Debra Miller – USA
In Chicago, Deborah Miller performs her own one-woman show based on the books and letters of Austen.
She still remembers 10 September 2009 – the day she first read Austen’s biography and instantly “fell in love”. Within a year she had read all her novels and written the stage show she has been performing ever since.
“Her work is so well written – every time I read it I find something new – her concise use of language and its elegance is so beautiful,” she said.
In researching her show, Ms Miller visited the Smithsonian Institute to find the earliest audio recording of a Hampshire accent and listened over and over again to find the correct stage voice.
“I do have to slow it down a bit – they are not used to a Hampshire accent on the south side of Chicago.”
With more than 5,000 members of Jane Austen societies in the US and Canada, there is an eager audience for her shows.
“People have read the novels, but not the letters. People at the shows cry and say that I am Jane Austen.
“It’s the ease and geniality of the time, the romance and the reassurance – in the current political climate, a Jane Austen novel has integrity and truth.”
Adge Secker – Bath
Adge Secker is a full-time police officer in Bath who is also a tour guide for ECT Travel’s Strictly Jane Austen tours – one of the companies chasing the bonnet bucks – tapping into the market of Austen enthusiasts keen to learn more about their heroine.
He described his clients as “just mad crazy” about Austen with Americans in particular “absolutely nuts for her”.
“We take them to where she lived, where she danced, the places that inspired the stories and just immerse them in the history. I get people enthused and at the end tell them what they’ve done is walk in her footsteps.
“It’s just good fun to do – they love to soak up the history and the culture.”
Tour-goers get to visit places in the city where Jane Austen lived for five years from 1801. Locations include the Gravel Walk – where Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth were engaged in Persuasion – or visitors can have Regency experiences like tasting the spa water or attending a grand ball.
“Many Jane Austen experts come on the tours to see the places in her life. I’m like a sponge – always learning new stories. But you have to get your facts right, otherwise Jane Austen fans will find you out.”
Mara Barbuni – Italy
Austen’s work was first published in Italy in the 1930s, while films and dubbed BBC dramas have boosted her popularity in recent decades.
Venetian Mara Barbuni first saw Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility in 1995 and immediately borrowed the book from her local library.
Since then she has written extensively on the author – her most recent research project is into how houses and homes are represented in Austen’s novels.
In the course of her research, she has travelled to many of the “Austenland” sites – including Winchester, Bath and Lyme Regis.
Austen’s work is “really popular and much loved” in Italy, she explains.
“Many Italian readers of Jane Austen declare they love her settings, the old-fashioned but fashionable flair of her novels, and the love stories of her characters.”
More than 300 academics and devotees are in the Jane Austen Society of Italy which was founded in Bologna in 2013. It is holding a “Grand Tour” of conferences around Italian cities this year, based on each of Austen’s novels.
Nicole Kang and Margy Supramaniam – Singapore
Nicole Kang and Margy Supramaniam are members of Singapore’s Jane Austen Circle, enthusiasts who regularly meet for balls, tea and dramatised readings in costume.
UK-born Mrs Supramaniam, who moved to Singapore in the 1980s, said: “I’m no seamstress but I do enjoy dressing bonnets to look authentic and finding Indian trimming to make dresses look Regency.
“I have also used saris for dresses, the muslin ones with borders are the best. In the late 18th and early 19th Century cloth was imported in large quantities from India as it was in great demand in England for clothes, so some of it works really well in achieving a period look.
“Many older Singaporeans, who had a fairly British-style colonial education, were brought up with Jane Austen but the younger generation are less familiar, and often their first introduction may have been watching a film adaptation. It is exciting to see Jane Austen’s popularity spread.
“The largest group of followers that we have are millennial Chinese Singaporeans who can somehow relate to Jane Austen across culture and centuries.”
One of those younger members, Nicole Kang (pictured above left, in the dress), gives Regency dance lessons in Singaporean schools.
“I first read Northanger Abbey when I was 15 years old as I had more or less finished reading most of the ‘teen’ books in my school library and I think I had fancied a bit of a challenge in my reading.
“I love Austen’s work because she writes about familiar subjects – not just about love – but she had such a keen insight into human nature that I believe that her characters still exist in real life today.”
- Born on 16 December 1775 in the Hampshire village of Steventon, where her father was the local clergyman
- Began writing as a teenager and published Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility based on her observations of middle and upper-class Regency England
- Lived in Bath from 1801 before moving to Southampton and then the Hampshire village of Chawton after her father died
- Her books were published anonymously during her lifetime
- Died in Winchester in 1817 at the age of 41 and was buried in the cathedral
- Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously and a final novel was left incomplete