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‘I read my boyfriend Pride and Prejudice as a bedtime story’: meet the Jane Austen superfans

Two hundred years since the novelists death, Austen obsessives celebrate her legacy

Roland Anderson, 44, finance director, London

It wasnt until I was in my 20s that I started getting into Austen. My friend Mark kept going on about Pride And Prejudice, so I reread it, then worked my way through the rest of the novels, plus anything I could get my hands on: the letters, the unfinished novels. Once I read a boyfriend Pride And Prejudice as a bedtime story. It doesnt take as long as you think 20 nights at two or three chapters a night. He really liked it, even if the relationship didnt last.

After I started posting at the Austen messageboard pemberley.com, I met other fans. We visited Bath and other locations, and spent the afternoons drinking tea and talking about Austen. I studied French and German at university. Whenever I visit a new place, I look for a translation of Pride And Prejudice and see if I can read it. Ive now got copies in French, Italian, a couple of different German ones, and Im looking for a Norwegian.

Virginia Woolf says somewhere that Austen is the hardest writer to catch in the act of greatness. Shes so economical: she can sketch a character in a single stroke. When Elizabeth Bennet is feeling sorry for herself about Darcy, she goes for walks to indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections; its such a perfect phrase. In Sense And Sensibility, Elinor looks at Robert Ferrars, whos a complete idiot and decides that he doesnt deserve the compliment of rational opposition. Who hasnt thought that about someone theyve met at a party?

The novels are so modern, particularly in the way they treat women: I dont think any writer before her managed to write about female characters as if they were actual human beings, with their own feelings and ambitions. She was centuries ahead of her time.

Sophie Andrews, 21, blogger, Reading

Sophie
Sophie Andrews. Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian

At school, I was a bit of an odd one out. I felt as if I was born in the wrong century. I wasnt into teenage things. Then we were set Pride And Prejudice for GCSE English, and suddenly everything clicked. Her characters are two centuries old, but all of us know flirts like Lydia Bennet, or mean girls like Caroline Bingley. And her voice is so strong on the page. Theres a line from a letter from Jane to her sister Cassandra I really like: I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal. You get a sense of her personality immediately.

I reread Pride And Prejudice straight away, and then devoured the rest, as well as the film and TV adaptations. The books were better: it was much more enjoyable to imagine the characters in my head.

I began posting on Facebook, and then started a blog. I was 16, and I called it Laughing with Lizzie, because of that line by Elizabeth Bennet: I dearly love a laugh. It was low-key at first: GCSE essays, writing about the adaptations, things like that. It grew from there. Ive hosted guest posts, interviews, and reviews of Austen-inspired fan fiction. Its become a bit of a hub. My followers enjoy reading about me attending events; I think theyre waiting for me to find my Mr Darcy. Its sort of become my life.

Theres this line of Janes I really like: Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. Thats why she means so much to me: theres drama in the books, but its never threatening. A few years ago, I nearly lost my sister to a serious illness, and I myself have a condition a bit like ME, which makes it hard for me to do a regular job. The books have been my lifeline; when things are tough in the real world, I can just dive into hers. I cant imagine my life without Jane. It sounds melodramatic but, in a way, shes saved me.

Amy Rollason, 25, and Jagjit Dhandra, 51, members of the Jane Austen Dancers, Bath

Amy
Amy Rollason and Jagjit Dhandra. Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian

Jagjit I was really keen on archery, and I went to a historical fair a few years ago to buy some strings for my bow. There was a flyer for a Regency ball in Bath, and it was happening on my birthday, so I thought, why not? I didnt really love the books, to be honest; Austens not very good at male characters theyre a bit one-dimensional but that world really appealed. Partly its the history: the Regency period was a time of great social and political change, with almost continual warfare and great inequality; even though you see only bits of that in the novels. Captain Wentworth in Persuasion and William Price in Mansfield Park were both probably based on Austens brother Francis, who joined the Royal Navy.

When I started dancing, I took some lessons from a local group in Lichfield. Finding a decent costume was more of a challenge: there are a lot of dressmakers online, but theyre very busy so they need a lot of advance notice. I got lucky with a tailcoat and breeches from eBay, and ordered another tailcoat and waistcoat from America. Im probably not the tallest or most handsome guy, but a uniform makes all the difference as Ive discovered walking around Bath in costume while hen parties are on the loose.

The dancing is really graceful; people move quite slowly and sedately, and the music is soft. Its surprisingly easy, too, if you count the beats and keep your footwork precise. You can do it while youre drunk. Believe me, Ive tried.

I probably do seven or eight balls a year with different groups, all over the country and even abroad, and private events, too. I know a lot of couples whove met at Austen dances. In the world of Austen, men are massively outnumbered. Im pretty sure Im invited to so many balls because Im a single man who knows how to dance.

Amy People think everyones middle-aged, but theyre not. We meet every other week to rehearse; anyone can come along; its 4 a go. The dancing isnt hard to pick up: its like country dancing. Its a really sociable thing to do, because youre swapping around the whole time. Im in my 20s and the other month, I was at someones 60th birthday ball. Not many of my friends have that.

I started reading the books as a teenager and got hooked. They just felt so adult, compared with the things Id been reading before: full of deep emotions, but so smartly and funnily told with so much social observation. Even when the story is as simple as girl meets bad boy in Brighton, as it is with the Lydia Bennet subplot in Pride And Prejudice, its told with such humanity. You feel for Lydia, even as you realise how silly she is.

I did English at university, but for a long time I avoided specialising in Austen because I love the novels so much I didnt want to spoil them. Then I ended up doing a masters in Austen. It became a kind of joke. Later, I got a job volunteering at the Jane Austen festival in Bath. We walk through the streets wearing costume. You get such an amazing reaction, children yelling, Why are you dressed so crazily? I love that.

Mira Magdo, 31, blogger, Cambridge

Mira
Mira Magdo. Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian

My first encounter with Austen was watching the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride And Prejudice. Im from Hungary originally, so I got the videos and watched them with my mum, then I read the books in one big gulp, in translation.

Austens world was just so different from mine: the characters seemed to spend all day studying, reading, going for walks.

Four years ago, I moved to England to be close to Jane it sounds weird but its true. Each year, theres a big festival in Bath. One year, I was there and Adrian Lukis, who played Wickham in the BBC version, was there too, and I had the idea of trying to meet every major cast member. Some of them were in plays, so I bought tickets and got autographs afterwards. I had to travel to New York to get Jennifer Ehle; she was in a play off-Broadway. I tweeted her, asking if she could sign a book of the original TV script, and she messaged straight back, saying to meet her at the stage door afterwards. She was lovely.

Colin Firth was my last. I went to the premiere of Bridget Joness Baby in London last year, and caught him in the crowd. I was a bit dumbfounded. All I could do was ask him for a selfie and if he could he sign a painting of him as Darcy. He gave me a bit of a weird look when he saw the painting, but he did it. I was shaking for an hour afterwards.

My family think Im too old for it, spending money on gowns, books and balls, but it makes me happy. I have 80 copies of Pride And Prejudice in 15 languages. Maybe its a bit unoriginal, but its definitely my favourite novel as well as my favourite TV series; the writing is so sharp and funny: One cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty.

I also read a lot of Jane Austen fan fiction, and review it on my blog. I remember telling my mum that I was going to meet everyone whod been in the TV series, and she told me that life doesnt work like that. But sometimes it does.

Gabrielle Malcolm, 46, academic, Bath

I was standing at the bus stop one day, and saw a young woman carrying an I heart Darcy tote bag. I thought, thats interesting. Its not just about Austen, its Darcy particularly, and probably Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen, too. I hadnt realised that fan culture was such a huge thing. So I started digging: going to events, meeting people, interviewing fans. Eventually it turned into a book.

People often talk about the books being a kind of refuge. George Henry Lewes, George Eliots lover, said of Austen that she was a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, and a lot of fans seem to think of her like that: a witty friend you can turn to. Theres something in the plots, too: conflict leading to resolution, the happy ever after. Then theres the history, the feminism and the English thing, which attract fans from all across the world. The costume-drama side is really strong, too: a lot of fans are also madly passionate about Poldark and Downton Abbey.

And then you have the Jane Austen fan fiction (Jaff) scene, with as many as 70 new books a month, mostly self-published, all inspired by Austen stories from faithful continuations of plots to things that are more out-there: The Other Mr Bingley, Pride And Pettiness, Sif And Sensibility, the Zombies series They keep coming. There are so many sides to Austen fan culture: its as if you got all the fans of Star Trek, cosplay and book groups, and rolled them into one. And then added a lot of tea.

Im one too, of course. I first read Pride And Prejudice when I was 11 and my whole family read Austen; it was a large family, and wed swap the books between us. I was pretty young, but my mum helped me with the language. I lost both my parents when I was in my 20s, so its a way of connecting with them, I suppose. Its become a major part of my life. I was giving a talk at an Austen festival the other month, thinking, I wish my mum could see this.

Nili Olay, 72, and Jerry Vetowich, 80, members of the Jane Austen Society of North America

Jerry
Jerry and Nili. Photograph: Christopher Lane for the Guardian

Nili I first read Austen at university in the 1960s, and adored her straight away. I love language, so that was partly it, but its also the psychology. You meet someone and find yourself saying, Oh, theyre an Elizabeth Bennet, or Theyre a bit like Frank Churchill, a bit of a rogue. Pre-Freud, she just nails it.

Jerry started reading the books and we used to read Austen to each other while we were driving the kids around. Then one day, Jerry saw an advert for the Jane Austen Society of North America and said, guess what, theres a whole society of people as crazy as we are.

We went to our first meeting in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1980s 250 people, maybe. Now about 800 show up at the annual event, with about 5,000 members in all. Were based mostly in New York, but when we started spending more time in Florida, we realised there wasnt a local chapter; so we turned up in costume one day at a book festival and encouraged people to sign up. Were up to 25 people. I think well get more.

Jerry I love the dressing-up, I admit Ive got four costumes, including a redcoat and an admiral, and Nili has several gowns. They look pretty authentic. Of course, we dont dress up for the regular meetings, just the balls, but its great to see people in their finery.

Weve been to the UK a couple of times. We did all the Austen tours; its fascinating to stand inside Chawton, the house where she lived, and to walk along the cliffs at Lyme Regis like Anne Elliot in Persuasion.

I guess people might be surprised that Americans love Austen so much, but we were the colonies for a long time, so its partly in our blood. Jane Austens world, that world of early 19th-century Britain, seems very orderly to us. Maybe its something we wish we had particularly right now.

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