Nearly two hundred years after her death, Jane Austen is one of the most widely read and beloved English novelists of any era. Writing and publishing anonymously during her lifetime, the woman responsible for some of the most enduring characters (and couples) of modern romantic literature—including Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley—was credited only as “A Lady” on the title pages of her novels.
It was not until her nephew published a memoir of his “dear Aunt Jane” more than five decades after her death that she became widely known. From then on, her fame only grew, and fans and devotees, so-called Janeites, soon obsessed over and idolized her. Austen soon found an appreciative audience not only of readers but also of academics, whose scholarship legitimated and secured her place in the canon of Western literature. Today, Austen’s work is still assigned in courses, obsessed over by readers young and old, parodied and parroted, and adapted for films.
Were she alive today, Austen might not recognize some of the work her novels have inspired, such as a retelling of Sense and Sensibility featuring sea monsters, Internet fan fiction, or a twelve-foot statue of a wet-shirted Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy depicting a scene that doesn’t even appear in her novel. But like any great art that endures and excites long after it is made, Austen’s novels are inextricable from the culture they have created. Essential reading for Austen’s legions of admirers, Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen collects essays from writers and critics that consider the culture surrounding Austen’s novels.
About the Author
Gabrielle Malcolm is a visiting research fellow in the Department of English and Language Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University and a script consultant with Vsauce.
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Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen
By Gabrielle Malcolm
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2015 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
In the Regency Alternated Universe: Jane Austen and Fanfictin Culture
Explorations of Jane Austen fandom and fanworks have proliferated in recent years. running roughly parallel to but rarely intersecting with the more media-based world of fan studies, pop cultural Austen criticism has examined published pastiche, sequels, fanfiction and more. But what is happening outside the so-called 'borders' of Austen fandom itself (as the Republic of Pemberley's website terms it)?
How are fans of science fiction/fantasy, comic books or other popular authors using Austen's works to transform their own beloved texts? As this chapter will demonstrate, Austen's Regency circulates more widely than we have previously noticed. Its tropes are found in use in a variety of fanworks, crossing over and sneaking into popular reimaginings of other media properties. In fanfiction parlance, these stories belong to a subgenre called the Regency Alternate Universe (or AU).
This chapter examines the collection of Regency AUs on the popular fanfiction site Archive of Our Own, using metadata to explore the fandoms that employ Austenian tropes and how these stories might differ from their source materials (whether through mature ratings, homosexual pairings, fantasy elements like time travel or something else). One example of a Regency AU, 'Sif & Sensibility' by newredshoes, deserves a close reading. This story transforms the male-dominated world of Marvel's 2011 film Thor (dir. Kenneth Branagh) into an Austen-inspired matrilineal society, complete with a Sense and Sensibility-style double marriage plot. This analysis looks to answer the following questions: where is the 'Regency' in a Regency AU? And if we were to encounter this story without its metadata, tagging and title, would we still be able to identify it as Austen fanfic? Finally, I suggest that the pleasure of the alternate-universe story is generated in the friction between Austen's tropes and those of the source material: when, for example, the film's Asgard becomes 'Asgardshire'. By attending closely to the Austenian elements of a Regency AU, it is possible to see how Jane Austen operates in a larger pop cultural context – not as a walled-off fandom estate, but rather as a popular storehouse of pleasurable tropes, ready to be taken up and transformed by all kinds of fans.
The Regency AU is usually utilized as a framework for a romantic story between two characters from a very different type of story. Because of the rigorous tagging process that fandom encourages, it is possible to skim the list of stories and gain a great deal of information about them. For example, briefly scrolling though the 'Alternate Universe – Regency' tag on popular fanfiction site Archive of Our Own] (AO3) shows 280 works in a variety of fandoms, including X-Men First Class, The Avengers, Harry Potter, Sherlock and Doctor Who. Seventy-five of these stories are rated 'Teen and Up', 68 are rated 'General Audiences', 66 are rated 'Explicit' and 52 are rated 'Mature', while 19 list no rating. More than half of these stories feature a male/male relationship, with male/ female, female/female, gen (no relationship) and other designations comprising less than half together. Quickly browsing through the metadata information made available for each story, readers can find fanfic about Sherlock Holmes and John Watson falling in love with each other in Regency England, Marvel superhero Steve Rogers (Captain America) and his boyhood friend Bucky Barnes, or even Tolkien's Hobbits, doing the same. These stories, to paraphrase Lev Grossman, find the boundaries that the source material couldn't break, and break them (2). In this case, though, the boundaries are those rules set in place by both the Regency setting and the characters' original world or canon. These stories thus combine the pleasure of the romance with a recontextualization of specific tropes, forms and even power structures. They open up, as Abigail Derecho argues about fanfiction more generally, 'possibilities – not just for opposition to institutions and social systems, but also for a different perspective on the institutional and the social' (76). In the case of the Regency AU, codes of conduct which have long seemed codified via pop culture (the dance, the touch of a hand – both tropes of the Austen film adaptation) are made just as strange as they were in the days of Austen's juvenilia, if not her later works.
It is easy to see how rewriting an Austen plot as a homoerotic encounter between mainstream characters subverts and comments on heteronormative systems of courtship. But even when a story contains a more traditional, heterosexual dual marriage plot and lacks explicit sex, as newredshoes's Thor Regency AU does, it is still worth interrogating how the story works to combine pleasure, subversion, and commentary or critique. In other words, even those stories that seem to adopt Austen tropes at face value have something to tell us about what the application of Austen makes visible in another text. In this case, that text is a superhero film about Thor, celebrated warrior and heir to the throne of Asgard, banished to Earth due to the machinations of his Machiavellian trickster of a brother, Loki. The fanfiction version remixes that plot and its tropes, combining them in the tropes of the Regency AU.
Located at the top of the page, the tags for 'Sif & Sensibility' tell a reader almost everything she should expect. The story is rated 'General Audiences', and its romantic resolution is signalled from the beginning: 'Loki/Sif' and 'Jane Foster/Thor' are the two female/male pairings who will eventually find love. Character tags let the reader know who else will appear; in this case, a reader can expect Thor's parents and friends, and Jane Foster's human companions, in addition to the two main couples. Furthermore, the additional tags provide information about the story's plot, setting and tropes: not only is this an 'Alternate Universe – Regency', but it also features a 'matrilineal society'. Providing this much information before the reader begins the story may seem counterintuitive, but it stands in for the cover design of a published book, helping to point readers to the story they want to find. In addition, indicating certain elements of the plot up-front allows the reader to delve more deeply into the story on the first read-through. She is not, for example, worried about whether Loki and Sif will find their happy ending together, and thus she can focus on the pleasurable feeling of experiencing their journey instead. In this way, tagging actually mirrors the adoption of Austenian tropes, by giving readers what they expect. As Annette Svensson notes of other Austen fanfiction, 'readers and/or viewers already know what will happen and can thus focus on the way the story is told and compare it with the "original" story or other remakes' (215). Readers of 'Sif & Sensibility' can compare the story to both Thor and the works of Jane Austen (connoted by the general 'Regency AU' tag), engaging with the story imaginatively as well as critically by essentially rereading it even on the first read-through.
The metadata is followed on the page by another staple of fanfiction culture: the summary. It is brief but informative, and confirms what we've learned from the tags already examined:
The fact of the matter is that Mrs. Aesir has too many sons and no one to inherit the estate. Someone must marry Thor, particularly if that someone is Lady Sif, recently returned to Asgardshire, and Loki will ensure that it happens by any means necessary – even at the cost of his own heart. Yet forces are at play to ensure no one inherits Mjolnir Manor at all. Will Mrs. and Mr. Aesir's past ruin any prospects of a future for their sons? (newredshoes)
This summary skilfully establishes the central problem and plot of the fanfic, while at the same time hinting at a larger concern not mentioned in any of the tags. What 'forces are at play'? Close reading reveals here that newredshoes has kept something back in the tagging process, and this mystery may drive the reader on or turn her off the story. (Because the work is posted for free to the Internet, there is much less at stake if a story is unpopular or unappealing to a segment of fandom.) The summary also points to several of the Regency tropes that will appear in the story: problems of inheritance, marriage as solution, the issue of having 'too many sons', relationships between the landed gentry and titled nobility, and the concerns of the community. As a preview of the work, it serves to demonstrate to a reader what she should expect, and includes not only these plot-level Austen tropes but also key signs of the elements that make this work most pleasurable: the friction between Austen and Thor is signalled by 'Asgardshire', and the narrative point of view's focus, on popular anti-hero Loki, is gestured to as well.
Fanfiction writers build Regency AUs on the pleasurable experience of disconnect between a piece of source material, Austen's 'Regency' (which need not be historically accurate), and their own inventions. In 'Sif & Sensibility', this disconnect takes many forms. It is signalled in the opening of the story by the juxtaposition of Regency notions of community and spatial terminology taken from Thor. Gossip about 'scandals' circulates amongst the 'finer families' not of the county but of the 'realms'. Thor's mother, Frigga, has become 'Mrs. Aesir', and while her sons Thor and Loki are 'fine of form', they cannot inherit Mjolnir Manor (named for Thor's famous hammer) because they are male. This construction in particular combines the three crucial elements of the Regency AU: the Regency trope of the entailed estate meets one of the most recognizable facets of Thor's character, and both are transformed by the writer's invention. Such combinations thread their way through the entire story. Characters meet and share versions of their film backstories at an assembly, while 'the Lady Sif [emerges] from the crush, her color high' (newredshoes). The double marriage plot is challenged not only by the feelings of the protagonists, but also by the appearance of a frost giant who hints at a troubling secret regarding Loki's true parentage. By reinventing and recombining tropes, newredshoes shows her reader the space between the Regency and Thor, but also the strange congruences that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
A reader need not be fluent in Austen to understand and enjoy the story. In fact, it is more likely that the reader will be fluent in Thor, but the choice of reading a Regency AU suggests that many will also have at least passing knowledge of Austen's work. However, Austen aficionados will be doubly rewarded to read as Odin and Frigga (here probably imagined as Thor actors Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo) play out a variation on Mr and Mrs Bennet's early conversation in Pride and Prejudice (1813). But again, this pleasure is combined in rich and fascinating ways with social critique, for in the fantasy world made possible by fanfiction, this is a Norse-inflected, Austen-inspired comic book and superhero movie-world that is also a matrilineal society. It is Mrs Aesir, not Mr, who has invited Lady Sif to dine in the hopes of marrying off one of her sons. As Mrs Aesir teasingly notes, 'The county is full of young men in want of a rich wife' (newredshoes). The subversive nature of the gender flip operates here on multiple levels. It playfully reverses the terms of Austen's famous opening line to Pride and Prejudice, that 'a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife' (Austen 3). But it also reverses the male-dominated warrior culture of Thor. This is the kind of strategy through which, as Svensson explains, 'fan fiction writers criticize the normative view of heterosexual relationships at the time when Pride and Prejudice is set; at the same time, they draw attention to these views in a contemporary society' (212). Austen and Thor are aligned here by being subverted, showing that our popular views on gender may not have changed that much in the nearly 200 years between the two.
'Sif & Sensibility' reverses traditional gender roles, while keeping the narrative voice closely aligned with a male protagonist, as it almost always is in superhero cinema. However, this character, Loki, is the already-marginalized second son, displaced in the film by his looks, attitude, identification with his mother and even by his race (when he is revealed to be the underdeveloped son of a blue-skinned frost giant from the icy was- teland of Jotunheim). In the film, these displacements make him the ideally-positioned villain of a story with an essentially regressive take on race and sexuality. In fanfiction, as in much of Thor fandom, they make him the unlikely romantic hero.
Deborah Kaplan notes that 'fanon', that is, the 'shared interpretations and analyses' of a fan community, can contribute to fanfiction world-building just as readily as canon, the given facts of a piece of source material, does (136). Fans 'produce complex texts that take advantage of the multiplicity of fanon and canon characterizations available' (Kaplan 136). Analysing the ways that narrative serves to construct fanfiction character, Kaplan identifies that many stories 'play games with focalization, the discursive method by which events are narrated from a character's point of view [...] in order to influence reader identification with the character (138). The same is true of 'Sif & Sensibility'. Though the narrative begins with the focalization outside the Aesir family looking in, it quickly switches to focalizing through Loki. By the second paragraph, the reader is told that Loki 'felt' twice in quick succession (newredshoes). As the romantic plot develops and the reader becomes increasingly aware of Loki's feelings for Sif (who is meant to marry Thor), the narrative focalization makes the reader more and more intimate with Loki's feelings. Mostly, these feelings are conveyed as physical effects: speaking to Sif, Loki 'began to feel his weariness unspool within him [...] waiting for the knot in his chest to loosen' (newredshoes). Near the conclusion to the story, this affect transforms from a rote description of negative emotion to a sexualized force, as 'the knot in Loki's center throbbed' (newredshoes). Loki's actions convey unnamed emotions: 'Their eyes met; he found himself overwhelmed, and looked away. The corners of his mouth twitched' (newredshoes). This technique is common in fanfiction, but it also shares elements with Austen's narrative strategies. Pride and Prejudice is often focalized through Elizabeth, especially in moments of romantic misunderstanding, as in the first proposal scene (Austen 128).
The work that 'Sif & Sensibility' perhaps most closely resembles narratively is Persuasion (1817), which takes three full chapters to locate its narrative voice with Anne Elliot (Austen 19). The narrative similarly finds its place with Anne and proceeds to present her emotions as physical affects: meeting Captain Wentworth again for the first time, 'a thousand feelings rushed on Anne [...] Her eye half met Captain Wentworth's; a bow, a curtsey passed; she heard his voice [...] the room seemed full" (Austen 43). Such echoes suggest that newredshoes has more than passing familiarity with many of Austen's works, and uses her story to find the commonalities between Austen and fanfiction narratives.
Unlike the film, which contains no hint of a possible romance between Loki and Sif, the story resolves romantically by giving them their happy ending. The Regency alternate universe and newredshoes's narrative inventions rescue Loki from his villain status, suggesting that his multiple displacements – his feminization via his looks and relationship with his adopted mother, his illegitimate birth, his anger and sullenness – need not condemn him narratively. Thus the fanfic comments on multiple types of identity-based discrimination in ways that the film chooses not to address; a commentary made possible by the fantasy inversion of Austen-inspired gendered social norms. A film viewer, who may have missed the problematic elements of having a feminized and racially othered villain, can thus be made aware of the critique even while enjoying a pleasurable reading experience – and indeed, the experience of opening up a new mode of critique can itself be pleasurable for the fanfiction reader.
Excerpted from Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen by Gabrielle Malcolm. Copyright © 2015 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: In the Regency Alternate Universe: Jane Austen and Fanfiction Culture
Chapter 2: Jane Austen Monster Mash-ups and Supernatural Spin-offs
Chapter 3: Fan Media and Transmedia: Jane Austen in the Digital Age
Chapter 4: A Grand Tour of Pemberley
Chapter 5: Darcymania
Chapter 6: Shall I Be Stared at Like a Wild Beast in a Zoo? Images of Austen in Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets
Chapter 7: Who am I?: Relationships between Reader and Heroine Explored through the Popular 'Which Jane Austen Heroine Are You?' Quizzes
Chapter 8: Crafting Jane Austen: Handmade Homages and Their Makers
Chapter 9: Puzzling Lace: Piecing Together Jane Austen Gifts
Chapter 10: Between Tradition and Innovation: Celebrating Jane Austen in Italy Today
Chapter 11: 'She's Everywhere': Jane Austen in the Blogosphere
General Go Further