Published: March 6th, 2018 by FSG Originals
Genre: Memoir/Literary Criticism
My Rating: 5/5 Stars
I was in middle school or high school when I read my first Jane Austen novel. I started with Emma. My aunt had loaned me her massive collection that included all seven novels in a single volume. It was big, it was heavy, and the font was small, but I still lugged it to school to read during my study period like the dedicated little book nerd that I was. I used a ruler to follow the lines down the page so I didn’t get lost. I remember feeling sophisticated that I was reading such a big book. A classic. I also remember enjoying it, but not really getting it. The humor went above me, and I got mixed up with the characters and the language. So once I finished I set the giant book aside and went back to my fantasy stories.
A year or two later, I watched Pride and Prejudice, the one with Kiera Knightley, while sleeping over at a friend’s house. And I absolutely loved it. So I immediately revisited that giant tome (which I still had…. because I have a habit of borrowing my aunt’s books and returning them a couple years after the fact… sorry Aunt Karen). This time around, I was absolutely enamored with Jane Austen’s writing. I read Pride and Prejudice and then immediately reread Emma, which I loved. Then I moved on to all of the others. I started watching every single adaptation of both Pride and Prejudice and Emma that I could find (these two were my absolute favorites). In fact, the whole reason my family got Netflix back then was to support my need to see every single film version, and a lot were in their collection.
Even now, I reread some Jane Austen every year, and every time I find even more to love in her stories. I can watch the BBC mini-series for both Pride and Prejudice and Emma over and over again, and I’m pretty sure I have them both memorized. I have since returned my aunt’s giant copy, but have purchased individual copies of each novel my own and they’ve all been very well loved.
All this to say, I thought I was a pretty major fan of Jane Austen.
And then I read Camp Austen and I realized I was wrong.
I think a lot of us have probably heard of the term “Janeite,” referring to someone who loves Jane Austen. But I had no idea the extent that this love could go… and the pride that people could take in the term. Within the pages of this short little book, I learned about Jane Austen summer camps, conferences, events, and societies, all of whom take Jane Austen very seriously.
I loved this book. It’s short, only around 160 pages, and I devoured it in a single day. It’s sort of a mix between memoir and literary criticism. It’s centered around the Jane Austen summer camp that the author ends up volunteering in at his university – four days dedicated entirely to everything Pride and Prejudice. Scheinman discusses the lectures, plays, and discussions that took place at the event, as well as the teas and meal times and the ball (yes, there’s a ball. Yes, everyone dresses up in regency clothing). He talks about the different kinds of superfans, the scholars versus the “regular” people who just really love Austen. He talks about the ways people have treated Austen’s work throughout the years, and the way we view her as a woman writer. He also dissects and analyzes bits of her work in a way that’s compelling and fascinating.
I laughed out loud in parts – there’s a section where Scheinman is asked to dress as Mr. Darcy and he’s trying to decide if agreeing to it is too pretentious, or if refusing it is too much like Mr. Darcy refusing to dance — this part just about killed me.
It was interesting reading about Jane Austen from a man’s perspective as well, for so often these books are considered “women’s literature.” I guess because of the female characters and the romance? But I think men can enjoy Jane Austen just as much as women. (And now I’m thinking about Hugh Dancy’s character in the movie The Jane Austen Book Club, the only male member in the club. Anyone else love that movie?) Scheinman discusses this, even admits to some “anti-Janeite misogyny” before getting swept away in the Jane Austen culture. But he never seems embarrassed or upset about how much of his life for a while revolved around Jane Austen. Instead, he points out so many facets of her life and work that are fascinating, so many things about her work that give them more meaning. It feels as though he grows more enamored with her work, as well as with the community celebrating it.
The prose itself is also really beautiful. Scheinman knows how to write, and this was genuinely a fun book to read. If you haven’t read Jane Austen, you’re probably not going to get a whole lot out of this one. While Scheinman does a good job explaining things, I think there are just too many references that would go over your head if your only introduction to Austen is the Kiera Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice. But if you do have a decent knowledge of her work, and you like digging a little deeper, I think you’ll love this one!