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Jane Austen superfan researcher visits U

Author Deborah Yaffe explores Jane Austen superfans in “Among the Janeities.”
Deborah Yaffe will visit the University of Minnesota Bookstore this Thursday to share her Janeite knowledge.
Deborah Yaffe will visit the University of Minnesota Bookstore this Thursday to share her “Janeite” knowledge.

Hours spent browsing the Internet don’t usually amount to much. But for author Deborah Yaffe, it inspired a book.

A Jane Austen fan since her youth, Yaffe discovered a website called The Republic of Pemberley in 2009. Note for non-Janeites: Pemberley is the name of a character’s estate in the novel “Pride and Prejudice.”

Yaffe discovered the site, a gathering place for Austen aficionados, while she was supposed to be writing a completely different book. She used the forum instead of working a little more often than she cared to admit.

“When my husband would catch me at it, I would quickly log off,” she said.

Once she divulged her habit, though, she got a response she didn’t expect.

“One day I was telling him about these conversations and this community and how fun it was, and he looked at me and said, ‘You should write about that,’”***** she said.

Yaffe took this to heart. By 2011, she had gotten an agent and a deal to produce “Among the Janeites.”

Her first instinct when she began researching the book was to start with a group she’d been involved with for a while: the Jane Austen Society of North America. JASNA holds conventions every year to celebrate Austen — conventions that frequently sell out.

The group also sponsors trips to England for readers to do research on the author.

For Yaffe, the trip was a golden opportunity.

“I had always wistfully looked at the brochure when it arrived in the mail and wished that I could afford it,” she said, “so now this was the perfect excuse to go do it.”

On the trip, Yaffe made connections with a number of Austen fans — from literary theorists to people who wore period dress to the conventions. After seeing the variety of niches within the subculture, she began attending even more events.

She discovered fans who had been changed by Austen’s work in significant ways. One of these fans was Phyllis Bottomer, a speech pathologist Yaffe met at a convention in Portland, Ore.

Bottomer, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, is employed by a public school district and works frequently with autistic children to improve their conversation skills. In 2002, she began to realize that some of Austen’s characters had issues that resembled her patients’.

After doing more research, Bottomer published an analytical piece examining the role of the autism spectrum in “Pride and Prejudice.”

“Some people at my talks have found that this work connects with their personal lives,” she said. “If this helps them understand these conditions better, that affects me very deeply.”

You might be wondering what it is about Austen’s work that attracts this fervor. Yaffe found that the answer to that question isn’t as important as one might think.

 “A lot of my effort in the book is devoted to not answering the question,” she said, “because I felt in the end that is something, to a certain extent, that is unexplainable.”


What: “Among the Janeites” discussion with Deborah Yaffe
When: 4 p.m., Sept. 26
Where: University of Minnesota Bookstore, 300 Washington Ave. SE, Minneapolis
Cost: Free


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