When Your Sister Becomes a Janeite


Arts & Culture

Hugh Thomson, illustration from Pride and Prejudice, 1894. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

One day you wake up, and your sister is a Janeite. You think it might be a coincidence about her name, Jane, but as Emma says, this does not signify. Friends and family hover between amused and clueless since maybe, like you, they’ve seen the movies but probably never actually read Jane Austen. And now that Austen’s become a pop phenomenon, folks figure itfinally got easy to get your sister a gi­ft; you name it—Jane Austen doll, mug, puzzle, Post-its, apron, newest rip-off zombie bodice ripper. Just to be clear, your sister sneers at this consumerist appropriation; she’s moved on to a higher level of Janeitism. This is a serious field of inquiry. She’s a gentlewoman and a scholar. She’s also become an haute couture Regency seamstress, fashioning with meticulous attention to outward authenticity (the Velcro and metal hooks are hidden) the most extravagant gowns with matching headgear and purses. And you thought it was all about the empire dress fashioned aft­er some Greek goddess. Someone asked about your sister’s interest in cosplay, but you think if Austen became a Disney princess, it also wouldn’t signify.

You love your sister; she has her thing, and you have yours. But isn’t it time you read Jane Austen, at least one book? You’ve read Edward Said’s essay “Jane Austen and Empire,” but not Mansfield Park. You agree with Said, but then aren’t you a fraud? So you buy the complete novels of Jane Austen with an introduction by Karen Joy Fowler. Hey, KJ is a fan; couldn’t hurt to crack it open. To be honest, you don’t read any of them, but you do listen on audio. You cook and clean, pay bills, answer email, write syllabi, oft­en fall asleep, and listen to one novel a­fter another. Does this count? The English accents are authentic. It’s true that imperialism and colonialism are alive and fueling the second-tier aristocracy and the nouveau landowners; guys disappear to the New World, the Middle Passage, and Indian assignments, and return eligibly wealthy. Someone has got to fund all those balls, concerts, carriages, and month a­fter month living on the considerable resources in the many rooms and extensive gardens of those grand estates. Austen isn’t telling; she’s just showing. When home gets reproduced in other worlds, you figure that this is the memory that builds those plantations. If there are six main characters, there has to be sixty servants who pretty much never appear or speak, but this is not their story. And this is not the point.

It’s the turn of the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. Was that a sexual innuendo? You’re making a vat of Meyer lemon marmalade. Turns out it’s seven and a half pounds of lemons to nine pounds of plantation sugar, but that’s confidential information. You check the temperature on the Meyer lemon marmalade, then press a sticky finger to the Thirty Seconds Back icon on the iPad. You press the icon a couple of times, because what’s a sexual innuendo in Regency? The protagonist has been sitting the entire dance. Totally snubbed. Bummer. Your sister has said they probably didn’t wear panties; too much trouble under all those layers of Indian silk and indigo muslin. It’s all about the clothing, the pushed-up bosoms, and the perfect curls. Beautifully powdered Anglo-Saxon people. It’s got to take hours of fine preparation. You think you could wear one of your sister’s Regency gowns without panties, too. The candy thermometer creeps up to 220. The thing is, it wasn’t sexual innuendo per se, just innuendo. Like the blue mercury creeping surreptitiously to the jam point, you might miss it entirely. You realize that this is a romance without romanticism; it’s antiromantic, all about calculating your chances to make the right choice, which for most of the characters, except the heroine, is the wrong choice. Marriage is like marmalade—you could miss 220 and reject Mr. Knightley or Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth, and, well, c’est la vie. You had a boss who was an old Reaganite, and though you both agreed to disagree about most things, your boss once said a true Janeite thing: Nobody knows why they do that. By “that” he meant get married. Society moves around the question, and despite what Janeites know, everyone makes the same mistakes.

You grasp for some kind of relationship, and it occurs to you that maybe you can compare this Janeite society to growing up sansei. Not the carriages and grand plantation estates; face it, you grew up in city ghettos and plotted suburbs. Still, growing up sansei was very confusing. Fortunately no one has to do this again. Your parent’s generation, the nisei, were generally closed-mouthed, diffident people who had been burned big-time. Everything that should have been obvious about American society and its promises of freedom and the future was on a standby basis, depending on you. And everything the nisei passed on to sansei was unspoken innuendo about what kind of people you were supposed to grow up to be. Apparently the Chinese are fortunate enough to have loud-mouthed tiger moms, but in the day, the sansei were supposed to get it by just being born.

There was some sociological statistic about sansei outmarriage, something like 50 percent back in the day. You can speculate about the conditions of an attraction and subtraction, but maybe your sister and the Janeites can make marmalade of something a South Asian friend of yours once said: All marriages are arranged.


Karen Tei Yamashita is the author of seven books, including I Hotel, finalist for the National Book Award, and most recently Letters to Memory, all published by Coffee House Press. Recipient of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature and a U.S. Artists’ Ford Foundation Fellowship, she is professor emerita of literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Used by permission from Sansei and Sensibility (Coffee House Press, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Karen Tei Yamashita.