How Jane Austen Became Such a Tourist Trap

In Depth

For a woman who spent much of her life pinched for pennies, Jane Austen sure makes a handy marketing tool today. For example, on my way into a Jane Austen Festival dance workshop at the local Guildhall (another soaring, cake-like interior), I was handed a flyer for a “Georgian Lunch Menu,” offering 20 percent off for anybody in period costume.

This is not an exception. The Victoria Art Gallery and the (wonderful) Bath Fashion Museum are doing a double-header on Jane Austen’s Bath, with exhibits featuring sketches from the period and Georgian dress. The festival brochure advertised a boutique hotel (“Stay with Jane Austen?”) and afternoon tea at the Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa (accompanied by photo of Janeites in costume, toting parasols). It seems the Jane Austen Festival serves as an opportunity to roll together the city’s many historical attractions and serve them together as an immersive experience, on a silver platter, for the very likeliest takers.

“Literary fandom centered on Austen isn’t new,” points out Juliette Wells, professor at Goucher College and author of the intro to a new anniversary edition of Emma. “People have been making pilgrimages for more than a century to places associated with her life and works, as is also true for plenty of other famous authors (Shakespeare, the Brontës, etc.).” Though having been to Haworth, you won’t find the same level of hullabaloo.

But as it turns out, Bath’s position as a Janeite pilgrimage site is a fairly recent development, and the result of concerted efforts. After all, the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton has her home and her actual possessions, and the cathedral in Winchester has her grave, yet it’s Bath that ranks alongside Chatsworth as a Jane-related destination. In no small part, it’s the work of David Baldock, founder of the Jane Austen Center. He got the idea in 1997, when a friend—an Austen fan—expressed her disappointment with the town. “It turned out that as a young Jane Austen fan she had made a pilgrimage to Bath from the north of England and found precisely NOTHING dedicated to her favourite author,” he explained via email. “I did a bit of research and it was rather easy because of the author’s association with the city to establish a strong case for setting up a permanent exhibition in Jane’s name.”

The result—which feels a little like a welcome center—opened in 1999. Then, a couple of years later and “with the country in the grip of the ‘foot and mouth’ epidemic,” Baldock explained—“I realised that I needed something more to draw the world’s attention to the city and especially to its connection to Jane Austen.” The timing was convenient, just a few short years after the BBC’s famous Pride and Prejudice. You very much feel the presence of Colin Firth and his infamous wet shirt, between the Darcy portrait looming over the tea room and the gift shop stocked with I <3 Darcy goods. And visual adaptations play a big part in driving the fan culture that creates the demand for something like this festival. The ‘95 version set the tone and fostered the audience; then the (very controversial among devotees) 2005 Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley arrived at just the right moment in Internet history to catalyze the fandom. Hence, the costumes. “Cosplay comes from the popularity of adaptations of Austen’s novels,” explains Wells. “When you adapt Austen to film or television, costumes become really prominent, much more so than in the original novels.” Not to mention it’s such an accessible era, fashion-wise. “Regency dresses look more comfortable and flatter a wide variety of body types—that Empire waist!”

She noted that the US offers more opportunities for fans to dress up—the Jane Austen Society of North America is big and a big tent, welcoming enthusiasm of all stripes. But the festival in Bath is the major annual shebang for costume-loving Janeites in the UK. “The Festival has tapped very successfully into a market gap in England,” Wells said. Plus, from my own experiences, it draws fans from elsewhere who’d appreciate the opportunity not just to dress like an Austen character, but to do so in places like the Assembly Rooms, depicted in Austen’s writings—which is downright thrilling, honestly. (Can’t get much in the way of Georgian grandeur here in the States.)

What’s also interesting is that this particular event is well-attended and enlivened by a number of historical reenactors and dance enthusiasts. Turns out that Europe and the UK have a thriving Napoleonic “living history” scene. And they’re attending less strictly out of Janeite devotion than a broader passion for her era. “Each person, everyone I’ve ever spoken to, has a different draw into the period,” said Amy Nichole of The Period Costume Shop. “I know historical dancers who were drawn to the history because they were drawn to naval history, which has nothing to do with dancing. It’s just this common thread.”

“Jane Austen has an awful lot of glue, because a lot of her writing has to do with everyday life and the way she speaks and the way she says things—it’s straight and to the point, and you can really relate to them as people,” she added.

Which is what it always seems to come back to—the intense, personal connection all manner of fans (academics, cosplayers, casual readers and movie obsessives alike) feel with the author. Hence Jane on the program, and Jane’s work inspiring talks and day trips and workshops and souvenirs and costumes, and Jane attracting fans not just from the United Kingdom, but from all over the world.

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