“I’m sorry,” said the woman, drawing her lacy bonnet back from her forehead and gawking at me. I almost expected her to continue this examination through a lorgnette. “It’s just a bit like encountering an endangered species.”
I looked down at my own getup: prim and shiny black shoes with gleaming brass buckles, a pair of tights that felt every inch as restrictive as they looked, and a waistcoat and cravat under a stiff-shouldered gentleman’s jacket of the Regency period.
“You mean it’s odd to see men dressed like members of the Austen family?”
“I mean it’s odd to see men at an Austen conference, period.”
Not every artist gets the cult they deserve, but Jane Austen certainly did. Today, a motivated Austen-lover—or “Janeite,” as the insiders say—could spend most of their waking moments jet-setting from one Austen symposium to another. Between colloquia in the Americas and the usual international conferences in Mumbai and Tokyo etc., one could essentially live out a Jane Austen fantasy camp year-round, provided one had the cash. I visited half a dozen while researching a book about the novelist’s most fervent fans and often sought to blend in by adopting the proper wardrobe.
Of course, I stuck out like a penguin in the tropics. Because at all these conferences, there’s always one pronounced shortage: men.
There are plenty of dismissive male outsiders who find this a natural state of affairs: Austen is for the birds, they say with indulgent smiles, an undeniably lively author but too concerned with minute questions of manners to be a great novelist like those moody 19th-century Russians. It’s perfectly understandable, they continue, that she is enjoyed by those who like their romantic comedies with a bit of class or history—which is to say, mostly by women.
Netflix’s new adaptation of Persuasion, the last of Austen’s six so-called mature novels, has made headlines for the mockery and opprobrium with which various quarters of the Janeite universe greeted the trailer. It was a travesty, many said, that had turned the novelist’s most complex and melancholy work into a cringey sitcom. Yet the outcry over the film also gives us a chance to recognize a perennial truth: Being an Austen bro is a joy that confers untold benefits both literary and moral.
I do not always know how to respond to benighted male readers who dismiss Austen as a peddler of marriage fantasies, except to say that if Austen isn’t a great novelist, then no one is—and that she might even offer more pleasure and wisdom to her male readers than to anyone else. Further, a guy doesn’t have to attend an Austen conference, still less to shimmy into a pair of tights, if he wishes to enjoy and benefit from the novelist’s unsparing moral vision. Today, as in 1815 or 1924, there remains a special, if occasionally complicated, joy in being an Austen bro, and men who avoid the author are robbing themselves of communion with a writer who, more than any other novelist of her period, captured the minute but critical elements of sociability that inevitably lead to the flourishing or decline of a given community.
There is irony here: Austen’s most prominent admirers and champions for the first 100-odd years—the people who were enraptured by her plots while also feeling pleasantly mugged by an unexpected realism and tenderness—were a series of male relatives, critics, and editors. Austen’s six brothers were deeply supportive of her earliest work, collaborating to write and stage amateur theatricals in the family’s barn in their younger years, and later publishing some of Jane’s teenage fiction in The Loiterer, a Samuel Johnson-inspired weekly that two of them edited at Oxford. Beyond the family, meanwhile, Austen bros abounded: Sir Walter Scott issued a rave review of Emma in 1815; Rudyard Kipling read Austen aloud to his family in Bath in 1917 as they mourned the loss of a son in the First World War; R.W. Chapman worked with Katherine Metcalfe, his wife, to produce the magisterial Clarendon editions of the novels in 1923, inaugurating a new age of Janeite fervor; and E.M. Forster made the rhapsodic declaration in 1924 that “I am a Jane Austenite.”
There’s a reason why Virginia Woolf emphasized the author’s male readers in a 1923 essay about Austen: “There are 25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighborhood of London who resent any slight upon [Austen’s] genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts.” However endangered he might appear now, the Austen Bro has existed for as long as Austen has.
Today, of course, many men write off Austen as a mere chronicler of petit bourgeois manners during the Regency—but the Austen Bro recognizes that in these novels, manners are never simply manners. As Donald Gray wrote in 1993, “Pride and Prejudice, like [Austen’s] other novels, is a story about people who learn, or fail to learn, how to be, do, and recognize good in the ordinary passages of lives that would be unremarkable if Austen had not made it clear that a kind of moral salvation depends on what Elizabeth and Darcy make of themselves by learning about one another.” Austen isn’t a pat instructor in etiquette; she’s a brilliant observer of how manners and morals are deeply intertwined, and any man who wishes to go about feeling enlightened in the 21st century—the age of ghosting, of trigger warnings, of pronouns, of newly invigorated movements for justice and civil rights—would do well to pay close attention to these novels, where honest manners are much more than (say) virtue-signaling; rather, they are a means toward connection, and redemption.
Austen’s most famous sentence is the very opening of Pride & Prejudice. As with so much of Austen’s sly narrative supervision, the line presents then undercuts an imaginary shared set of assumptions within polite society: “It is a truth universally acknowledged….” Of course, the joke is that few truths are ever universal. When a character in Austen cannot temper their manners, their passions, or their uninterrogated prejudices, the effects can redound to an entire extended family or town, and sometimes far beyond. In these novels, truths—excepting basic civil and religious laws—are not universally acknowledged but mutually negotiated, among flawed mortals nonetheless capable of reformation , so that kindness and curiosity might beget understanding. And reading the novels, in turn, encourages the reader of whatever gender to be more attentive to one’s fellows, to root out, or at least periodically de-weed, any regrettable character flaws of the type that prove disastrous in the final act of every Austen novel. It is hard not to imagine that Austen’s relationships with her brothers were formative in her fictional evocation of male characters who are actually interesting, always carefully observed, and generally capable of more complexity than one finds in Austen’s novelist forerunners such as Richardson or Fielding—male characters, in other words, drawn not from some Gothic or epistolary ür-type but rather from life. This is why a male reader of Austen can feel so devastated at the behavior of a cad whose behavior echoes some brief but important misstep in their own past: She has us vivisected, and we can’t get enough of it.
There are deeper wells. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot, though changed from the raptures of her youth, finds recompense in the more complicated but richer joys of a mature relationship. Like Anne — and with apologies to Wordsworth—I have learned to look on the world not as in the hour of youth, but hearing and even accepting the melancholy music of humanity. During some of the darkest months I hope to experience, Austen’s novels saw me through, not with escapism but with their ever-arresting sense and grace.
Today, where Austen was once a sprightly presence in my life, all witty rejoinders and diamond-sharp character sketches, I now find her as sobering as I once found her disarming. A man who keeps Austen with him through his life will not always find comfort there; the reflection of himself in all the lesser men in the canon, and the (at first) apparently merciless dissection of human weakness, stir reflection as much as pleasure. A prominent writer once wrote a whole book about how Austen taught him to be a man. In my experience, these things are not so pat. Being an Austen bro (or an Austen boi, or chap, or what have you) is an alternating experience of chastening, delight, and revelation; as with all of the novelist’s plots, it is a social negotiation, and never finished. Today, no less than in past ages, the Austen bro walks through life happy to be haunted by the novelist’s voice, so delightful and shrewd, blending irony and sentiment like no author before her, nudging us ever-closer toward self-knowledge with each lapidary phrase. One can partake whether one is a Scotch baronet of the 1810s, an elderly Londoner of the 1920s, or a Millennial or Zoomer who discovers that this retiring country novelist from two centuries ago offers such acute, and such enduringly relevant, observations on life in what remains a dudes-first culture.
Ted Scheinman is an editor at Smithsonian magazine and the author of Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan.