When I first came up with the idea of writing a book that combined Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes, I worried that Janeites (as Austen admirers are called) might not like a heroine modeled after the great Victorian detective, or that Sherlockians might not care about the matrimonial prospects of young women of good breeding but little fortune.
But I quickly realized Janeites and Sherlockians have much in common, even though Holmes and Austen are separated by eighty years (from the time of her death to his literary birth) and the fact that Austen wrote romances and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote mysteries.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about Sherlockians and Janeites and have found welcoming organizations of like souls. I’ve found similarities, disparities and “universally acknowledged” truths that like all generalizations are riddled with exceptions.
So let’s look at the organizations that study and worship Austen and Doyle, and in this my knowledge is limited to America.
The Jane Austen Society of North America is an amazing organization of relatively recent vintage, having been formed in 1979 by Joan Austen-Leigh, Henry G. Burke, and J. David Grey. One hundred Janeites attended the society’s inaugural dinner at the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan. Since then the organization has grown to include regional groups in most of the 50 U.S. states and most of Canada. Each year, JASNA holds an Annual General Meeting in a different city. At the 2011 AGM in Fort Worth, 600 Janeites met for six days (of which only two were strictly speaking the official meeting) to hear lecturers, filmmakers and authors talk about Jane Austen and enjoy Regency dancing.
Those 600 attendees are only a fraction of the 4,000 members who meet at the regional groups, of which there are two in my state, Colorado. My group, the Denver-Boulder region, meets every two months and usually has two marquee events, including Jane’s birthday in December and a June event, Strawberries at Donwell Abbey, taken from Emma. Other groups might call their summer event a Box Hill picnic, another event from Emma.
In addition, there are numerous special Jane Austen events in the U.S., including festivals and symposiums, like the Jane Austen Literary Festival in Louisiana in March.
It’s probably fair to say that most Janeites are women, even though her earliest scholarly admirers were men (Rudyard Kipling being the prime example). Today, male Janeites find themselves the center of attention at Regency balls. What man doesn’t look good in a cutaway coat, vest, shirt and knotted scarf?
JASNA is an incredibly organized top-down organization, where each regional group supports the national organization, although many regional groups also collect dues. The Baker Street Irregulars, however, are vastly different. It’s an older group, formed in 1934 in New York City by Doubleday Editor Christopher Morley and was a select group that invested new members through an opaque process. Women were not admitted until 1991, leading to the establishment of a rival Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes.
You can’t join the BSI (you’re invited) and if you Google the Baker Street Irregulars, you’ll come across it’s wikipedia entry before you find a definitive group website. In a way, there is no main BSI website, as the organization supports the BSI Trust, dedicated to the study of Doyle and the Canon (the collected Holmes stories and novels); the Baker Street Journal, the print and online publications of the BSI; the Baker Street Blog; and the BSI Weekend, a blog that exists to promote the BSI’s celebration of Holmes’ birthday. But you can’t find a website that clearly says join the BSI.
Instead, you can find scion societies of the BSI throughout North America. These are different from the regional chapters of JASNA, however, in that there is little organization between the scions and the BSI once the BSI has recognized a scion society, whereas the JASNA regional coordinators are part and parcel of the national organization.
My own Denver scion, Doctor Watson’s Neglected Patients has recently been reinvigorated, but for several years the society’s only two functions were the January Holmes birthday celebration and Mrs. Hudson’s spring tea. We now hold monthly Outpatients meetings to feed our Holmes addiction, and most scions meet on a regular basis. (Incidentally, I think my scion is dominated by women, giving lie to the belief that Sherlockians are mostly male.)
The BSI Holmes birthday party in New York in many ways corresponds to the JASNA AGM, and spans a similar number of days (Wednesday through Sunday), but the Friday dinner is only open to invested BSI members. BSI members, incidentally, take on names suggested by the Canon. For instance William Dorn of Doctor Watson’s Neglected Patients is invested as The Newgate Calendar with the BSI.
I don’t know whether the Friday dinner attendees dress up (most of my knowledge of the dinner comes from The Sherlockian), apart from the occasional deerstalker, but Holmes is fully embraced by the steampunk genre and cosplay.
Of course the biggest difference between Janeites and Sherlockians (or Holmesians as they are known in the U.K.) stems from the emphasis. Janeites, as the name suggests, are admirers of the author while Sherlockians are mostly admirers of the author’s creation, even to the extent that Sherlockians who “play the game” indulge in the fantasy that the 56 short stories and four novels are actually written by John H. Watson and that Conan Doyle was merely Watson’s literary agent.
Another difference lies in the way Janeites and Sherlockians keep Holmes alive for a modern audience. Apart from the higher criticism, Sherlockians keep Holmes alive by writing pastiches of the Canon — stories written to mimic Doyle’s (or Watson’s style) that involve Holmes and Watson in new adventures. Although there are many controversies as to what is a legitimate pastiche, most would agree that a story written in first person by Watson where he and Holmes solve a mystery set in late Victorian or Edwardian times is a legitimate pastiche. And so we have endless stories where Holmes hunts Jack the Ripper or where Watson expands on those cases that are casually mentioned but never explained in the Canon, such as the Giant Rat of Sumatra or the Notorious Canary Trainer.
However because Austen only wrote six novels with no recurring characters, it’s difficult to write pastiches. It’s also difficult because the six novels are so different from one another. It’s true that Doyle’s The Red-Headed League is quite different from His Last Bow, but with 56 short stories, it’s easy to see how they lie on a continuum.
But the primary reason, I think, that there are few pure Austen pastiches is that most authors understandably lack the courage/hubris/chutzpah to emulate Austen’s style. Although Austen’s novels read surprisingly modern, considering the two hundred years that separate us from her, they are generally long books (160,000 words for Emma), often with paragraphs that span more than a page. Pride and Prejudice, which most consider her best book, has 122,000 words and I think has considerably shorter paragraphs and chapters. In other words, it’s easier to find your place after you set the book down. So not many modern writers would attempt to copy Austen’s style. What they do attempt to copy, is her dialog. Her characters often speak well: “My good opinion once lost, is lost forever”; and sometimes do not (but still entertainingly): “You may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies.” (Holmes, of course, is similarly chockfull of epigrams and dictums from “eliminate the impossible” to the “dog in the night-time.”)
Instead, modern authors generally write continuations of Austen’s stories: what happens after the one kiss the heroine and hero exchange at the end of the book, or in other words, the messy lives they lead after they marry. And generally most continuators create plots for Austen’s characters that are much more complicated than anything Austen would have attempted; because even though Janeites will deny the criticism that nothing actually happens in an Austen story, most Janeites prefer more plot in a continuation. Not too surprisingly, many Austen continuations are mysteries.
In comparison, I think Doyle’s style is easy to mimic and is very modern, apart from the odd unusual word like gasogene or forgotten technology like a growler. It’s the details and the pacing that’s hard to duplicate. And most importantly, his writing skill that makes you not question why this genius Holmes should hang around with a relative idiot like John Watson or why this sensible ex-Army officer should risk his life with a lunatic who discharges a firearm in their sitting room.
Yes, on examination Janeites and Sherlockians have much in common in terms of their interest, study and dedication and it is my hope that with just a little nudge, the admirers of Austen can also become the admirers of Holmes, and vice versa. After all, it might help sales of my book.