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  • A Truth Universally Acknowledged?Pride and Prejudice and Mind-Reading Fans
  • Maria Lindgren Leavenworth (bio)

For little over two hundred years, readers have engaged with Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice—some by adapting it to new media, others by appropriating the narrative in sequels, prequels, and mash-ups. Although characterizations and plot elements can vary between instantiations, audiences may experience a sense of homecoming when engaging anew with the fictional world. Each variation on a text in this way “provides instant immersion, because the recipient is spared the cognitive effort of building a world and its inhabitants from a largely blank slate. The world is already in place when the recipient takes his or her first steps in it, once again” (Ryan and Thon 2014: 1). In this article I examine forays into Pride and Prejudice represented by fan fiction (or fanfics), online-published and amateur-authored stories that, similar to more officially produced and disseminated texts, adapt and appropriate Austen’s novel. The fanfics analyzed illustrate two approaches to the enlargement of the archive [End Page 93] of Pride and Prejudice (see Derecho 2006), or to the storyworld to which audiences are required to relocate for the duration of the reading experience (see Herman 2009). One approach is subtle and fills in gaps in the source text, or what in fanfic terms is referred to as the canon, and the other is more profound, altering the canon premise through genre shifts and character depictions.

Although fanfic authors do not have to reinvent the fictional world they take as their starting point, each story represents an individual reading of events and characters. Various canon cues, that is, set off a variety of cognitive responses that can be traced by looking at differences and similarities between the texts in the sample. My starting points for the examination of these cognitive engagements are discussions of theory of mind (see Zunshine 2006) and the related issue of embedded narratives (see Palmer 2004). Austen’s fiction foregrounds the need to keep track of social and interpersonal information, and characters constantly infer mental states of others, based on observable behavior. There are thus forms of mind-reading at work in the novel, and the reader is similarly required to employ cognitive abilities to keep track of who thinks what about whom. The densely populated Pride and Prejudice also challenges both characters and readers to keep track of a multitude of minds—some described in detail, others hastily sketched. These processes lead to misreadings and misrecognitions within the novel, but they may also productively lead to widely differing interpretations by readers.

The selected fanfics have depictions of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as their common denominator. Despite Lady Catherine’s important teleological function in the canon, readers have restricted access to this character and therefore make inferences regarding her state of mind based on scant textual description and statements that third parties make about her. Whether filling in a missing scene or killing off Lady Catherine, each fanfic therefore lends itself well to analyses of effects of canon indecisiveness, where the narrative itself allows for different interpretative options and for a variety of cognitive engagements.

Welcome to the Austenverse

As extensive reception scholarship demonstrates, the long-standing interest in all things Austen has led to different clusters of interpretations, [End Page 94] often marked by a highly personal investment. Alternately hailed and despised, Janeitism—“coalesce[ing] as an identifiable practice” in the late nineteenth century and finding outlets both in (predominantly male) critique and in the reading communities of the time—testifies to a passionate enthusiasm, and “dear Jane [is] the familiar, the friend, the intimate of those who adore her” (Johnson 2012: 10, original emphases). This intimate relationship with Austen continues in contemporary online fandoms, in which participants convene to discuss one of their favorite authors and her work, and contribute their own interpretations, for example through fan fiction. The vastness of the Austenverse today is demonstrated by this text form alone: thousands of stories are dispersed across collective sites, fandom-specific archives, and social media such as LiveJournal and Tumblr, and are stored at homepages maintained by individual fans.

The longevity of...


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pp. 93-110
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