Jane Austen’s Fans Were Called Janeites—and 9 Other Fascinating Facts About Iconic Authors
Trekkies and Star Wars fans have nothing on book lovers.
Jane Austen Graces Currency
How we love classic books! Except when we hate them. It is remarkable that a writer could achieve such worldwide, lasting fame with only six novels (but what a glorious six novels they are)! Though Austen originally used the modest pseudonym “A Lady,” and received little enough attention when her work was published in the early 19th century, books like Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility became cult favourites in World War I with British soldiers who proudly proclaimed themselves “Janeites,” swapping their dog-eared copies around the trenches. Two hundred years after Austen’s death, the Bank of England is about to roll out a ten-pound note with Austen’s image and one of her best known quotes: “I declare, after all, there is no enjoyment like reading.” We agree!
Ernest Hemingway Has His Own Rum Brand
Do you imagine male writers as boozy, brawny and butch? Long on physical prowess and self-destructive habits, and short on adjectives? Then you’re probably thinking of the original caveman with a typewriter, “Papa” Hemingway. Back in the day, Papa was known as much for fighting in World War I and the Spanish Civil War, playing around with bullfights, hunting and fishing, and carousing from Paris to Havana, as he was for writing iconic reads like The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, or The Old Man and the Sea. Today there’s a Hemingway tour or a museum in all the many spots associated with the restless author, from Michigan (his birthplace) to Key West (his final resting place). As one literary critic wrote recently in The New Yorker magazine,”The brand continues: his estate licenses the “Ernest Hemingway Collection,” which includes an artisanal rum, Papa’s preferred eyewear, and heavy Cuban-style furniture featuring ‘leather-like vinyl with a warm patina.’” Now, how many Nobel Prize winners can boast of that?
Charles Dickens Inspired an Adjective
Though he was cocky enough to refer to himself as “The Inimitable,” the adjective “Dickensian” now means wretchedly impoverished, dirty, and degraded, much like the 19th-century London slums he portrayed in classics like A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist. In fact “The Inimitable” wrote from bitter experience; when his father was imprisoned for debt, the young Dickens actually slaved away in a shoeshine factory for a time. But he burst into international prominence with the first of his long novels, which were published by installments in newspapers and his star never faded: a three-day procession of mourners accompanied his burial at Westminster Abbey in London. In addition to the scads of films and television adaptations, there was, briefly, a Dickens World theme park in England, and even now, a New Orleans institution called the Pickwick Club (named for his Dickens’s first novel) presents debutantes each year in a glittering 19th-century-inspired party.
Great Expectations is on our list of the famous books you should have read by now.
Virginia Woolf Was Portrayed by An Oscar Winner
It’s no accident that this literary trailblazer gave her name to the celebrated play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The answer was (and still is): lots of people. A feminist icon who challenged the strict sexual status quo in Britain between the world wars in much-revered books like A Room of One’s Own, Mrs. Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s open marriage and affairs with women were a scandalous open secret. She also serves as a cautionary tale to rebellious girls: Prey to bouts of mental illness throughout her life, Woolf finally killed herself by walking into the river with her pockets full of stones to weigh her down. In The Hours, a film inspired by one of Woolf’s novels, Nicole Kidman famously wore a pointed prosthetic nose to look more like Virginia, with her pale, ethereal, characteristic profile, and won the Oscar for Best Actress that year for her pains. Today there is still a closed Facebook support group for women over 40 with a “literary, witty, and feminist” bent. Need we say more?
If you love books with fierce female heroines, we’ve got a list for you!
William Faulkner Was a High School Dropout
The father of Southern Gothic literature was a high school dropout, alcoholic, and failed postal office worker—not, at first glance, most likely to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Faulkner wove his first great myths about himself, glorifying his Southern planter ancestors and claiming war injuries after World War I although he had never seen combat. But at first he didn’t think anyone would be interested in literary fiction set in the American South. How wrong he was! Faulkner’s career took off with dense, lyrical, revealing family sagas like Absolom, Absolom, As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury all set in “Yoknapatawpha County,” a thinly fictionalized version of his home town, Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford is now a frequent pilgrimage spot for Faulkner fans who apparently leave bottles of liquor on his grave as a tribute to “the father of Southern Gothic literature.” Faulkner, who was notorious for drinking the cheapest bourbon he could find, would certainly appreciate the gesture. In fact, he might thank them right kindly.
The Bronte Sisters Were Sheltered
How much do you love Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, possibly the most wildly romantic, romantically wild novels of the 19th century? (And remember, there’s some heavy competition out there.) Would you be surprised to discover that their authors, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, were prim parson’s daughters, raised in an isolated house in Yorkshire, England with only family members and servants for company? Their only worldly experiences took place in grim boarding schools and governess gigs with stuffy, rich families. Possibly the weirdest thing about the Brontes is their childhood work, numerous elaborate, tiny, handwritten books filled with the sagas of imaginary kingdoms: Glasstown, Angria & Gondal. For serious fans, it won’t be enough just to travel to the Bronte Parsonage Museum; you’ll want to book the “Bronte Treasures and VIP Tour for very special people & occasions,” which allows up to 12 visitors once a month to get up close and personal with jewelry, tableware, paintings, and books that belonged to their beloved Brontes.
Here are 10 English class books you should definitely read again.
J.D. Salinger Was Into Scientology
Many of the writers on this list were notorious for hogging the spotlight; this midcentury modern master is most “famous for not wanting to be famous,” as The New York Times wrote in his obit. After the huge success of his first novel, The Catcher in the Rye, about a foul-mouthed but sensitive high school misfit, Salinger spent 50 years hiding out in Cornish, New Hampshire. His agent had instructions to burn all fan mail and he actually sued a would-be biographer for quoting extensively from his unpublished letters—and won. But he couldn’t squash every book about him; and when his daughter and his much younger lover, Joyce Maynard, published memoirs about the celebrated recluse, they portrayed a far stranger man than anyone could have imagined: his laundry list of interests included homeopathy, “Zen Buddhism, Vedanta Hinduism, Christian Science, Scientology, and acupuncture.” Most disturbing of all, his daughter claimed that Salinger “drank his own urine,” supposedly for health-related benefits.
Science has figured out why you love the smell of old books.
Mark Twain Counts Hemingway As a Fan
“Twain was a performer first of all, who spent most of his adult life onstage playing the part of Mark Twain,” says one critic in The New Yorker magazine. And his costume made it easy to tell who he was: the one sporting a bushy white moustache and wearing a white suit all year round. According to the Mark Twain House museum in Hartford, Connecticut, Twain “has appeared as a brand on cigars, clothing and motorboats. Schools, casinos, hotels, parks, restaurants, lakes and bridges have all been named after him.” Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Over 100 years after his death students all across the U.S. are still reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And it’s Twain’s sarcastic, wise, surprisingly modern wit that may make him live forever. As he himself once said, “High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”
Add these exhilarating autobiographies to your list of must-reads.
James Joyce Paid a Sweet Tribute to His Wife
How many writers have their own day celebrated all over the world? Welcome to Bloomsday, aka June 16th! The holiday is named for Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce’s most famous work, Ulysses, an experimental stream of consciousness novel that takes place in one 24-hour span, and was, rather adorably, set on the day of Joyce’s first date with his wife, Nora Barnacle, in 1904. Dublin is, of course, ground zero for Bloomsday, with funky breakfasts, Edwardian costume contests, literary walking tours, themed pub cocktails, evening cabarets, and marathon readings of the mammoth work (it weighs in at 700+ pages). But Bloomsday has spread far from the Emerald Isle, with celebrations in China, Brazil, New Zealand, Croatia, and, of course, all over the United States. Too bad Joyce never profited from this adoration while he was alive. The Irish avant garde author and his beloved Nora wandered around Europe seeking treatments and operation for his growing blindness; he died, impoverished at the age of 59.
J.K. Rowling Has Very Intense Fans
No list of this kind would be complete without the Muggles’ mistress herself. Regardless of what you think of the lasting value of her grand creation, Harry Potter has spawned some of the most avid fans imaginable, and a highly profitable set of industries has sprung up to serve them. Our favourite is the surprisingly popular Harry Potter-themed wedding. One Texan couple actually travelled to England to get engaged at the train station where Harry sets off for Hogwarts wizarding school. But their $65,000 wedding took place at home in Houston, with such delicious details as live owls delivering the rings (yes, you read that right), seating assignments attached to Quidditch hoops, cocktails with magical names, wand party favours for all the guests, hand-painted mismatched Slytherin/Gryffindor high heels for the bride, a wedding bouquet fashioned of pages from the books by the bride herself, and, finally, rings engraved “always,” the sentimental motto from the last HP book. Now that’s a fan!
Originally published as Jane Austen’s Fans Were Called Janeites—and 9 Other Fascinating Facts About Iconic Authors on ReadersDigest.com.