“At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy,” the 20-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister in January 1796. “My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.”
Even with no flirtatious suitor in the picture, it’s hard not to channel Jane Austen’s melancholy tears, for today – just six weeks after the bicentenary of Austen’s death -- the day is come that will see the end of the discussion boards at the Republic of Pemberley, the web’s largest Austen fan site for the past twenty years. Although the site’s static content – including the archive of original fan fiction and the compilation of well-researched posts on Austen’s life and times – will remain, evolving discussions among Janeite obsessives have been relocated to Pemberley’s Facebook group.
I was shocked and saddened when I learned the news earlier this month, via an announcement from Pemberley’s volunteer site manager, Myretta Robens, but the fiscal writing has been on the wall for some time now. Five years ago, a change in Google’s ad policy threatened the community’s survival. Three years ago, Pemberley downsized from its expansive original site to a more streamlined version. Last year, only a spate of last-minute contributions saved it from going dark.
When Robens, a New England technology manager, and Amy Bellinger, a Chicago freelance writer, founded Pemberley in May 1997, Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt Austenmania was at its height. By the time I wrote about it in Among the Janeites, years after I’d fallen in love with the place myself, Pemberley was getting five to ten million hits per month from 150,000 unique visitors hailing from 165 countries.
But times change. The Austen frenzy may have cooled – though you wouldn’t know it from the voluminous and enthusiastic coverage of last month’s bicentenary – and other forms of social media have siphoned off some of the community-building impulses that drew so many Janeites to the conversations at Pemberley.
Will Pemberley’s polite and literate ethos flourish on Facebook? Not everyone plans to find out: In the month since Robens announced the changes, a number of Pemberleans have given notice that they won’t be coming along to the new venue -- because of privacy concerns, disdain for Facebook’s corporate policies, or fear that Pemberley’s uniquely civilized form of discourse will be coarsened and corrupted in a more freewheeling social media space.
Although I’ve joined the Facebook group, I’m not acclimated yet. It still feels like a Dashwood-level comedown – renting a room in a noisy boarding house, when we’ve been accustomed to living in a quiet cottage of our own. But Facebook is free, and presumably moderating the discussions there will demand far less unpaid labor from the dedicated volunteers who have run Pemberley for so long.
As of last night, Pemberley’s discussion groups were still active. At the Pride & Prejudice board, posters were debating the likely quality of the planned new ITV adaptation of the novel. At the All Other Austen board, they were recommending Austen biographies and wondering about the size of Anne Elliot’s dowry. On Read & View, they were discussing Poldark, Dunkirk, Game of Thrones, and The Handmaid’s Tale.
It felt poignant to eavesdrop on all these conversations, knowing that they would fall silent so soon. The death of a community – or even its metamorphosis into a different kind of community -- isn’t quite like the death of a person, but it’s not entirely dissimilar, either. It’s still an ending, and endings are sad.