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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Jane Austen universe(s)

In the world of Jane Austen fanfic--whether on page, stage, or screen--there are, it sometimes seems, no new ideas. Jane Austen with zombies, vampires, or rock stars? Jane Austen in Pakistan, Texas, or Beverly Hills? Gender-swapped Jane Austen? Jane Austen with gay characters, trans characters, Black characters, Indian characters, Mormon characters? It’s been done—usually more than once.

And so it was that when I stumbled across a crowd-funding appeal for Austen University, a proposed TV series set on “a modern college campus where all of Jane Austen's heroines meet, become friends and roommates, and help each other through messy romantic entanglements,” I thought to myself, “Haven’t I seen something like that before?”

Yes, I have. It was called Austentatious, it came out in 2015, and it was . . . pretty mediocre, yet curiously addictive. Though not addictive enough to make it into a second season.

It’s not clear if the creators of Austen University, a trio of women with backgrounds in acting, photography, and fiction writing, are familiar with their not-exactly-illustrious precursor—in their pitch, they tout their project as “the first complete Jane Austen universe—ever,” which I suppose might be true, depending on your definitions of “complete” and “universe.”

Still, the two projects seem to share some DNA: Both feature creative teams who hail from Utah, have roots in the Mormon Church, and are committed to creating family-friendly entertainment. But whether Austen University can find an audience when not-entirely-dissimilar projects seem to be struggling—heard anything lately about the CW’s Modern Austen? Me neither—is anyone’s guess.

The brief scene snippets featured in the team’s fundraising trailer aren’t especially compelling, though certainly no worse than what I can remember of Austentatious. And I did laugh out loud when, in an effort to underscore the Janeite bona fides of the three writers, the video cut to a snapshot of an adorable baby daughter, alleged to have the given names of Elizabeth and Bennet, dressed in a onesie reading “Obstinate, headstrong girl.” My kind of people!

As of this writing, Austen University’s prospects don’t seem sterling: With less than two weeks to go before its fundraising deadline, the project has raised less than $18,000 of the $45,000 needed to film enough of the pilot episode to drum up interest from broadcast platforms. But hey—I wish this team well. There’s always room for another addition to the Jane Austen universe, even if it’s not exactly a first.


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