Janeites come in all sorts of unexpected guises, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to learn – via a Terry Gross radio interview (transcript here) earlier this month with actor Bradley Cooper – that Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man, was an Austen fan. Cooper is currently playing the horrifically disfigured Merrick, who died in 1890 at the age of twenty-seven, in a Broadway production of Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 play The Elephant Man.
“He basically escaped into reading, which makes a lot of sense,” Cooper told Gross. “Jane Austen was his favorite author. . . . He was also somebody who was completely awestruck by high society -- by well-read people that sort of he saw that lived in these Jane Austen novels.”
Most of us don’t have as pressing a need for escape as poor Merrick, who was rejected by his family, confined to a workhouse and exhibited in freak shows. But he’s certainly not the only Janeite to find in Austen’s world a sanctuary from a hostile world.