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Janeite Spotlight: Introducing Rhonda Watts

Hello, dear readers! This year, we’ve begun a blog series highlighting Austen-lovers around the world—sharing how they first discovered Austen’s fiction, why they love Austen, how they’ve contributed to the Janeite community, you get the picture. Fans, who cultivate and engage in discourse surrounding Austen’s life and fiction, participate in workshops and conventions, host book clubs, and don I ❤️ Darcy merchandise with pride (but hopefully not prejudice—wink, wink), are the reason Jane’s spirit survives in the twenty-first century. We deserve a shout-out! And we deserve the chance to connect with like-minded individuals across the world. Our next Janeite Spotlight features Rhonda Watts, a part-time freelance writer who is currently writing a nonfiction essay collection regarding Jane Austen’s massive influence on pop culture.


 

Rhonda Watts

Rhonda Watts’s first encounter with Austen’s work occurred earlier than most. When she was seven or eight years old, her mother took her to see the 1996 film adaptation of Emma starring Gwenyth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam in the theater. Around age ten, she attempted to read the book from which it was adapted but didn’t get very far. It wasn’t until she was fifteen and a friend recommended Pride and Prejudice that she truly fell in love with Austen’s work, reading the other five novels as fast as she could. By then, there was no looking back.


Elizabeth Bennet was the first adult character Rhonda felt she could truly see herself in. She was aspirational for Rhonda at fifteen (“And still is, if I’m being honest!” Rhonda says), but also flawed and complicated. Elizabeth’s “instincts are good but sometimes she gets it wrong; she makes mistakes and watches her predictions blow up in her face. She is fiercely protective of her sister Jane, and also fiercely independent. She values her own sense of self-worth higher than society’s expectations. I wanted to be her, and sometimes I think the best parts of my personality now are those I honed intentionally to emulate her.”


Surprisingly, when it comes to her favorite Austen character, she picks the unlikely Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park. According to Rhonda, Mary has the best jokes in book, and you get the sense that if her early life had gone a little differently, she might’ve had the makings of an Austen heroine. “She’s like Jane Fairfax in reverse.”


By day, Rhonda works in education programming at a children’s museum, but she also moonlights as an Austen-based TikTok influencer. She has a “moderately sized but devoted following” with whom she shares my thoughts on Austen’s books, news about upcoming adaptations, and memes adapted to Austen stories or characters. She also hosted a Jane Austen book club through TikTok Live and Discord about a year ago.


Rhonda's outstanding Lizzie Bennet cosplay!

In 2021, Rhonda attended the JASNA annual conference in Chicago where she was a co-presenter for a breakout session concerning “AustenTok,” or TikTok’s Austen community. Last year, Rhonda published “Confessions of a Chronically Online Janeite” on LitHub, a deep-dive into the ever-changing digital landscape of Austen fandom. Perhaps fittingly, her favorite organized Austen fan event is Virtual Jane Con. It’s all online and free, which makes it almost universally accessible, and she loves the diverse and welcoming community.


Rhonda’s current project is a book-length exploration of Austen’s influence in pop culture. She is structuring it as an essay collection, with most chapters focusing on specific genres or categories of current popular media, like pop music or fantasy fiction, and drawing out Austenian influences or parallels she sees in those works. Much of the material for the book comes from Rhonda’s previous writing, including her LitHub essay, blog discussions, and TikTok materials. Her working title for the book is I Blame Jane, and she recently signed with a literary agent who is currently submitting it to publishers. Fingers crossed!


When it comes to adaptations of Austen’s work—and, in general, of the classics—Rhonda believes there can never be too many. “Retelling old stories in new ways is one way that we learn about ourselves and about how our society has evolved since the original works were written,” she says. “Jane Austen is undeniably a global brand…. But all of her writing is in the public domain, meaning there is no official rule stating that all Austen ‘canon’ material must remain intact in any transformative or adaptive state.” Rhonda believes this is a good thing, as different interpretations of Austen’s fiction promote new ways of understanding her stories and characters that perhaps Austen herself didn't even see.


Rhonda is encouraged to see so many diverse perspectives in Austen adaptation in recent years. Fire Island (2022), a modern film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with a majority Asian-American and gay cast, and Hallmark’s upcoming historical film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility featuring Black actors as the Dashwoods and several other key characters, are both great examples of the growing diversity of perspectives in Austen storytelling.


She hopes that inclusive adaptations will help promote diversity within the Janeite fandom, which has “historically been kind of exclusive, whether intentional or not, to mostly white, straight, college-educated, [middle- and upper-class] women (and a few men). There have always been people of color and LGBTQ+ folks who have loved Jane Austen, but they haven’t always felt welcome in Austen communities.” She adds, “I’ve seen that change in recent years, partly thanks to groups and events like Virtual Jane Con, that seek to create intentionally inclusive spaces for all Janeites, with awareness of how our different identities and experiences can and should inform how we discuss her work and interact with each other as a community.”


The perfect gentleman

Looking forward, Rhonda would love to attend more in-person Austen-related events, such as a future JASP conference (we’d love that, too!) or Bath’s annual Jane Austen Festival. She also loves to support independent online artists by purchasing Austen merch on sites like Etsy. Some of her favorite Austen-inspired pieces are Out of Print’s peacock edition Pride and Prejudice t-shirt and Chatsworth House’s Pride & Prejudice (2005) Mr. Darcy replica bust.


Learn more about Rhonda at rhondawithabook.com.


Excerpted from email correspondence with Rhonda Watts, February 5, 2024.


 

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