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 Zeina Makky, a beloved former member of the Jane Austen Summer Program team!
Born in the United States, forty-three-year-old Zeina Makky grew up in France—and for a few years, England—where she completed her primary and secondary education. Although most English-speaking students first learn about Jane Austen in school, French curriculum centers mostly around French-language literature, so Zeina only discovered Austen’s writing when she moved back to the United States in 2000 to attend university.
It was an ordinary afternoon; she was browsing casually through Barnes & Noble when she spotted a copy of Pride and Prejudice. “Oh, why not read that!” she thought. She bought the book, of course—and the rest, as they say, is history.
Coming back to the US after having spoken mostly French, having French friends, and studying primarily in French was challenging even being fluent in English and having completed two years of university classes at an American-style school. But while the old-fashioned language of classic novels made her nervous, she soon found that Jane Austen’s prose was incredibly fluid and easy to read. She vividly remembers lying in bed for hours while reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time, only getting up to eat or use the restroom. She finished the book in four days, making record time as a self-proclaimed “slow reader.”
After reading Pride and Prejudice, she was hooked. Soon after, she moved onto the iconic 1995 BBC production starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, once again blown away by the spectacular story.
Zeina especially loves stage and film adaptations of Austen’s work, as well as novels that add a modern twist to her favorite stories. Her favorites are those that explore the lives of side characters, such as Jo Baker’s Longbourn, and those that explore other aspects of Austen fandom, such as Kathleen Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project or Guy Andrews’s ITV miniseries Lost in Austen. She also enjoys original novels that “fill in the gaps of literature,” promoting diversity and inclusion in genres historically dominated by straight, white characters of considerable wealth and privilege.
“There are so many layers to [Austen’s] fiction,” Zeina says, which make it so easily adaptable. You have, most obviously, the romance plot—the story of two people who fall in love and how they end up together. But there’s so much more: social satire, women's social standings, critique of the clergy, and Austen’s “indominable wit” and humor, to name a few. Zeina loves Austen’s authentic “portrayal of humans in all their silliness, and their wonder.” Jane always seemed to have a knack for finding “the universal in the super specific,” which is why her work translates so well to modern, diverse retellings.
Even after rereading Austen’s novels countless times, Zeina is always delighted by how funny and charming they are. Her favorite characters include Elizabeth Bennet, who is “flawed, you know, she’s not perfect. She’s quick to believe Wickham and spread rumors. But she’s just so funny and charming that it’s hard not to fall in love with her as a character.” Her first “Austen crush” was Emma’s sternly charismatic Mr. Knighley, though Henry Tilney is another favorite, and she loves to hate Mrs. Norris.
Perhaps surprisingly, Zeina admits that of all Austen’s heroines, she relates most to the often-disliked Fanny Price. “When I first read Mansfield Park, I related to Fanny Price a lot, this person who has a lot to say but doesn’t feel like she can…. She’s almost like an anti-heroine. She’s the complete opposite of Lizzie.” However, when Zeina first read Mansfield Park, she felt a certain kinship with the timid, mousy Fanny, who—like many women on the cusp of adulthood—finds it difficult to share her feelings with the world.
Putting her numerous talents and passion for Austen to good use, Zeina volunteered with the Jane Austen Summer Program from 2019 to 2023, writing articles for our blog and creating social media content. A few of Zeina’s previous JASP blogs include “Jane Austen’s Georgian Era,” “Mansfield Park Adaptations to Watch,” “Jane Austen: Coming to Life as a Character in Others’ Novels,” and “How Well Do You Know Jane Austen’s Juvenilia?”
Still, participating with JASP’s team actually put Zeina outside of her comfort zone. She is usually much quieter, or “on the edge of things,” with fandom-related activities. She likes to interact with people one on one, realizing naturally that they share a mutual love of Jane Austen and bonding from there.
(She does enjoy JASP’s fancy-dress policy, however, and that’s not something you normally get at your local library or coffee shop.)
Although she used to work as a designer for a daily newspaper, Zeina is now employed with a non-profit organization working in database management and web design. Her Instagram account, @the_fanciful_banshee, showcases her hand-designed prints, bookmarks, and stunning calligraphy, Austen-inspired or otherwise. Zeina is perpetually distraught that she will never know Austen’s intended ending to The Watsons, and looking forward, she dearly hopes we never see an AI adaptation of Persuasion or Mansfield Park. She cannot wait to introduce her eleven-year-old niece to Jane Austen when she’s older.
Excerpted from Zoom interview with Zeina Makky, February 4, 2024.
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