The term Janeite has been both embraced by devotees of the works of Jane Austen and used as a term of opprobrium. According to Austen scholar Claudia Johnson Janeitism is "the self-consciously idolatrous enthusiasm for 'Jane' and every detail relative to her". Criticism of Janeites mirrors to some degree criticism of Austen herself, that the enthusiasts' interests and Austen's focus herself are on the parochial or regionally social in a world that includes mass political movements, warfare, and the rise or decline of empire.
Janeitism did not begin until after the publication of J. E. Austen-Leigh's A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870, when the literary elite felt that they had to separate their appreciation of Austen from that of the masses. The term Janeite was originally coined by the literary scholar George Saintsbury in his 1894 introduction to a new edition of Pride and Prejudice. As Austen scholar Deidre Lynch explains, "he meant to equip himself with a badge of honor he could jubilantly pin to his own lapel". In the early twentieth century, Janeitism was "principally a male enthusiasm shared among publishers, professors, and literati". Rudyard Kipling even published a short story entitled "The Janeites" about a group of World War I soldiers who were secretly fans of Austen's novels.
During the 1930s and 1940s, when Austen's works were canonized and accepted within the academy, the term began to change meaning. It was used to signify those who appreciated Austen in the "wrong" way and the term, according to Lynch, is "now used almost exclusively about and against other people" [emphasis in original].
Modern Janeites are described by their most fervent detractors in the same tones as Trekkies; academically speaking, the Janeite phenomenon can be seen as the very first "subculture," with all the attendant aspects, including pejorative but also positive. Johnson noted Janeites are "derided and marginalized by dominant cultural institutions bent on legitimizing their own objects and protocols of expertise". It remains a popular interest however, with such recent books as 2013's Among the Janeites: A Journey through the World of Jane Austen Fandom and Global Jane Austen: Pleasure, Passion, and Possessiveness in the Jane Austen Community.
At the same time, Austen remains a topic of serious academic inquiry at top global universities in a way to which very recent subcultures are only just beginning to aspire.
Scholars such as Johnson and Lynch study "the ludic enthusiasm of [the] amateur reading clubs, whose 'performances' include teas, costume balls, games, readings, and dramatic representations, staged with a campy anglophilia in North America, and a brisker antiquarian meticulousness in England, and whose interests range from Austenian dramatizations, to fabrics, to genealogies, and to weekend study trips". Lynch has described committed Janeites as members of a cult, comparing their travels to places Austen lived or places described in her novels or their adaptations as pilgrimages, for example. She argues that such activities provide "a kind of time-travel to the past, because they preserve an all but vanished Englishness or set of 'traditional' values....This may demonstrate the influence of a sentimental account of Austen's novels that presents them as means by which readers might go home again – to a comfortable, soothingly normal world."
- Johnson, 211.
- Lynch, "Introduction", 24, n.24.
- Lynch, "Introduction", 13–14.
- Johnson, 213.
- Johnson, 214.
- Lynch, "Introduction", 13.
- Johnson, 224.
- Murphy, Mary Jo (9 August 2013). "Jane, Plain No More: A Year of Austen Glamour". The New York Times.
- Johnson, 223.
- Lynch, "Cult of Jane Austen", 113–117.
- Johnson, Claudia L. "Austen cults and cultures". The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Eds. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-521-49867-8.
- Lynch, Deidre. "Cult of Jane Austen". Jane Austen In Context. Ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-521-82644-6.
- Lynch, Deidre. "Introduction: Sharing with Our Neighbors". Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees. Ed. Deidre Lynch. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-691-05005-8.
- Lynch, Deidre. "Sequels". Jane Austen In Context. Ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-521-82644-6.
- MacDonald, Gina and Andrew MacDonald, eds. Jane Austen on Screen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.