The first time Spanish photographer Alejandra Carles-Tolra visited the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society it was midwinter, early 2016, and they were gathering for a 10-day house party at an idyllic location deep in the Oxfordshire countryside. She had been researching the society for a photo project about them called Where We Belong since stumbling across a group of people clad in Regency-era costume on a trip to Bath the year before. Curious, she approached them and found out they were all attendees of the annual Jane Austen festival. "At first, I thought it was just a one-day affair, like Comic Con perhaps, but the people I met that day told me there was a group who took it a lot more seriously – and that’s how I found out about the society," she says.
Across the next four months, her research took her deep into the world of Janeites – a network of Jane Austen super fans connected by their love of the author, reading and the Regency period. After building a relationship with Sophie Andrews, the founding member of the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society (JAPAS) as well as other members of the group via forums and Facebook pages, Carles-Tolra was invited to join them for one of their annual meet-ups. Fast-forward to the Oxfordshire house party and here was Carles-Tolra, standing before them and being asked to pledge her allegiance to the group with a pineapple.
Explaining the symbolism behind this peculiar ceremony, she says: "During the Regency period, pineapples were a sign of wealth – proof you were able to travel to exotic lands – and so people would purchase one and place it at the centre of the table when they had guests." With this in mind, JAPAS decided to take the fruit as their namesake and icon, decorating each house with pineapple paraphernalia – real ones adorning the tables and paper ones strung across the windows and walls – every time they get together.
The women dressed Carles-Tolra up too and, although that first time "felt so incredibly uncomfortable and exposing", she understood it as necessary to build trust with the group. "It’s important to understand how much power you have as a photographer, hiding behind a camera, and even more important to try to equalise the relationship with your subjects wherever possible. I knew it was their move to ask me to dress up and immerse myself in it, and in agreeing, I gained their trust because we’d all been vulnerable with each other. I sat with them, I played with them, I danced with them, and they let me in for a time."
Growing up in Barcelona, Carles-Tolra says she had been interested in identities from a young age – something she attributes to attending an English school that had a uniform, which was rare among the city’s schools. "When we walked down the street we would be this mass of yellow polo shirts, like little chicks, and everyone would make fun of us," she remembers, laughing. "I do think those early experiences got me interested in uniformity though, the performance of group identities, and how we try to forge our own identities within that." As she grew, Carles-Tolra traced a career through theatre and sociology before arriving at photography – fields all linked by the thread of studying the way people are, the way we perform and connect. When she came across JAPAS, it felt like the perfect prism through which to explore these threads she had long been picking at.
The members of JAPAS are an eclectic bunch – some linger cautiously at the edges, quiet and timid, while others are extroverted and theatrical and throw themselves right in. Most of the activities that they indulge in when they get together are typical of the early 1800s. They have long, leisurely afternoon teas, they knit, they write and read poetry, they nap together, they reread Austen’s books and cite lines to one another, and they do puzzles and play endless games of cards (Carles-Tolra relays an anecdote about one particular Janeite who had made a fun Austen-themed set of Cards Against Humanity).
On the first morning of that 10-day trip, Carles-Tolra awoke to the sound of a woman singing opera while the others prepared breakfast. "Later that day, we went for a walk and then came back for lunch, and some people rested while others took a bath. It dawned on me then that it was as much about indulging in a slow way of living as anything else, and there is something so seductive about that, especially in a time where we are always 'on'."
This also offered some clues as to what bound these women together beyond their love of Austen. "It was never just about dressing up and I could sense that from the beginning. Many of these women had discovered Jane Austen when they were struggling with their mental health, other health issues or bullying as teenagers, and her books were a sort of escape for them. Austen offered a dream space wherein everything would be okay, where the dreamy romance of courtship took place, and where the good character would always end up with a good outcome. It was a place to feel safe."
Carles-Tolra recalls a particularly resonant moment when a member of the society shyly declared that Jane Austen had saved her life. Other times, she says, she would meet people who rather sheepishly admitted they hadn’t read every single book or had only really gotten into Jane Austen because of a TV adaptation, but the authenticity or level of their fandom didn’t seem to be an issue. Something else had brought them there and they were still welcomed with open arms. Beyond her novels, Austen had given them a sisterhood, and the meet-ups were somewhere for these like-minded individuals to belong. "The interesting thing for me was how this very solitary form of escapism in reading led to a real, tangible community that became of incredible value to the members – no longer just sharing on Facebook, but spending real time together, having people there you can be tactile with that you can touch or hold."
Love and the relationship between men and women of the era is a big talking point among the group, with them often wistfully yearning for the courtship in Austen’s novels. But beyond this, isn’t it a peculiar time period for a modern woman to romanticise? The idea of womanhood as Jane Austen lived and portrayed it was one of domesticity, of little mobility beyond the household, and of few independent social and economic rights. What would women from the 21st century find so appealing about the time? It’s a question that has plagued the photographer’s thoughts often.
"At the very beginning, it certainly felt like going backwards, but then I realised that the relationship these women have with Austen is far more complex than that. When I asked them if they would love to live in that time period they said, 'Of course not, we’re not fools! There were no toilets! Women had no rights!' I learned early on that it was much more about picking and choosing the things they loved from the period to indulge in. The element of fashion, for instance, shouldn’t be underestimated. Many of the women I met felt more comfortable, and more beautiful, in the fashions of the time than in what women wear today. They talked a lot about donning these dresses and feeling empowered."
Carles-Tolra says these women look up to Jane Austen and her characters as "independent women within the context of the circumstances they found themselves – people who chose their destiny and were confident in what they believed in." Transcending the social conditions of the time, it is that defiant female spirit they embrace and take as inspiration. "Austen herself never married, and she wrote books, which was revolutionary at the time. That’s important to these women."
"In the two and a half years I spent with the group, I met several men, and at each event or house party there would be one or two men present, but most of the time they were adamant they were either there because their partners were Janeites, or because they were interested in fencing and the chance to dress up in military uniforms. Even though they were spending 10 days inside a house celebrating Jane Austen as part of the society, they would firmly deny their place every time," Carles-Tolra says with a wry smile. The bravado of donning hyper-masculine costume was as far as they would go to admitting they enjoyed the experience. Subsequently, she went back and forth as to whether to include them or not, and decided in the end to do so, but only as fringe characters that linger at the edges or in the background of some of these shots, unwilling to take centre stage.
The group are firm about one thing: they are not re-enactors and they don’t want to be seen as such. They don’t care for historical accuracy and slip in and out of roles across the time they spend together. Carles-Tolra points out the surreal beauty of seeing them bunch up their big dresses and sit on Facebook posting photos, or out in the fields taking pictures on a digital camera. "At times, they would have a moment where perhaps two of them would be giggling and whispering and someone else would say to them, 'Oh you’re exactly like Elizabeth and her friends from Pride and Prejudice' – and they would love that reference and take pleasure from that," Carles-Tolra says. "So sometimes they are acting out to be particularly similar to a certain character they love, but they go in and out of that, and I really wanted my pictures to reflect what that was like to be around. I wanted to bring that illusion that I had to the viewer – where you don’t know where the performance starts and ends, and you’re unsure of whether it's all a show or a performance for the camera."
The women had endless fun with Carles-Tolra, restaging Pre-Raphaelite paintings of languid, sleeping women and lying on lawns together. One of Carles-Tolra’s favourite images from the project depicts the face of a young girl with a hand cradling her cheek. "I would call this the very last image of the work in that once I’d taken it, I knew I’d closed the project as I wanted it to be. The work was ostensibly finished before I took it, and I had other images like this one, but they weren’t quite right. It didn’t feel done. I could see this image in my head and I needed to take it. I also knew the person in it had to be Alinka, a young girl I became particularly close to. In the end, it’s like the hand that reaches out into the frame is the hand that reflects me. But it’s also an invitation to the viewer to reach out and connect. I love that touchy, tactile empathy."
I suggest that in some ways, an image like this should feel sinister. 'Girlhood' and female adolescence is so often presented as feverish and full of tension in films and in classic novels. "At the beginning of this project, everything was appearing hyper-feminine and too sweet, all floral dresses and country gardens, and I really had to fight beyond that," she says. "There are complexities in this group as in any other group. I knew that viewers would have all different responses too – for instance, beyond the positivity, I was always getting some reaction that the idea of a group of women reading in a house together was creepy or strange – and I wanted to play with those tensions."
Carles-Tolra spent two and a half years joining the group on trips and outings, and keeping up with them via Facebook and email. Since that time, they’ve gained more attention – through her work, and through a BBC documentary that aired late last year – and increasingly they’ve expanded. Little has changed at the core of them though, and they still offer each other a place to escape to from time to time. They see each other seven or eight times a year, write one another long letters and send gifts in the mail. One member got married recently and they all went along. And at the opening of Carles-Tolra’s first exhibition of the work, the Janeites turned out in full costume, adorned with pineapple pins they had made especially for the occasion.