A much-loved literary icon of the Regency era, British novelist Jane Austen is best known for her witty love tales of the late 18th century, such as Pride and Prejudice. Exploring the stiff social mores and manners of her time, she is a figure that in many ways is bound to the past. But for the ‘Jane Austen Pineapple Society,’ a group of people that share a strong passion for the author, Austen is a living, breathing force of the present. Describing themselves as ‘Janeites,’ the society’s members have created a community that meet up, hang out and party—in Regency style.

When Alejandra Carles-Tolra first encountered the group, she was intrigued by the draw of the past. What was it about Jane Austen’s world, with its old-fashioned concepts of femininity, that captured the imagination of these 21st century women? Working with the society over the course of two years, the photographer emerged with a body of work that explores the themes of belonging, femininity and escapism at the core of this close-knit sisterhood.

In this interview for LensCulture, Carles-Tolra speaks about group identities, the significance of pineapples in the Regency era and seeing Jane Austen as a feminist icon.

Untitled. From the series “Where We Belong” © Alejandra Carles-Tolra

LensCulture: You studied sociology before photography, which I think definitely comes through in your work, especially regarding both individual and group identity. When and why did you decide to use a more visual tool to explore these ideas?

Alejandra Carles-Tolra: When I was in high school, I had this big dilemma over deciding what to study. I was doing theater, but I wasn’t really sure about it because what I loved about it was the theory behind interpreting and adopting different roles. I realized that sociology was a better fit for me, and decided to try and continue pursuing that exploration of identities and groups through that instead. I loved every minute of it, but the language became too rigid for me—it was detaching me too much from the groups and communities that I wanted to work with. I was also very fortunate to have met a few professors that were starting visual sociology, which isn’t so common in Spain. I had always been interested in photography, so I started to bring a camera into the classroom.

LC: There’s a red thread between much of your work. Your previous project The Bears explored ideas of belonging through the lens of an all-woman American rugby team. Did Where We Belong evolve out of this?

AC-T: Not directly. There was a much more direct relationship between The Bears and my other projects. I spent almost three years with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadets and towards the end, I became really interested in the women that were part of that group and how, on top of having to adopt a military identity, they had to adopt a male identity. Afterwards, I knew I wanted to find a group of women that were performing a male-dominated field. I felt like I was just opening Pandora’s box.

From the series “The Bears” © Alejandra Carles-Tolra

After The Bears, I left the US and spent three months traveling before moving to the UK. When I arrived, I ran into this group of men and women in Bath who were having a picnic in traditional clothes. Of course, I was immediately intrigued—I think anyone would be! I had spent the last two years working with a group of women who, in my eyes, were really trying to push the boundaries of what’s considered feminine and masculine, and challenging stereotypes. Then, I run into these women who were, in a very superficial way, doing the opposite. They were playing these hyper-feminine and traditional female roles from the 19th century, which I found very confusing. That was the link: coming from these women that play rugby, to these women who are romanticizing a 19th century identity. I wanted to understand why.

Untitled. From the series “Where We Belong” © Alejandra Carles-Tolra

LC: How did you come across the specific group you worked with, the ‘Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society’?

AC-T: After meeting the people at the picnic, I went home and started doing research to see if there was a community. I found several women online that connected me to a blog called ‘Laughing With Lizzie,’ which was started by Sophie Andrews, the co-founder of the society. She speaks a lot about Jane Austen, and defines herself as a ‘Janeite.’ I saw a few articles from the early 2000s about the Janeite movement, but couldn’t find anything else. It felt like it had died out. I got in touch with Sophie and a few others, and we started corresponding on a regular basis. For me, the key turning point was when one of them said: “In a way, Jane Austen saved my life.” That’s when I knew that I wanted to know more—that there was more to it than just friends having fun dressing up.

LC: Tell us about the name—it’s so intriguing!

AC-T: Pineapples were a sign of wealth back in the day. People used to rent them to put in the center of the table when they had guests over. You can also see pineapples in architecture—it was this exotic thing that represented a means to travel and to explore new lands. They liked the idea, so took it as their symbol. When someone joins the group and comes to one of their house parties, you have to pledge to the pineapple. It’s this ritualistic thing, but it’s always somewhere between serious and humorous.

From the series “Where We Belong” © Alejandra Carles-Tolra

LC: You were present for the society’s first event, a 10-day house party. What kind of activities did the society take part in?

AC-T: At the beginning, it was all very focused on Jane Austen. I guess that was also the excuse, otherwise it would have felt strange. The pineapple queens—usually Sophie and another woman named Emma—spent months organizing the 10 days in advance so there was a schedule of events: a lot of games, cards, murder mystery games, but also things like Cards Against Humanity with a Jane Austen twist! It always had a sort of boundary between modern and traditional life. The group all sing and perform and play different instruments. They also read poetry and books out loud, and there’s a lot of sewing and knitting. In the morning, you have breakfast together, and then some people go for a walk but some people decide to take a nap. There’s always one or two people that spend hours cooking dinner, so there’s an expectation of the party later in the evening. Picnics were always very important, as well as Regency dances.

LC: It sounds like a completely different pace of life from the hectic one we lead now. Are you encouraged to switch off from technology?

AC-T: No, that’s the interesting thing about this group. They don’t define themselves as re-enactors, so there are no rules. It really depends on each person. There were some people who really tried to immerse themselves because it was their holiday. They wore a dress every day, barely touched their phones, and were always knitting and reading. But then some of them were wearing Regency dresses and sitting on their laptops, posting pictures on Facebook. It’s not looked down upon.

From the series “Where We Belong” © Alejandra Carles-Tolra

LC: From the costumes to the Regency soirees, there’s something interesting about the importance of physically getting together in an age when many communities develop and form their stronghold online. Why do you think this is the case?

AC-T: I love that you point that out because, for example, in the photographs the physicality is very important. For many people, it’s odd when they hear about the group for the first time. But when you actually learn about it, it’s not that strange in today’s society to have a group online with whom you share interests. But, as you said, when that moves from online to real life, it gets interesting. It was the physical part that fascinated me, as it was a direct relationship to that psychological support that many of them had mentioned from the beginning: how Jane Austen had become a support at a time when they were lost and struggling with their own identity.

Some of the group struggled with bullying throughout their teenage years, so Jane Austen became an escape and safe place that they could go to. That’s nothing new. Literature is a form of escapism—but it’s a very solitary one. So what interested me was that from a very solitary escapism, they found a really incredible peer support system that became very physical and real. The minute you have someone who you can actually touch, whose shoulder you can nap on, it becomes a very real human experience. I always say Jane Austen is the excuse, as it is always the thing that ties the group together, but they don’t need her anymore because they’ve actually become very good friends.

LC: In many ways, the world of Jane Austen was difficult for women, who lived in a deeply patriarchal society. And yet there seems to be an empowering element to being a Janeite. What attracts Janeites to this 19th century concept of womanhood? Why is Jane Austen this spearhead figure for them?

AC-T: This is from my perspective, but I’ve spoken with them a lot and they all have different experiences. In Jane Austen’s books, there’s always this strong female character. Some are very outspoken and rebellious, and some are very quiet and timid. I think it’s this idea of identifying yourself with a female character that struggles. Perhaps she feels different from her family or her society, or she’s quiet and loves reading books rather than dancing and socializing. And you don’t have to be the number one girl to have the wonderful story and the happy ending: happy endings do happen to the outsiders or the shy woman in the room. There’s also Jane Austen herself: she never got married and made a living from her books, which was extraordinary for that time period. Even though, to me, it looked like this group was going backwards, for them, she is a feminist icon.

Untitled. From the series “Where We Belong” © Alejandra Carles-Tolra

LC: It’s interesting because Jane Austen is often viewed as a romantic figure, but she’s actually quite cynical and subversive. In the same vein, while the group seems anachronistic at first glance, this is a woman-led society, so there’s also this sense of empowerment. Is this dichotomy something that is explored in the group?

AC-T: They don’t speak about it too much. The fact that the female characters always get what they want—even though what she wants is a very traditional patriarchal idea—turned out to be a blueprint for them. It’s about knowing that they didn’t give up. The other facet that has this duality of being both traditional and empowering is the clothes. I would say many of the women that I spoke to feel more comfortable and confident when they wear this type of clothing. I could sense the difference when they were wearing jeans and T-shirts. They would transform wearing theses dresses, because they make them feel beautiful. Many of them spend a lot of time making their own dresses that properly fit their body types. For me, this is empowering: taking back a fashion trend in which you feel more comfortable because it fits you properly. It’s not about what society defines as beautiful.

LC: So it’s a kind of rebellion against the standards of the 21st century.

AC-T: Exactly. In the beginning, I really thought they were romanticizing a very patriarchal form of society. After spending three years together, I understood that it was a matter of re-appropriating the things that they liked from that time period. If you ask the group if they would like to live in the 19th century, most of them would say: “No. Are you crazy? Women had no rights. There were no toilets!” They don’t have any illusions about what it meant to live in that time period. But they do long for certain things from that era, perhaps because they don’t feel fully comfortable with the social norms of today’s society.

From the series “Where We Belong” © Alejandra Carles-Tolra

LC: From your images, you really get a feeling of a strong sisterhood, but there are also men involved in the group. What is that dynamic like? What role do they play?

AC-T: Over the years, there have been two or three men that come to the house parties and picnic. I spent a lot of months thinking, should I include them? The thing was, they always rejected the idea of being a Janeite, even though they’d spent money and take time off work to spend 10 days in the house. They always had this excuse of being interested in military outfits or fencing—something very masculine—I guess to counterbalance how feminine Jane Austen’s world was. After I decided to take them out of the project, I realized that their presence is actually important, so I started including them in the pictures again. But they’re always in the shadows, playing a secondary role. They are more there for the women’s purpose than for their own purposes.

LC: Their role is important, but almost as an anchor point.

AC-T: Exactly. There’s one image where Sophie is looking straight at the camera, leaning over this young man’s shoulder. She’s the main character, he is there to support her.

LC: There’s an intimacy in your photographs that shows a closeness as a photographer to your subjects, both in the more observational shots and also in the more performative, staged scenes. Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with the group and how it developed?

AC-T: In the beginning, it was much different. When I first start working with a group, I always feel like an outsider because I am one, so my photographs are always much more detached and observational. There are so many photographs at the beginning that I’m going to love, but they are actually just the things that I’ve encountered, and I know that I need to get those pictures out of the way. It is part of the process: at the beginning the way I photograph is very much based on preconceived ideas that I have of each group.

This group loves to perform, and that was very difficult for me at the beginning because I didn’t want them to pose. It’s really hard to have people that are being incredibly generous and patient, and yet you’re telling them, “Actually can you stop doing that because I know you’re posing.” And you also want the other person to enjoy the process. So then I decided, why don’t I just turn it around and let them pose. I decided to start taking photographs of the group in a more tableau-esque way, directing them more.

Untitled. From the series “Where We Belong” © Alejandra Carles-Tolra

Another thing that influenced the process was the fact that, for the first time, I didn’t have access to the group on a weekly basis. I could go three months without seeing them, so I had to do something else during that time. I started doing a lot of research into different iconography that I wanted to reference, and also got a lot of influence from things like Pre-Raphealite painting, which I had never really studied. One of the women even created a Pinterest board, which was so inspiring. When I was finally with them, it was a much more collaborative process.

LC: You can see it in the images: there’s this beautiful, empowering performance that plays on a love of fiction.

AC-T: I really didn’t want the work to just be an objective document of these women. I didn’t want the viewer to have a voyeuristic point of view, where you get access to a group that feels a bit strange and eccentric. I wanted it to be empowering. Hopefully the viewer feels seduced to join, even if they don’t know anything about Jane Austen, and even if they’re a bit scared. Even if it feels a bit strange, I’m happy if they want to know more.

Editor’s Note: This body of work was originally commissioned through the Jerwood / Photoworks Awards, supported by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Photoworks.