Among Austen's most fervent fans.
By Paula Marantz Cohen
Picture this: Several hundred people, many in Empire gowns, buttoned boots, and bonnets pirouetting in a stately line across a large ballroom. Women are partnering women for the most part, though here and there one sees a male specimen in knee breeches, long coat, and curled wig sashaying happily amid the beribboned throng.
The event is the Regency Ball of the Jane Austen Society of North America annual general meeting, held at the Westin Hotel in Chicago in October, culminating in two days of total immersion in Austeniana. Preceding the ball was a gala banquet and costume parade down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. When the dancing ended, interested parties retired for games of whist at the little tables set up for the purpose in the lobby of the Westin.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), and the annual meeting featured a full range of festivity. Nothing raucous or vulgar, mind you, and only a few instances of untoward cleavage (“She would do well to sew a little lace over the bodice,” one Austenite was overheard whispering to another regarding one plunging neckline). Two full days were packed with special sessions on everything from textual cruxes in Austen novels to lessons in the dances of the Regency period. The titles of the talks ranged from the light-hearted (“Laughter over Tea: Jane Austen and Culinary Pedagogy”) to the self-reflexive (“A Walk with Jane Austen: Seeing My Life through Austen’s Lens”), to the pedagogical (“Introducing Austen to Military Students”), to the multicultural (“Austen’s Legacy in Japan”) — and on to such far-flung topics as “Jane Austen and Global Warming” and “Jane Austen’s Legacy in Scent.” There were also provocatively cryptic talks such as “Blogging Jane; or, Blog Snarkily and Carry a Big a Big Cluebat,” and “Mr. Darcy is an Actor.” The general title of this year’s annual event was “Austen’s Legacy: Life, Love and Laughter” — which pretty much covers everything, though with an eye to the Austen industry, which has been churning out spin-off books and movie adaptations at an amazing rate.
Some serious discussion was given to the truth now universally acknowledged that many young people know Austen only by way of the BBC adaptations (with Mr. Darcy inextricably linked with Colin Firth) or, worse, the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice, of the swirling music and full-mouthed kiss — so unAusten-like in style and tone. On the other hand, say the less fundamentalist in the group, any route to Austen must be applauded. Even a move “like that” could conceivably lead an impressionable young person to pick up the novel.
Jane Austen has always had her enthusiasts. F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling, arguably the most serious English-language critics of the 20th century, both championed her genius. Trilling famously made a distinction between those who liked her for the right reasons and those who liked her for the wrong ones. In the former group he put people like himself, who saw Austen as the champion of an active and self-perfecting moral idyll. In the latter group, he placed the “gentle Jane-ites,” those spinsterish types, well-meaning but vapid, who read her books for a cozy view of old England. This sort of division now seems condescending in the extreme. It suggests that Trilling, brilliant though he was, was not a close enough reader of Jane Austen, repeating, on a larger scale, Emma’s insult to Miss Bates.
JASNA makes no such mistake. All are welcome and respected at the annual meeting. Intellectual rigor of the sort found, for example, in Peter Graham’s book Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists is presented side by side with “The Essential Regency Bonnet Workshop (registration required).” And why not? Austen was both a moral heavyweight and a material girl. Her letters show her to have been partial to a nice bonnet. The pure pleasure of mixing the high and the low, the rigorous and the kitsch, the morally serious and the utterly frivolous make the JASNA AGM very different from the standard academic convention.
“What would Jane Austen do?” is a leitmotif — a question that one could do worse than pose in the midst of, say, fractious faculty meetings or presidential debates. The members of JASNA display a great deal of civility while engaging in copious talk, downing numerous cups of tea, and imbibing, as day moves into evening and the card tables come down, not a few cocktails. Jane would certainly have approved. • 17 December 2008
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is author of the bestselling novels Jane Austen in Boca, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Hudson Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This piece first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement.