I have shlepped myself to Virginia Woolf’s house in Sussex, and wandered the Yorkshire moors in pursuit of the Brontes’ home (calling “Heathcliff! Heathcliff!” when no one was within hearing). But no writer has launched more trips for me than Jane Austen.
I have not only visited several of her homes (the one in Lyme Regis had become, last time I looked, a fish-and-chips shop) and the sites mentioned in her six published novels, but I have even stood on the Derbyshire rock where Keira Knightley stood in the thoroughly disappointing 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I admit it: I’m a Janeite. I have loved Austen’s novels since I was 12, and love them even more as I reread them (except, perhaps, Mansfield Park) on a regular basis.
But my affection could be judged wimpy in comparison to some of the women I am meeting at the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North American (JASNA), happening this weekend in Brooklyn, N.Y. The first meeting, held 34 years ago in New York, hosted 100 enthusiasts; this year, the event welcomes 750 people from 25 states, seven Canadian provinces, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, Germany and Japan. And the number of Janeites is limited only by the size of the ballroom (yes, there will be a ball). JASNA, boasting a membership of 4,700, is only one of several worldwide Jane Austen societies.
This year’s theme, “Sex, Money and Power in Jane Austen’s Fiction,” is appropriate to the setting–just a short walk from the hotel and we can look across the Hudson towards Wall Street. The breakout sessions have seductive titles such as “Slits, Spikes, Steeds and Scandals! Coded Sexual Indiscretion in Jane Austen’s Fiction” and “Dirty Dancing in Jane Austen’s Ballrooms.” Cornell West, a self-proclaimed “Jane Austen freak,” will speak on “Power and Freedom in Jane Austen’s Novels.” Outside the talks, there is a “Regency Emporium” where you can purchase a feather headpiece for Saturday night’s ball, hand-painted china, or books with titles such as Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star.
There’s a wonderful sense of silliness to it all, especially for a college professor like me who is more accustomed to starchy academic meetings. JASNA members have come here for a wide variety of reasons: there are grandmothers who have read Austen’s books since childhood, mothers and daughters who fell in love with the film adaptations and then read the books, costume enthusiasts and country dancers. I have met a librarian, a scientist, a woman in finance, the woman producing a musical of Sense and Sensibility in Denver this spring and a member of the North American Quilling Guild (quilling is the art of paper filigree, a popular “woman’s art” in Austen’s time).
What a thrill to be in a room full of people (admittedly mostly women and mostly white; there’s a decided lack of diversity) who have read and loved the books you’ve read and loved. At one point in her plenary talk, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Anna Quindlen said, “I feel like the lead singer in a very famous rock band” before leading us all in a recitation of the opening line of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged …”
Her presentation, entitled “Jane Austen is My Homegirl,” covered sex and gender issues in the novels, but mostly focused on the truly revolutionary part of Jane Austen’s work: Austen herself was an ordinary woman, blessed not only by genius but by a family, including her father, who supported her work. She wrote about the lives of ordinary women, developing their intelligence, imagination and chutzpah in a world that seemed counter to all of that. As such, she can serve as an inspiration for all women, particularly for girls who, like Quindlen, find themselves first in books and from them learn to “do battle with the world armed only with simile and metaphor and alliteration.”
I had my big “aha” moment in a reticule workshop (a reticule is a small drawstring bag in which one carries whatever one needed in a world before cellphones, car keys, Chapstick or Kleenex). I sat with a dozen women hand-stitching their reticules, using a sewing kit purchased at the local Dollar Store. Despite the anachronisms all around us, we felt transported to Jane Austen’s own sitting room, where women might sew and chat and where Jane herself would most likely be taking mental notes while hiding her writing from curious servants and guests.
One of my fellow stitchers noted that the conference is occurring only a few miles from the Brooklyn Museum, home to Judy Chicago’s iconic work from the 1970s, The Dinner Party, with its extraordinary needlework on table runners that commemorate women’s history. One place setting is dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, two decades before Austen published her first novel. Wollstonecraft writes,
My own sex, I hope,will excuse me if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.
Echoing Wollstonecraft, Austen had Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennett refuse the marriage proposal of the oafish Mr. Collins by asking not to be considered an “elegant female” but rather “a rational creature speaking truth from her heart.”
That is why we Janeites gather with such enthusiasm–in Brooklyn, in England, in movie theaters or anywhere else where we can evoke her timeless feminist spirit.
Portraits of Jane Austen in 1810 (top) and 1804 (bottom) by her sister Cassandra Austen from Wikimedia Commons