Diary ~ Day Three: Filled with Talks, Banquets & Balls (and a little side of Romance!)
The Plenary this morning featured Claudia Johnson, on Can We Ever have Enough of Jane Austen? Professor Johnson, chairman of Princeton University’s English Department and author of several books of Austen scholarship (and especially appreciated by this blog writer for her “Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel”), is always a delight at the AGMs and she did not disappoint in Chicago! Focusing on textual criticism, Dr. Johnson told of her experience in editing a new edition of Mansfield Park and the “dilemma of a comma” – in the two editions of MP published during Austen’s lifetime in 1814 and 1816, there is a discrepancy in the placement of a comma – is this the publisher’s handiwork, a printing error, or more importantly an editing change by Austen herself? In comparing this textual analysis to one of the many variants in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Johnson showed us the process of editing and the importance of a misplaced comma in the comprehension of a single sentence. Eventually Johnson “conjures” Austen herself, when in the quiet of her study, she hears “an intake of breath,” a ghostly Jane telling of the errant comma’s intended placement.
Johnson went on the discuss this “channeling Austen” and how the various biographers – Constance Hill in Jane Austen’s homes and haunts, Oscar Fay Adam’s view that Austen’s characters are alive, and how Janeites are often referred to as being “possessed” or “manical” and PROUD OF IT!, and how we strive to “collapse the distance” between us and Austen with our gatherings, our Regency balls, banquets and the making of reticules.
So much humor in this talk! – lost in translation I am afraid, but the packed house was nearly rolling in the aisles at some of her allusions! I was a tad spooked because my daughter had just left me phone message doing a little “channeling’ of her own – Austen in heaven most appreciative that I was at her conference and babbling on about her lively discussions with Shakespeare (in and out of bed I might add, though I shouldn’t!) and how heaven was indeed a grand place for these literary giants – (my daughter is a middle school English teacher and thus goes to great imaginative lengths!) – so how timely and unnerving to head into Johnson’s talk on conjuring Austen! Yikes!
Next up another Breakout Session, this time to the talk on Shades of Jane Austen in Ian McEwan’s Atonement by Juliette Wells.As many of you might not know, the epigraph to Atonement is Henry Tilney’s “voluntary spies” speech to Catherine in Northanger Abbey. McEwan has said he has an affinity to Austen but cites no specifics in his works, so Wells tellingly does it for him: the likeness of Briony as Austen herself, the precocious child writer; the family theatricals; the play “The Trials of Arabella” had similar versions in Austen’s juvenilia; the name of “Tilney’s Hotel;” etc. Wells then discussed aspects of the film that also invoke Austen, and though there are no specific references, Austen pervades the movie in a number of ways, both visually and thematically: Joe Wright directed this and the 2005 P&P; Kiera Knightly stars in both; James McAvoy starred as Austen’s “boyfriend” in Becoming Jane; Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Bennet and as Robbie Turner’s mother; both productions had the same costume designer and the same soundtrack composer (Dario Marianelli); similar kissing scenes; the appearance of the PIGS…all these visuals are very powerful with their oblique references.
I loved Atonement, both book and movie, and found this talk most interesting…I hope it is published in Persuasions, so those not there can enjoy it as well.
Off next to Poster Session 2 (I missed Session 1 due to meetings) – this is a new feature at the AGMs and quite wonderful. I visited several of the presentations: delighted to meet Maggie Sullivan of Austenblog, who had a board filled with Blogging Jane; Elaine Bander of Montreal had posted a series of thoughts on comparing Susanna Clarke’s 2004 fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to Austen’s world (this book had been sitting on my bedside table for way too long- indeed because it IS way too long!…I now have the incentive to pick it up finally, despite its “dark forces of Magic”); loved the How Not to Write an Austen-Inspired Novel (see photo) by Karen Doornebos; and a pleasure to meet and discuss Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line with editor Susan Allen Ford; tons of photos to-be-adored of Colin Firth et.al in Mr. Darcy as an Actor by Katherine Zimolzak; and several others. I very much liked this poster session idea, though I quibble that the presenters had to get it all up and down within a 3-hour period…I realize there was a space problem, so for future AGMs it would be nice to have these set up and left for perusal during the 3 days with their creators needing to be there for only a few hours. They were too interesting a visual treat (not to mention a lot of work!) to not be enjoyed for longer (and so sorry that I completely missed the first group.) I understand that this was William Philips’s idea, so kudos to him for a very informative addition to the meeting!
Looking at Landscape with Austen in Her Time and Ours with Margaret Chittick and Vera Quin (author of the book Jane Austen in London) was the next session I attended…. great fun and so informative on Austen’s use of Gilpin and the “picturesque” in her works: Henry’s speech in NA (one of my favorites!) and Edward Ferrars in S&S on his ignorance of the Picturesque (Edward at his funniest and I think often overlooked in the general view that Edward is a bore); in P&P, Elizabeth’s journey to Derbyshire exactly follows Gilpin’s; how the description of Lyme Regis in Persuasion reads almost like a travelogue and so unlike Austen; how Austen’s character’s view of nature and the landscape conveys to the reader who they are almost as much as their dialogue; and finally, how all the successful proposal scenes are all OUTSIDE in the open air All was presented with visuals of the various landscapes, with back and forth talk and citing passages from the novels. Again, hoping this will appear in print!
Phew! On to the next…with barely a moment for a breath or lunch, but cannot miss a Plenary with the crowd-pleasing Joan Ray! Like Johnson, Ray never disappoints, and today she was a hoot! Fully dressed in Doctor garb, “ Doctor of Austenology” embroidered on her white coat, Ray launched into an update of the old board game “Operation” and in a play on her own book Jane Austen for Dummies, she regaled us with Jane Austen for Smarties! Working through some of the earliest writings on Austen, both biographical and critical, Ray singles out those who most understood Austen: George Lewes (whose blurb for Sense & Sensibility in an 1897 Bentley’s publisher ad was erroneously attributed to George Eliot); Margaret Oliphant, author of 98 novels and a foresighted feminist critic; Richard Simpson who early on detected Austen’s humor, irony and mockery and her emphasis on rational love over romantic love; Mrs. Humphey Ward; and of course Mark Twain, though often quoted for disliking Austen with a vengeance, does say how “every time I read P&P…”. Ray ends with summarizing her five points that if you understand this about Austen you will officially be a JA Smartie:
- her skill in creating life-like characters
- dramatic presentation: her characters are revealed through dialogue
- her feminine cynicism her social criticism through satire – irony and humor
- her self-restraint: she never wrote a throwaway line
and all this presented with the naked (though discreetly-covered!) “Operation” doll peering at us through the joys of Power-point!
Another breakout session (are you completely exhausted yet?…and my son always questions me “whatever can you talk about for 4 days when she only wrote SIX books?”)…can people not know that you can have a very powerful discussion on the mere placement of a COMMA?
So off to hear one of my favorites Elaine Bander from Montreal. I have attended Elaine’s talks at every AGM I have gone to because she is so accessible…she says what I am thinking, but so much better! Her talk today on The Challenge of Reading Jane Austen Reading posits that Austen’s genius as a writer was due to her being a reader, and understanding her works presumes a familiarity with those traditions. Austen’s books challenge us and either a careless reading of the novels or any of the film adaptations do not and cannot meet this challenge (excepting perhaps “Clueless” which succeeds in reimaging Emma.)
Austen came of age with the English novel and while invoking the conventions, she then undermines them: Northanger Abbey is her obvious teasing take on them all and introduces Catherine at the outset to undercut the expected work featuring the “beautiful modest heroine, the recognized hero, the obstacles in their way, the fall of the suitor, the melodramatic rescue, and the requisite happy ending.” The narrator reminds the reader that Catherine is not going to fulfill any of these conventions, all the while introducing them in part. We are given Willoughby, Frank Churchill, Henry Crawford and Wickham in her other works and are led to believe that they are the heroes, only to have romantic expectations played with (but even in S&S Elinor is still left feeling a pang for the cad Willoughby after his late-night confessing his love for Marianne); Emma is reading everyone’s lives but her own in a romantic cliché, with Harriet as the burlesque of the heroine – as Bander says so well, “Austen cuts her cloth on the bias.” And then finally, as everyone seems to do because they are so much with us, Bander refers to the films and their inability to convey this: with the loss of the narrative voice and the putting of these novel clichés back in to the visual telling, the films become standardized versions and we lose our own view of the story and the author’s intention. Bander references here Austen’s Plan of the Novel, her complete spoof on what she will not put to paper though all around her clamor for these traditions. It is quite funny and I suggest you all read it [linked here at the Republic of Pemberley]. And I concur with Bander that one must GO BACK TO THE BOOKS!
One of course is missing so many other sessions, equally interesting…a perfect example of needing to clone oneself. My friend Sara and I try to go to different sessions at these meetings so we can share our notes, but alas! at this AGM we found ourselves wanting to go to almost all the same sessions, and in the end a useless exercise as Sara does not take notes!
So the evening awaits! The Banquet and the Ball, a walk down Michigan Avenue and an Evening talk on Romance!
There were more costumes at this AGM than ever seen before (there were rentals available and many took advantage)… last year I promised that I would make a dress and pelisse but got only as far as purchasing the pattern, so perhaps next year?
So off to dinner, a lovely event with all the details of setting up an AGM all around us: the table settings, centerpieces, place-cards, etc… with the hours of work behind it all most appreciated… I scouted out Lorraine Hanaway, former JASNA president and lately at one of our Vermont meetings to share about the beginnings of the Society…I was so pleased to see her honored for being the “fourth” founding member of JASNA.
After dinner chat with seat mates, always a treat to reconnect and make new friends, and then off for the walk down Michigan Avenue. If anything could stop traffic in Chicago, it would be hundreds of Regency-costumed, Austen-crazed attendees promenading along this main thoroughfare, walkers and drivers all agape…it was quite the scene! And I was lucky enough to spot the lovely “Jane Austen Addict” Laurie Viera Rigler!
Sara and I opted to skip the Ball, so after a short peek into the festivities we headed off to the evening session on Romance Fiction in the Wake of Austen, with a panel of four, Sarah Frantz, Eloisa James, Eric Selinger and Pamela Regis. I confess, along with Sara, of going in here with all my prejudices of romance fiction clearly apparent. Like sequels and continuations, I do not read romance novels. I own a used bookstore and when I had an open retail shop, I had mystery, science fiction and fantasy sections, but not a single “romance” and referred the (many I might add!) disappointed shoppers to another local store. I do admit to reading most of Victoria Holt over a two-month period, but I put this down to a backlash from working on my English Masters (too much Milton!) as well as being pregnant with my first child, and thus perhaps hormones had run amok….but this is all years ago and as a voracious reader I am always struck with the truth of “so many books, so little time” and romance novels are not even in the running. But I did go into this evening session with an open mind and after a very full glass of wine was prepared for anything!…and found myself in a nearly standing-room only crowd….
…and, all I can say is that I LOVED THIS TALK! (and Sara did too!) The panel selected and introduced by the most excellent Sarah Franz was terrific, starting with Ms. Franz herself, clearly stating her position that “it’s all about the men!” Myths about Austen not being a romance writer was her starting point and she didn’t let up until we were all convinced otherwise! [Franz, by the way has a terrific Persuasions article on Austen’s men in vol. 25 (2003) “Jane Austen’s Heroes and the great masculine Renunciation”.]
Pamela Regis, author of “The Natural history of the Romance Novel” (University of Pennsylvania, 2003 (hc), 2007 (pb)) says that P&P is the best romance novel ever written (we all concur!) and how it exhibits all of the eight elements of a romance. Eloisa James (i.e. English Professor and Shakespearian scholar at Fordham University Mary Bly) was just a delight in sharing with us her writing of her many historical “bodice-rippers” that she could not tell her colleagues about until after her fourth book came out…she told us all to “take the gift you have” and run with it, and that Austen was really the first to write about the man in a domestic novel being “wrong” and his needing to learn about himself in the course of the novel. She intersperses Shakespearian allusions and poetry throughout her books, reason enough to go out and get a few! And finally Eric Selinger, a poet, English professor at DePaul University, and founder of the collaborative blog about romance fiction called Teach Me Tonight discussed ways in which romance novels present the moral education of the characters, especially the hero, and unlike in Austen where the narrator is a separate character to lead us along; in contemporary romance novels there is a tendency toward psychological and therapeutic healing of the characters. The talk was followed by a rousing Q&A, a free book being given to each person who asked a question…there were many, and more discussion on the various romance writers, the Harlequins, Mills & Boon, the “chick-lit” phenomenon, and a variety of suggestions as to where to start on your own romance-reading journey..
- See Sarah Franz’s own blog post on this evening on Teach Me Tonight
- See the Eloisa James website for more information and a list of her works.
- See Austenblog’s posts for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and Day 4 and her final wrap-up (and offered in a more timely fashion!)…I admit to not yet reading her posts so as not to color my own….so I assume there might be duplication, aahh! but “can we ever have enough Austen?”