Day Three at the JASNA AGM in Portland: A quick continental breakfast with Laurel Ann and a few friends at the table – discovered that Elaine Bander is quite a scholar of Dorothy L. Sayers –more on this in another post – and then off to the Plenary with JASNA North American Scholar Juliet McMaster on – “‘A Surmise of such Horror’: Catherine Morland’s Imagination.” I have heard Prof. McMaster speak on several occasions and she never fails to express “in the best chosen language” all there is to love about Jane Austen. Today she begins with showing us a “cheap” 1965 paperback edition of Northanger Abbey, where “gothic’ is everything, cover and blurbs teasing us with the horrors that await us in these pages – she ends her talk with surmising that perhaps they didn’t get it so wrong! She presents this by examining the quality of Catherine’s mind – a combination of innocence and wisdom, likening her to the “holy fool” of Shakespeare or Dickens, a “good fool”. Where Henry Tilney is so often the focus of Northanger Abbey criticism, Catherine relegated to the “heroine” that Austen herself seems to denigrate, McMaster gives us a gift: Catherine redeemed and placed in her rightful home next to Austen’s other great heroines.
Catherine, as we know, is described in negatives in those first pages, and Henry teases her about the “intellectual poverty” of a visit with Mrs. Allen – McMaster likens her “brain as a closet,” Catherine’s cluttered and well-stocked but vacuous [Henry and Eleanor are well-stocked but ordered; John Thorpe has a “double occupancy”!] – this “moving toyshop of her mind” is a perfect metaphor for Catherine – she learns aesthetic sensibility [that hyacinth!], not unlike the Romantic sensibility of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and her gothic readings and Henry’s very near prediction of her experiences in the Abbey all serve Catherine in her “awakening, an imaginative awakening, and we end able to love her “faults and all.” [as Mr. Knightley on his Emma!] – and what of Henry’s reprimand? The one scene in NA that has caused the most commentary? often an expression of concern that Henry could end up as tyranical as his father? McMaster believes that Henry is revitalized and rejuvenated by Catherine, and she views his rebuke as almost a “cover-up” – that his surmising Catherine’s thoughts before she has clearly expressed them [go back and read the book!], that Henry is all too aware of the truths about his father – Catherine awakens his own fears, and indeed contributes to his strength in openly defying his father.
I later, in yet another trip to the Emporium!, talked with Professor McMaster and added four more books to my Juvenilia Press edition, now complete as to Austen’s works, with McMaster’s fanciful illustrations… and one last thought – McMaster threw out this tidbit – “pay attention to when Austen uses the word ‘almost.’”
So after feeling quite confident in Catherine’s true place in the Austen canon, on to a fashion session with Mary Hafner-Laney, a specialist in construction of historic clothing in “ ‘I was tempted by a pretty coloured muslin’: Jane Austen and the Art of being Fashionable” – a presentation covering the various fashion sources in magazines, such as La Belle Assemblee, the use of fashion dolls [see illus. below] in the marketing, purchasing and sewing process, all the while citing Austen’s many references to the fashions of the day in her letters, filled as well all know with fashion gossip! and her novels. Mary took us through the process of purchasing the materials, choosing styles, finding a dressmaker, and the costs – i.e. nothing off the racks in Austen’s time! She spoke about Eleanor’s white gowns and other color options, types of fabrics and where they came from and the stores that sold them. Then a few words on undergarments, laundering, remaking and dying, and how one can never have “too much trim”! A lovely and informative talk! and now some pictures of the beautifully clad listeners:
And here, one of the rare negatives at a JASNA event but have to mention because I was so stunned! – Mary did not expect such a large audience [149!] and came without enough handouts – a facsimile of La Belle Assemblee , a booklet of fashion samples , and a regency fashion illustration with samples  – before Mary finished her Q&A, several people started going up front to get a handout – raging mutiny from the ranks! – they returned to their seats abashed [but with their booty…] and I turned to the woman next to me and said “Oh dear! This is going to be like a bra sale at Filene’s basement!” [what are the chances that this woman used to actually work at a Filene’s basement! – yikes!] and sure enough, as soon as Mary gave the go, a mad rush to the front, pushing and grabbing and quite appalling really! – who would have thought this lovely sedate group [and some so fashionably attired] could turn into such a greedy rabble! – yikes again!
On to Elvira Casel – always expected to present a thought-provoking topic, this time on “The Abduction of Catherine Morland: Deception, Sex and Courtship in Northanger Abbey” – she began with first eliminating any expectations that this talk would be about “SEX” – sex is inferred in Austen but that courtship process is full of sexual overtones in being all about finding a sexual / life partner – and the sex part dealt with, she talked about “how honest people can negotiate a world that is often dishonest.” Casal gives us a Henry and a John Thorpe as rivals in the first part of the book – Thorpe’s abduction of Catherine tantamount to a gothic rape, his insidious lies, though propelling the plot, are ineffective because Catherine is on to him early on – and Henry’s immediate attraction to Catherine [who asked for that introduction from Mr. King after all?!], their conversation of the dance showing their developing relationship – Catherine might be puzzled but she does understand that Henry is defining his values, his idea of commitment. Casal posits Henry and Thorpe as would-be narrators – Thorpe’s “fictions” propel the plot, but it is Henry as the true narrator / storyteller – he is very attuned to others, but there are concerns about his controlling nature – it is he who introduces the gothic story to Catherine, he stimulates her imagination – he is culpable here – but Casal sees Henry as ceasing to be the narrator when he seeks to be the hero in Catherine’s own story in the making. During the Q&A, she said what I thought was the most interesting point in her argument: Henry Tilney most resembles Elizabeth Bennet as a character – they both use humor to distance themselves from pain, disguising their true feelings.
Fourth session [wow! My brain is totally taxed – McMaster’s “closet” of clutter, and completely disordered!]
Susan Allen Ford on “Ingenious Torments: Reading Instructive Texts in Northanger Abbey” – Professor Ford, who is working on a book about what Austen’s characters are reading focused on the didactic texts inherent in Northanger Abbey – those specifically mentioned or inferred: Mrs. Morland’s Mirror, with info on John Homespun and family [i.e Henry McKenzie of The Man of Feeling fame] as “cousins” of the Morlands – plain country folk, yet Mrs. Morland’s inadequacy as a parent in her oft-quoted platitudes and clichés of life; the Richardson footnote on woman’s behavior in courtship; and finally Jane Collier’s An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting, a satiric anti-conduct book. Collier outlines the various human relationships, emphasizing the aspects of teasing and torment [recall Catherine’s historians “labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls”] in all these relationships. Prof. Ford talks of Austen’s use of the word “torment” – Henry four times, Catherine three, how Isabella personifies the “tormenting” by a friend, the extent of General Tilney “tormenting” Mrs. Tilney. In the end, Austen mocks the prevailing didactic texts of the time by showing their inadequacies “for the emotional tortures in friendship, courtship and family relationships.”
End of breakouts! – so much learned, so much missed – look forward to Persuasions On-line [December 2010] and Persuasions 32 [May 2011] to fill in the gaps!
And then, the Banquet and Ball – the AGM had more fashionable Ladies and Gentlemen than I have ever seen – some elaborate Regency, some outrageous costumes for the Bal Masque – my costume still the “pattern-in-the-bag state – only a black velvet Spencer over a long dress – best I could do, but certainly not Promenade material! – which was great because I could just stand there and take pictures. Dinner was great fun – we had a fun table and met all manner of Austen bloggers and web masters: Sue Forgue of Regency Encyclopedia [contact me for passwords]; Diana Birchall of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma fame and her blog “Light, Bright and Sparkling”- we bonded on our “born and bred” in New York heritage; she introduced me to Ellen Moody, long known to me from the Austen listservs – I marvel at her Calendars of the novels – so great to meet her – we also bonded on our “born and bred” in New York heritage!… others across the table beyond the hollering needed to hear – will get in touch with them via email – then off to see the Promenade, a fiasco of elevator limitations, so no parading about the streets of Portland for this year – no matter, the foyer and ballroom were quite fine to exhibit the finery! pictures follow with names of those I got permission from – I did go into the Monster Mash event for a bit to hear the three different talks on the gothic – but headed back to the room for a needed respite – alas! my skills at English Country Dance to be exhibited next year! – and again, more and more people up there dancing this year – this is a wonderful trend at the AGMs – back to the sewing machine and ECD instruction for me!