Still Re-Reading Austen at 94! a Conversation with Mildred Darrow

Our JASNA-Vermont gathering on June 22 was titled “Beginnings”… I have already posted on the publishing history of Northanger Abbey,  but we also had a discussion on the history of JASNA, and had the delight of having Lorraine Hanaway, a former president of JASNA and one of the founding members, share with us the story of these “beginnings” of the Jane Austen Society of North America in 1979.  [See also Persuasions, No. 15, 1993, “The Founding of JASNA” by Joan Austen-Leigh, for a great synopsis]  We felt very connected to the early years with Lorraine sharing her JASNA tales as well as newspaper articles, banquet menus, etc.  We cannot thank Lorraine enough for being with us.

The JASNA-Vermont group is privileged to also have a life-member in our new chapter:  Mildred Darrow was also there in the beginning and attended the first public gathering in New York City in 1979, and most AGMs thereafter.  Mildred joined us on June 22, and it was heart-warming to see Lorraine and her re-connect.  We had asked Mildred to share some of her memories of JASNA in the early years, as well as her love of Austen…. she is still re-reading her at the age 94!  So I append below some of the conversation that Kelly and I had with Mildred…and we also heartily thank her for being part of our gathering [and special thanks to her daughter Linda for bringing her to us!]  For those of us who have read Jane Austen at different times in our lives and still continue to get so much out of these many re-readings, it is a delight to know we all might also be still re-reading Austen a the age of 94!

[ Lorraine Hanaway (left) and Milded Darrow ]

A Conversation with Mildred Darrow 

Mildred Darrow is 94 years old and still reads her Austen!  She lives at Wake Robin, after moving there from Connecticut with her husband in the late 1990’s.  Whitney Darrow, Jr. was a well-known New Yorker cartoonist…he died in 1999. 

The most impressive thing about Mildred is that she STILL re-reads her Austen…has all the new editions on her shelf.  Otherwise she reads almost no fiction, as she says she cannot retain the story line…but she does read biographies and history, as the “facts are easier to hold on to…”  When we interviewed her, she was reading the biography of James Smithson (founder of the Smithsonian)… Mildred says she used to read what one “should”…now she reads what she wants to! 

Her first Austen read:  required High School reading in 1929 Milwaukee:  EMMA!  She hated it and realized later she was far too young to “get” it!  She started again after college with Pride & Prejudice and has never looked back; she LOVES Mansfield Park (yea!) 

Her beginnings with JASNA:  She saw an article in the New York Times about the first JASNA meeting:  $5. to attend the event in New York City.  She was one of the first members, and became a life-member early on.  From then on she attended all the AGMs with her friend Jane Eiger and has many memories of their times together; she remembers J. David Gray and Joan Austen-Leigh, and tells of the time she and Jane had too much wine at their table and Jane kept commenting on all the goings on in a far too loud voice!

As  for the costumes, they did not dress up themselves, but she remembers wonderful regalia on others.

She felt that through the years, JASNA has become more and more academic and she had less in common with the speakers; there was a loss of personal discussion and contact, so not as much fun…

She traveled to all the Austen sites in England, while her husband sat outside drawings his cartoons! 

What Mildred has read when not reading Austen:

  • does not like Trollope at all!
  • loves Barbara Pym
  • likes Brontes, but not as attached
  • went through a mystery period and read all the British literary mysteries
  • she is not a writer herself and has not kept a journal of her adventures (our loss!)

What makes Austen special to her: She loves her writing style, her humor, her satire; “she just offers everything you could possibly want in a book!” 

Thoughts on Hollywood:  “they think too much of themselves if they think they can improve upon Jane Austen!” 

She has gotten her daughter to read Austen:  [Linda says she has been reading Jane Austen herself since high school and is as “hooked” as her Mom!] 

What is her favorite Austen?:  (this is my favorite answer):  though she agrees that one always has to say Pride & Prejudice because it is unsurpassable; she says [quite rightly!] ” My favorite is whatever book I have just finished!”

So THANK YOU Lorraine and Mildred for sharing your love of Austen with all of us! 

[and see also the post by Janeite Mae on this June 22 gathering ]

“Now I must give one smirk, then we may be rational again”

A guest-post from JANEITE MAE, a JASNA-Vermont member, who writes most happily of our June 22 meeting on Northanger Abbey and the history of JASNA:

What a merry party we were at the Vermont chapter meeting on Sunday. Several members having sent their apologies (it is the summer, after all), twenty-four Vermont (and New Hampshire) Janeites gathered in the Conference Room at the Hauke Family Campus Center, Champlain College, for an afternoon of lively discussion, camaraderie, and just plain fun.

The activities began with former JASNA president Lorraine Hanaway’s presentation on the beginnings of JASNA in the late 1970’s. It was interesting to hear about how it all started. (Who knew that JASNA’s formation was due in large part to the urgent need for restroom privileges at Chawton?) Then we were treated to 94-year-old Mildred Darrow’s musings on being a long-time Janeite. How many of us could disagree with her observation that “my favorite Austen novel is the one I just finished reading”?

The dramatic readings from Northanger Abbey were a lot of fun. Janeite Deb provided accessories and props for the readers to help them get into character. Could anyone resist a chuckle at Catherine’s innocence, or a smirk at Henry’s teasing?!

Following the readings, we joined in a group discussion of Northanger Abbey. Topics included:  What does Henry see in Catherine?  How does the voice of the narrator in Northanger Abbey differ from that of Austen’s other novels? and, of course, what people thought of the two television films adapted from the novel.

An interesting twist to the discussion came when Lorraine shared with us her idea that Amy Heckerling, screenwriter of the film Clueless, could write a fun screenplay of Northanger Abbey as an animated film. Lorraine suggested that John Thorpe should be a walrus and Catherine a goose. Personally, I found this an intriguing idea. I wondered which animal should represent Isabella? (Some suggested a cat.) And what about Mrs. Allen? Imagine the possibilities! Imagine the fun! Imagine John Thorpe as a walrus. (Perhaps you already have?)

All kidding aside, though, I was very pleased to finally attend a gathering in my home state of people who share a love of Jane Austen. It was the realization of a long-time wish. And what a surprise to bump into Debbie L. upstairs at Barnes & Noble on the very next afternoon. We looked quizzically at each other and said at the same time, “Weren’t you at JASNA yesterday?” Debbie said it best: “It was wonderful to be in the same room with so many people who were so knowledgeable about Jane Austen’s novels,” to which I replied, “And no one thought we were strange.”

[ Submitted by Janeite Mae ]