I’m not sure what the collective noun is for Janeites* (the term popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his short story by that name) to denote admirers of the Georgian-era British novelist Jane Austen, but assembly will do as well as anything! The recent Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), held in Williamsburg, VA was indeed an assembly of Janeites, and a fascinating one, attended by this UC Berkeley librarian (incidentally, a JASNA life member from long before the Colin Firth wet shirt scene).
JASNA has upwards of 6,000 members worldwide, and an impressive 850 attended this AGM (which filled up within five minutes of going live online), from every US state but 3 and every continent but Antarctica. The AGM is an agreeable panoply of lectures (some popular, but mostly academic, including three excellent plenary addresses), special events such as tours and concerts, and a ball and promenade. To say it’s a cross between a ComicCon-like event and a discipline-specific scholarly gathering doesn’t do it justice—there is some indefinable aspect added by the focus on the Georgian/Regency era and the passion for one ironic, wise, delectable, insightful, and compassionate author. And the period-appropriate garb doesn’t hurt, especially when its background is Colonial Williamsburg, a veritable time capsule itself.
Herewith some highlights of this year’s AGM, for you readers who are interested in a glimpse of this delightful conclave:
—Let’s begin with some academic cred! Here are the lists of the conference’s breakout sessions and plenary addresses, complete with presenters’ bios. Nothing if not majestic scholarship on show!
—Continuing with the academic theme, my favorite part of the entire conference (what can I say? I’m a librarian!) was the tour and open house of Special Collections at the library of the College of William & Mary. William & Mary is second only to Harvard University as the oldest higher education institution in the US, was founded in 1693, and is the only one founded by royal charter, from, you guessed it, co-regnants William and Mary. For more detail on the tour, see this piece which appeared in William & Mary news. Overall, it was just amazing to see the depth of the holdings, and those related to Jane Austen in particular. Some of the most notable are thanks to an American Janeite, George Holbert Tucker, whose extensive and meticulously documented collection is now held at William & Mary. At the same time, there were many other period treasures on display, among them this donation of a lock of Queen Mary’s hair.
—Of course, there were also tours of Colonial Williamsburg. Of special interest was the home of George Wythe (the original structure still stands), with whom Thomas Jefferson lived and studied law for three years. John Marshall, fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, also lived in Williamsburg and studied with Wythe; in addition, Marshall liked reading Jane Austen! He wrote of her: “Her flights are not lofty, she does not soar on an eagle’s wings, but she is pleasing, interesting, equable, yet amusing.”
Also, being a librarian, I was very interested to see a demonstration of colonial-era typesetting and printing (unfortunately, the bookbinding demonstrations were not happening when I was there):
—The promenade and ball are the hallmarks of any AGM. After dinner, the entire assembly does a promenade, in their finery for the ball, around any location at which they happen to be meeting (when I attended an AGM in Washington DC, the promenade took place on the escalators connecting four levels of the hotel— quite a sight). This time, we strolled at dusk to the Governor’s Palace, led by four torch bearers (with modern protective gear—those torches were huge!) where an actress told us period-appropriate ghost stories. Then we gathered for the ball, to dance and drink and carouse. The music was provided by a small string ensemble, and a caller with the calmest voice imaginable led the lines of dancers in the sometimes-intricate moves. Luckily everyone was good-humored!
—The attention to dress is something that has always marked an assembly of Janeites (as it marked the interests of many of Jane Austen’s characters, at a time when distinctions in dress spoke more loudly than words). At the conference, this could be seen in both modern expressions (as in this T-shirt with its reference to Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s admonishment of Elizabeth Bennet in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), and in scrupulous care with period detail in the many outfits worn by attendees, especially at the ball. In Colonial Williamsburg, where the park interpreters are dressed in colonial era period-appropriate apparel (mostly from the second half of the 18th century), conference attendees in Georgian/Regency attire (from the late 18th to early 19th centuries) didn’t stand out as much to our modern eyes. However, they would have stood out in the late 1700s, when wearing rich and patterned clothing identified one as a loyalist to the crown, and was positively unpatriotic (patriots wore homespun).
—On the final afternoon, there was an 18th century cricket demonstration. The rules were somewhat different then than in modern cricket! (the largely north American audience might not have been as aware of differences). And in case you are wondering that the photo shows a woman playing, Austen tells us that Catherine Morland, heroine of Northanger Abbey (the novel on which this year’s conference focused) loved cricket as a girl and played it with her brothers!
Intrigued? If you haven’t read any Jane Austen, or if you tried as a teenager and couldn’t warm to it, maybe have another look… Here is a complete set, free and online, from the wonderful Project Gutenberg. For introductions to her life and work, try Jane Austen (with an introduction by Harold Bloom), or The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen. And for more reading on Jane Austen devotees, try Among the Janeites or The Making of Jane Austen. For a video of a spirited debate comparing Jane Austen and Emily Brontë, check out this one from IntelligenceSquared. And consider joining us at the JASNA 2020 AGM next year in Cleveland!
*The term Janeite is often not used as a compliment; see this decidedly non-neutral Wikipedia overview. However, for the purposes of this article, the term is used affectionately!