Persuasions #4, 1982 Pages 22-25
THE MEETING IN TORONTO
Sidney, British Columbia
Last year’s meeting in San Francisco was a hard act to follow, admitted a Toronto organizer at this year’s registration-with-tea when we arrived at the Park Plaza Hotel in Toronto. She and I were taking tea and looking for some hot water to weaken a brew that was, to quote a great-great-aunt of mine (who ranked Persuasion next to the Bible) “strong enough to trot a mouse.”
Toronto members felt less uncertain of their home city’s welcome after president Joe Costa of New York told us about a certain Canadian Customs official who questioned some of the U.S. members on their arrival at Toronto airport. A stern-looking type, the official asked if this was indeed a literary group. On being told that it was a Jane Austen meeting, he became all smiles. “Which of her novels is YOUR favourite?" he asked. “MINE’S Northanger Abbey.”
Our Canadian stock rose at this point.
It perhaps dropped a little at the wine and cheese party, as Toronto members, who are justly proud of the Royal Ontario Museum, felt apologetic for it as a scene for the Friday evening affair.
“It was supposed to look something like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” said Mary Millard, ruefully. “But the building’s just reopening after a lengthy renovation, so our setting is more like Kingston Penitentiary.”
Saturday morning activities in the R.O.M. also got off to a chilly start as members blew in on a brisk and icy wind, and it was obvious that those from southerly points thought they’d located the “cold front from Canada” that U.S. weathermen talk about. I heard one say, as though reporting bubonic plague rampant in the streets outside, “I swear I saw snowflakes this morning! And just a minute ago someone ran past me wearing earmuffs!”
The Saturday morning meeting was chaired by the man who has been fondly tagged as “The best prime minister Canada never had” – the Hon. Robert L. Stanfield. Literate, quietly witty and a long-time Jane Austen buff, his perceptive introductions and comments warmed the cool museum theatre.
Papers were given by Ottawa psychologist June Rogers (Perceptions of Childhood in Jane Austen and Contemporary Literature); John Hart of Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon ( Jane Austen’s Sailors: Gentlemen in the Military Capacity ); Mary Holford, Assistant Curator of R.O.M. (Dress and its Significance).
Following the mid-afternoon annual meeting we had many choices of group sessions. On registering Friday – there were some 200 of us – we had each signed up for one or two topics concerned with Jane Austen’s time. These topics included: Card Games, to be taught by Maggie and Charles Cohn of Chicago; Governesses, a discussion on the training of a lady, lead by Penelope Waldie and Margaret McPherson of Toronto; Nature in the Novels, under the direction of Joan Piorkowski of St. Paul, Minnesota; Carriages, conducted by Torontonian Rolland Jerry, who knows how they were built and maintained and why only the rich had them; Publications, a discussion with Gene Koppel of Tucson, Arizona, on expansion of publication by the Society; Religion, conducted by Torontonian Hugh McKellar.
I had signed up for the card games. Not whist, which I used to play, but loo. Someone sitting near me admitted that she’d thought, until reading an Austen novel, that loo was the name of “conveniences in England, both private and public, but in the public you spent a penny.”
Friday evening I’d met Toronto painter Anne Duff, who told me that a loo table had always been in her family and that she now used it as a dining table.
Using an ordinary large round table, Maggie Cohn soon had a lively game going with some fifteen of us. We decided that Jane Austen’s loo players must have been a lot smarter than we were to have kept up a spritely stream of conversation while still following the rather intricate and boisterous plays of a game that’s faintly reminiscent of today’s poker. One despairing man finally left, saying, “I’m going to see if the Religion group is any easier.”
Following a recital by harpist Gianetta Baril and tenor James McLean in the late afternoon, we rushed to dress for our pre-dinner cocktail party where, as at the ball in Mansfield Park, “a general spirit of ease and enjoyment seemed diffused, and they all stood about and talked and laughed, and every moment had its pleasure.”
“At parties in our house,” said one member, “we sometimes play that old parlor game of which book you’d choose to have with you on a desert island. And you’d be surprised how many of our guests opt for Jane Austen.”
Discussion began as to which Austen novel would wear best in enforced solitude, but it broke off when someone else said, “At our house we play a different version. We allow players to take to the desert island one PERSON as well as one BOOK.”
This produced some fascinating suggestions: Pride and Prejudice with President Reagan; Persuasion with Richard Burton to read it aloud; the unfinished MS. of The Watsons with Margaret Drabble to complete it. Some of us agreed that if the choice included persons no longer living we’d take Noel Coward and Sense and Sensibility because of this line written in one of his diaries while on a lengthy sea journey: “I am comforting myself with Sense and Sensibility and the gentle, acid good manners of Miss Austen.”
The most interesting choice, we all thought, came from a young and attractive woman who said that her companions would be the complete all-in-one-volume works of Jane Austen – and a 30-year-old male gynecologist.
At the dinner, chaired by Robert Stanfield, a letter to the society from Queen Elizabeth was read aloud and then handed around. Her Majesty sent her greeting and best wishes for our fourth annual meeting and for the society’s future success.
The dinner’s menu was an interesting one, with all dishes made from recipes found in the diaries of Lady Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of the first Governor General of Upper Canada. We began with something that would have brought definite disapprobation from Mr. Woodhouse, smoked salmon and its unlikely but most delicious garnish of gooseberry sauce, and finished with one-crust apple pie and Ontario cheese.
At this point, if anything were needed to make Canadian stock soar for U.S. visitors, Juliet McMaster supplied it. Dr. McMaster’s books are known to most Jane Austen followers, but even we were dazzled by the scintillating wit and wisdom of her discussion of Hospitality .
Sunday morning brunch, and another chance for informal chitchat. Mine was mainly with Hugh McKellar (the leader of the discussion on Religion the day before, and a man who seemed able to come up with amusing quotes from any part of any of the novels), and with some of the members who attended the session on Governesses. It was interesting to note, they reported, that almost all those attending the session had had governesses – so they spent most of the session’s time discussing their own. One member had actually had both a black nanny and a white governess.
Our table was fascinated by the talk Jane Austen’s Legal Lore , given after brunch by Toronto lawyer Enid G. Hildebrand. Among us were seated two other lawyers and a woman who is a teacher, author and real-estate agent, and they’d all been wrangling happily about the law as it affected housing in Jane Austen’s day.
Later, when good-byes were said, with some of us heading off for a
look at Old Fort York (the scene in 1813 of a less friendly meeting
between our countries), the general feeling was that our annual Jane
Austen conference could be held successfully on either side of the
border – just so long as it had the same enthusiastic
Freelance journalist Doyle Klyn is a former editor of Weekend Magazine. Her column According to Doyle appeared for 14 years in newspapers across Canada.