Persuasions #9, 1987 Pages 7-10
Notes on the Ninth Annual Meeting
Judith Terry and Sallie Wadsworth
Department of English, University of Victoria, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 2Y2
Music, dancing and theatricals, a spread of entertainment as lavish as the food and setting, in one of the world’s great cities and one of its most famous hotels. Welcome to Jane Austen’s Weekend at the Waldorf. Whew! Wow! Whoopee! Perhaps even the native New Yorkers felt they had just come up from the country.
The lovingly restored art-deco of the Waldorf-Astoria was a pleasure in itself. Elegantly inlaid floors, the nine-foot clock from the Great Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago, swags of velvet, black marble, washrooms like Roman baths, and, on Sunday morning, a crystalline eagle carved out of ice as the centrepiece for brunch in the main foyer. Janeites, eating more modestly elsewhere, had time to observe the favoured few, on show, leisurely circling the table to the strains of a harp, time and dissolution measuring out, drop by melting drop, from the eagle’s aristocratic beak. Mutatis mutandis, it might have been the Pavilion at Brighton, and it was not at all impossible to imagine Prinny making first cut into the intimidating lobster in aspic and topping up an over-full plate with Veal Wellington.
We were in Jane’s world and out of it. There were movies as well as theatricals, and an agile black photographer, dressed in combat fatigues, heavily bearded and hung about with his equipment, leapt into what was, on Thursday evening, supposed to be the Pump Room. “Is this the Patricia Neal dinner?” When his mistake was explained, he said “Jane Austen? Oh. She’s a writer isn’t she? Patricia Neal’s an actress.” After a moment’s anxious reflection (was he supposed to be photographing Jane Austen?) he shook his head and leapt out again.
The Evening at the Pump Room, a pre-reception reception (there seemed to be twice as much of everything) brought forth Regency costumes in great numbers. In between sampling the waters and the elegant desserts and greeting new-met friends, there was a keen eye for detail. “What do you call that?” someone asked of a particularly becoming cap. “Well, I call it a doily.” There were reticules, fans and feathers, lace, straw bonnets and knee-breeches. One costume had been toted in a garment bag all the way from the Portland Opera Company, and there was even a beaver hat. “Where is Joan?” There was a flutter of distress amongst the fans at the absence of our co-founder. If you were looking for Gentleman Jack (and many people were) he was to be identified by the colour of his coat and the faintly anxious eye with which he overlooked the proceedings. “Stand and deliver.” But we were the highwaymen, and he and his committee did deliver, most nobly, this evening and the whole weekend.
The Court Dance Company performed cotillions and hornpipes, quadrilles and reels, with agile leaps and turns, neat steps, little flirtations and showings-off of handsome calves, to the sound of violin and ‘cello. Then the audience was called to step out in the Sir Roger de Coverley which they did, admirably, several times. The most sought-after partner of the evening was undoubtedly Darcy, alias Sir Walter Elliot, alias Juliet McMaster.
After the official reception on Friday evening, songs selected from Jane’s Notebooks provided the material for a concert by the Music Before 1800 Productions. If the name of the ensemble is not notable for its tuneful sound, the performance was: we heard songs rarely, if ever, professionally performed, delivered with verve and style. Thank goodness that this concert, like the remainder of the proceedings, was taped.
It would be an injustice to what we learned through the music and dancing to say that Saturday morning began the serious business of the conference, but it did see the beginning of what conferences are generally supposed to consist. In his opening address, Professor A. Walton Litz was careful to attach the Juvenilia to the rest of Jane’s oeuvre, as material in which the seeds of all her later work, her authentic voice, are to be found, but he also made a plea for their intrinsic wit and energy. Suppose they had been found in, say, a croquet box in Twickenham, wouldn’t we have enjoyed them anyway?
If he had called a vote, it might have gone against him. It was easy to find people who admitted they do not like the Juvenilia, although the pieces have their champions. (What would the conference be without a little dissent?) One aggressive defender insisted the Juvenilia were superior to Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters. But on the whole, Jane’s advice to Anna Lefroy as quoted by Walton Litz seemed to sum up the response: “Till the heroine grows up, the fun must be imperfect.”
Ten seminars followed. If the leaders were perhaps a little exercised to find much of substance to dilate upon in the Juvenilia, they lighted upon some ingenious angles. Barbara Horwitz in “Lady Susan”: Unfit Mothers and Education” provided some insights into the conduct books for young ladies which promoted manners and morals in Jane’s time; Robert Hunting spoke on “Lady Susan: Facts and Problems”; Claudia Johnson’s topic was “Politics and the Juvenilia”; Laurie Kaplan spoke on “Jane Austen and the Uncommon Reader”; Deborah Knuth encouraged participation in “We fainted Alternately on a Sofa: Female friendship in the Juvenilia”; John McAleer told us “What a Biographer Can Learn about Jane Austen from her Juvenilia”; Mary Gaither Marshall, a stalwart of JASNA, brought her considerable knowledge to bear on “Lady Susan and other Literary Manuscripts at the Pierpont Morgan Library”; Ellen Martin’s challenging title was “The Madness of Jane Austen”; Susan Pepper Robbins’ “Jane Austen’s Epistolary Fiction,” was a seminar conducted by Nancy Clifton; LeRoy W. Smith spoke on “Lady Susan vs. ‘Catharine’: Jane Austen’s Choice of an Avenue for the Future.”
With the good sense notable in all its members (“There’s more than Jane Austen between us …”) the adjournment for lunch was a healthy two hours. Finding a place to eat was no chore: around every corner is some delectable eatery, in every ethnic variety and price range. If it was hard to come in again from the distractions of New York on a pleasant fall day, the numbers at the afternoon session, “Jane Austen Adapted,” did not indicate it. A panel of four writers, with Conrad Harper as moderator, attested to the variety of literary activity Jane has inspired: Phyllis Ann Karr, whose Regency romances are a library staple, has transposed Lady Susan into straight narrative; Judith Terry talked about Version and Diversion, a novel which tells Mansfield Park from a servant’s point of view; Paula Schwartz, who, under the pen-name of Elizabeth Mansfield (everyone loved that), has produced twenty-two Regency novels, told of the book and lyrics she has written for a musical version of Persuasion; Mary Gaither Marshall about the careful editing and seeing-into-print of a manuscript containing Anna Lefroy’s continuation of Sanditon.
In his after-dinner address on Saturday evening, Mr. Anthony Trollope, honourable secretary of the Jane Austen Society and epitome of the Englishman abroad, conducted the company on a short walk, then and now, from Jane’s Steventon to his Overton. It wasn’t all bad news: the elms have disappeared but so have the outside privies; the paper mill which Jane would have known now produces currency paper for nearly every country in the world, including the U.S.; there is still the rural pleasure of feeling that everyone knows everyone else. Annual traditions then took over as Tad Mosel awarded prizes for the competition, this year for the composition of bout-rimés, and warm thanks were extended to those members of the society who managed to make this meeting so highly successful.
On Sunday, Patricia Meyer Spacks, speaking after brunch, gave a pleasantly feminist angle to her praise of Lady Susan over earlier epistolary novels. Whereas they showed feelings instead of action and thus provide a comment on women’s ineffectuality, Lady Susan’s letters are a means of force rather than passivity.
The Lady Susan of the afternoon’s dramatization reminded one more of Hedda Gabler than of Becky Sharp. An elegant and interestingly compressed drama, Lady Susan needed a Lady Susan whose star quality eclipsed and dazzled those around her, for the actor playing Reginald successfully smouldered in a Byronic snit, and a convincing Frederica portrayed a young girl too long kept in ignorance and too-young clothing. The dramatist took liberties with the plot, with the customs of the period, and with Jane Austen’s language; but on the whole the production held our interest.
Sunday night’s panel was a lively question-and-answer session. Was this the time a cheerful lady disclosed that if one really wanted to know what Lady Bertram’s pug looked like, we should look at her? The audience and panelists considered, among other topics, what was Lady Susan’s fascination, the long tradition of eloquent women as the source of evil, and the reasons why there were originally more men among Jane Austen’s fans, including George Henry Lewes and the Prince Regent, than there are now. The discussion ended with Mrs. Trollope asking if the discussion did not shred the lightness of the Juvenilia, and Jan Fergus’s reply that we are celebrating rather than shredding.
The day for Princeton contained the essence of autumn – weather that was cool, crisp, sunny – the perfect day for enjoying a tour of the collegiate Gothic campus and of venerable Nassau Hall with its cannon ball indentation and portrait of George Washington in the frame that originally housed the image of George II, a casualty of the Battle of Princeton. We were treated to a display of Princeton’s collection of Austen letters (by her and about her), and of rare books, augmented by the rarities from Jack Grey’s and Mary Gaither Marshall’s collections. The Rare Book Room also housed an extensive collection of Anthony Trollope editions and manuscripts, and nestled among them were his own editions of Jane Austen novels, with his manuscript notes. Emma has several leaves, closely written, of commentary, including the opinion that Knightley and Mr. Weston are “sticks” – a sentiment that outraged several members and delighted at least one.
Lunch at the Country Club was a cold collation of meats and salads, with a glass of champagne for a Jane-toast. This was topped off with cheesecake that would have horrified Mr. Woodhouse, but that was a fitting end for a conference rich in substance and smooth in organization.
It is, of course, the little things which imprint themselves: John McAleer’s passing remark that Jane’s apparent preference for blue as a colour is shared by 76% of MENSA members; Hot Apple Charlotte Lucas and Quiche Lorraine Hanaway; the delicate “tussie-mussies” of posies with which Helen Dickerman and her committee decorated the tables; the member who, on spotting a T-shirt with the slogan, “I’d rather be reading Jane Austen,” immediately said, “I want one,” and was led away to fill in an order form; the porcelain dolls with delicate faces fired and hand-painted by Mary Gaither Marshall and dressed by her mother, one of which was raffled; and the winner, whose delighted and tearful reaction provoked the comment, “Just a minute while I catch your fainting body.” As to the food, last but not least, well, it was good enough to eat, and there is no doubt that the Brie (the keeping of which is a Waldorf secret) was the best in the world.
NOTE ON ADAPTATIONS OF JANE AUSTEN:
Questions from the floor, after the panel at which the authors of adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels discussed their work, made it clear that JASNA members wanted to know what works by these panelists were available. Information follows.
Phyllis Karr’s books currently in print include Frostflower and Thorn and Frostflower and Windbourne (an Arthurian murder mystery), Idylls of the Queen, and a pastoral mystery, At Amberleaf Fair. Her publishers are Berkley and/or Ace Paperbacks. Her prose version of Lady Susan is published by Corgi Books.
Mary Gaither Marshall’s edition of Anna Lefroy’s Jane Austen’s Sanditon: A Continuation by Her Niece Together with “reminiscences of Aunt Jane,” is still in print (though in limited numbers), and available, to JASNA members only, at the bargain price of $25. It may be obtained from Chiron Press, c/o James Borg, 1910 Surrey Lane, Lake Forest, Illinois 60045.
Paula Schwartz, who has written a number of Regency romances under the unforgettable name of Elizabeth Mansfield, has prepared an audio tape of Persuasion: The Accident at Lyme, but unfortunately it is not currently available.
Judith Terry’s Versions and Diversions: Miss Abigail’s Part, which gives the servant’s eye-view of the events of Mansfield Park, was published by Morro in 1986, and is currently available.