1997 Annual General Meeting, Oct 3-5, San Francisco, CA, USA

Theme: “Sanditon: The New Direction?”

“The finest, purest Sea Breeze on the Coast—acknowledged to be so—Excellent Bathing—fine hard Sand—Deep Water ten yards from the Shore—no Mud—no Weeds—no slimey rocks—Never was there a place more palpably designed by Nature”—for the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America! Excellent Papers—fine Rooms with Views—Deep Conversations lasting past 10:00 at night—Cable Cars—no Shortage of Dancing Partners—no Apothecaries on the hotel register—Never was there a place where Nature and Ideas were more generously joined.

1997’s AGM seemed clearly to be to “Every body’s Taste,” and Sanditon proved to be a worthy enterprise for Enthusiasts. What is so extraordinary about these twelve short chapters of “The Last Work” by Jane Austen is that even a fragment of her writing can elicit discussions that continually surprise and delight the audience. How are we to read these chapters, to interpret motivations, and to judge the characters? Alas, Jane Austen left few clues in her manuscript, so we set out, like Charlotte Heywood, to judge for ourselves.

The delight began on Friday, October 3, with Eileen Sutherland’s historical assessment of seaside resorts and the changes in social codes that attended the craze for salt-water plunges. Her gorgeous slides sharpened our ideas about Bathing Machines, Bathing Costumes, and the Lack of Bathing Costumes. An enlightening panel discussion on “Jane Austen and the Nineteenth Century Novel” provided diverse views that drew all of us deeper into the lives of Sanditon’s zany, eccentric inhabitants. Speculation about what-might-have-been kept the conference participants busy debating. Does the Sanditon fragment portend tragedy or comedy? Which character had Jane Austen destined to be the Heroine? Charlotte? (Probably.) Clara? (Unlikely.) Lady Denham? (This character MAY have been proposed tongue-in-cheek by a Rogue in the audience.) Which character was destined to be the Hero? Sidney? Sir Edward?

In “Sickness and Silliness in Sanditon,” John Wiltshire dissected the talking and walking manias that obsessed the resort’s hypochondriacs. For a leisured class exhibiting the serious symptoms of a “Club Med mentality,” illness generated its own social currency. With “Spasmodic Bile,” pulled Teeth, and Asses Milk all the rage along the waterfront, Reginald Hill amused everyone with his depiction of “Jane Austen, Humorist” and the “Voyage of Discovery” that brought him from “the frowning portals of Mansfield Park” to San Francisco.

Was Sanditon in all its absurdity, incongruities, its splintering of culture and language, Jane Austen’s last word on the changes she observed in an increasingly materialistic and self-centered society? Stephen Arkin suggested that the Sanditon real estate boom, founded as it was on the quicksand of speculation and quackery, presented a fundamental moral problem. All was pretense, and pretense was—and is—a serious social danger. The recent spate of “Jane Austen Films” recreate that danger by presenting a “theme park” mentality. Films, therefore, are pure Speculation. We must get back to Jane Austen’s BOOKS.

The individual Breakout Sessions gave everyone a chance to ponder the questions of manners, morals, personal and social responsibility, sea bathing, and silliness. Meanwhile, the hills of San Francisco provided the Exercise and Exertion we all needed at the end of two days of elegant intellectual meanderings along the terraces and promenades of Sanditon.

By Laurelynn Smith Kaplan

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