Today’s blog provides a capsule of the recent Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, in Williamsburg, VA. The week involved history, pageantry, and good manners—and that was outside the conference halls. It was the 40th anniversary of the founding of JASNA, and the 400th commemoration of major events in Virginia’s history.
My wife and I enjoyed Williamsburg, a town that keeps its eighteenth-century history front and center. This was our first visit, and I thought perhaps we’d see a history museum here and an old house or forge there. Instead, the entire town is a living museum (and proud of it). It boasts more than forty historic sites and two art museums.
Historic Williamsburg comprises almost all the town center, perhaps a mile on each side. Modern services and shops are confined to one area on the west side of the town. You can walk or ride a bus to all sites. We did a mix of both. We started early because of the forecast for hot weather. Hot it was. The official temperature was in the high 90s but the effective temperature was 100 degrees. (Wind-chill factor makes temperatures feel colder. In the South, the humidity makes temperatures feel warmer.) We benefited from a bright, knowledgeable tour guide at the governor’s palace (house) and learned about early crafts from several artisans doing their craft work in the shops. Though it was mid-week in October, there were plenty of visitors to keep tradespeople busy answering questions.
Williamsburg was more meaningful to us, I think, because we saw Jamestown the day before. Jamestown, the site of the first successful English colony in North America, is both an historical and an archeological site. Excavations have uncovered the foundations of early buildings and the fort.
This year, 2019, makes for two important anniversaries. One is the 400th anniversary of the founding of the town’s governing council, which was the first democratic institution set up by British settlers. By the time of the American Revolution, colonists had more than 150 years of experience in self-government. The second anniversary was the 400th anniversary of most anti-democratic institution imaginable, slavery. The institution came by accident, when a British privateer captured a Portuguese ship carrying “20 and odd” enslaved Africans. The British ship traded the lives of these people for “victualls” at Jamestown.
Jamestown’s museum is well done, providing a thorough history of the creation of the colony and its difficult early years. It honors the sacrifice and hardships of the British settlers while also explaining the history of the native peoples and the fate of the enslaved people.
Now, on to the AGM itself. Jocelyn Harris gave the opening plenary talk. As usual with Jocelyn, it was well-researched and well-presented. Her point was to defend the intelligence of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey. I agreed with all her points, but it took me a few moments to get in synch with her commentary because it never occurred to me to doubt Catherine’s intelligence.
Naïve, yes. Gullible, yes. Prone to harmless fantasizing, certainly. Unschooled in dating politics and proprieties, yes—as only a girl from a small country village could be once she lands in the big city. But I’ve never considered Catherine anything less than sharp. Her arguments with her love interest, Henry Tilney, attest to the mental agility of both parties.
Catherine also shows backbone, refusing to buckle under pressure to act in a way that would hurt her new friends. She stands up to what Harris calls Henry’s sexism and arrogance. Here, we have a slightly different take. Henry does open with funny sexist challenges. It’s in the nature of young males to test someone they’ve just met, male or female. It’s how young men gauge the world around them.
If Catherine had accepted his presumptions, or responded angrily, Henry would have walked away. Instead, they either pass over her head (the naïveté) or she responds with good humor. Their first long dialogue is a series of funny back-and-forths that prove that she can engage his mind, but in a way that will not grate on his ears. The only time she’s at a disadvantage is when he teases her over her Gothic imaginings. Caught up in the story he spins, Catherine may not realize he’s funnin’ her.
Janine Barchas gave the next plenary, which was on the publication history of Austen’s lower-class books—the cheap, mass-produced ones. She gave particular examples from Northanger Abbey, the book which was the theme of the conference. Barchas’s topic, which is also the subject of her newly released The Lost Books of Jane Austen, was to demonstrate that the inexpensive, nonacademic versions of Austen’s books did more to cement her reputation with the general public than all the fancy ones did.
I had seen Barchas’s similar presentation last year and was impressed by how much she has developed it since. In tracing the history of cheap editions read by ordinary people, Barchas came upon fascinating and sad tales. As shown by inscriptions, one surviving book had been won by a young reader in school and was passed down to her younger sister. As it happened, the book had a happier life than its owners. … Even more thoughtful anecdotes grace Barchas’s book. The presentation was funny in the right places, academic in the right places, and thoughtful and respectful where the “gritty” lives of the book owners required it to be.
My wife and I had to leave before Sunday’s plenary, “Northanger Before the Tilneys: Austen’s Abbey and the Religious Past.” I heard great reviews from several friends. Moore took a fairly harsh view of the eighteenth-century owners of various abbeys, which had begun as Catholic abbeys, were given over to the big supporters of Henry VIII, and then passed down to the grantees’ descendants. General Tilney, Henry’s father, was an example of the financially entitled, and self-entitled, owners who luxuriated in their perceived superiority.
Another talk worth noting is one presented by Diana Roome, a direct descendant of Francis Lathom of The Midnight Bell. This one of the seven “horrid” novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey. Roome discussed Lathom’s life and writing. After early plays and some Gothic novels, he was banished from the life of his wife and children not only by her father but by his. His children took the mother’s name. He disappeared from the family record. A relative of hers found the connection a few years ago, sending her into serious research. No one knows what happened. Homosexuality? Incest? … He lived hand to mouth, wandered over to America, finished his life in a remote area of the British Isles. Diana looked at his situation from every angle. A mystery to this day.
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.