What Happens at a Jane Austen Society Gathering

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Jane Austen fans are hardly wilting wallflowers but instead an avid array of people who dress up in period costumes and talk passionately about favorite books and miscellany from their beloved author despite it being nearly 200 years after her death. The first meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America was held in 1979 and attracted some 100 people to the Gramercy Park Hotel, writes Jennifer Schuessler in The New York Times. This year's meeting took place in Brooklyn last weekend, and "Attendance was over 700, the event lasted three days, and the daytime dress code for many ran to pale Regency dresses, demure bonnets and straw baskets to hold anything that wouldn’t fit into a period-correct reticule."

This is the moment of the year for Austen fans, "a place where people can let their Jane Austen freak flag fly,” according to one attendee. So, as book lovers and Austen fans, we were curious: What exactly happens at a meeting of Jasna? Along with a ball, reports Schuessler, there were lectures and speeches from the likes of Cornel West, Cisco Systems' Sandy Lerner, and novelist Anna Quindlen; the three talked, respectively, of matters ranging from Austen's understanding of human suffering to her lack of understanding of cash to a discussion of "two centuries of male condescension to Austen’s seemingly small domestic dramas." 

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But at a Jane Austen Society meeting there is mostly just love for Jane Austen, an interest in everything down to the minutiae of money and motives and even the undergarments of the time—fun fact: "a proper Regency lady would have worn crotchless panties, if she wore them at all. (Pulling them down to use the toilet was too complicated)"—and, again, lots and lots of ardor for Jane Austen. This even though, in a perfectly Austen-esque manner, "Some scholars at the meeting said senior colleagues had discouraged them from getting too involved with the group, lest they get caught up in 'effusions of fancy,' as one put it — or worse, photographed in costume." Comedies of manners live forever, changing with the times, which is one reason Austen still resonates with so many.

True, not everyone's an Austen fan. Mark Twain, for instance, stated in 1898, "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone." But that likely only makes her more beloved to her fans—divisive writers are frequently popular writers. The added twist to that is, as Schuessler writes, according to DW Harding's classic essay "Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen," maybe Austen herself "would have have despised the besotted readers who failed to recognize that her novels were about the 'eruption of fear and hatred into the relationships of everyday social life.'”

That she is complicated is another element of her charm, you'd expect they'd retort, and another thing that makes the meetings, full of dress-up and discussions running from mainstream—Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a topic—to highly academic, so compelling. Also, whatever happens at a Jane Austen Society meeting is sure to end up on the pages of something, simply because it is so very Jane Austen:

The elaborately dressed crowd included several admirals, a blue-gowned woman clutching a stuffed pug (in homage to Lady Bertram of “Mansfield Park”) and a spectacularly bewigged Georgiana, the real-life duchess of Devonshire.

But as Emma Woodhouse famously said, “Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.”

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.