I entered the world of Austen by fits and starts, first with film adaptations, then by reading her novels, then by reading JAFF, then by writing it. Somewhere along the line, I became aware of the Jane Austen Society of North America, or JASNA. A little poking around on the main JASNA website led me to the JASNA Utah Regional Website and Facebook page. I was so excited to discover that there was an active group in my area, and I paid my dues and reached out. My first human contact with the organization was with the delightful then-president, Aspen Anderson. She is the person who welcomed me to my first local JASNA event and delighted me with the realization that at long last I had found “my people.” Her enthusiasm and knowledge about Jane Austen made me feel right at home with a group of total strangers.
Soon after, I learned that Aspen was teaching some evening courses on Austen through the University extension program. I was disappointed to realize that conflicts in my schedule prevented me from enrolling, and I hoped another opportunity would come to take her courses. When I received an email a few weeks ago that she was going to take her Austen courses online, all I could think about was how wonderful this was. I asked if she would allow me to introduce her and her project to a broad group of Austen enthusiasts and she graciously agreed to let me interview her for this post.
Aspen, for starters, please tell us a little bit about your background and education.
I grew up in a small town in Northern Utah, the youngest of four siblings. My dad was a Firefighter. I attended the University of Utah and got a Bachelor’s Degree in History, then went on to get a Master’s Degree as well. In 2009, I founded the Utah Region of the Jane Austen Society of North America, and acted as Regional Coordinator for five years. I also founded the Regency Romance Ball that happens every year in Salt Lake in February. I am newly married with a whole mess of cats and dogs to take care of.
I have certainly enjoyed the Regency Romance Balls I’ve attended. They are fantastic! You have such a deep knowledge of all things Austen. When did you first discover the world of Jane Austen and the Regency/Georgian era?
I am pretty sure I was fourteen or so. I remember watching the A&E Pride and Prejudice in a hotel room in St. George between sessions of the LDS General Conference, and I remember absolutely falling in love with Ang Lee’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I would go out on cloudy days to the field behind our house in a knit shawl of my grandmother’s and pretend I was Marianne, pining over Willoughby in the rain.
I love the image that creates in my mind. I think you have a little streak of Anne Shirley in you too! This early connection clearly evolved into something deeper. How did you become involved with JASNA?
I actually was living in Washington DC when I first heard about JASNA, and when I returned to Utah I lamented to my friend, Elizabeth Bankhead (creator of The Jane Game) that there was no region in this area to participate in. She suggested I start one, and the rest is history.
Well, I for one, am grateful that you did! I know another thing you’ve done is some literary-based travel expeditions. How many times have you been to England, and do you have a favorite place in the UK to visit?
I have been to the UK three times. The first time was part of my first European tour, the second was on an 8-week Study abroad, and the third was to lead a London Literary Tour as a tour guide. As far as a favorite place, that is really tough. I would say some of my best days were when I went to the National Trust houses – places like Chatsworth or Blenheim. You spend the first half of the day going through the houses, which is amazing enough, but then you get to explore the grounds – I am in heaven.
Oh, I’m more than a little jealous! I would love to go someday too. Are you planning any more tours of England?
London Literary Tours was a great experience, but I have restricted myself to planning self-guided tours for others to enjoy for the past few years. I would love to take another tour group over, but my deal is now this: If you get six or more people together and you want to pay for me to come along and show you the sites and talk about the history, I will be more than happy to arrange the whole tour, but I am not actively recruiting.
Well, I’ll certainly remember to track you down when I start planning my trip to England. It’s at the top of my bucket list! I’m sure the travel experience has added depth to your understanding of the world Jane Austen inhabited. What was the genesis of the development of your course on Austen?
Originally I developed these courses for the OSHER institute at the University of Utah, a continuing education program for the +55 crowd (my favorite type of people). An e-mail from my graduate department was sent out, asking for teachers and saying we could choose our topics. I realized Jane Austen was the topic I knew most about, and I needed teaching experience for my resume. I hold such fond memories of these classes, they were so much fun. Then recently we have had some unexpected medical bills for my husband and I that are putting some financial pressure on, so I decided to put the courses online so I could try to bring in some extra income to help pay our debts.
To truly understand Austen’s work, a person really has to comprehend the nuances of English history and culture. Is there a particular aspect of British culture that is especially fascinating to you?
I love so many things about British culture, it is difficult to choose. My Master’s Thesis was on the British Navy, and if I were to go on for a PhD I would focus my studies on either race relations in the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars, or how the average well-trained seaman was affected by the industrial revolution and the shift to steam-powered ships, as their skills became outdated. Super nerdy, I know.
I wouldn’t have said nerdy, I was actually thinking that was way cool! It makes me even more excited to take your classes. I have long suspected that there is some meaty context beneath the surface of Austen’s navel references and am personally frustrated that I know so little about it. When do you expect the initial courses to come online, and what topics will you start with?
My goal is to have the first course, about Jane Austen’s family life, available mid-April. I hope to produce a course centered on each novel each month following. Right now I am working on a presentation that puts Jane Austen’s life into context with the major events of her day. How old was she when the Prince became Regent? How was she affected by the French Revolution? What literary masterpieces came out that affected the tone of her writing? What about her family life, how did her relationships with her brothers shape her world? Things like that.
Edit Monday Morning 3/14: Sampler video added:
It all sounds so interesting, and I’m pretty excited that I will be able to work your courses into my schedule on my own terms. What platform are they going to be presented in, and how can people who are interested in taking your courses stay in the loop?
The courses are going to be available through a system called Pathwrite. They will mostly be readings and presentations that the student can read through or watch at their leisure. Each class will be 12 dollars.
Thank you, Aspen. This is an exciting project, and I wish you well with it.
Well, friends, here we are in March, and I still have a few of the Janet Taylor 2016 Peacock Edition 12 Month “Jane Austen Illustrated” calendars that need to find a home. This giveaway will have three lucky winners and is open to commenters from anywhere in the world that has postal service. Comments must be made prior to midnight EDT on Friday, March 18 to be eligible for the drawing.
p.s. Happy Pi Day. Do take a minute and enjoy a slice of pie.