When I was little, I was a history buff. It started with a love for the people and culture of Colonial times. As I grew older, I became enchanted with the Victorian era, probably because of my love for the Bronte sisters’ novels, though I was a Dickens fan as well. In my mid 20s, I fulfilled my dream of living in Virginia (one of the most history rich states in our country), but I married a man who had no desire to go traipsing around historical sites as he had been forced to do that in school when he was growing up here. So we moved forward, focused on life in this century, and I only brought out my history enthusiasms when the kids has school projects or we visited a Renaissance Faire.
Nearly twenty years later, I was introduced to Jane Austen, and fell in love with her and the Regency era. When I began writing JAFF, I decided it only made sense that I should join JASNA (The Jane Austen Society of North America). I found several groups in surrounding areas and attempted to attend their meetings as they fit in my schedule. I cannot tell you what I expected. Perhaps I thought it would be like a book club. I can say, I never anticipated the devotion to knowing every minute detail regarding Jane Austen, her life, her family, her beliefs. To be honest, I walked a thin line between awe that they were so knowledgeable regarding her and suspicions they might be a bit obsessive. My husband could not relate at all.
I tell you this because, leading up to the JASNA Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Williamsburg this year, I held a mixture of anticipation and dread. I know not all my books have been well received. I have a tendency to push envelopes some would rather be left alone. I also was not sure if I would be able to take 3 days of what might appear to some as Jane Austen fanaticism. That said, I took my day dress and spencer in anticipation of the ball and stepped into the fray.
In all honesty, I felt a bit like a fish out of water the first evening and wandered about just taking it in. I did make my way to the Emporium more than once and ended up walking away with a proper ball gown and accessories for Saturday evening. This allowed me to wear my day dress the following day when I would be volunteering. (I do nothing halfway. I consider the SE Virginia group, who was hosting, my regional group and knew they could use all the help they could get.)
As many of you know, the topic for this AGM was Northanger Abbey (NA). Another confession: I have only read this book once and I remember bits and pieces of it. I attempted to reread it in the weeks leading up to the AGM, but so many good books came out during that time … and then somewhere in the middle of it all, I decided I should probably read the Mysteries of Udolpho instead. Terrible idea. Although I am embarrassed to say I did get further into Udolpho than I did NA. (Here I feel the need to explain this decision. A few years ago, my daughter started watching Scream Queens. She understood it was a parody of horror movies, but until that time, she had never watched a horror movie. I told her that in order to fully appreciate Scream Queens, she had to see the original movies. We made it through Halloween. She has found something else to watch whenever I mention Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, or any other movies I recognized as we watched the series. I could not be a hypocrite and not read the novels Jane Austen was parodying.) Thankfully, the first breakout session I attended was conducted by a woman who had read Udolpho, did not recommend it, and told us how it ended so we would not have to read it.
Another point I must make: from the first readings of her work, I recognized Jane Austen was a genius. Her portrayals of people are so clear even after 200 years. We know these people, which is why we want to see them in more than just what she left behind for us. (Oh, and coming from a family who speaks fluent sarcasm, I recognize a fellow snark in Miss Austen. Though her humor is not petty or cruel, it is truthful. She found the ability to laugh at the absurd in all of us, including herself, and shared it with us.) What I learned from my time in Williamsburg was just how deep her brilliance ran. Whether it was the intricacies of a simple dining room conversation, the mention of a specific church which would speak volumes to anyone familiar with Bath in the early 1800s, or how she used her characters to poke fun at members of the aristocracy, Jane Austen’s works hold such depth that many of this generation know nothing about. That said, this lack does not lessen our appreciation for her and her works.
So after saying all this I may be asked to turn in my JASNA membership card, but my weekend in Williamsburg rekindled my love of history. Once again, I am fascinated with the details of daily life and the people who lived so many years ago. More importantly, I long to know more about Jane Austen herself in order to have a deeper appreciation for her work and all the amazing nuances.
What are your thoughts on JASNA?