May 2014 meeting: Jane Austen Festival Australia Discussion

Prepared by member Cheng

Canberra’s 2014 Jane Austen Festival Australia, held from 10-13th April at University House, was the topic for discussion at JASACT’s 17th May meeting. Most members attended the Sunday Symposium, however, one member had also spent Friday at the Festival and she enthusiastically regaled us with her adventures and personal impressions. After the amusing saga of discovering the route to the Stanner Room, she described Tony Miller’s brilliant lecture on Josephine as being so good that she forgot to take notes. Nevertheless, we still heard some extraordinary facts and anecdotes about the Empress. Our member declared it her favourite session of the Festival!

Afterwards she had watched, in awe, the Country Dancing class led by John Gardiner-Garden and decided that she would have needed a brain programmed by IBM and the constitution of a de Castella before she even stepped into an 18th c. ball room. Just to browse through the ten tomes of historic dance patterns on sale was exhausting enough. Despite her being one of the few not clad in Regency garb she still felt that she was made welcome and found it easy to chat to those who were costumed – they were just as willing to explain the construction of their gowns as she was to admire them. It was definitely a family event with young people of all ages participating in the dancing with their parents and a really friendly atmosphere.

The Jane Austen Festival Book Club lead by Alison Goodman was a lively discussion of Mansfield Park, with a surprising range of opinions. As we have already studied this novel thoroughly at our meetings, she found it interesting to listen to some fresh ideas and gained a couple of possible areas for future research.

Lunch was a treat for her because as a vegetarian she is accustomed to having to forage at most public gatherings but on this occasion different diets had been catered for and she grazed gratefully. It was a good example of the care and thought that Aylwen Gardiner-Garden lavishes on the Festival. If only all conferences handed out booklets at Registration containing useful information on every facet of the event! (Though perhaps next time it could contain a map… that shy and elusive Stanner Room…) The Market Tables drew lots of attention during the lunch break and Festival goers had a diversity of temptations from which to choose.

John Potter’s talk on the Napoleonic era Canadian-American War of 1812 was the last session that our member attended that day and we learnt many odd facts about the NSW Corps which had re-formed into the 102nd Regiment of Foot and participated in this war. The chief one being that an Australian, Andrew Douglas White, the son of naval surgeon White, had enlisted and gone on to become the only Australian present at Waterloo! Another member had just returned from a holiday in Toronto, Canada and was able to tell us about Fort York and battle sites relating to this war that she had visited.

Mansfield Park Symposium

The Sunday morning Symposium started with apologies from the two male speakers, Markus Adamson and Will Christie, which disappointed many of the attendees. However, the four female lecturers were so engaging that everyone felt well satisfied and even wondering whether the scheduling of six might have pushed us into overload.

Janet Lee spoke on the importance of letters and letter writing in Mansfield Park. With liberal examples she drew our attention to the many instances of Jane Austen’s using letters to drive the plot. In fact, Jane Austen used them in this novel far more than in any of her others to inform both the characters and the reader.

“Mansfield Park and Education” was the subject for Heather Neilson’s talk and it overlapped and complemented that of the following speaker, Gillian Dooley’s “No Moral Effect on the Mind: Music in Mansfield Park”. Our discussion tended to blend both talks and covered the contrast between an education that produced a character of true moral worth and that which resulted in merely sophisticated, superficial ‘accomplishments’ – the difference that was illustrated by the moral intelligence of Fanny versus the cleverness of her cousins and the Crawfords and that eventually had to be acknowledged by Sir Thomas Bertram. We particularly appreciated the musical examples that Gillian Dooley used and wished she’d brought more. It was an interesting point that musicians in Mansfield Park were seen at a disadvantage. The characters with musical accomplishment having serious personal flaws. So was Fanny’s want of emulation a sign of her strength? One of our members had been surprised to discover that a harp cost five times as much as a piano, or the same as employing a housemaid for 10 years or buying a house in London.

The final talk, “Mansfield Park and Landscape Gardening” by Christine Alexander was the one of most interest to our group because we had recently researched this subject with reference to Gilpin and the concept of the Picturesque and the Sublime. Improvement of the estate and the country house ideal are strong themes in Mansfield Park. In both literature and poetry of the times there was the town life versus country life debate – the longing for a return to nature. Whilst London was the home of liveliness and gaiety, social manners and graces, it was also a scene of debasement and filth. Fanny’s situation in Portsmouth was described as ‘alien to proper moral growth’, whereas her love of Cowper was a sign of her embracing his belief in the natural world of the countryside bringing peace of mind with free and luxurious solitude. The natural landscape could inspire virtue. Accomplishing this transformation on one’s estate was usually done with the aid of a landscape gardener such as Repton. However, Jane Austen subtly sketched the difference between respecting ‘the genius of the place’ and imposing upon it a ‘naturalistic’ vista. That Sotherton’s chapel had fallen into disuse revealed the loss of the family’s, and therefore the house’s, solid spiritual basis that no cosmetic landscaping could replace. At Mansfield Park, on the other hand, it was Fanny’s presence and values that brought integrity and true worth back to the property.

Our meeting ended with the usual swapping of ‘show and tell’ items, a round of quotes and a devilishly hard quiz. Yes, we did indeed enjoy the April excursion to the Festival and look forward to attending it again next year, perhaps with even a full day Symposium?

Congratulations and sincere appreciation go to the dauntless Aylwen Gardiner-Garden and her team of volunteers for such a successful weekend. That gleeful Friday attendee of ours has even been glimpsed fingering frock patterns…….

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