April 2016: JASACT attends JAFA (Pt 1)

Prepared by members Sue, Cheng and Anna

As has been our practice for three years now, we did not schedule an April meeting, to cater for those members who wished to attend the Jane Austen Festival Australia.

Symposium on The Chawton Years

Two JASACT members chat in the Hyatt's lower foyer between speakers

Two JASACT members chat in the Hyatt’s lower foyer between speakers

This year all 6 scheduled speakers for the Symposium turned up, which made for a full but very enjoyable day. Although focused on Jane Austen’s Chawton Years, that is, those years from 1809 to her death in 1817, the papers ranged widely in content and style, from historical to literary to philosophical in content, and from descriptive to analytical in style. There was, we’d say, something for everyone in what is a rather diverse Festival.

To make our report manageable to read online, we have divided it into two parts. Here is Part 1.

Judy Stove: Edward Austen Knight and his legacy at Chawton

Judy Stove was one of JASACT’s early members, before moving away. We were therefore thrilled that she was one of this year’s JAFA presenters. Her paper, on Edward Austen Knight and his legacy, set the scene beautifully for the day. Edward is the brother who inherited the Chawton Estate and provided accommodation – Chawton Cottage – for his mother and sisters, Cassandra and Jane, after the death of their husband and father. If our Jane had not had this secure base in her adult life, would we have had the books we now love?

Stove took us through a well-constructed argument concerning Edward’s legacy. Starting with the familiar – Austen’s early family history and how she ended up at Chawton – Stove moved on through the family after Austen died. She described Edward’s world, demonstrating that he was a “man of the world” with wide cultural interests, and tracked the history of “Austen lore”, that is, how Jane Austen became a cult, starting in the 1860s, not long after Edward’s death.

This cult, she argued, has culminated in an emotional attachment to “things” Austenian, such as the lock of hair bought by American Austen collector Alberta Burke in 1948 and the turquoise ring bought by American singer Kelly Clarkson in 2012, both of which caused uproars in Austen circles. Clarkson’s purchase of the ring was brought to the notice of Britain’s Export of Items of Cultural Interest legislation, which lists three criteria that could prevent export. A Senior Curator, at the Victoria and Albert Museum objected to the export of the ring under the third criterion – that it was of outstanding significance for the study of Jane Austen. In the end the committee deferred granting an export licence under the first criterion, which is that the item must be “so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune”.

What does “misfortune” mean, Stove asked? How significant is a ring that no-one knew existed until 1959? How much does the ring add to an understanding of Austen when we can see from her novels that material objects were not important? Would Edward Austen Knight, who, Stove argued, did not enjoy personality-focused museum exhibits, tombs, statues, and the like, have approved his sister’s life being lauded this way? Stove proposed that the hair and ring stories show an attitude to cultural nationalism that allows emotion to over-ride rational thought. Fortunately, there is more to Edward’s legacy than this. In 2003, American philanthropist Sandy Lerner, who had earlier bought Chawton House, established there The Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600-1830! Now, that’s a legacy!

Gillian Dooley: “My Fanny” and “A heroine no one but myself will much like”: Jane Austen and her heroines in the Chawton novels

Devoted readers inevitably look for parallels and sympathies between the ‘real’ Jane Austen and her characters in an effort to answer the question: ‘What was she really like?’  Gillian Dooley examined the Chawton novels – Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, Sanditon – for clues about the degrees of distance between their heroines and their author.

With a liberal selection of well-chosen quotes from her characters and from Jane Austen herself, Ms. Dooley prompted us to explore just how closely the author was in sympathy with her leading ladies and whether any of them can be said to speak for her – to embody her own beliefs and opinions. Mary Crawford is said to most share Jane Austen’s own kind of wit. Why should this disturb us? Is it because the thought jars with the sanitized biography of the author promoted by the Austen family after her death?

Fanny Price, often condemned as an evangelical moralist, has those principles undercut by glimpses of her jealousy and by the asides of the author. Fanny’s moral world is not that of Mansfield Park’s and the narrator is obviously considerably more worldly than Fanny. When Jane Austen referred to her as “My Fanny – happy in spite of everything”, she increased the difference between Fanny and herself.

As to Emma, we hear her and see her through her own interior monologues when she reports her personal flaws and secret thoughts. But can we really align points of similarity in her and Jane Austen? Anne Eliott’s (Persuasion) self-absorption, her reflections and internal grieving, have led to the most varied interpretations by readers. Austen allows us to be inside Anne’s skin – to be sympathetic to her feelings.

This was a most thought-provoking, well argued presentation, and undoubtedly we each had our own personal ideas on which of these ladies most resembles the real Jane. Gillian Dooley’s conclusion was that none of them does.

Julia Ermert: Marriage in Mansfield Park 

Proposing that Mansfield Park is not a ‘stuffy’ story, Julia Ermert’s paper explored all of the different marriages in the novel, placing them in their social context.

The novel begins with the marriages of the Ward sisters: Miss Maria who “had the good luck to captivate” Sir Thomas Bertram; Miss Francis, who “married to disoblige her family; and Miss Ward, “obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr Norris”. The question was asked, “Did Sir Thomas bribe Mr Norris to marry his sister-in-law?”

In the next generation, Maria Bertram marries the wealthy Mr Rushworth (richer than Mr Darcy with £12,000 a year) to escape her strict father, Julia Bertram elopes while cousins Fanny and Edmund marry at the novel’s end. Can first cousins marry? Yes, because it hasn’t been illegal since the reign of Henry VIII.

The Crawford siblings create ripples of sexual unease within the Bertram family leading to the ruin of Maria Rushworth and a fate worse than death, having to live with her Aunt Norris in the country. Maria is the only character not to have a happy ending. There was no second chance.

Such divers topics as courtship in the ballroom, adultery, divorce, gossip, breach of promise and details of the marriage ceremony at Gretna Green were covered in this interest filled paper.

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