Members of JASACT met on Saturday 15th July to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death in the foyer of the National Library of Australia. Wine was drunk, a door prize was presented and a number of toasts to Jane Austen ensured the conviviality of the meeting.
Members had been asked to bring either an obituary, a eulogy or extracts from the novels, letters or juvenilia to read in celebration of our favourite author. The choices were varied, revealing the multi-faceted genius we all admire.
A member had recently returned from England and reported on an exhibition in Winchester, The Mysterious Miss Austen, which included five portraits together for the first time. One, in a private collection, has not been seen in public for more than 40 years. A number of pieces in Austen’s hand were on loan from the British Library; the alternative ending to Persuasion and Volume the Second of the Juvenilia.
Another member turned to D.W. Harding’s essay Regulated Hatred in her search for the real Austen. Harding argues that Austen “peppered her novels with encrypted messages” which he calls “unexpected astringencies”. They are embedded in dialogue, authorial comment and caricatures revealing a “ hatred” of aspects of the society in which she lived, expressing her feelings without offending. Harding argues that part of her aim was to find a means of spiritual survival in the era in which she lived.
Two letters were read, both written to Cassandra; the first dated Saturday 7th January 1796 about dancing with Tom Lefroy, praised for the youthfulness of the voice and the effortless nature of the prose and the wit; the second dated Saturday 27th October 1798, which reveals not only Austen’s acerbic wit but how much they travelled, as well as the problems her travelling mother presented.
A favourite passage from Persuasion was read:
Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden-place to Westgate buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way.
And a playlet from the Juvenilia, ‘The Mystery’ was ‘performed’ as an example of what a ‘mad’ person Austen was.
Another member returned to her recreation of the Austen quilt to remember another facet of the author and the mathematical and creative difficulty of the task. She also expressed sadness for the potential lost as result of Austen’s early death, asking “what would she have written if she had lived on”.
A eulogy was read lamenting how little we really know about Austen because of the family’s successful efforts to conceal aspects of her character and her life. The eulogy focused on what we do know and ended with the reading of a poem written in 1806 Oh Mr Best you’re very bad, demonstrating Austen’s wicked sense of humour.
And last but not least, a member read a quote from Lord David Cecil stating that if he “were in doubt as to the wisdom of one of my actions” he wouldn’t consult Flaubert or Dostoyevsky, or trust the judgement of Tolstoy but he would “worry for weeks and weeks” if he “incurred the disapproval of Jane Austen”. She then read a “toast” to Jane Austen by Rudyard Kipling, followed by her own tribute to Austen, including “ I sit with Jane when I am feeling frail and walk with her when I’m not.” To her Austen is the “gold standard and at that, with thanks to Tina Turner, she burst into a rendition of “You’re simply the best, better than all the rest”.
The meeting ended with coffee and a quiz. All of the contributions were collected so that copies can be made to be distributed to all those present.
It was a memorable event.