It’s been five days since our reentry into the 21st century and everyday lives. For three days, Friday, September 27 – Sunday, September 29, Sarah and I joined 750 other readers to talk about one author, and just one of her books: Jane Austen’s “own darling child” Pride & Prejudice. To sit in a full convention hall to celebrate one woman and her book, 200 years old this year, was a marvel. And yet, after listening to plenary speaker, John Mullan, on “Speechless in Pride & Prejudice,” almost 800 people didn’t seem at all out of bounds for such a subject. I came away loving Jane even more, something I didn’t think was possible.
At home, I’m the trivia nut, and have even been accused of being “obsessed” with Jane Austen. Folks, I was nothing compared to this crowd. Mullan opened up his talk with a trivia question (I instantly felt I had found my people): How many umbrellas are there in Jane Austen’s novels? I’m on the trivia level of “Who is the Bennet’s housekeeper?” (Hill. And Mrs. Reynolds is the housekeeper at Pemberley.) That’s pretty detailed for the average reader, right? So, you can see how the question of how many umbrellas are mentioned in all of Austen’s novels quickly recategorized me as a reader, trivia collector, and fan. The answer: 5, 4 furled and 1 unfurled! And one of my favorite lines from his talk: “What is important in Jane Austen’s novels? EVERYTHING.” I loved Jane Austen before but now I have a much better sense of her utter genius. And if I’m obsessed, l don’t know what to call the rest of that room!
Imagine our delight on the second evening when, for our first dance of the “Netherfield Ball,” we were paired with the Bingley sisters! Over one hundred of us gathered that night to dance until midnight to live musicians and a very skilled (and serious) English Country Dance caller. Let it be known that Sarah is an excellent dance partner and we had the best time in our Regency gowns. We dressed for the evening in dresses that we have been thinking about and planning for months. And it was all worthwhile as we sat at the banquet and listened to a toast given by one of Austen’s descendants (from one of her brother’s lines) in a room colorful with many dresses and hats and feathers. A great moment.
We enjoyed this AGM even more than we hoped we might (and my hopes were pretty high). The speakers were top notch and a joy to listen to. We must have listened to six or seven (eight?) talks on various aspects of Austen and P&P. The breakout sessions were more of a mixed bag (I wasted one session on a man whose talk was on why Wickham was really the victim, and how Georgiana just as likely tried to seduce him as he her. It was mostly a joke, but not that funny. Oh, well.) But there was just enough of a mix of fashion and shopping (think Darcy magnets and notepads), scholarship (they say the mix is about 50% academics, 50% fans), dancing (we covered that) and socializing (it was fun to learn how long people have been coming, and we met more than one mom/daughter pair).
We couldn’t help but wonder what the staff of the Hilton thought as they served tea and watched us come and go, some in costume the whole time, some not. One man, referring to the slideshow of stills from the 1995 BBC version of P&P with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, pointed to Ehle and said, “So settle this for me, is that her, or is that an actress?” So they kept us grounded in reality by reminding us that not everyone has read all of Austen’s novels multiple times, or *gasp* maybe not even heard of her!
So much to talk about, and we weren’t even there for Thursdays festivities! When we first arrived, we were talking to a woman in the elevator (we all wore name tags on ribbon) saying we had just arrived. She said, “Oh, I’ve been here since yesterday, so I’m already deep in.” We know better, now, after coming back home, what she meant. It was an absolute delight to drop into Austen’s world, as much as we could while eating hotel banquet food, and devote days to our appreciation for a master of the pen. I was reminded in one talk that Austen was not mentored; she was not surrounded by a community of contemporary writers; she didn’t keep up a correspondence with other artists of her time. She did what she did on her own, even more remarkable because it was so different than anything that came before. She was singular.
I thank all the lucky stars, my family, Sarah, and everything that made it possible for us to get there, enjoy it, and come back to tell the tale. Sarah took this photo of me at the banquet listening to the toast. A bucket list moment.