Deborah Yaffe

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What I heard at the AGM

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 13 2014 01:00PM

I’m back home after four whirlwind days at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting – held this year in Montreal – which focused on the tantalizing, fascinating Mansfield Park, as fresh today as when it was published exactly two centuries ago.


JASNA AGMs encompass many pleasures: seeing old friends and making new ones; admiring Regency gowns that seem to grow more elaborate and beautiful each year; and cruising the Emporium for the latest Austeniana (this year’s find: the Jane Austen-shaped cookie cutter!)


But at its heart the AGM is a weekend-long conversation about the author we all love, and every year I hear something that makes me think about Austen in a new way.


Herewith just eight of the countless provocative, touching, hilarious or enlightening somethings I heard at this year’s AGM:


* Department of Literary Technique, Part 1: In her breakout session on Nabokov’s annotated copy of Mansfield Park, Janine Barchas of the University of Texas at Austin noted the close attention that the author of Lolita paid to his great predecessor’s linguistic precision: “He wants to know where the rabbit comes from when she pulls it out of the hat.”


* Department of Janeites Taking Everything Very Personally: My JASNA summer tour companion Debbie McNeil remembered the first time she heard someone criticize the book's controversial heroine, principled, misunderstood Fanny Price: “It was like someone slapped my child.”


* Department of Regency Weirdness: Plenary speaker Robert Miles of the University of Victoria foraged through the archives of early nineteenth-century newspapers to excavate the pathos, melodrama and excess that, as he put it, crowd around the edges of Austen’s fiction without quite sneaking into it. My favorite of Miles’ discoveries: the man who boasted he could eat 1,000 oysters in an hour -- and actually made it to 650 before an errant piece of shell stuck in his throat and knocked him out cold.


* Department of Psychology: In a roundtable on Mansfield Park’s dysfunctional families, writer Gracia Fay Ellwood suggested that readers dislike Fanny because they recognize her as an abused child, identify with her victimhood, and then unconsciously react against that identification by blaming her for her own suffering.


* Department of Literary Technique, Part 2: Plenary speaker Lynn Festa of Rutgers University unpacked how Austen reveals the jealous, angry, forbidden thoughts that Fanny simultaneously experiences and represses: “Through free indirect discourse, Fanny gets to eat her cake without having to acknowledge she has an appetite.”


* Department of History (aka Thank God I Was Born Amid Second-Wave Feminism): Sheryl Craig of the University of Central Missouri detailed the horrendous misogyny of Regency divorce laws, which made it possible for husbands to take their wives’ money, deprive them of their children, and dictate their future romantic choices, all on the basis of sometimes trumped-up adultery charges: “I cannot overemphasize how unfair and awful this was.”


* Department of Celebrity Sightings: In their history of the so-called “Fanny Wars” – the sometimes vitriolic debates over the love-her-or-hate-her Miss Price – Linda Troost of Washington & Jefferson College and Sayre Greenfield of the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg mentioned one early Jane Austen critic, Richard Whately, the future Anglican Archbishop of Dublin. Turns out that Whately’s great-great-grandson, Kevin, is the fine actor who plays the lovable Robbie Lewis on the British crime dramas “Inspector Morse” and “Inspector Lewis.” Who knew? Austen connections really are everywhere.


* Department of Philosophy: In a touching breakout session on two Nova Scotia women who read aloud from the recently published Mansfield Park as they coped together with the death of a young child, author and blogger Sarah Emsley neatly summed up Austen’s enduring power: “Jane Austen doesn’t tell us how to live. She reminds us to ask ourselves how we should live.”


4 comments
Oct 16 2014 04:57PM by Sarah Emsley

Thanks so much for coming to our talk, Deborah! It was lovely to see you at the AGM. And thank you for this overview of breakout sessions, which gives me a glimpse of some of the things I missed when I was at other sessions.

Oct 16 2014 04:44PM by dyaffe

Greatly enjoyed your talk, Sarah! It is an occupational hazard of the AGM that you never get to hear everything you're interested in, alas. . .

Oct 16 2014 08:45PM by Syrie James

I enjoyed your blog, Deborah--and it was great to see you, even if it was only a brief hello! As Sarah said, I too enjoyed reading about some of the breakout sessions that I missed. I hope you had as good a time at the AGM as I did!

Oct 16 2014 10:02PM by dyaffe

Good to see you, too, Syrie, and to admire your lovely gowns! Enjoyed the play very much -- I hope you and Diana are planning an encore soon.

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