Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 4 2020 01:00PM

When Elinor Dashwood learns (as she thinks) that the love of her life, Edward Ferrars, has finally married his longtime fiancée, she is surprised at the intensity of her sense of loss.


“Elinor now found the difference between the expectation of an unpleasant event, however certain the mind may be told to consider it, and certainty itself,” Jane Austen tells us in chapter 48 of Sense and Sensibility. “She now found, that in spite of herself, she had always admitted a hope. . . . and she condemned her heart for the lurking flattery, which so much heightened the pain of the intelligence.”


For Janeites, last Tuesday brought our own painful Elinor moment: the arrival of a long-expected-yet-greatly-dreaded email from Liz Philosophos Cooper, the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, officially canceling JASNA’s Annual General Meeting. Scheduled for October 9-11 in Cleveland, the conference—“Jane Austen’s Juvenilia: Reason, Romanticism, and Revolution”—was to have centered on the short, boisterous burlesques that Austen wrote as a teenager.


It’s hard to argue with Cooper’s reasoning: It’s vanishingly unlikely that a COVID-19 vaccine will be widely available this fall; large gatherings risk spreading the virus; and JASNA’s AGM attendees skew toward the older end of the age spectrum, making them especially vulnerable to illness.


“It is impossible to hold our conference without undue risk to public health,” Cooper wrote in her message to JASNA members. “None of us wants to look back and wish that we had been more careful.”


Sigh. It’s all true, and anyone who’s been following the news must have known this was coming. And yet—what a sad difference certainty itself makes! See, this was going to be such a fun AGM! Novelty! (JASNA has held only one prior AGM on the juvenilia, and that was in 1987.) Hilarity! (The juvenilia are often laugh-out-loud funny.) Glory! (OK, that was a personal note. I was going to be co-presenting one of the breakout sessions, achieving a long-held goal.)


JASNA has held an autumn AGM in a different city every year, without fail, since the society’s founding in 1979, even pulling off a Seattle conference less than a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This year-without-an-AGM will set a sad precedent.


It’s likely that the canceled 2020 conference will be rescheduled, but with AGM locations already chosen for 2021 and 2022, that presumably can’t happen for at least three years. Still, it’s something to look forward to—which seems about as much expectation of certainty as we can get these days.


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