If I’d had any doubt that the event was more promotional pep rally than literary conversation, the contents of the kit—logo-bedecked GIFs, stickers, and suitable-for-social-media background art—would have disabused me of that notion. (OK, to be fair: There was also a printable bookmark.)
Luckily, however, I had no illusions that a Hallmark-sponsored discussion of Pride and Prejudice was going to yield new insights into Austen’s most popular novel. And . . . it didn’t.
We diehards--roughly one hundred people, nearly all of them female--watched excerpts from two of the four upcoming films. We answered multiple-choice trivia questions, of the what’s-the-name-of-Mr.-Darcy’s-estate degree of difficulty. We competed to win unspecified props from this weekend’s movie, Paging Mr. Darcy.
Occasional stabs at conversation, as awkward as these things usually are on Zoom, did little more than name-check Austen’s humor, Elizabeth Bennet’s independent spirit, Mr. Darcy’s rudeness-or-maybe-shyness, and the importance of marriage in nineteenth-century England. (Though I was pleased to see a definite pro-Colin Firth trend in the favorite-Mr.-Darcy chat thread.)
The event host, Jenny Forwark, won a contest anointing her the Hallmark Channel’s Chief Fan Officer for 2023-24, and from what I could see, she comes by the title honestly: A school librarian in real life, she exudes the relentlessly wholesome perkiness of a kindergarten teacher auditioning for a game show, even while dressed in a Regency gown and a braided updo.
Hosting a Jane Austen book club for Hallmark is “a dream I didn’t even know was a dream,” she enthused to the Zoomful of fans, a number of whom were backed by images from their digital fan kits.
Still, hokey as the proceedings were, it’s hard not to be semi-charmed by an event that gets people hooked on Jane Austen. “I’m 71 and this is the first time I have ever read Pride and Prejudice,” one participant said in the chat. “OMG!” another wrote, upon seeing a slide quoting Miss Bingley’s daunting criteria for the truly accomplished woman. “This reminds me of the Barbie monologue!”
Alas, that same slide misattributed the speech to Mr. Bingley, suggesting lax quality control at the Hallmark factory. Still, more than one participant caught the error and corrected it in the chat! We pedantic Janeites are everywhere! (But why did no one speak up about the repeated addition of an erroneous second “t” to the Bennet family name? Grr.)
As the virtual book club wrapped up, Forwark had one last softball question for us: “What excites you most about watching a Pride and Prejudice-inspired Hallmark movie?” Her own answer seemed to be . . . pretty much everything! “I’m so excited!!” she squeed. “Best month EVER!!”