A year ago, I confidently predicted a 2020 filled with the usual array of Austen events: “Teas, balls, fairs, festivals, conferences, discussions, lectures, and walking tours celebrating Austen and the Regency.”
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the universe does not smile upon confident predictions.
As it happens, 2020 marked the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, which inaugurated institutionalized Janeite fandom, and in many ways, the Austen fan community rose to the occasion presented by this awful year, striving to create virtual community with an outpouring of creativity and enthusiasm.
While in-person events were scuttled, online alternatives proliferated: the Louisville Austen festival migrated to YouTube, the Jane Austen Society of North America convened on the web, and events that might ordinarily have been local – like an Australian AustenCon and an Arizona conference on fandom – suddenly went international.
While the major Austen pilgrimage sites were shuttered for much of the year, sustaining serious financial damage along the way, they found opportunities to bring their programming to a worldwide virtual audience, with Chawton House sponsoring online conferences and a newly rebranded Jane Austen’s House creating a panoramic online tour and a special Christmas treat.
While live theater went dark, you could stream any number of Austen adaptations, from a much-praised play based on The Watsons to a Zoom-enabled update of Pride and Prejudice to the new Emma from playwright Kate Hamill.
And the cinematic Austen universe only expanded, from the pre-pandemic U.S. broadcast of the Sanditon miniseries, to the theatrical and (post-pandemic) streaming release of Autumn de Wilde’s new Emma, to the debut of Modern Persuasion.
Best of all, those six great novels sat on our shelves, always available for a reread. They were our constant reminder that even during the worst of years, art endures, bringing us escape, perspective, and consolation amid loneliness and grief.
In that spirit, as this year finally ends -- and not a minute too soon! -- let's give Jane Austen the last word, from chapter 19 of Sense and Sensibility.
"Remember that the pain of parting from friends will be felt by everybody at times, whatever be their education or state," Mrs. Dashwood tells the mysteriously melancholy Edward Ferrars. "Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience -- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope."
Here’s hoping for a better 2021.