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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Janeite heaven

I spent my weekend in Janeite heaven: Saturday at “Jane Austen Day,” a delightful conference sponsored by the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of JASNA, and Sunday at a meeting of my local (Central New Jersey) chapter of JASNA.

The topic for Sunday’s local meeting was Jane Austen spinoff fiction. We munched scones, chatted about our favorite – and not-so-favorite – examples of the genre, and speculated about why Jane Austen, alone among classic authors, has inspired such an outpouring of imitators. (Because her characters seem unusually real? Because her life is modest and relatable? Because she only wrote six books?)

Saturday’s more ambitious event featured three distinguished academics delivering papers on the conference topic, “The Unfinished Jane Austen” – the books, and the life, that Jane Austen left uncompleted.

Jocelyn Harris, retired from the University of Otago in New Zealand, spoke on card games as a metaphor for the marriage market in Austen’s novel fragment The Watsons. Janine Barchas of the University of Texas at Austin discussed Regency advertising and the concept of branding in relation to the unfinished Sanditon. And Michael Gamer of the University of Pennsylvania talked about how different posterity’s view of Austen might have been had she survived longer, and had her brother Henry not lived to cultivate an image of her as a sedate and pious spinster.

All three papers were well-delivered and thought-provoking, but as usual in these Janeite gatherings, I found myself enjoying the company as much as the program. What did you think of Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, the latest installment in the Austen Project updates? Are you planning on attending this fall’s JASNA meeting in Montreal? Isn’t it bittersweet to realize how good Sanditon was going to be, if only Austen had lived to finish it? These gatherings are the place for these conversations, and a dozen more like them. It's all about community.

The quintessential Janeite moment came amid one of the scholarly lectures, as the speaker – surely by accident -- referred to Jane Austen’s untimely death at the age of “fifty-one.” A rustling whisper swept through the audience, as dozens of voices murmured a correction: “Forty-one.”

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