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Austen 2014: An Interlude -- Among the Janeites at the Jane Austen Summer Program

Last weekend, your humble blogger had the great pleasure of spending four days attending the second annual Jane Austen Summer Program (or JASP--I like to think of attendees as JASPers), organized by devoted Janeites among the faculty of UNC Chapel Hill's Department of English and Comparative Literature. The event, which blended lectures by scholars, group discussions, and Regency-themed entertainments, was focused on exploring--and perhaps reclaiming from relative disinterest--Austen's first published novel, Sense & Sensibility. But enough press release-style generalities: I'll give you the skinny on my first extended encounter with organized Jane Austen fandom. Spoiler alert: I'm already planning on going back next year.

But let's begin at the beginning. I arrived in Chapel Hill, a lovely city I look forward to exploring more in the future, on Thursday morning, and, in short order, met my on-line acquaintance Edward Scheinman, a UNC grad student who first alerted me to the program's existence and who wrote an endearing article about last year's inaugural event, tied to the 200th anniversary of Pride & Prejudice. This post will in no way equal his, either for humorous insight or prose style, so you may want to stop here.

As it was last year, the program was organized by James Thompson and Inger Brodey, faculty members at UNC, and after a welcome to the dozens assembled from Thompson, Inger (as everyone seems to call her, rather than the far more formal Dr. Brodey) took the podium for the opening lecture, a discussion of Marianne Dashwood and the cult of sensibility, and within minutes, I was furiously taking notes when not nodding along with her talk. It ranged wide and touches on the works of Rousseau and Goethe, among others, and almost made me like Marianne Dashwood as much as I do Elinor. Almost. During the Q&A, I asked her about altruism, as the cult of sensibility thought that morality grew largely from empathy--that's Rousseau through and through--which doesn't necessarily leave room for doing things simply because they're the right thing to do without any sort of "warm and fuzzy" feeling. Inger paused for a moment, replied that she hadn't thought much about that, and moved on to the next question. I sat down and felt sheepish.

One of the niftier (yes, niftier) components of the program were a series of brief "Context Corner" talks where a grad student walked those assembled through some of the facts of life and society that Jane Austen and her first readers would have been familiar with, but that most modern readers don't know. Over the course of the weekend, we learned about inheritance law, the Anglican Church, education, and medicine and illness in Austen's time; these brief presentations were followed by discussion sessions where, broken down into groups, the attendees had the chance to chew over both the text and the ideas presented by the various talks. My group, named after Barton Park, was led by two distinguished scholars, Charlotte Sussman and Robert Clark, who provided both guidance and insight, but, as at St. John's, our true instructor over the course of the conversations was Austen and her amazingly rich text. We brought many different backgrounds and viewpoints to the table, leading to some really wonderful explorations of the text. For example, one member of the Barton crew, a retired sheep farmer from Vermont, provided frequent and eloquent defenses of both Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood and the sensibility they embrace. Like Inger, she almost made me like Marianne as much as I like Elinor. Again...almost. These conversations, perhaps because, at their best, reminded me so much of a really good St. John's seminar, were certainly the highlights of the program for me. The lectures and panel discussions, however, were also quite good, ranging from discussions of Emma Thompson and Ang Lee's beautiful film adaptation of the novel, and the expanded role it creates for Margaret, to a discussion of political economy in the time of Austen. 

If the lectures and the group discussions represented the more academically inclined portions of the program, the dance lessons on Friday and Saturday were pure Janeite fun. We learned about a dozen dances, which were danced with varying degrees of elegance at Saturday evening's ball, for which many of the attendees dressed in Regency gowns, adding an air of glamour to the proceedings that my shorts/button-down combo decidedly did not. Still, the ball was a delight, and the evening demonstrated quite capably what Ted says so eloquently in his piece: it would be very easy to fall in love with an attractive stranger on such a night.

Oh, and the theaticals! There was a very funny theatrical presentation, based on Austen's youthful story, "Jack & Alice." Unlike her adult novels, her juvenilia, which I shall cover before the year is out, is almost uniformly silly, full of ridiculous, borderline surreal, jokes and plots that are impossible to follow, because she never actually meant them to function as real plots. For example, in "Jack & Alice," Alice is not really the main character, and Jack never actually appears. Still, the story is very funny, featuring echoes of ideas Austen would later play with in S&S, and made for a charming half hour.

All in all, the weekend was very enjoyable, reveling both in Austen's words and in the more enjoyable elements of her times, blending the approach of the scholar and the super-fan. If you're either, I recommend making a trek to Chapel Hill next June for a celebration of Emma--which may or may not be her masterpiece, depending on who you ask. (Dr. Thompson says it is; I'm inclined to argue.) In any case, I hope to see you there.

P.S.--Before the weekend was out, Inger told me that she'd been thinking over my question about altruism all weekend and that we should talk more about it sometime. We never got the chance to do so, but I'm already looking forward to what I can stump her with next year.

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