I love Jane Austen, but I’m not what anyone would consider a hard-core Janeite. I’ve read all six of her major novels, as well as Lady Susan. But I’ve read most of the novels only twice, and I’ve never gotten around to her other works. I certainly don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the novels I’ve read, and I sometimes forget whether a particular scene is in the book or just the film adaptation. But when I learned that the Jane Austen Society of North America would be bringing its annual general meeting (AGM) to Washington, DC, I made sure my membership was paid up and marked my calendar for the day sign-ups would begin.
Open only to JASNA members and a limited number of companions, the AGM is a little bit academic conference and a little bit fan con. There are papers given on such topics as “Dangerous Humor and Female Empowerment in Emma,” “The Post-Office: Epistolary Networks, Private Space, and Postal Culture,” and “The Encouragement I Received: Emma and the Language of Sexual Assault.” But there are also workshops on how to make elegant cards and pretty workbags, dance classes, and plenty of Regency cosplay. There were also opportunities to buy books and other Austen-related goodies at “Ford’s Emporium.”
This year’s AGM was focused on Emma, a novel I’ve always enjoyed, although it’s far from my favorite of Austen’s novels. Not all of the AGMs focus on a single novel, but I found the focus to be ideal for a semi-Janeite like me. I was able to reread Emma in the week before the conference and feel like I had a good enough grounding in the material to follow all of the lectures. And the lectures were excellent.
Although the keynotes, presented to all 800 attendees, were good, my favorite sessions were the breakouts, each of which gave me something new to think about. My reading of Mr Woodhouse in particular transformed over the course of the weekend. I had previously seen him as a comic figure, but I came to recognize that the comedy in the book is really quite dark, and his actions, when you look at them without a comic lens, are really quite cruel. Emma’s tendency to selfishness and manipulation is nothing to his. She at least believes she’s being helpful. But, as Rebecca Posusta noted in her presentation, “Who’s Afraid of Miss Bates?,” if Emma isn’t careful, she could end up another Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
My main focus for the weekend was on the breakout sessions and lectures, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t room to just be a fan and squee over pretty dresses and jewels and other lovely things. The women of Matti’s Millinery and Costumes were selling beautiful Regency dresses, but they were also more than willing to let attendees just try on the gowns without buying them. And, being real here, if the gown I tried on hadn’t been too snug for comfort through the arms, I might not have been able to resist, but given that I could never button up the back of that gown without help, it’s just as well that it didn’t work out.
Many people bought gowns for the Saturday night Promenade and Regency Ball. I wish I could tell you all about that, but as a semi-Janeite with a strong Darcy-esque streak, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the ball alone. If I’d been staying at the event hotel, instead of at home, it would have been easy to stop in for a few minutes and then leave if it wasn’t fun. I also didn’t take advantage of the extra workshops and outings that were available. Most of those had an additional cost that I wasn’t quite ready to spend. But if I’d been coming from out of town, I might have at least given the dance workshops a try.
Still, just dipping my toes in, much as I do with Austen in general, was enough to give me a good weekend. And although next year’s meeting in Huntington Beach, California, is much too far to go, I see that the 2018 meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, is focused on what may be my favorite Austen novel, Persuasion. Even better, the 2019 AGM, all about Northanger Abbey, is in Williamsburg, Virginia, an easy trip and my beloved college town. I’m marking my calendar for that one for sure!