Before the pandemic I loved going to meetings of my local branch of the Jane Austen Society. They were lovely places to meet like minded people for bookish chats, lunch and plenty of tea. Best of all were the talks we enjoyed – two at every meeting – and we had some great ones. My favourite is probably still the dramatic reading of extracts from Austen’s Juvenilia – it was hilarious – and I also remember one several years ago about William Beckford. I loved Amy Frost’s talk so much that I immediately went and borrowed every book by Beckford I could find in the library.
In fact, Amy Frost spoke at the last meeting I attended – in January last year – and gave another fascinating talk about what is wrong with location in Austen adaptations. Since then of course we have been kept at home. I have enjoyed several online events – including the literary festival hosted by Chawton House – but it has been a few months since the last one I saw. I was therefore delighted to be invited – along with the rest of my branch – to a Zoom meeting hosted by the Scottish branch of the society.
We were determined to do things properly so we set out a nice tea for ourselves and sat down to a talk on Jane Austen and the weather by Katie Halsey. I very much enjoyed listening to it and of course it made me long to read the novels again (it has been maybe two months since I read any Jane Austen – you wouldn’t think I would need more yet!). It was a thoroughly delightful way to spend the afternoon and I am definitely looking forward to the next opportunity to hear talks like this. They might not be quite the same as meeting in person but they are definitely filling an intellectual hole. If you know of any please do let me know!
Recently I have been re-reading Northanger Abbey with a lovely group of Jane Austen enthusiasts – most of whom are far more knowledgeable than I am. I have so enjoyed our discussions and I have learnt a lot from them.
The first time I read Northanger I didn’t get it at all. I had heard that it was very funny and I couldn’t understand why. Then I learnt about gothic novels and read it again. It turns out that it is indeed hilarious and I have loved it ever since.
The plot has a great deal to do with that (of course) but I also love how heavily books feature in the story. As a bookish teenager I very much identified with Catherine – I too have spent much time living more in my fictional worlds than in the real one.
I have also very much appreciated the books I have discovered within its pages. Like many people, I was pushed to read The Mysteries of Udolpho by Catherine Morland and, although the sentences are long and have far too many commas, I enjoyed it. An even better discovery was Fanny Burney who I read partly because she is mentioned in Northanger and partly because I knew Jane Austen herself enjoyed reading her. For me she was far superior to Mrs Radcliffe.
From there I went on to discover several other 18th century authors including Maria Edgeworth who I loved. I have not yet embarked on any of Samuel Richardson’s novels but I have no doubt that I will at some point.
For now though I have returned to the gothic and am about to start Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. This one isn’t mentioned in Northanger Abbey but I’m sure that Catherine and Isabella would have adored it.
Last weekend should have seen the AGM of the Jane Austen Society UK at Chawton House. This year is the 80th birthday of the society and so it would have been quite a special occasion. Of course, for obvious reasons, this couldn’t happen.
Instead, Chawton House hosted an online event which included a tour of the house and a talk about the history of the society which was very interesting. 1940 seems like an odd time to be creating such a society and I can understand why people thought there were more important things going in in the world. It is however an excellent example of keeping calm and carrying on.
The highlight of the day for me though was the selection of birthday wishes from Jane Austen societies around the world. It was very moving and even humbling to see how much people love Jane Austen and her world.
Last year I went to see Lucy Worsley’s talk about her book Jane Austen at Home. Obviously I am a Jane Austen fan but I also love watching Lucy’s television programmes so I was very much looking forward to it.
I wasn’t disappointed either – Lucy gave a fantastic talk and if you ever get a chance to see her I would thoroughly recommend going. Of course, I had to buy the book and get it signed!
On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, historian Lucy Worsley leads us into the rooms from which our best-loved novelist quietly changed the world.
This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, but a life that was often a painful struggle. Jane famously lived a ‘life without incident’, but with new research and insights Lucy Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy.
It took me a while to get around to reading it but it was always hovering at the back of my mind and when I booked to go to the Jane Austen Society study day I knew it would be the perfect companion for me. I was so excited to finally be reading it.
I sometimes struggle to get into non-fiction but I was immediately gripped by this one and I resented having to put it down to do something else. It was just as well as I had a four hour train journey so I needed something that kept me wanting to read!
This was a really interesting way to look at the life of Jane Austen and I did learn some things I hadn’t previously known. I loved Lucy Worsley’s style of writing and I will definitely be reading more of her books in the future.
Last Saturday was the Jane Austen Society’s annual study day and for the first time I made the trip up to London to attend. I was very excited about going but more than a little nervous about being on time – my train was due to arrive 40 minutes before the first lecture started and as trains were delayed by the weather that weekend I was convinced I would be late. However, my journey ran perfectly and I arrived at Senate House with time to spare.
The talks were all based on the theme of reading but took us in a wide variety of directions and I found them fascinating. I was greatly interested in the Reading with Austen project and I would highly recommend having a look at their website. They are trying to locate all the books which were in the Godmersham Park library when Austen was there and the virtual bookshelves are wonderful.
I also particularly enjoyed the talk on 19th century illustrations in Jane Austen. I found it fascinating that the illustrations focused so much on typically feminine objects like dresses and bonnets and pictured very few books. The speaker suggested this gave the impression that the books were very frivolous and I think this is an idea which continues today. Certainly I have heard people writing off Jane Austen as ‘just’ a romantic novelist when in reality she is so much more. On the other hand, some illustrations made the books look like highly sensational novels – I found them rather amusing!
The break times were an excellent chance to chat with other Janeites and I was in my element with so many other like minded people. It might have been my first study day but it’s certainly won’t be my last.