Jane Austen in Paradise: Celebrating Austen’s Legacy at the 2017 AGM

For three sun-soaked days within footsteps of the Pacific Ocean, Janeites gathered in Huntington Beach, California, to honor the legacy of Jane Austen at the 2017 JASNA Annual General Meeting. JASNA-NY was well represented among those who came to celebrate “Jane Austen in Paradise.”

In between country dance workshops, turban-making workshops, and visits to the Emporium, attendees were treated to a host of plenary speakers and breakout sessions that covered everything from Regency funeral arrangements to the thriving world of Austen fanfiction. JASNA-NY’s own programming chair Monica Alvarez discussed images and critical perceptions of Darcy in a breakout session, exploring how the public has received Austen’s paragon of masculinity over the last 200 years.

Another engrossing breakout presented by Professor Peter Sabor focused on the Godmersham House library and the Knight family’s collections of books, which Austen would have enjoyed on her visits to her brother Edward. A team of scholars is currently attempting to digitally recreate the library using the 1818 catalogue and search for books from the Knight family collection that have been sold over the years.

In the opening plenary Dr. Gillian Dow, the executive director of Chawton House Library, emphasized how reading Austen’s contemporaries helps us understand her own genius. There’s a reason we re-read Austen and not Germaine de Staël, an author who was celebrated in her lifetime and died in 1817, the same year as Austen. Dr. Dow wrapped up her illuminating talk by rewriting Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “Jane’s Marriage” which in the original version mentions nary a woman author; Dr. Dow fixed that.

After learning about this year’s winners of the essay contest and the young filmmakers contest, Dr. Devoney Looser, whose recent book The Making of Jane Austen flew off the shelves at the Emporium, had her audience in stitches at Saturday’s plenary as she recounted Austen’s fame in the 1960s and 70s. After recounting Austen’s journey to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in 1967, Dr. Looser described the 1974 TV movie version of Pride and Prejudice that was never produced—the producers wanted Peter O’Toole to play Mr. Darcy and Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier to play Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The gathered assembly also learned—in hilarious dramatic detail—about an “infamous Austen crime” when the water pump in the field of Steventon, Austen’s birthplace, was STOLEN right before the 1975 bicentenary. The owner of the field and the curator at the Austen House Museum at the time feared that the water pump was somewhere in America, sitting in the home of a “mad [American] Austen-ite.” It turned out the stolen pump wasn’t even the one that would have been known by Jane; the “real” one had been in the possession of someone else for decades.


After a night of English country dancing at the ball, the AGM concluded with Austen family descent Richard Knight, who inherited Chawton House in 1987, recounting the history of the house and its Austen connections at Sunday’s brunch. The entire weekend was over far too soon, and everyone left with thoughts of Kansas City and Persuasion—2018’s host city and theme—dancing in their heads.

– Marybeth Ihle