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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, October 21, 2011

Impressions from the 2011 JASNA AGM

The 2011 JASNA AGM is now nearly a week past, and I find myself looking back on it fondly, and forming some impressions of it in my mind in its aftermath.

The highlight for me was Andrew Davies's plenary address, and also his engaging with so many of the attendees in informal settings like the cocktail hour, etc. If any single person has been more responsible than anyone else for the explosion of Austenmania worldwide in the past 15 years--which I of course think is a very wonderful thing, on balance---I do not know who that person would be, other than Andrew Davies. And he did not disappoint, he is as you might expect an excellent public speaker, with a finely tuned sense of humor about what he represents in
Austen World.

I am going to find out if and when the video montage that was shown just prior to his plenary, which intercut clips from Davies's Austen adaptations with Connie Stevens singing "Sixteen Reasons", is going to be uploaded to YouTube. It was hilarious, it really was brilliantly done, and it brought the house down, even before Davies said a word. It was like a rock concert.

And if I had to pick one persistent theme that popped up over and over in different presentations, and in private conversations among attendees, it was the eternally thorny question of Marianne ending up with Brandon. I remain eternally fascinated by the willingness of so many Janeites to question JA's authorial handling of that ending, in a struggle to make their marriage feel romantic enough to satisfy. Le Faye in particular trotted out her old warhorse, the (absurd, to my mind) notion that S&S was somehow a captive of having been a reworking of the Juvenilia Love and Freindship, and therefore required a great deal more work by JA to get it right, that it never received, and that JA simply did not have a handle on her material. Nonsense is the nicest word I can think of for her interpretation.

Among the breakout sessions I attended, my three personal favorites were the following:

*Diane Capitani*, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL
*If St. Augustine were a marrying man… Could he have married our Jane?* Ever wonder why St. Augustine was the patron saint of brewers and sore eyes? Professor Capitani’s engaging presentation will explain. Augustine believed women’s souls were more in need of redemption than men’s and that a woman too “full of sense” was a usurper of the male role. What would Jane have made of this theology, and would she—or Elinor—have agreed?

When I asked a provocative question during the Q&A, Prof. Capitani dubbed me a 'scamp', which I enjoyed immensely. There's no question in my mind that Capitani was correct in suggesting that St. Augustine is there in the subtext of S&S.


*Joyce Kerr Tarpley*, Mountain View College, Dallas, TX
*Playing with Genesis: Younger Sons and Primogeniture in /Sense and Sensibility/*
The recent PBS blockbuster, /Downton Abbey/, borrows from /Sense and Sensibility/ the theme of primogeniture. Like Edward Ferrars, Matthew Crawley is a reluctant heir, but unlike Edward, he has no younger brother. “Playing With Genesis: Younger Sons and Primogeniture in /Sense and Sensibility/” explores the novel as a reflection of Austen’s awareness of the seventeenth century debate over primogeniture—a debate in which both sides relied on the biblical book of Genesis—to show its effect on sons, especially younger sons, Colonel Brandon and Robert Ferrars.

Prof. Tarpley greatly enjoyed my bringing forward my discovery of JA's word game of Lucy Ferrars ==> Lucifer, which fit very nicely with her imaginative interpretations from Genesis.


*LeeAnn Derdeyn*, University of Texas at Dallas, Dallas, TX
*Intent to Deceive: Self-Deception in Austen’s /Sense and Sensibility/*
Deception plays a major part in the plot of /Sense and Sensibility/ but it is their own self-deception that causes serious consequences for both Elinor and Marianne, saved only by “extraordinary fate.” Examine the implications of this self-deception, and determine whether certain favorable outcomes “could not be otherwise.”

I almost did not attend this one, because the above blurb was so cryptic, but I am so glad I did, because this presentation was an intellectual tour de force, which stunned the small audience with its brilliance--and LAD is not even an Austen specialist, she is a poet with strong philosophical training, but she, coming from such a non-standard perspective, zeroed in unerringly on the way JA played with alternative constructions of reality.

I also was honored to be the "introducer" for a brilliant scholar, Emma Spooner, who demonstrated a remarkable grasp of JA's allusive depths for someone so young (she could not be more than 25) and just starting on her Ph.D:

*Emma Spooner*, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB
*Cultivating Sense from the Cult of Sensibility: The Influence of Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth in Austen’s /Sense and Sensibility/*
Austen was not the first female author to satirize social expectations for female behavior and exemplify rational thinking in women. The speaker examines the legacy which Burney and Edgeworth left Austen in their respective novels, /Camilla/ and /Belinda/ and how their works may have influenced Austen in her portrayals of Elinor and Marianne.

And one session I missed (because, as always is the case at these AGM's, there are "Sophie's choices" between two or three speakers in the same time slot) but in hindsight I should have attended, was that of my friend Joan Strasbaugh:

*In the Beginning: /Sense and Sensibility/ - with Hot Sauce*
/Sense and Sensibility/ has one of the most powerful opening pages in all of literature! This session will demonstrate how the circumstances of Jane Austen’s life and the book’s creation influenced its opening passages, how they’ve been interpreted and adapted for modern audiences and why they still move us today.

Joan's topic was Chapter 2 of S&S, when Fanny and John Dashwood slice and dice the precatory bequest by the dying Mr. Dashwood to his wife and three daughters, and Joan drew explicit parallels not only to James & Mary Austen scavenging the Steventon rectory like vultures, as I and others have been repeatedly noting in our ongoing groupread of JA's Letters, but also to JA's own greatgrandmother nee Weller, who suffered a similar fate.

And the part I personally would have particularly enjoyed most, I found out later, had I been there, was when Joan honored me with the following mention by name:

"...On October 10, 1810, Elizabeth, the wife of Edward, dies delivering her 11^th child....In less than two weeks, Edward finally offers Mrs. Austen and his sisters a place to stay.The timing of the death and the offer of Chawton certainly seems more than a coincidence. *Arnie Perlstein, our own Jane Austen CSI, discovered the connection between the two events. In his blog, he says this: “All we know for sure is that when Edward Austen Knight's wife dies, within ELEVEN DAYS thereafter, BOOM!----apparently out of nowhere, Edward Austen Knight makes the decision to provide the Austen women with Chawton Cottage.”

*Here is the link to my full blog post that Joan quoted from:

And in addition to all of the above, I made a couple of dozen more new Janeite friends from all over North America (because there are always many fresh faces at every AGM), and it was over before I took a breath. For a hardcore Janeite, there's no other experience quite like a JASNA AGM, and I believe next year's, in NYC, is going to be even more exciting--Cornel West, Anna Quindlen, the curator of the Morgan Library, etc etc.

And those are my scattered impressions from the 2011 AGM, I'd be happy to give more details about any or all of the above, if anyone wants to hear them.

Cheers, ARNIE


LeeAnn Derdeyn said...

I've been trying to catch up with all the intriguing things you send, but I'd missed this one. Thanks for the compliments. I'd agree--having now read some of your work--that we have a common intellectual interest in bringing pressure on certain facile interpretations.
LeeAnn Derdeyn (aka LAD)

Arnie Perlstein said...

You're welcome, LeeAnn!

Yes, that is a very interesting way of describing one of the important similarities in our approach to Jane Austen--although I would not use the word "facile" so much as "orthodox". My stuff does not replace existing interpretations so much as augment them, by excavating a second tier beneath the generally accepted first tier.

But in any event, your very unorthodox approach to Austen is definitely a breath of fresh air, I hope you stick with Austen, you have so much to add to the current cutting edge conversation about her writing!