Last weekend I had the great pleasure of spending all day with a bunch of committed Janeites in an event commemorating the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, organised by the wonderful and hard-working team at Salon de Té de Jane Austen.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the encounter was the possibility of talking about Jane Austen’s life and work with like-minded readers. However, it did occur to me that the topics we covered on the day probably wouldn’t make much sense to an outsider.
Here are my favourites:
1. All of Jane Austen’s characters are created equal
As much as we admire the leading ladies in Austen’s works, we all have our favourite secondary characters as well. Mr Collins, Mr Thorpe, Aunt Norris, Fanny Dashwood, Lucy Steele, Admiral Croft, Georgiana Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh might have played a minor role in her stories, but they are by no means cardboard cut-outs. Jane Austen was exceptionally gifted at coming up with well-rounded characters in her books, regardless of their actual importance in terms of “screen time”, and we love her for it.
2. There is a lot more to Jane Austen than meets the eye
Literary critic George Steiner was spot on when he wrote that “the urbanity of Miss Austen’s diction is deceptive”. The language she uses may look straightforward, but her technique, the nuances of her style and the vocabulary she uses are anything but. Austen’s words show an abundance of “polite” words such as “nice”, “civil” or “fine”, but the author gives them a subtly different meaning in every sentence. Of course, this is nothing new to Janeites, but it was fascinating to hear Professor Juan Jesús Zaro talk about the challenges encountered when translating Persuasion.
3. Fanny Price is the Janeite equivalent of Marmite
Bless Fanny Price; she is possibly the main character that most divides the Janeite community. Some praise her resilience and ability to stick to her guns, in spite of her timid exterior. Others see her as bland, boring and pathetic. The same goes for Mansfield Park. For every reader who considers it a brilliant metaphor for turbulent times, there’s one attacking it as the book where nothing happens. And the big dilemma: is Edmund really that boring? (Henry Crawford certainly appears to score much higher than him in the charm stakes.)
4. Persuasion is gaining ground
Pride and Prejudice has long been the most popular of Austen’s novels, and the first one for many readers, but I got the feeling that things are changing. Persuasion, I detected, is becoming a firm favourite, with many seeing it as a more mature work and Austen’s most personal story. Interestingly, some people I spoke to said that they appreciate it more as they grow older. I also noticed that it was The Guardian’s book group choice for July 2017, as opposed to P&P. It will be interesting to see how things develop. (Full disclosure: Persuasion is my favourite).
5. It’s always the casting director’s fault
Oh, the issue of film adaptations! Colin Firth may have turned out to be a rather splendid Mr Darcy, but there have been some poor choices as well. Everyone thought that Billie Piper looked too healthy and was way too sassy to play weak and sickly Fanny in the 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park. Broad-shouldered and manly Ciarán Hinds was a much more credible and believable Captain Wentworth than gorgeous Rupert Penry-Jones in the respective 1995 and 2007 adaptations of Persuasion. But to be fair, most agree that it’s not the actors’ fault, blaming it instead on casting directors who can’t be bothered to read the novels (it shows).
6. Nobody can resist the thought of a man in uniform
It is a truth universally acknowledge that Janeites have a thing for military uniforms – and the gentlemen wearing them. At one point in the event, history researcher Rafael Cordón, dressed in early XIX century military uniform, demonstrated the kind of weapons Colonel Fitzwilliam or Colonel Brandon might have used in battle. When a member of the audience posted a picture of said uniform on Instagram with the caption “Officers! Officers!”, the complicit smiles, blushes and hilarity were general. The poor presenter had no idea of what was going on.
7. Book variations and continuations are a contentious subject
Although all Jane Austen fans wonder what happens after the happy end, some are content to let things be. Others, however, want to read fresh takes of their favourite stories, explore all possible “what ifs”, and of course know what happens next. There was a formal panel and subsequent informal discussions on the subject of adaptations, variations and continuations. The conclusion? Some readers prefer to stick with the original novels and will not even consider reading anything else, but others will read whatever they get their hands on, although stories that are well-written, accurate and faithful to Jane Austen’s spirit are preferred.
It was a joy to spend a day in the company of other Jane Austen fans, and I look forward to repeating the experience soon. Bath 2018, anyone?
What do you think? Are there any other statements you’d like to add to the list of things that only Janeites understand?