1998 Annual General Meeting, Oct 9-11, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
Theme: “Northanger Abbey: the Gothic and More”
“I would not have come away from it for all the world,” —Catherine Morland
“The 1998 JASNA AGM,” Catherine continued, was “the nicest AGM in the world.” But alas, when the delicious and opulent Sunday brunch had ended, and we heard the last of Jane Austen’s hypothetical visit to Mrs. Simco in Quebec City, the reluctant Catherine Morland Tilney had to pack her trunk—though with more time than General Tilney had given her that night at the Abbey—and bid a fond adieu to the hospitable staff of the Loews Concorde Hotel, the Gothic glories of Quebec City, and the 1998 Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
As Catherine looked down from her 19th-floor window at the brilliant splashes of autumnal oranges, reds, and yellows that “shewn” from the trees in the gardens below and—as she crossed the room (she had a corner view)—from those in the Plains of Abraham in the distance, she said that having recently attended the first and last Ann Radcliffe Conference at the Udolpho Inn (where the service was not good and the doors had no locks) with Emily St. Aubert Valancourt, she was prepared to “despise conferences amazingly.” (“If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?”) After all, as “the well-read Catherine” soon realized, those Gothic novels that she had once devoured all re-hashed the same story of imprisoned female bodies, just as JASNA breakout speaker Eleanor Ty would recount. But the 1998 JASNA AGM, devoted to “Northanger Abbey: The Gothic and More,” afforded her and her 470 fellow attendees “extensive and unaffected pleasure.” Indeed, it actually made her wish that she had kept a journal!
Arriving at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Catherine was greeted at the AGM Registration Desk by the warm and welcoming Co-coordinators, Peter Saber, Joanna Fraser Steer, and Victoria Kortes-Papp, and Registration host Pamela Cheers, who gave her a handy canvas totebag (reusable for those unexpected journeys taken by post) filled with goodies to tempt the mind and palate: breakout speaker Claire Grogan’s new edition of Northanger Abbey; “Horrid Session” speaker Jan Fergus’ edition of Lesley Castle, illustrated and signed (yes, all 470 copies) by another AGM favorite, Juliet McMaster; and tasty maple cookies in the shape of maple leaves. Catherine awoke refreshed on Friday morning—undisturbed by any “large old-fashioned ebony and gold” chests in her spacious room (she had learned her lesson about such cabinets some time ago) and enjoyed the sumptuous breakfast, complete with French bread and spectacular views from the hotel’s rotating rooftop restaurant, L’Astral. Going downstairs to the lobby, Catherine wrapped herself “up very warm about the throat” and walked “with great elasticity” to the lovely Jeanne D’Arc Gardens just across the street from the hotel, where local horticulturist Larry Hodgson offered her and her fellow Janeites a lively and informative tour of the Gardens. “What beautiful hyacinths” exclaimed Catherine. “I have just learned to love a hyacinth.” (None was in bloom. But Catherine, remember, was always “naturally indifferent about flowers,” however many “pains [Mrs. Allen] took, year after year, to make [her] like them” and learn about them. Mr. Hodgson good-naturedly smiled and continued his talk.)
When the formal program began on Friday afternoon, Catherine was intrigued by JASNA North American Scholar Kenneth Graham’s delightful and footnote-filled talk, “The Case of the Petulant Patriarch,” fleshing out the life of Catherine’s father-in-law, General Tilney, whom she had always thought “strange.” After a coffee break on the mezzanine, Catherine returned to the ballroom to enjoy the harp music recital of Nouvelle France. Then began the most difficult part for Catherine and her fellow AGM attendees: choosing which breakout session to attend on Friday afternoon. So many choices, so little time—Catherine is a ’90s kind of girl, albeit the 1790s!
Saturday morning began with another delightful breakfast, followed by a splendid slide/lecture, “Quebec: A World Heritage City,” by Quebec-based tour director David Mendel. Catherine’s only wish at that moment was that Henry (who was, unfortunately, pre-engaged) could have accompanied her from Woodston to walk around Old Quebec City after the AGM concluded and point out “foregrounds, distances, and second distances-side-screens and perspectives-lights and shades.” (Fortunately, she had exercised her foresight and registered for Mr. Mendel’s Sunday afternoon tour of the British architectural influence on Old Quebec.) Before choosing her first Saturday breakout session, Catherine examined the fascinating rare book display on the mezzanine and then ascended to the fourth floor of the hotel to make some book purchases—a few novels, a play, even a work of literary criticism, but no tomes of “solemn history.” After noting her purchases in a little book for that purpose, which her mother had given her on her first trip from home, and placing those purchases in her AGM totebag, Catherine rounded the corner to head downstairs, when she suddenly stopped, mid-elastic step, upon overhearing the words, “Had I the command of millions, were I mistress of the whole world…” Recognizing that voice and desiring never to encounter its owner again, Catherine slipped amidst the amiable group at the elevator and descended to the third floor, where a half dozen breakout sessions tempted her—and even better, none was about history! Moreover, there were no rattles, no quizzes, and no rhodomontade (which word Catherine wouldn’t have understood anyway).
Her Saturday continued with two more wonderful breakout sessions; a delicious lunch with old and new friends at one of the many charming restaurants conveniently located along the Grand Allée, just around the corner from the hotel; the “Horrid Session,” featuring four speakers; and a short, late afternoon talk by Cliff Littledale on the production of maple syrup in early Quebec. Could she convince her brother-in-law, Captain Frederick Tilney, to try a few maple trees near the pinery?— she wondered. (Evidently, she was no better at botany than at history.) Saturday evening was capped by a banquet that even her fastidiously gourmet father-in-law would have approved—especially because the butter was not oiled. Joan Austen-Leigh offered a charming toast “to Jane.” And the ballroom—despite the crowd—was so spacious that Mrs. Allen would have had no fears (as she had in the Upper Rooms in Bath) of her gown’s being injured. Maggie Lane’s witty and insightful Carol Ann Medine Lecture, “The French Bread at Northanger,” did cause Catherine to cringe a bit as she recollected her mother’s chastising her years ago about “talk[ing] so much about the French bread at Northanger.” (Catherine discretely turned her nametag over so that anyone looking at it saw the word “BRUNCH” instead of her name, “Catherine Morland Tilney,” on the front.) Nevertheless, Catherine agreed with everyone that Maggie’s talk was the perfect after-dinner treat, and she was glad that she had purchased a copy of Miss Lane’s Jane Austen and Food, which the author had happily signed for her at the autograph session just before the banquet.
Beginning her Sunday with a special service at the Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral, which included a prayer written by Jane Austen, Catherine returned to the hotel for a brunch that surpassed in opulence the brunch that Catherine had heard General Tilney had served when Eleanor married that charming Viscount. Listening to Mary Ellen Reisner’s Plenary Lecture about what Jane Austen would have seen and done had she visited Quebec in the 1790s, Catherine—despite her antipathy toward history—found herself imagining historical Old Quebec City. Such imagining actually prepared Catherine for thinking about that imaginist Emma Woodhouse, whose novel will be the focus of the 1999 AGM in Colorado Springs. She put her “EMMA! AUSTEN AT HER PEAK” refrigerator magnet in her Northanger Abbey AGM totebag and left the ballroom with many happy memories of a wonderful AGM in Quebec City!
By Joan Klingel Ray