Persuasions #10, 1988 Pages 5-10
BY A LADY
No gangsters, but a city to fall in love with – sweeping views, splendid buildings, shining water, superb Art Institute, warm, friendly people.
Like everybody else who was attending the Conference, we were in a fever of anticipation as our plane neared O’Hare Airport. The last hour or so we had kept our heads down, assiduously studying the raft of material that had been flooding in over the past few weeks.
At O’Hare, we inquired of the appropriate person, which was the bus to the Palmer House? A lady standing nearby approached: would we like to share a taxi? One look, and we knew she was one of us. “You wouldn’t by any chance be attending the JASNA conference, would you?”
We’d been assigned a vast palatial room; with eyes as round as Catherine Morland’s, we discovered we had a bathroom and a closet each, eighteen bath towels and six facecloths between the two of us, plus a mini-bar stocked with food and drink of every conceivable variety from cognac to fruit juice to Oreo cookies to pistachio nuts. Even the lock on the door was computer activated and changed with each successive occupant.
We called our Chicago friends, Anne Clarke and Peggy Farlow, and were immediately invited to their room. There we found from Vancouver, Eileen and Ron Sutherland and Pamela Delville-Pratt. Flowers, fruit, champagne, Scotch and the warmest possible welcome greeted us. Who wouldn’t love a JASNA Conference? At an hour which General Tilney would have approved, we repaired to a famous old restaurant, Berghoff’s, a Chicago tradition with splendid German food, knackwurst, sauerbraten and untold varieties of beer. Much laughter, good conversation, and so to bed in charming spirits.
Friday morning, alarm set for 7:30. While some could lie about in bed or set forth to enjoy the delights of Chicago, your hard-working board members must assemble at 8 a.m. to dispute and discuss and finally dispose the policies of the Society. A comment here may not come amiss. It is in the view of this reporter remarkable that so large an organization with a balance of $12,000 in the Bank, should be run entirely by amateurs and volunteers, and that the management of the Conferences (actually a profession in itself) should be executed with such signal success by members who have never done such a thing before.
But I digress. Friday afternoon was free for everyone. Some went to the Baker Knapp Tubbs display of regency furniture where tea was served, others sallied forth to shop and to explore the wide, clean sunny streets of Chicago. Others hastened to the stunning Art Institute to feast their eyes on the whole gamut of art history with a special Gauguin exhibit thrown in besides. Still others browsed in the Jane Austen Mall on the mezzanine, where two antiquarian bookshops displayed many treasures (the best JA selection she’d ever seen, said collector, Keiko Parker) one of which was an elegant second edition of Pride and Prejudice, three volumes in a slipcase, priced at $1,800. (Sold, before the weekend was out.) Here, also, were JA tote bags, watches, t-shirts, and aprons. Let us not, like Miss Bingley, turn up our noses at “trade.” Profits over the past two years from such items have financed the low registration fee, and thus benefited everyone who attended the Conference.
Throughout the day members had been arriving at the Palmer House. They came from England and California, from Maine and Oregon, in fact, from thirty-five states and four provinces. In all approximately 325 people, the largest number – almost half as many again – ever to attend the Annual General Meeting. The reason? Some said it was the price. Others, that Chicago was in the middle of “the country.” Others ‘that there had been such good advance publicity. Whatever the cause, there they were. At six p.m. an Evening Service as “offered on October 14, 1788 by an English family of substance” was conducted by Hugh McKellar of Toronto. It must be confessed that the numinous of the Wabash Room, down a back passage near the staff cafeteria, was not quite the equal of the chapel at Sotherton. Still, the audience – congregation, perhaps I should say – found it rather intriguing to pray for the health of “our most gracious sovereign lord, King George” (he who lost the American colonies) “his gracious wife, Queen Charlotte” (she who bore fifteen children, none of whose offspring in the third generation – mostly illegitimate – were eligible to ascend the throne until the arranged marriage of the parents and subsequent birth of Victoria) and “George, Prince of Wales” (who, whatever his faults, did have the redeeming virtue of appreciating our own especial authoress).
Everyone then moved off to the elegant Adams Room for a lavish reception with succulent tidbits and wine. Honoured, were the Life Members. Present were Anthony Halliday, Consul-General for Canada and his wife, and Caroline Cracraft, Vice-Consul (Public Affairs) for the British Consulate. “The Quilt” was unveiled by Karen Frederickson. This remarkable piece of needlework to which some of the Chicago ladies have devoted themselves collectively for thousands of hours in the past two years, is an exact replica of that made by JA and her mother which now hangs in Jane and Cassandra’s bedroom at Chawton. The saga of the manufacture of the Chicago quilt, beset as it was with many “alarms and solicitudes” is a remarkable story of industry and perseverance during which the most unlooked for difficulties were overcome. The team consisted of many devoted hands, headed by Karen, whose profession is civil engineer, and Mary Beth Sasso, a research analyst. They were most ably advised by Marilyn Packer, proprietor of the Wild Goose Chase Quilt Gallery, at whose shop the work was done.
The reception being over at nine o’clock, many of us tumbled into a fleet of taxis and headed for the Greek Isles restaurant at which Pat Latkin had cannily made a reservation while the owner was away on vacation – knowing he would never have accepted it.
When JASNA arrived the place was already packed. A riotous good time followed with flaming cheeses and exuberant shouts by Greek waiters and customers alike. In short there was a great deal of not-entirely-sober merriment.
Saturday was the serious conference day. Once again early rising was necessary to attend the tea-making ceremony and the eating of scones, Devonshire cream and jam. Mrs. Norris might have quibbled at the hour for such far-from-pitiful doings, but even she would have approved not only Chef John Murphy’s tea, but also his erudite knowledge of her creator.
Next we assembled in the State Ballroom to be officially welcomed by Lorraine Hanaway and to hear Julia Prewitt Brown on “Jane Austen’s England.” (Since the speeches are printed elsewhere in this issue, I shall not elaborate on them here.)
Agonizing decisions had then to be made. Of fifteen fascinating break-out sessions, one could choose only three. The sessions were held in small numbered rooms called “Private Dining Rooms” which opened off an ordinary passage. The interior of each room resembled nothing so much as a chamber in a medieval castle with pointed arches and doors with odd iron latches that could only have come out of the Mysteries of Udolpho. When the first session was over, it was time for everyone to progress to the next. We were sensibly requested not to rush into a new room until the previous occupants had had time to come out. The resulting mass of humanity squeezed in the narrow passage was amusing to behold. It became impossible to move in any direction, our dresses were certainly tumbled and for a moment it appeared that the impasse might never be resolved.
After this came lunch on our own. In my own case I was able to set foot outside the hotel in daylight for the first time in the forty-eight hours I had now been in Chicago. I have often maintained that as far as seeing the city where a conference is held, the AGM might just as well take place at the bottom of a well.
Another breakout session followed lunch, some of us, perhaps, feeling a little sleepy after indulging. Then came Park Honan’s speech “The Austen Brothers and Sisters.” Mr. Honan, author of Jane Austen, A Life, had come from the University of Leeds in England for the occasion. At an open question period afterwards, it was observed as curious that those addressed to him were somewhat morbidly concerned with the fate of JA’s handicapped brother, George, the precise medical symptoms of her last illness, and whether today she might have been cured.
Then followed the actual AGM, itself. Most commendably short. JASNA, in fact, seems to be following the lead set by the English Jane Austen Society in declaring the minutes as read. We learned that JASNA was contributing $5,000 to the publication of a facsimile edition of Jane Austen’s letters, that we had 2269 members of which 228 were Canadian and 30 from abroad. We were also informed that our excellent president, Lorraine Hanaway, who has guided the fortunes of the Society for four years (the longest-serving president since our foundation) is retiring from office. The nominating committee, chaired by Freydis Welland, had recommended as our next president, Eileen Sutherland of Vancouver, British Columbia, the first Canadian to be elected to the post. Hard-working Shirley Bassett was also retiring as vice-president, and the most estimable Patricia Latkin of Chicago, to whom we owed this Conference, was selected to succeed her. New members of the board were named to replace those whose term had expired. With pleasure it was noted that many younger members were now serving, with an excellent geographical representation across the continent.
Lorraine Hanaway and Jane Austen-Leigh, photo by James A. Reicker
Following this, there was just sufficient time for people to rush upstairs and change before the cash bar opened on the mezzanine. Here tables were arranged behind which sat the eight authors present, who most willingly autographed their books for eager purchasers. Dinner was, if not actually announced, the next event. In the sumptuous Empire Room a noble repast was prepared with a profusion of beautifully decorated round tables each holding ten people. The room rang and rang again with laughter and conversation. At the appropriate moment the toast to Jane Austen was proposed by Aileen Biel, of Antioch, Illinois, one of Patricia Latkin’s valued helpers. A message of greetings from the Queen at Buckingham Palace was read and Her Majesty’s health drunk. Lorraine Hanaway then presented to Joan Austen-Leigh a handsome silver bowl from Tiffany’s, inscribed to “the creator and editor” of Persuasions, on Joan’s retiring after eight years’ service. (This was intended to be given last year, but unfortunately Joan was unable to be at the New York meeting.) She also received a unique and original memento in the form of large 14 x 17 cards from each region of the society, decorated, signed and enclosed in a specially-designed slipcase.
Something new was added, on this the tenth annual JASNA conference, when all members who were attending for the first time were requested to stand and receive applause. Members who had attended two conferences were then asked to rise. This continued up to number ten. I may not have this quite accurate, as it was difficult to take in the whole room at once, but I believe the following are the members who have attended all our conferences: Lorraine Hanaway, Philadelphia; Jack Grey, New York; Gene Koppel, Tucson; and Harriet Rylaarsdam, Chicago.
When this was over, the Aldeburgh Connection from Toronto took the stage. This delightful group of musicians, founded by pianists Bruce Ubukata and Stephen Ralls, specializes in literary concerts, a combination of words and music. And what a concert! The offerings, personally chosen by them from Jane Austen’s own music books at Chawton, were interspersed with readings from the novels and letters. With soprano, Kathryn Domoney, and baritone, Peter Barnes, JA’s characters sprang to life before our eyes. Many well-known musical scenes were enacted – Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax singing at the Coles, Mary Bennet exhibiting at Netherfield and Mr. Bennet’s crushing “set down,” Marianne Dashwood playing a “very magnificent concerto” and Emma practising “vigorously.” One piece was prefaced with the remark that Jane, who is so often compared to Mozart, seemed hardly to have heard of him! Here was “The Duke of York’s New March.” As soon as it began the audience burst into laughter. It was, “Non piu andrai” from The Marriage of Figaro.
Tumultuous and prolonged applause greeted the end of this most enchanting entertainment. One man remarked to me that it was the best event of the Conference and alone made the trip to Chicago worthwhile.
It was late, but Mr. Woodhouse was not present. Everyone felt that the longer a party went on the better. Patricia Latkin had arranged that “Booksellers’ Row” in the intriguing Lincoln Avenue district should remain open until midnight for our benefit. Say “books” to a member of JASNA and she’s off like John Thorpe in pursuit of a record. Having offered some light refreshment to the musicians who had entertained us so well, our own group of seven persons did not arrive at the bookshop until four minutes to midnight. The gracious staff agreed to stay open a few minutes more. But while we were inside browsing and buying, the heavens outside opened and a positive waterfall descended. We had no coats, no umbrellas. How could we possibly leave? Yet, how stay? No taxis, of course. But we were not wanting in ingenuity. Grey plastic garbage bags and two pairs of scissors were produced. Some of us dragged the garbage bags over our clothes with arms sticking straight out like stick men, others pulled them over their heads and chopped a couple of holes to breathe and see through like bank robbers. Thus attired we ran laughing through the rain to the Periwinkle Cafe where unusual choices were made – baked Brie and apple, black bean soup and ginger beer, lemon souffle and camomile tea. We found a taxi and all seven of us packed into it (delightful accommodating drivers in Chicago).
But there was still work to be done next morning. The regional co-ordinators must be up betimes for their own meeting at eight. Everyone else was free until ten when the brunch took place. Each table had been labelled as one of JA’s houses with a hostess in charge. Ours was Pemberley. Across the way was Mr. Collins’s parsonage. Once again the food was superb. The winner of the fiendishly difficult Quiz was announced. This Quiz gave even the likes of Charlotte Samelstein and Eileen Sutherland pause (both regular winners, year after year). For the purposes of this article I was able to pry out of Patricia Latkin the name of the perpetrator. “I wanted,” said she, “a quiz that would make a question of each of our speeches/break-out sessions – and only a genius could write a quiz like that. Mary Millard [of Toronto] is the genius.” Corinne McArdle of Oak Lawn, Illinois, was the genius who won it, one of our newer members. Look to your laurels, Eileen and Charlotte!
A presentation was made to Lorraine Hanaway, retiring president, by Eileen Sutherland, the new incumbent. It was a handsome volume, Barbara Johnson’s Album, the diary of a London Lady of Fashion. In speaking of Lorraine’s tenure, Eileen remarked that JASNA was like a duck gliding across the smooth waters of a pond, but underneath someone was paddling away furiously. As one who remembers occasional rough waters in the past, I thought this was a very apt analogy. With Eileen at the helm, we all feel certain that the sailing will continue smooth.
After brunch, Catherine Kenney closed the Conference with a delightful, warm speech, “In Search of Jane Austen”, which reminded each one of us how we, ourselves, felt about the remarkable author who was the cause of our being together.
Invidious, perhaps, to say that Chicago was “the best.” They’re all “the best.” During the weekend people were often saying to me. “Oh, you should have been at Savannah, it was wonderful.” Or, “Vancouver was fantastic.” Or, “New York was brilliant.”
So are they all. And for reason good. To quote Charlotte Samelstein: “Until I joined JASNA I had never uttered the words ‘Jane Austen’ in my life except to a bookseller or a librarian.”