District of Columbia Region

Jane Austen Book Fair
June 9, 2012

Laura Rocklyn
Laura Rocklyn Greeting Visitors to the Book Fair

From the mind of one exceptional woman, Jane Austen, came six classic novels.  Those six novels have in turn inspired hundreds of critical, interpretive, and creative works.  At the Jane Austen Book Fair on June 9, the JASNA District of Columbia Metropolitan Region highlighted the diverse and exciting directions modern authors have taken to comment upon, adapt, or follow on from Austen’s own writing.

Jane Austen herself—actually, JASNA member Laura Rocklyn (an actress who recently played Lydia in a production of Pride and Prejudice)—welcomed people arriving at the Book Fair, held at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland.  Emily Murphy also donned period costume to greet attendees and talk to prospective members about JASNA.

Seven well-known authors gave readings from their recent works and participated in a panel discussion, then met attendees one-on-one.  Fiction authors spoke about their work in several genres: Ava Farmer (aka Sandy Lerner) incorporated extensive research into her historically accurate sequel to Pride and Prejudice; Amy Corwin writes mysteries and romances set in the Regency; Janet Mullany went to the dark side, imagining vampires moving into the village of Chawton; and Diana Peterfreund adapted Persuasion into a young-adult novel set in a post-apocalyptic future.  On the non-fiction side, Catherine Reef penned a young-adult biography of Austen, and Lori Smith adapted lessons from Austen to modern life.  Margaret C. Sullivan has published both Austen-inspired fiction and commentary to help readers get the most from Austen’s work.

After each author read an excerpt from her work, they all participated in a panel, during which audience members asked questions that sparked lively discussion among the authors.  Authors were asked if they ever felt they were “channeling” Jane Austen: all declined, but several of the fiction authors mentioned having a deep feeling of identification with particular Austen characters and the ability to give voice to what those characters might feel.  Catherine Reef spoke about the experience of writing biographies, explaining that her goal is not to channel the author’s voice so much as to find a way to walk in the author’s shoes and convey that experience on the page.

When asked how they thought Austen might react to reading their work, Lori Smith’s immediate reaction was that Jane would be horrified!  Upon reflection, however, she and the authors said they were writing in homage to Austen and believed Austen would be sympathetic – but they were relieved they would never actually have to face her!  Janet Mullany said that she hoped Austen would enjoy her irreverent paranormal novels, based on Austen’s own earthy and sarcastic comments in her private correspondence.

A question about whether the authors felt compelled to “correct” anything in Austen’s novels led to a delightful and spirited discussion.  Sandy Lerner said that she felt Austen had married Mr. Collins to the wrong woman, and she fixed this problem by pairing him with Mary Bennet in her sequel.  Diana Peterfreund confessed that she cried for days when she realized she had to leave Mary Musgrove out of her sequel to Persuasion.

The other authors agreed that it was sometimes necessary to dispatch even well-loved Austen characters in order to set up their own plots.  (Surely Austen would understand: after all, she observed to her niece, “You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life…  I hope you will write a great deal more, and make full use of them while they are so very favourably arranged.”)

Finally, the authors were asked to name their favorite Austen novel.  Margaret Sullivan expressed a decided preference for Northanger Abbey—as one might expect of an author who has written a sequel to that novel and champions Henry Tilney as the consummate Austen hero.  Amy Corwin said she likes Sense and Sensibility best, finding the tension between head and heart reflected in her own writing, and believing that “Austen recognized both avenues can lead to happiness.”

After the panel, Book Fair attendees had the opportunity to chat with the authors one-on-one, as well as to buy their books and have them signed.  Members of JASNA were delighted to welcome young people to their first JASNA-sponsored event; several of these attendees are aspiring writers themselves, and took the opportunity to ask questions about the craft and business of writing.

To make sure that no one left the Book Fair without a whole summer’s worth of reading, JASNA DC Metropolitan opened its used book sale after the panel.  Books had been collected for many months from generous donors throughout the society.  As a result, the range of books offered for sale reflected the erudition and wide interests of the JASNA membership.  Shoppers enjoyed browsing among hundreds of Austen-related books, including literary criticism, commentary, sequels and adaptations, humor and quizzes, publications by JASNA and the British Jane Austen Society, and rare editions of Austen’s novels.  Beyond Austen, there were fiction and biography by and about other notable Britons, and books on history, travel, and British culture.  Attendees had fun examining the offerings, bagging a bargain, and talking about their favorite books with others.

—Linda Slothouber

Author Discussion Panel