Persuasions #5, 1983                                                                                                                                            Pages 20-23

Calligraphy by Martha Starr (co-author with Elizabeth Hill of the Jane Austen Calendar Diary, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)





Eileen Sutherland

Vancouver, British Columbia


Even with Emma as a companion, I found it a long journey from Vancouver to Philadelphia. But no distance was too far to deter the more than 200 members of JASNA, who came from California, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, Victoria, Ottawa – even two from Hampshire, England. From all directions we “proceeded on our journey, safely and cheerfully, and as expeditiously as could rationally be hoped.” We recalled famous precedents – Frank Churchill went 16 miles for a haircut (he said!); Mr. Darcy considered 50 miles “a very easy distance”; Willoughby travelled far into the night to get to Marianne’s bedside. For us, the stimulation of finding “the pleasures of friendship, of unreserved conversation, of similarity of taste and opinions” more than made amends for the long journeys we undertook.

I had to change planes in Toronto, and experienced, like Catherine Morland, “the tediousness of a two hours’ wait … in which there was nothing to do but to eat without being hungry, and loiter about without anything to see.” On the last lap of the trip, I thought I recognized a voice from the seat behind me, and when I heard the word “Kenya” I was sure – it was Juliet McMaster from Edmonton, the main speaker at last year’s conference in Toronto.

At last the trip was over. As soon as our “Trunks and Baskets could be routed out from all other Trunks and Baskets in the World,” we were on our way to the Hotel Warwick, one of the elegant old hotels of Philadelphia. “Elegance” was not the main characteristic of the bar/restaurant downstairs where we tried to get some food. We soon learned to appreciate the “sterling worth” of the little cafe across the street – open 24 hours, reasonable prices, tasty food – in spite of the clientele which could only be described as “interesting.”

Any spare moments in the weekend were easy to fill. It was delightful to stroll up and down the streets, admiring the lovely old architecture and relaxing in some of the attractive little flower-filled squares that appeared every few blocks. Some of us took the opportunity to go to the Academy of Fine Arts to see the painting by Benjamin West, “Christ’s Rejection by the Elders,” which Jane Austen called “the first representation of our Saviour which ever at all contented me.” Philadelphia itself was winding up to a vibrant climax – the Philadelphia “Phillies” had just won the Pennant, and it was “Super-Sunday,” a day when part of the city is blocked off to traffic, people take to the streets and a carnival atmosphere holds sway.

From noon until six on Friday, the registration room was a-buzz with conversation, shrieks of delight at the meeting of old friends, and groans of envious frustration at the array of books for sale.

After a wine and cheese reception in the evening, we settled down to be entertained by readings from Emma, by local college drama students. The young actors were intrigued to find themselves in a situation where many in their audience were mouthing the words along with them, and the laughter often anticipated the comic parts. This production formed a pleasant beginning to the conference.

Saturday was a busy day. An interesting guided walking tour included visits to Independence Hall, Congress Hall and the Liberty Bell, a moving experience to see these sites and symbols of the country’s struggle for independence.

When the group assembled again at the hotel, the lectures began: Mary Poovey, Swarthmore College, “The True English Style”; Judith Wilt, Boston College, “The Powers of the Instrument: or Jane, Frank, and the Pianoforte”; David Caste of Bryn Mawr College discussed Emma and Hartfield with slides of the architecture of the time. Jane Austen and her characters were relatively average members of the upper middle class, “middling people who lived in middling houses.”

After the lunch break, the group divided into small discussion sections. One group, talking about “The Heroine, Emma,” found themselves divided into opposing camps: “Emma had only the faults of youth … she changed … she grew,” vs. “Mr. Knightley is too good for her; he’ll have his hands full.” Mr. Woodhouse, also, found partisans who called him “charming and delightful,” and detractors who considered him a jackass and wondered how he could have fathered Emma. The group examining “Village Life” ranged widely in their discussions, from what goods were sold at Ford’s shop, why Mr. Knightley was consulted so often on parish business, and whether or not there was a barber in Highbury who could have cut Frank Churchill’s hair. Other sections discussed “The Novelist’s Craft” and “The Reader’s Response.” The group leaders reported the highlights to the plenary session which followed, along with a summary by Dr. Walton Litz. A common complaint was voiced by the member who deplored the fact that we had to choose only one discussion group, but when she suggested that they should have been videotaped for viewing later, Professor Litz felt that would not be “quite the thing.”

The Annual General Meeting was not as well attended as it might have been; perhaps the attractions of the city were proving too irresistible. After the elections, Harry Burke reported on the recent sale at Godmersham, in which four Jane Austen volumes brought prices much higher than anticipated. Atherton Harrison brought greetings from Steventon, and the chairpersons for future conferences reported: Shirley Bassett, St. Louis (1984), Patricia Robinson-King, Savannah (1985), and Eileen Sutherland, Vancouver (1986). Discussions and questions considered the price of the dinner, the possibility of an extra charge to go into general revenue, and other financial policies of JASNA.

The banquet, the climax of the weekend, was held at the Historical Association of Philadelphia, one of the city’s many beautiful, well-preserved old buildings, with paintings of “our period” on the walls. On display were three autograph letters of Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, and a fascinating collection of books: first editions of Emma, including the only three copies known to exist of the first American edition, other early editions, and biographies of Jane Austen.

The delicious dinner included chicken (from Mrs. Weston’s poultry house) and apple-walnut tart (from Donwell Abbey).

Tad Mosel conducted his annual “Tad Poll” of favourite characters in the novel, starting with “The second Mrs. Weston’s infant daughter Anna” (one vote). The voting proceded noisily as Tad worked up the scale from obscure groups of servants, scholars and teachers at Mrs. Goddard’s school, neighbours and shopkeepers in the village of Highbury, and finally to Emma herself. Amid much napkin-waving and protests of unfair practices, with the hilarity almost unrestrained, the final results found Mr. Knightley at the top of the poll, followed by Emma and Miss Bates tied for second place. (Were there any members of the press present to see this dignified literary society acting in such a way?) Emma would not have approved of such vulgar merrymaking.

Professor Wayne Booth, who spoke on “Emma, Emma, and the Question of Feminism”, admitted he found this act a “tad” hard to follow. Dr. Booth was deliberately provocative as he passed quickly over the simple surface plot of Emma to look at the implications of sexual stereotypes in the novel.

The evening came to an end with a pleasant walk back to the hotel. Like Jane Austen, “we had a beautiful night for our frisks.”

Sunday morning we were given a chance to sleep in – breakfast began at 10:00, with melon, sugar-glazed ham and scrambled eggs, and assorted croissants and rolls. Anne Adams, of New York, won the raffle: A Concordance to the Works of Jane Austen (Garland Publications; New York, price $275.00), and two perfect papers were turned in with answers to an interesting quiz on Emma. Dr. Katrin Burlin discussed the treatment of food in the novels and letters, and Jane Austen’s prowess as a housekeeper, collecting recipes and overseeing the butchering, brewing and preserving for the family, and the gifts of food and wine which were sent to and from Chawton Cottage and to relatives, neighbours and friends – a realistic background for the food gifts mentioned in Emma.

President Joseph Costa brought the Annual Meeting to an end, pointing out that we can do nothing for Jane Austen – she has attained her position by her own genius – but we meet once a year as a celebration of her greatness, and of our good fortune in having the novels to enjoy reading over and over again. The greatest pleasure of the Annual Meeting is knowing that when we speak of Jane Austen, Emma or Elizabeth Bennet, nobody will say “who is she?”

“It was a delightful visit, perfect in being much too short.”

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