Emma Jane Laskin, 43, a child and adolescent psychiatrist from Great Neck, N.Y., was named for one of Jane Austen’s heroines and for the author herself. Her mother, Muriel Laskin, 83, a psychoanalyst and Austen lover, chose the name Emma for her daughter because “Emma is one of the first characters—if not the first—in a novel to analyze themselves.”
The Laskin women joined some 700 other Austen lovers this past weekend at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America. This year’s theme was “Sex, Money and Power in Jane Austen’s Fiction.” The conference, held at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, sold out months ago.
I myself came late to Austen. As a teen, the age at which many girls first become smitten with Mr. Darcy, I found “Pride and Prejudice” an unfailing soporific—even that magnificent first sentence. In my twenties, I decided to try again. It was guilt that made me do it—how could I consider myself well-read with such a glaring omission? I still couldn’t get past page 4. So I tried listening to P&P on tape in the car. No dice—I nearly fell asleep at the wheel.
So why are so many readers so taken by Austen?
A few basic Austen facts: She was born in 1775 and died in 1817 at age 41. She lived most of her life in the English countryside, never married, and wrote six (complete) novels. These works have been turned into movies or TV shows no less than 20 times, and have inspired countless sequels, prequels, spinoffs, mashups, fan fiction, and a gay romance novel or two.
Anna Quindlen, whose keynote address, “Jane Austen Is My Homegirl,” cites Austen’s lasting appeal in both who she was and what she did. Before Austen, Quindlen said, novelists wrote from the outside looking in, but Austen “is writing from the inside out.” She understood the “the art of the detailed miniature,” which was necessary to write about the quiet lives of Regency women—“those who sit, and wait, and watch.” When she first read Pride and Prejudice at age 12, Quindlen recalled, “it became possible to imagine myself.” Austen’s “utter confidence”—apparent in that first, authoritative sentence of P&P—overcame her circumscribed existence and allowed her to become “an ordinary woman who became immortal simply by pushing a pen across paper.”
Holly Zabitz of Long Island City, NY, noted that Austen’s characters were also ordinary people. “I think everybody relates to the Bennet family,” she said in a discussion with other Janeites before Saturday night’s banquet and Regency ball. “I think her characters go on journeys. It may not be an odyssey, but they change, they struggle, they feel very deeply.” The conversation turned from the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice to the Bertrams and Crawfords of Mansfield Park. Zabitz easily shifted into a comparison between Mary Crawford and Samantha Jones of Sex and the City.
As the discussion progressed, the lobby began to fill with people in Regency dress. The opportunity to dress like Austen and her characters is a big draw for many JASNA members. Some sew their own costumes and arrive at the AGM with suitcases full of day dresses, bonnets and headpieces as well as ball gowns; others have been able to buy the custom-made Regency dresses of their dreams from artisans on Etsy.com. Lisa Brown, co-chair of the JASNA-Syracuse Region chapter, expert on Regency clothing and proprietor of Regency Rentals, opened her hotel room to attendees who wished to rent a costume or accessories. She herself wore several different outfits throughout the AGM.
Shoes often present a problem for those fans who are sticklers for Regency accuracy. One member of the JASNA-Central New Jersey chapter did quite a bit of research trying to find appropriate footwear to go with the dresses she sewed for herself and a friend. “Reproduction shoes don’t look right,” she said. Instead, she found a pair of Steve Madden ballet flats at Nordstrom and sewed black satin ribbons on them, which she planned to remove after the conference.
As people gathered for the pre-ball promenade, a chance to show off and admire Regency finery, gowns were not the only costumes on display. There may not have been many men in attendance, but those that were there commanded a great deal of attention in their waistcoats, cravats, and regimental wear. A few men dressed as captains from the royal navy wore hats so massive they could they could not possibly have fit into the subway, or even cabs. Perhaps they arrived by sea.
Surely they would agree it was worth the effort, though. As Brooklyn resident Paige Blansfield, 29, observed, “I’m a sucker for a man in a frock coat and breeches.”
I had my unfortunate experience with Austen on tape about 15 years ago, when I had no patience for the languor of a nineteenth-century sentence. My life has changed a great deal since then; I’m now a mostly-stay-at-home mother of two. I am a maker of lunches, a resolver of squabbles, a remover of stains. I have a greater understanding of the steadfastness of love in all its forms, and a greater appreciation of the nobility of doing the right thing, even when it goes against one’s own self-interest. And I do love a happy ending.