Jane Austen in Perspective: An introduction to Jane Austen
Introduction | The boyfriend: Tom Lefroy |
The friend: Mrs Anne
Lefroy | The suitor: Harris
Bigg-Wither | The aunt & uncle:
the Leigh-Perrots | The best friend: Martha Lloyd | The neighbours:
the Digweeeds et al. | The sister: protector or vandal of Austen's legacy
| The parents: George & Cassandra Austen
JASA Country Weekend - September 2006
Merroo Conference Centre, Kurrajong NSW
The people in Jane Austen's life
From the moment you step out of the car, the silence takes hold of you. The hustle and bustle are replaced by the fairy piping of the bellbirds. You can hear the soft crunch of your feet on the gravel.
After checking in, we gathered in the main auditorium of Merroo’s Centre I, one of two centres spread out over many acres of countryside at Kurrajong. This auditorium became our ‘home’ over the next days. It was good to catch up with JASA friends, old and new, over a stimulating orange cordial or a cuppa. This year, there was the usual interesting mix of ‘old hands’ and new arrivals. Two intrepid souls drove from central Queensland. If you thought Kurrajong was a long way from Roseville, this was the moment to think again!
To fortify our burgeoning conversation, dinner was served at 7 on this first night. After dinner, we gathered for the informal welcome and introduction from Susannah
Fullerton, JASA President, and were then treated to a ‘hot-off-the-press’ DVD of Austen ‘guru’ Deirdre Le Faye talking about Jane Austen’s letters with Joan Ray, president of JASNA and a recent guest lecturer at one of our annual conferences. There doesn’t seem too much at all that Deirdre doesn’t know about those letters.
Saturday breakfast began at a very leisurely hour, then we convened again in the auditorium to hear from some of our talented members on ‘The People in Jane Austen’s Life’. We were told about Jane’s immediate circle – her ‘boyfriend’ Tom Lefroy, her friend Madam Lefroy, the hapless Harris Bigg-Wither, her mother and father George and Cassandra Austen (was Mrs Austen a pain in the neck, as some think?), the Leigh-Perrots and that supposedly stolen piece of lace, Martha Lloyd, the Digweeds and so on. The presentations were excellent, and much enjoyed by members, with questions and ideas going back and forth all morning.
Lunch came to our rescue but the ideas generated in that session continued to vie with the dainties on our tables, then we gathered to discuss Jane’s big sister. Were there really more than 3,000 letters that fell into Cassandra’s hands after Jane died? And did she destroy all but a couple of hundred or less destined for members of the family? Was she trying to protect Jane’s image for posterity? Did she remove all the juicy bits? What had Jane been up to that we weren’t to be told about? The explanations came fast and thick, as we divided into pro- and anti-Cassandra factions. The speculations continued into afternoon tea time, although some went walking, some caught up with lost sleep, some risked more of the orange cordial and others got ready for a quick dash to the ‘local’ to charge their batteries before dinner.
After dinner, we were treated to more of the boundless talents of our members. We heard wonderful verse, some teary, some light-hearted, about little boys being eaten by lions and about handsome men coming out of the West. We were shown some exquisite quilts by our Queensland associates and we had many a laugh in warm and jocund company.
Another leisurely start ushered in our final morning: could it really be the last day already? After breakfast Susannah led us into the reading world of Jane Austen. Let loose in her father’s library Jane had read a very wide variety of fiction and other prose in her formative years, including the ‘profligacies’ of Fielding and Sterne, as well as the lengthy, more sober works of Richardson. And what an interesting man Richardson was – nicknamed ‘Serious’ and ‘Gravity’, he loved writing letters, even other people’s letters for them, at a nominal charge. He wrote a volume of ‘model letters’, that people could use as templates. Effeminate and fussy himself, he loved female company, and he wrote what was for many years the longest novel written in English, Clarissa. Fielding, author of Tom Jones, was a very different man, who found a career in the law but did very well from writing plays. He was only 47 when he died in Portugal but had churned out more words than you and I could ever dream of churning out, Horatio. [Susannah has agreed to allow this paper to appear in a later edition of
Sensibilities: this broad subject deserves full attention.
For our final session, Meg Hayward led a great discussion about Jane’s fictional villages. Hands up those who would prefer to live in Sotherton! Or Highbury? What about living down the road from Lady Catherine and rushing out to see her ‘passing by’?
Suddenly it was time to say goodbye, after a quick final lasagne and a last draught of orange cordial.
Inside our heads jostled all the myriad thoughts and ideas stimulated by Jane’s writings and life but also by the wonderful people we are SO lucky to have in our Society. Next time, do yourself a favour and come to the country weekend. This kind of experience is rare indeed these days.