By Gail Lemley Burnett
For me, it started with 9/11.
My love of Jane Austen had actually been hatched years before, but my connection with other fans began when, unable to relax following the terrorist attacks, I wrote my heart out in my weekly column for the Journal Tribune in Biddeford.
I talked about wanting to climb into a comfortable cottage in an English village of the late 18th century and to worry about nothing more serious than finding suitable husbands for worthy young ladies. I wanted manners and wit, not menace and warmongering.
Luckily for me, my column caught the eye of a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Maine chapter. She sent an email: “I think you might like to join our group. We all feel as you do about Jane Austen.”
So I did, and I still do. Three times a year (in non-pandemic times), we meet to discuss aspects of Austen’s six novels, her life, her times and her contemporaries. There’s usually a speaker who knows a whole lot about a tiny aspect of Austen or of the Regency period. One person talked about the music of Austen’s time and then demonstrated by playing a pianoforte (an antique piano). Another described her visits to Austen’s home and museum in the village of Chawton, England. One of my favorite speakers described all the whiny characters in Austen’s books. (Her title was a quote from one of the whiniest, Mary Musgrove: “My sore throats are always worse than anyone’s.”) There are short plays, slide shows, panel discussions and refreshments. Every December, we celebrate Austen’s birthday with a cake and a toast “to Jane and her Queen.”
I love the diversion of these meetings. For a few hours, nothing is more important than the argument over who really was the worst bad guy in Austen’s books. (My vote is for General Tilney of “Northanger Abbey,” who turns young Catherine Morland out of his house in the middle of the night, alone, when he finds out that she’s not rich.) For a few hours, characters in the novels seem to be sitting at the next table.
The general public misunderstands Jane Austen fans, if it thinks of them at all. We are not prudes or sticklers for adherence to every word Austen ever wrote. Most Austen fans love the adaptations of her books that veer far out of bounds; the movie “Clueless,” for example, is a 1990s take on “Emma,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” pays tribute to “Pride and Prejudice.” A few years ago, my sister-in-law Susan and I couldn’t stop laughing at the Theater at Monmouth production “Pride @ Prejudice,” which blended the characters of her most famous novel with modern-day folks who were trying to understand them or explain them.
What people might not get is that Austen wrote sharply funny, feminist works that took aim at a system that discounted the economic worth and intelligence of most women. There are good reasons why they’re still read today, 204 years after her death.
And not all those reasons have to do with wanting to escape from today’s reality, though that’s as good as any.
Gail is a California native and longtime resident of Springvale, Maine. After working as a newspaper writer and editor for 25 years, she started teaching English to adults about 15 years ago. She now works part time with English language students through Portland Adult Education. She enjoys reading, spending time outdoors, and reading outdoors.