A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: Women’s Studies

How I learned that sex, indeed, does sell at a JASNA AGM. No, not like that!!

“It’s a very select Society, an’ you’ve got to be a Janeite in your ’eart … You take it from me, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place.”
“The Janeites,” by Rudyard Kipling

The 2012 Jane Austen Society of North America AGM (annual general meeting) is over.  And on a cold and wet Sunday, having changed into my comfy new Jane Austen t-shirt, lying curled up in my bed, I took immense pleasure in my reminiscences of the past weekend, like Cinderella after the ball.

This was my first-ever AGM, an annual gathering of a like-minded mix of academic and non-academic followers of all things Jane.  I sit writing with my “Jane Austen’s Regency World” pen, sifting through the myriad postcards, flyers, refrigerator magnets, and bookmarks, while recollecting the lectures, banquet, Regency Ball, and all the wonderful people who I met.  I can’t help but feel sad that it’s over, the camaraderie, the vast amounts of information, the books for sale (that could possibly put me in a poor house), and the immeasurable satisfaction of being around so many who understand the obsession.  There was no eye-rolling (except perhaps when I chose to read from Fordyce’s Sermons aloud), no bored stares or incredulous looks, just others who wanted to gush about our favorite author, the ubiquitous Jane Austen.

I am still savoring the high of giving my first break-out lecture.  This is one of the highlights of my life.  I had been a bundle of nerves in the weeks leading up to this moment.  I am insecure when it comes to this kind of thing and even more so because I do not have an academic background in English Literature, therefore feel some inferiority and lots of fear that I will make a fool of myself in front of those who can claim extensive credentials.  I am a frustrated wannabe academic and I so yearn for acceptance and praise from those I consider to be “real” scholars.  This, compounded with the fear of suddenly forgetting my material, not being able to answer questions and looking like an idiot, and worrying that the sound of my voice (which I personally loathe) would be grating to others put me in a near state of panic.  It further did not help when I learned that I had one of the biggest groups (132) signed up for my lecture.  But I need not have worried.  My little talk “Fallen Women of the Regency:  Mistresses, Courtesans, and Prostitutes” was very well received (see sex does, indeed, sell even at Jane Austen themed events) , the questions asked were insightful and thought-provoking, and I was told that my presentation and handout were very interesting and that I had a very good speaking manner by no less an author whose books I admire.  High praise, indeed.  This wonderful experience has left me wanting more and I am already thinking of my next paper proposal for next year’s AGM celebrating the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice.

The Banquet and Regency Ball was so much fun!  For five hours I ate, drank, and danced the night away like I was at the Netherfield Ball.  There were so  many beautifully dressed people and the music was lively and fun.  I spent a good deal of the time admiring the general splendor of it all.  I did find myself having to loosen my stays if I wanted to keep up with the highly aerobic Regency-era dancing.  Thanks, mom, for my ballet training!

Another highpoint of the weekend was the author book signing.  Bleary-eyed and exhausted from the previous night’s exertions I lugged the books that I had carefully chosen, by the authors I was desperate to meet.  To speak with those who have written some of the most well-informed and wonderfully written books about Jane Austen was akin to meeting (for me) rock stars!

What a memorable weekend!!  I can’t wait for next year in Minneapolis, MN (and the year after that, Montreal, and the year after that, Louisville, KY).

Clearly the subject matter of my talk went to my head!

Quote of the Day: Jane Austen

“…but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.”  Jane Austen, 1775-1817

Fallen Women of the Regency: Mistresses, Courtesans, and Prostitutes

A Harlot’s Progress: The Harlot Deceiving Her Jewish Protector by William Hogarth, 1732

“I could not trace her beyond her first seducer, and there was every reason to fear that she had removed from him only to sink deeper in a life of sin.” (Sense and Sensibility, ch. 31)

As a writer, Jane Austen does not shy away from the topic of sexual indiscretion and its consequences for women.  Three of her six published novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park, tell of the risks that befall females who step outside the bounds of social propriety.  Whether they pursued, without thought of consequence, the rousing attentions of men or were unsuspecting impressionable victims of exploitative rakes, a woman’s position was precarious, their sexual purity a commodity in the marriage market, and any stain upon that reputation devastating in its ramifications on inheritance, status, and prospects.  Regency society pardoned and even tacitly condoned licentious behavior in men yet censured “fallen” women, labeling them mistresses, courtesans, and prostitutes.

Colonel Brandon’s description of the tragic story of Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility suggests a realm not usually associated with Jane Austen.  A study of Austen’s novels and letters, biographies of courtesans and mistresses of the period, as well as contemporary documents it is possible to illuminate a world that exists upon the periphery of Austen’s writing.  In an era when women had no social authority or control and were susceptible to the power of the men around them, the women of the Regency demi-monde ranged from poverty-stricken to very powerful. Accruing wealth, running their own households, obtaining the trappings of society without ever gaining access to “polite” society, those women at the fortunate end of the spectrum dominated the realm of the “half world” and, despite their scandalous existences, became arbiters of style and fashion.

On October 5, at the 2012 AGM of the Jane Austen Society of North America, I will present my research which investigates the position of mistresses, courtesans, and prostitutes of the Regency.  Any one of Jane Austen’s heroines could have ended up in a career of vice had they succumbed to sexual recklessness.  The unthinking, like Lydia (had Mr. Darcy not intervened) might have ended up a darling of Covent Garden with an entry in Harris’s List .  Others, like Elizabeth, may have used their charms to gain the adoration of powerful men, playing them against one another to gain wealth, power and control.  It is this parallel world to Jane Austen’s well-mannered drawing rooms, existing yet hidden, a very real possibility for any woman, that will form the basis of my lecture.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See: A Novel of a Chinese-American Experience

The novel Shanghai Girls is ultimately about two women who must survive their new reality in America while remaining grounded in their Chinese origins. The story is divided into three themes important in Chinese society – Fate, Fortune, and Destiny – each representing a phase of struggle and renewal in their lives.

The Theme of FATE

It is Shanghai 1937 and two sisters, Pearl and May, have their world turned upside down. Two “beautiful girls” who pose for artists who depict them exuding the energy, excitement and beauty of the modern Chinese woman. Their lives are changed overnight when their father loses all his wealth and he, in an effort to save the family, sells the girls into arranged marriages to Gold Mountain Men — American-Chinese husbands. The truth is far darker when they discover that it is not ordinary debts which have thrown these two women back into a feudal age but poor judgement and dealings with the dreaded crime syndicate the “Green Gang”. All this as Japanese bombs begin to fall decimating the city the girl’s know and love. They escape the city, traversing the Chinese countryside witnessing first-hand the cruelty and atrocities of the conquering armies.

The Theme of FORTUNE

These women manage to make it to Hong Kong and passage to Los Angeles where they arrive at Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the west”. Here Pearl and May learn that prosperity is not so easy to gain and the streets of America are most definitely not paved in gold. For the next 20 years these resourceful and strong women maintain their dignity as they endure blatant racism and government-sanctioned discrimination. The years find them ever loyal and supportive to one another as they carve a niche for themselves and their families while constantly straddling the two divergent cultures of China and America. Pearl and May cope through WWII carrying special registration certificates proclaiming they are “members of the Chinese race”, and selling war bonds to prove they are loyal Americans.

The Theme of DESTINY

It is the 50s and the women see Congress finally repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act but at the same time the Communist threat once again enmesh them in a world that does not trust them and does not want them. Their future is to be forever part of the American experience, never to return to China. Pearl and May strive to raise the American-born generation to be American but find themselves dismayed when that generation doesn’t exhibit any of the qualities of traditional Chinese culture.

The novel which depicts emotionally difficult subjects common in the Chinese-American experience is not an effortless book to read but Lisa See develops each character with a deep understanding of the Chinese psyche that obliges one to read on. Ms. See portrays these extraordinary women in an unsentimental way and yet one is compelled to like them and even care for them. She does not embellish them with grand heroic acts or self-martyrdom; instead these women are portrayed as real in all their selfishness, suffering, forthrightness, petty jealousies, rivalries, and mostly love for one another.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (New York: Random House, 2009)

Jane Austen Knits

I picked this magazine up because clearly I am crazy.  This Jane Austen obsession is becoming all consuming.  I can’t even knit but the projects in this magazine are so enticing that I could not resist.  I want to learn and I am told that learning to knit is not that difficult.  So perhaps I will give it a go if only because I really, really want a knit Spencer to go with my Regency day dress.  But perhaps, it is best if I start off simply beginning with a scarf or a pair of mitts.

Did Jane Austen knit?  And if she did, what would she have knit?  In a period before industrialization it is not unlikely that women knitted blankets, shawls, scarves, cushions, and stockings.  Austen makes mention in Sense and Sensibility Mrs. Jenning’s plans for a knitting project and in an 1807 letter she describes her own knitting of a lap rug.

Martha’s rug is just finished, & looks well, tho’ not quite so well as I had hoped.  I see no fault in the Border, but the Middle is dingy.–My mother desires me to say that she will knit one for you, as soon as you return to chuse the colours & pattern.

The knitting of stockings was an undertaking easily employed by the poor to supplement their meager incomes.  It is probably not an unlikely supposition that Jane Austen and her sister, as daughters of a clergyman, may have knitted stockings for charitable distribution amongst the impoverished members of their village.

And besides, how can one not want to undertake some of these very beautiful pieces?

Quote of the Day: Mary Wollstonecraft

“Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.”  Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759–1797

Probably one of the hardest tasks I’ve ever set for myself

I am in the midst of writing a one-page abstract for a break-out lecture I would like to present at the 2012 Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting to be held in Brooklyn, NY.  Editing down a 40 minute lecture into a page is extremely difficult, harder even than childbirth!  As you probably have guessed Jane Austen is involved and since the theme is Sex, Money & Power in Jane Austen’s Fiction those who know me will assume that sex is involved too.  And they would be right!  Stay tuned to see how I manage to introduce a topic not usually associated with the gentle world of Jane Austen.

In the meantime, back to writing!!

Quote of the Day: Louisa May Alcott

Headshot of Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 18...

Image via Wikipedia

“She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.” 
Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888 (from Work: A Story of Experience)

Why Jane Austen? Why, indeed!

I have just finished Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein.  It is a scholarly book, a serious discourse that attempts to interpret why Jane Austen is considered such a great writer and why she has become such a phenomenon in this day and age.  The author strives to explain and understand from many viewpoints: Jane Austen’s contemporaries, her family, the young girls who are looking for a simple courtship story, women who see early feminist messages á la Mary Wollstonecraft, white-haired ladies who ooh and aah at the neat writing of her manuscripts and letters, and the zealots who would defend, to the death, her genius.  It is a well-written book; the author, a professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center and who has lectured at meetings of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), knows her stuff.  I enjoyed reading it but found parts of the book dry and, at times, confusing.  I am wondering if my dense reading of this book is because it wasn’t what I expected.  The well-known axiom, “don’t judge a book by its cover” is appropriate here as the cover picturing a Jane Austen “action figure” atop a stack of books belies its content.  I thought it would be a “light, bright and sparkling” book appropriate for summer holiday reading.  Beach reading it was not.

No sooner had I read the last page I began to question why I love Jane Austen so much.  Oddly enough, it is a tough question to answer, most likely because my outlook towards her has changed over the years.  I must admit I came to her quite late.  I never read Pride and Prejudice as a giddy schoolgirl; I discovered her in college.  I am embarrassed to say that my introduction to Jane Austen was through the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth and Darcy.  I remember loving it as I tried to watch while being teased by a neanderthal who felt that the highly mannered society, the clothes and stately settings, and period language were pretentious.  I read the book and soon after the other five novels.  I fell in love.

A small part of my Jane Austen collection

Since then, I have read the biographies, the Juvenilia, the letters, magazines, articles, on-line blogs, and have re-read the books countless times.  I would rather go hungry than not purchase the newest edition of any of the novels, biography, or critical essays.  I even watch and enjoy the cinematic versions of the books and Jane Austen’s life.  My favorite P&P is no longer the Firth one; he being much too Byronic for my tastes and not the Darcy of the novel.  I have read each book in different ways, sometimes I focus on character, sometimes it’s the language, I like to focus on reading between the lines to gently uncover Jane Austen’s witty and humorous and very accurate assessments of the people we still come into contact today.  She was a master of language; her writing so exquisite and at the same time so humble.  Unless you are looking for it this can be easy to miss.   Virginia Woolf summed it up best in A Room of One’s Own,

“Anyone who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware…that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”

So why Jane Austen?  Because I am the giddy girl seeking romance, the intellectual woman looking for discourse on the perfect novel, the feminist fighting for female independence and a break from the accepted docile rendering of womanhood, the gray-haired lady who values penmanship, civility, and manners.  Jane Austen answers to all of these various parts of my personality and so much more.  I’ve never been let down by her and have always been able to find a kernel of wisdom, laughter, and joy no matter my mood.  Her words have uplifted my spirits, answered difficult questions, and given me an understanding of people through the behavior of her characters.  She is great.  It is as simple as that.

%d bloggers like this: