Following a fabulous performance by members of the Hampshire Regency Dancers resplendent in period costume, Dr Gary Farnell welcomed members and guests to the society’s December Gala Evening.
Special Guest: Eileen Fitzgerald
A specialist in the life and works of Jane Austen (1775-1817), Dr Eileen Fitzgerald was the perfect guest to commence proceedings with a meticulously researched insight into the Regency world that formed the backdrop to Austen’s social and domestic experiences.
In 1768 the Austens took up residence in the rectory of the Hampshire village of Steventon where in due course the family grew to include Jane and her 7 siblings. The circumstances of family life that the children enjoyed comprised an enlightened and intellectually open atmosphere. This might have contributed to Jane’s inquisitive nature which evolved as she grew towards adulthood. Her childhood experiences were such that as a young teenager she produced works now referred to as The Juvenilia and within them, it is possible to discern the subjects and characterisations that she would develop in her later works of literary genius.
Steventon Rectory, as depicted in A Memoir of Jane Austen, was in a valley and surrounded by meadows.
[Image Public Domain]
Jane’s father augmented the family’s sparse income with farming and teaching and therefore it would seem that the young Jane would not have been living in opulence. It is possible that the themes of class, wealth and social aspiration often through marriage, which were to take a pivotal role at the centre of her work, were seeded at this time. And what work it was, forging as it did an entirely new literary genre of Realism. Indeed, Austen might have been the first to recognise the truism of ‘writing what you know’. Eileen identified and discussed both the evolution and the craft of Austen’s writing, citing Walter Scott, ‘Austen managed to find a lightness of touch and married that to an acute sense of place’. Eileen concluded her talk by mooting the intriguing and inspiring suggestion that Jane Austen and the Scarlett Pimpernel might have been one and the same.
Jane Austen By Cassandra Austen (1773–1845)
[Image Public Domain]
Keynote Speaker: Cecily O’Neill
Over the course of her professional life, Cecily has directed many dramatic societies and has for years worked in English and drama education. Her delight in adapting unfamiliar texts for performance has led to the creation of re-imagined classics and original texts for publication and performance. Members were given a glimpse of this work during her talk, with three wonderful women actors in period dress reciting from Cecily’s own original scripts. What a treat! These adaptations include ‘Young Jane’, three plays inspired by Jane Austen’s teenage writings, and ‘Venus and Adonis’ for the Winchester Festival, 2016. Not only does Cecily hold a PhD in Theatre from the University of Exeter but she is also an Honorary Fellow of the University of Winchester… aficionados of Austen were certainly in excellent company.
Cecily O’Neill is one of those speakers to whom listeners immediately warm, perceiving a richly informed, deeply passionate expert in her twin specialisms of Austen’s literature and drama. It might be said that the young Cecily O’Neill produced her own versions of theatrical juvenilia rounding up as she did teenage friends to present plays in her parent’s garage. From such humble beginnings, a great literary expert and dramaturge was to emerge.
Cautioning against Laertes’ advice of ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, Cecily raised a laugh when she cited Byron’s lowly opinion of The Bard whom he accused of being a thematic magpie. She also highlighted that Jane Austen herself had come in for opprobrium, being considered by some as creating extremely deficient characters whose lives were devoid of invention. However, Walter Scott acted as a counter to those who had been slow to embrace Austen’s now universally recognised skill of capturing the realism of everyday lives in economic prose. He praised Austen’s writing saying that her skill of rendering ‘nature as she really exists in the common walks of life’ was, in essence, a shift in the literary paradigm. Whilst the modern scholar, William Galperin noted that Scott had recognised Austen’s divergence from standard contemporary practise saying, ‘That young lady had a talent for describing the feelings and characters of ordinary life. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early’.
There would be few if any at this gala evening who would disagree.