Celebration of Jane Austen: What Matters in Jane Austen?

Report by Carole Hastings

The Hampshire Regency Dancers opened proceedings by dancing a selection of dances as would have been enjoyed in Jane  Austen’s day.  They demonstrated dances that offered opportunities for flirting, away from beady-eyed chaperones.   A few members and guests took to the floor for a lesson at the end of the session.04_ Regency Dancers Dec 13 (2)

Barbara Large, aka Lady Catherine de Bourgh, welcomed everyone, some resplendent in regency costume. She then introduced the special guest of the evening, Angela Hicken, Literary Development Office for the Hampshire County Council, a role has had had for eight years.   Her role is county-wide and she tends to operate from the Discovery Centres of Winchester, Basingstoke and Gosport.

09_ Reg Dancers Dec 13 (3)Angela has introduced a number of “meet the author” events and panel evenings and encouraged the audience to take part in A Perfect Crime Day on Saturday March 8 at the WDC.  During the day there will be a fact meets fiction event and in the evening there will be an Are You Sitting Comfortably? performance of crime stories by the White Rabbit company.  Send your 1000 word crime stories to areyousittingcomfortably@live.com by February 22.  Angela will soon announce the winner of the Hampshire Poet Laureate for 2014 and reminded everyone that the Writing Hampshire website provides poets with a chance to say what the county means to them.

There are a number of initiatives running in the county, including poetry cafes, reading groups etc.  The new WDC brochure will be available soon but many events 2014 can be seen already on www.hants.gov.uk/wdc.  As only 36% of the UK read for pleasure and libraries are under pressure,  Angela stirred the audience to go and discover some books they might not think to read and get involved with the writing opportunities on offer there.

07_ Reg Dancers Dec 13 (3)David Eadsforth, dashing in his regency uniform, introduced the main speaker of the evening, John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London. He was a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge and a Lecturer at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, before joining UCL in 1994.  John is a specialist in eighteenth-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He has edited a number of works by Daniel Defoe and his edition of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets was published in 2008. He also has research interests in the nineteenth century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

John ran a lively session predominantly asking the audience questions and providing the answers when they weren’t forthcoming.  These  ranged from which Austen character had been to Cheltenham [Mary Crawford, the antagonist in Mansfield Park]  to which wife is the only one in an Austen novel who addressed her husband by his forename [Mary Musgrove in Persuasion].  He pointed out that Mary refers to her husband as Charles when she is about to disagree with him and he refers to her as Mary, when he’s about to make a point that she is wrong.  The Bennets, however, remain on surnames throughout Pride and Prejudice.11_ John Mullan Dec 13 (3)

Not long into his session we learnt that everything matters in Jane Austen and that no words are wasted anywhere.  He discussed the issue of age in Austen’s books as she highlighted age a good deal, making the point that most women are approaching the years of danger once they are more than 27 years old.  He stated that in Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas [27] and Mr. Collins [25] had the shortest courtship and all carried out in full view of the Lucas and Bennett family.  It was a whole afternoon!  Christmas also features in all her novels whether they were a feature of regular balls or a family visits.

It was an interesting evening packed with snippets and plenty of food for thought.   There will no doubt be some rereading of Jane Austen novels to pick up the nuances we may have missed in the past.