Saturday, July 18, 2009

From Chawton: "New Directions in Jane Austen Studies" conference

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Well, that was the travel day from hell! It exposed all the failings of the English train system, as well as my own weaknesses as a traveller (principally knees that object to going up steep stairs while carrying heavy suitcases). The train from Cambridge to London was fine, but it turned out to be very nasty getting from King's Cross to Paddington – crammed train, having to climb stairs with suitcase. Then when I got to Paddington (where the ticket man had told me to go), I was told that I ought to have gone to Waterloo, but I could take a train to Reading and change for Winchester. So I boarded the train, but was told the wrong platform, and I found I was headed to Slough, and had to get off, cross the platform again, go downstairs, then UPstairs, then wait for another train to Reading, etc., etc. At Reading I was told the train to Winchester would arrive on platform 8 at 7:45, getting me to Winchester at 8:24…too late for reception at West Downs to be open. Just to be safe I checked, and was now told the train had arrived on platform 12 – I had six minutes to run upstairs again with suitcases, breathless, sweating and distraught. But this last train got in when it should, and luckily I got a cab at once and reached the West Downs student facility, where the delegates for the "New Directions in Jane Austen Studies" conference at Chawton House Library were to be housed. A steward gave me my key; the room is up another three double flights of stairs, up which my bags had to be hauled. It's Spartan cinderblock student housing with the bathroom shower drain in the floor, which led me to call it The Swamp. Also a cohort of teenage Italian students used the central downstairs area as their noisy social Piazza until after midnight every night. However, the bed was comfortable, and I wouldn’t have minded anything, but – no internet. None. The steward said I could actually get the best signal standing in the middle of the road, so I tried that. No go. Then he said he’d call a mate who’d open up the student café building and I had to go downhill to find it. I walked down, and all the way through a huge hospital, and round the grounds – at least a mile, with my aching knee. Never found the place, had to give up. Was starving by then, and there was noplace closer than the city center miles away, except the pub opposite. There I got some fossilized pizza and was disconcerted by some young local yobs staring at my chest. I thought that when you hit 60 you received immunity from all that sort of thing with your senior card. Wearily crawled back to my room, where a lovely phone conversation with Peter and Paul was consoling.

Chawton House

Thursday July 9, 2009

Slept from about 11:30 to 5AM, couldn’t sleep anymore. Finally went down and was able to get internet connection on my laptop in the common breakfast room, but was very angry, as they’d said we’d have internet in our rooms: I’d have gone elsewhere if I’d known we wouldn’t. No one to complain to, only kitchen staff there; the office wouldn't open till after we'd all been taken off to Chawton for the day. So I had about a half hour, mostly spent trying to get connected while scarfing English sausages. All the 60 delegates housed at the Swamp got on the shuttle bus that took us to Chawton at 8 AM. (The conference heavyweights stayed at Chawton House Library, but there's only room for a few there, and others were at b & bs in Chawton and Alton. It might have been better to house the bulk of attendees in central Winchester - the conference had about 150 attending, half of them speakers - but that would have been pricey). Pleasant, chattily congenial bus ride through pretty countryside, about a half hour.

At Chawton, all assembled in the main tent for the opening event, which was distressingly dreadful - Sandy Lerner and another woman performed a little skit she’d written about Lady Catherine and Sir William Elliot. Simply dire, but who is going to gainsay the billionairess. Apparently the previous weekend she had an embarrassing ball complete with movie stars and shire horses, at $5000 per person; I heard it was pretty but sparsely attended, which can scarcely be wondered at. When she was done, the conference proper began, with engaging opening talks by Isobel Grundy and Juliet McMaster. We were supposed to sign up for the conference banquet early on, and it was kindly arranged for me to be at Juliet's table; Kathleen Glancy and Arnie too. Had a walk with Jan round the meadows, woods and gardens, saw roosters and sheep, vegetables and flowers in the dappled sunshine: it's very pleasant to be at Chawton for four whole days, and really get to explore and enjoy the place.

Jane Austen's House

Panel: Phyllis Bottomer, Marcia Folsom, me, Laurie Kaplan

Lunch, in the secondary marquee tent, was lovely: cold ham, cheeses, salad, couscous, a cheese and spinach quiche, and fabulous lemon cake and chocolate cake (most people had both). After that it was time for my talk. My panel, "Teaching and Learning Through Austen," was held in the very beautiful wood-paneled dining room, windows looking out at the green Chawton countryside. The chairman was Professor Laurie Kaplan, former editor of Persuasions. First, graduate student Sarah Kendal gave a succinct and interesting illustrated presentation of the Goucher Jane Austen collection. Then Marcia Folsom did a charming, lyrical, moving talk on learning through teaching Persuasion. I was next, with my "Eyeing Mrs. Elton: Learning Through Pastiche," about learning Austen through the study of one character (Mrs. Elton) and writing pastiche. Finally there was a most fascinating talk by Phyllis Bottomer, a speech pathologist who examined eccentric Austen characters for symptoms of Aspergers symptoms - I'd thought this might be spurious, but it was actually a deeply interesting new way to look at the characters. It was a wonderful panel, everything blending surprisingly well together, with a common theme of fresh new ways to look at Austen – it was really quite remarkable, more than the sum of its parts, as panels seldom really are, and we all felt that conference organizer Gillian Dow must have known what she was doing when she grouped us! The disappointment was that only seven people came. John Wiltshire was there, but dismayingly darted out right after Marcia's speech, diminishing the numbers still more. Unfortunately we'd been scheduled at the same time as one of the conference's main events, where all the heavyweights were talking about the manuscripts, and naturally everyone went to that. In an odd way, however - and this is not just sour grapes - I have given so many talks now (over 50) as to be very blase and ready for anything - the smallness of the group really contributed to the panel’s excellence. There was such an intimate feeling, all those present responded so well, and we all conversed eagerly in the question period. I made some new friends too (notably the delightful Theresa Charlotte Reynolds of Indiana). My duties over, I was relieved, and instead of going to the next panel, I refreshed myself by going off on my own to Jane Austen’s house. It's a lovely five to ten minute walk alongside meadows. This turned out to be a brilliant move, for I had the house entirely to myself and could examine it at leisure; at the scheduled visiting times, it was packed. Then I walked back, when everyone was assembling for the final big talk of the day, John Wiltshire's. After that, all the Swamps residents trooped into the bus to go to Winchester, where they dropped us at the town centre so we could get our own dinners. There was plenty of choice; I was with a large party that walked to Loch Fyne restaurant where I had fish chowder and fish pie, both excellent. It took quite a long time to get the food however, and the check for 9 people, and I was extravagantly exhausted. Shared a taxi back to campus. Still no internet. Went to sleep.

Jane Austen's hair, and her father's

Friday, July 10

Up at 6:30. Ate hasty breakfast while internetting. Then hurried for the 8 AM bus to Chawton. There I had a private look around the library, seeing the manuscripts and exhibits, before going into the main marquee for Deirdre Le Faye’s talk. It was long and packed full of family talk, from her books, which I enjoyed, but there were some sleepyheads, and people got huffy because she actually told the audience to quit doing “psychoanalyzing” and “theorizing” and hunt down Jane Austen’s connections instead, in hopes of uncovering something. She also said she thought Persuasion was “thin,” Austen’s poorest novel, which didn’t go down well either. But I enjoyed Deirdre's old-order English eccentricity and liked hearing about the local families of 200 years ago, which I thought was really very well within the theme of the conference, a celebration of Austen's arrival at Chawton in 1809.

Deirdre Le Faye

Arnie asks a question

Oxford scholar Hilary Clare, whom I know from the Girls' Own list, was supposed to meet me at Jane Austen's house at 10, to drive me around to see some Charlotte M. Yonge sites, but Deirdre kept on till 10:20. I hurried over to the house, where Hilary had fortunately only just arrived, and I asked at the house about walking to Selborne (which Jan and I were planning to do on Saturday), but they strongly advised against it, saying that the road was too dangerous. Then Hilary drove me away. She’s so nice and so intelligent, it was delightful and refreshing to chat Yonge "con amore" with her - and dare I say it, to get away from Janeism and discuss an uncommercial author for a bit.

Our first stop was Otterbourne, four miles outside Winchester, where Yonge lived; I'd visited it before but hardly knew how to find anything, and I now fulfilled my wish of seeing the place with the knowledgeable Yonge scholar. We saw the inside of the church (which I couldn’t see on my earlier visit) and the two houses, Elderfield and Otterbourne House. Then we had a wonderful ploughman’s lunch, 3 kinds of cheese and ham, pickled onion, Branston pickle, bread, salad, and cider. After lunch we drove to St. Cross, the medieval almshouses mentioned in Heartsease, and that was lovely; the old stone houses are still lived in by poor men, who wear funny hats. From there we drove to Hursley, home of the Heathcote family, who had both Austen and Yonge connections, and finally to the terrace in Winchester where sixteen-year-old Violet in Heartsease spent her honeymoon. Marvelous day!

Almshouses at St. Cross

Hilary drove me back to Chawton and I slipped into the main marquee, in time for Jan’s talk with her editing partner Linda Bree, a charming presentation about Austen’s poetry. By then I was quite tired. The buses then took everyone at the conference, not just the Swamp dwellers, to Winchester Cathedral. There was no Evensong as scheduled, and I wasn’t interested in the cathedral tour, so I wandered out on my own again and went to the house where Jane Austen died. Classical music was coming from the house, and I sat in a little garden in the dappled late afternoon sunshine, having a peaceful moment.

Then it was time to go to the Cathedral refectory where we had canapés and Pimms, followed by the conference banquet. Our table was the home of lively talk and jollity: I enjoyed sitting and talking with my Swamp neighbor, Annette Upfal, of the University of New South Wales, whose new edition of the Austen Juvenilia book “The History of England,” was having its launch at the conference. She theorizes convincingly and excitingly that the faces in the paintings by Cassandra were really Austen family members; I got her and Christine Alexander her colleague, editor of Juvenilia Press, to autograph the book. Also at the table were Juliet, Isobel, Linda Troost (author of Jane Austen in Hollywood), Kathleen, and Arnie. Enjoyable as the table was, after the main meal I joined "my" panel, and sat and laughed with them and Teresa Reynolds, a happy, friendly lady whose slave I am because she really liked my talk. The dinner was good: poached pear and goat’s cheese mousse with walnut raisins; breast of chicken wrapped in leek and bacon with mushroom Cognac sauce; glazed lemon tart with clotted cream. Very good. But oh so TIRED – glad when bus came and we returned to the dorms!

Me and Charlotte Theresa Reynolds

Panel at the Banquet: Phyllis, Marcia, me and Sarah Kendall

Saturday, July 11

Rainy day – but just misting and drizzle, not too rainy to walk. So after breakfast, when the bus pulled into Chawton (at 9:30, they let us sleep a little later), I met Jan in the tearoom, and we called a cab to take us to Selborne. Arriving in the pretty village at 10 AM, we paid a brief call on Jean Bowden, former curator of Jane Austen’s house, who lives next door to the Gilbert White house in Selborne in a very pretty thatched cottage.

Jean Bowden's cottage in Selborne

She advised us how to proceed, and we started right in by walking up the hangar. Gilbert White (in his Natural History of Selborne) wrote a lot about the hangar, which is a forest on a steep cliff. He and his brother carved out a path known as the “zig-zag,” switchbacks really, that climb 300 feet up to the top of the hangar. The stairs were carved in 1753, so it was really amazing to be walking on them, with the woods looking unchanged since then. It’s all National Trust now, and on top of the hangar the flat forest and meadowland, which seems to go on for miles, is devoid of any hint of the industrial world – it really might be the same as where White or Austen walked. So we walked this enchanted path for a few hours, and at noon descended, in drizzle, back to the village.

At the lovely café at the Gilbert White house, 18th century recipes and tea are served. I had an egg salad sandwich, fresh and delicious, lemon drizzle cake, and lots and lots of tea. Jan was rather short-changed with a miserable sliver of quiche, but also had salad and cake. We then walked round the huge garden, broad fields fringed with stunning old-fashioned flowers, a herb garden, a gentlemen’s estate sort of immense yew hedge, water garden, and much more. It was breathtakingly lovely and so old-fashioned and not polluted by tourists as Chawton is. I bought a beautifully illustrated copy of White's book at the excellent shop (also a pretty little antique silver flower pin at a nearby antiques shop). Our feet were utterly soaked through, however, and we had quite a comedy swapping socks, trying to buy new socks, and so on. (Jan also sat down upon a nettle.) But it was a beautiful day nonetheless, we agreed.

We took a cab back to Chawton in time for Kathryn Sutherland’s talk, and then it was time for Jan to take off with Linda Bree, who was driving her part of the way back to Cambridge. After they left, we were served delicious canapes, quite enough for dinner, in the marquee, and then we all trooped into the church for a simply glorious concert of songs and music from Jane Austen’s albums. The church looked gorgeous, beautifully lit, and the singing was just beautiful and poignant, a wonderful last day of the conference. We rode on the buses back to Winchester in the rain.


Princess of the Universe said...

I might be inclined to agree with that assessment of "Persuasion." It's certainly one of my least favourites...I find all the characters lacking somehow.

Diana Birchall said...

Same here, to tell the truth, Princess. I thought Deirdre was telling it like it is, and even though a lot of people didn't like her talk, I did.

StuckInABook said...

Well I'd seen some of these photos in miniature, and heard about your travels, but it was lovely to see it all together. And I'm another who places Persuasion last of JA's novels... but I've been told to read it again when I'm 30.

Ellen said...

I found your account of Deirdre Le Faye's paper intriguing. I would not have expected her to be iconoclastic, so maybe she was trying to make a space for herself by genuinely offering some new direction. Ironically that's not hard: you just stop the hagiography for a while and pull aside a curtain to reveal some hard truths about Austen's fictions: one is that they were written over a long time and show it, and that only four are in a finished state.

It's also interesting that you say her audience immediately didn't like it. You would think such an entrenched author's reputation would seem absolutely firm, and her adherents therefore not be threatened (in their identities too) by such talk. But they were. Orwell might say that's what we should keep our eyes on.

I like that photo of yourself when young. What a beautiful head of hair; I never had such luxuriant but when I was pregnant and it was too high a price to pay.

It must have been good to meet the people and make a few new acquaintances, begin and shore up friendships.


Arnie Perlstein said...


I somehow did not catch your photo of me at the Chawton Conference, THANKS, it is very nice!!! ;)

Nancy said...

It's interesting that Phyllis Bottomer continues to analyze JA's characters according to Asperger characteristics. Her book on Pride and Prejudice and her paper on Emma I have read and reread. They are almost a text for me;through them I can sort out the personality aspects of some of the people in my life;and have a little more compassion where I think it's needed.