I wasn’t planning on writing any essays this summer. I wasn’t planning on winning a Jane Austen essay contest. And I definitely wasn’t planning to attend a nation-wide Jane Austen conference with a bunch of middle-aged women. Even though I didn’t plan on any of these things, they happened! And
Jane Austen is most famous today for the two movie renditions of her book Pride and Prejudice. The essay I wrote this summer centered around another of Austen’s works, Emma. After winning second place in the contest, I was given an opportunity to attend the pretentiously-named Jane Austen Society of North America General Meeting (JASNA AGM for short). After an early morning flight to Washington DC on October 21, I arrived at AustenCon 2K16.
I expected the conference to be small, quirky and casual. But then I stepped into the J.W. Marriott hotel, where the conference was held. It. Was. Huge. Crystal chandeliers. Pillars. Staircases. My jaw literally dropped… and I realized that the Jane Austen conference was going to be a little more than I had anticipated.
The first day of the conference, over 700 attendees gathered in the grand ballroom to listen to the first keynote speaker, Dr. Bharat Tandon, a guest lecturer of literature and drama at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. I really enjoyed the lecture- and not just because Tandon had a really attractive British accent. Tandon, and the other conference speakers, through their deep study into Austen’s works, showed that the audience’s love for Austen was not weird, but was in fact a valid academic interest.
The conference wasn’t just pure academic inquiry, though. We also got lit— in classic Austen fashion, mind you. Saturday night, JASNA AGM became a Jane Austen Comicon– everyone dressed up in FULL Regency garb and gathered in the grand ballroom to learn country dances. In my casual sundress, I felt way underdressed and spent most of the time “admiring the general splendor” from the sidelines. This part of the conference seemed like a nerd convention, with Janeites cosplaying in order to feel like a part of the Regency era.
When I saw all the attendees together, I became aware of the conference demographics: women vastly outnumbered men. I think part of Austen’s appeal to women comes because she pushed her way into the literary realm, a place reserved for men. And that’s what these women at the conference were doing: reclaiming academia, a traditionally male-heavy arena, for themselves.
Through JASNA’s academic side, and its nerdy ComiCon side, I saw that Jane Austen’s relevance continues to this day. It gives academic credence to “women’s literature” and gives strangers a way to bond (or fangirl) over something clever, insightful, and perennially pertinent. Though I didn’t fit the 50-something JASNA demographic, I still had a lot of fun at the conference. Ten out of ten, would Austen again.
Read my Emma essay here.