Tuesday October 30, 2012

I didn't discover the genius of Jane Austen until my mid-30s. Blame my preference for historical non-fiction, and the fact that my high school and college literature instructors--who knows why--preferred the Brontës and George Eliot. I penned numerous papers on Jane Eyre and Silas Marner--all extremely uplifting and elucidating, I'm sure--but not a single essay on Austen's books. I'm embarrassed to say my affection for Austen did not begin until I watched the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice--long after its first release. Four years later--unwittingly--I was a bona fide fan veering dangerously close to devotee. When another big screen version of Pride and Prejudice was released, I tracked the dialogue and shook my head when the screenwriter chose her own poor substitutes over Austen's tidy, biting repartee. Austen often inspires fanatic devotion.

Austen's comic style developed early in her writing -- by age 12 -- and her precocious efforts were encouraged by her outwardly conventional family, though she published her first book anonymously. Some fellow authors praised her work, including Sir Walter Scott, but she also had many critics, including Charlotte Brontë. Austen did not gain widespread appeal until the late nineteenth century; this interest has since evolved into unadulterated adoration. Academic heavyweights like Cornel West now discuss Austen's work, and graduate students dissect her work from every conceivable angle. But as novelist Anna Quindlen writes, "Serious literary discussions of [Austen's work] threaten to obscure the most important thing about it: It is a pure joy to read." Similarly, our own part-time Brattleboro resident Rudyard Kipling delighted in reading Austen's work with his family. He greatly admired her gift for writing about human follies with a "delicate hand and a keener scalpel." Quite simply, she's a riot.

For those for whom reading Austen is not enough, there's JASNA: the Jane Austen Society of North America. Founded in 1979 by three "Janeites", the inaugural meeting at Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan had about 100 attendees who met to celebrate Austen's work. As the New Yorker reported at the time, they wore dressy but comfortable clothing at the event. JASNA's 33rd convention, which took place over three days this month, by contrast, lured over 700 participants--many of them dressed in Regency gowns and period-appropriate waistcoats--to worship at the Austen altar. They represent the 4,000+ members of JASNA scattered across the North American continent. If you have a moment, go online and view the October 9th slideshow of the gathering on the NY Times website; these folks take adoration to a new level. Said one attendee, "This is a place where people can let their Jane Austen freak flag fly."

JASNA can be a little intimidating and--dare I say--freaky. But I felt a kindred spirit with the "Janeites" this month. Here's what happened. The annual JASNA convention coincided with the sewing of my own "freak flag". I read the NY Times coverage during breaks from making a costume for a very different gathering. My spouse and I decided to run the CHaD Hero half marathon -- a benefit for Children's Hospital at Dartmouth -- fully clad in the garb of our favorite 1970s superheroes, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. The theme of the race was "Be a hero for kids", but honestly we've always wanted to run a race in fabulous costumes. It was the perfect vehicle; we knew we wouldn't be the only superheroes. We were, however, the only ones in hot pink and neon orange body suits--complete with glittering gloves, sparkling spats and fluttering capes. We'd both spent years on stage in theatrical productions, but--as you can imagine--there's nothing quite like running 13.1 miles through the streets of Norwich, VT and Hanover, NH in "electrifying" apparel.

It would be dishonest to say that I didn't feel self-conscious at first. Skin-tight body suits are not my "go-to" gear, and my retro-fitted elbow-length gloves kept getting caught on my sports watch Velcro.  We also suffered unforeseen technical issues with our capes and didn't fully anticipate the complexity of pre-race pit stops while navigating the body suits. But once we stepped across the starting line and strode out with shoulders back and heads held high, we had a ball. And here's the best part: We only needed to run by people in order to pass on the joy. Spectators, race organizers, traffic directors--as well as those stuck in traffic--couldn't help but laugh and smile as we flashed by. A lead singer of one of the many bands who performed along the route burst out laughing when my shimmering cerise suit sailed by his stage. Although we finished at the front of the middle of the back of the pack, we felt exuberant in our super-ness.

Jane Austen might not have approved of the spectacle we made of ourselves, but she certainly would have seen the humor in it all. She--who fought against societal disapproval of women writers--would also appreciate the desire to break from convention. When actress and writer Emma Thompson won the Golden Globe for her screenplay for the adaptation of Austen's Sense and Sensibility, she delivered her acceptance speech in the character of Austen, and accordingly was able to make suitably piercing comments about the entire affair. The speech, like Austen's own writing, is daring, hilarious and spot-on appropriate for the occasion. Thompson--and Austen before her--understood that we are sometimes most truthful and true to ourselves when we adopt another persona.

Like the JASNA participants, flout convention and let your freak flag fly.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.