JASA Conference (Canberra)

This weekend, I fully embraced my book-nerdness, and went to Canberra for the Jane Austen Society of Australia (JASA) weekend conference titled Emma: 200 Years of Perfection. Mum and Marnie had agreed to come with me, and use the opportunity to see Canberra and catch up with friends while I was diligently absorbing all things Austen. It was nearly as good as our 2014 tri-generational European extravaganza! (See earlier blog posts).

We drove to Canberra in a day, and didn’t even have to leave early! Mum and Marnie picked me up at 9am, we loaded my stuff into the car, and off we went. Apart from a couple of lightning fast coffee/petrol stops and a lunch break in Holbrook, we drove straight along the Hume Hwy for the whole beautiful, sunny day, and arrived at the Rydges Capital Hill hotel in Canberra at 5.30pm.

Holbrook for lunch

I was at the Forrest Suite at 6pm for dinner, having joined a table with the handful of others who I know from the Jane Austen Society of Melbourne. We were joined by some Sydneysiders and enjoyed a three-course meal, discussing all things Austen, before meeting the speakers for the conference.

Ooh, fancy!

Speaking at the event (as well as MC-ing and generally organising), was JASA president Susannah Fullerton, who lectures on many different writers and their lives. I’ve heard Susannah speak many times and she always has something interesting to say. Emma is her favourite novel of all time, so this weekend was a project very close to her heart.

Also joining us were married American professors Sayre N Greenfield and Linda V Troost, who have written extensively on Jane Austen adaptations (among many other things), Canadian professor Barbara K Seeber who has written about the role of nature and animals in Jane Austen’s work, and British professor David Norton, who spent most of his career concentrating on the history and textual importance of the King James Bible before returning to Jane Austen in his ‘retirement’.

It was a good introductory session with lots of questions and laughs, but it was early to bed for most of us afterwards, ready for a full tomorrow. Marnie and Mum had been out gallivanting but we put the heater on, tucked ourselves in, and read our books until we dropped off to sleep.

We were up early, and I have my charming cold that I thought I got rid of last week which made for an interesting night’s sleep. Nevertheless, I was at the conference at 9.30 to collect my conference folder and buy a very small amount of things – I am on a strict budget. (Most of the stuff in the photo I either already had or was complimentary!)

I have already eaten at least one of those cookies.

First session was Barbara Seeber on Jane Austen and animals, describing not only the role of animals in Austen’s work, but also how certain characters are given animal characteristics – it’s not obvious, but the evidence is there! This was followed by morning tea and a chat with new people from all over Australia and New Zealand. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield did a joint presentation next on Emma and multimedia, concentrating on the three most recent productions – the 2009 BBC miniseries, the Bollywood adaptation titled Aisha, and the multi-platform web series, Emma Approved. Having seen two out of the three productions discussed, there was plenty of new insights for myself to discover!

David Norton spoke about Mr Knightley and Emma as lovers – a very sweet and swoon-worthy analysis of the timeline of the novel, pinpointing the moments their relationship changed. After lunch, Susannah Fullerton spoke about the locations in Emma, geographically and historically, and the significant details that the locations tell us about the scenes and characters that inhabit them. After question time with the speakers, in which passionate debate took place about the benefits of different Emma adaptations, it was time for another break!

Mum, Marnie, and our Sydney cousin Margi picked me up to drive around Manuka while they decided where they would eat dinner. I chattered and they listened politely, and then we headed back to the hotel for Midsomer Murders before dinner began.

On Saturday nights the conference attendees are invited to dress in Regency attire. I didn’t, and there was only a handful of the 150-ish dinner guests who did, but they looked lovely and received lots of compliments. Apparently at the Jane Austen Society of North America conferences (5-day affairs that have between 600-700 attendees), most people dress up every day and they have pop-up stalls to hire costumes if you don’t have any.

I came back to the hotel room at about 9.30, and finally finished Emma, which I’d been rereading, with a head full of new insights that made it twice as fun. Thankfully, I had a slightly better night’s sleep.

The next morning I was back for more, buying a couple more bits from the stall. I bought a second hand copy of Villette by Charlotte Bronte in a beautiful old binding. I was standing with Marnie and we opened the book and the handwritten name inside was J. Fowler, which was Grandpa’s name. A really special, slightly spooky coincidence!

Sayre Greenfield spoke first this morning, talking about words in Austen and particularly the language in Emma – what do all those pauses and dashes signify? Barbara Seeber spoke about the challenges of teaching Austen, including the often unconsciously gendered readings, where criticism is applied to qualities in one character, but not to the same qualities in a character of the opposite sex.

After morning tea, Linda Troost delivered probably my favourite talk of the conference, which discussed whether Frank Churchill was a good guy or not. She used a close reading of the text to separate what the narrator and what Emma thought Frank was thinking, and what his motives were, contrasted with what he perhaps is actually thinking and what his motives are. For anyone who remembers the scene in Box Hill and his many comments about Jane Fairfax, you would have an idea of how interesting this became. David Norton concluded the conference by speaking about the wonderful, comical, pitiful, brilliant Miss Bates, also touching on what Sayre was analysing about the dashes and pauses in her speech. Miss Bates, according to David Norton, is a lot savvier than we perhaps give her credit for. (And he also threw in a reference to how she was a sort of Austen counterpart to Hagrid in Harry Potter – ten points to David).

And then it was finished! Thank yous were said, and gifts handed out. We went downstairs for one last meal and I sat with yet another group of lovely people. I have felt very welcomed on this conference and made a lot of new friendships. I dashed around at the end to say my goodbyes, and then met Marnie and Mum out in the hotel foyer. We left Canberra at 2.10pm, and I walked in my front door at 9.55pm. And we only stopped briefly for dinner and once for coffee, and didn’t speed! On the way home, we reported on our weekends and reminisced about our European trip. I am a lucky girl indeed to get to travel with my mum and my grandmother, and if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have been able to attend this weekend, so I am exceedingly grateful.

Oh, and today it is one month exactly until Sean and I leave for Japan!

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