If I could have my favorite day, it would include like-minded people exploring art, literature, music, history. Wait? That happened today!
The intrepid New York Chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America traveled to Vassar for an almost unbelievably pleasant and stimulating day. This was my first trip to the 150+ year old campus. No surprise, it’s lovely.
We first met in the art history building where refreshments were in a room that resembled a little, red schoolhouse, only really the little, red-chair school room.
But the lectures that kicked the day off were in a very comfortable, modern auditorium. We would have to travel into history in our minds.
Marilyn Francus, a Professor of English from West Virginia University, regaled us with her work from Chawton House, a research center on early women’s writings. She admitted to geeking-out on manuscripts and books that Jane Austen wrote in, sussing out from that her mentoring relationship with young writers, particularly her nieces. She investigated the family’s charades and riddles and shared how the love of language was reinforced in everyday life in the Austen home. More about that below.
Francus wrapped by deciphering the advice Jane Austen would give to new writers. Essentially, know the canon (read, read, read), write what is real, and practice your craft. Good advice indeed.
And that got put into action with our next set of presenters. Susan Zlotnick, a Professor of English at Vassar, is currently teaching a course on The Gothic Novel (including Austen’s parody Northanger Abbey). She gave us an introductory talk, then invited seven of her students to read us their “3-Minute Gothic Projects,” reflecting their learning on the tropes of the genre.
What you need to know is that Gothic novels draw upon the philosophical underpinnings of the Romantic Sublime, by Edmund Burke–the awe of God, nature, and our emotional selves that fuels literature, music, and art of the period; Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ centering on re-surfacing unconscious desires, the return of the repressed, and the Self confronting itself; and the female Gothic, which penetrates patriarchal power by using male villains to threaten the heroines.
The latter is an intriguing take on the genre. Zlotnick suggests that when men labeled strong women, with challenging and uncomfortable ideas, as ‘mad’, the woman would be imperiled in a number of thematic, violent ways. The woman reader could become aware of how women lacked personal power and rights, when male domination is threatened.
There was much more to these ideas, beyond the scope of a blog, but clearly offering very fresh ways to understand detective fiction, thrillers, and Gothic romances.
The students were tasked with writing Gothic stories that take place on the Vassar campus, not necessarily today. The results ranged from exceedingly clever to outright hilarious.
I loved Christian Lewis’ story about the mysterious disappearance of Meryl Streep (an esteemed Vassar grad) from a production of “The Cherry Orchard” that is repeated by a contemporary in the current production, literally on campus now. He is playing with early detective fiction with his funny, funny “The Mysteries of the Martel” and its sly references to Streep films that show up as ghostly Meryl hauntings.
Jennifer Ognibene, an English major who is pre-med, read her “Demolition of Mudd Chemistry,” referring to the current tear-down of the chemistry building. Her fantastical story of a woman student who is a chemist murderer would even make Edgar Allen Poe laugh. The trouble starts when the student runs an experiment, injecting herself with black widow spider venom, and it all does downhill from there. Seriously, it’s ready to be filmed.
Lexi Karas’ clever “A Strong Girl Displaced” was more serious, delving into notions of the Self and doubling from Freud’s theories. The plot twists and taut writing would make Austen proud.
None of these students is a creative writer per se. They put into action Austen’s code–know the canon first. They have read a lot of Gothic novels. Candidly, better them than me! I can leave the Bronte’s and Bram Stoker on the shelf.
After lunch, we were serenaded by the Vassar College Women’s Chorus, with madrigals and other traditional British songs. But noteworthy were the two sets of Austen writings put to song.
The Three Prayers by Jane Austen have been put to music by Amanda Jacobs, who wrote a wonderful Pride and Prejudice musical I saw in 2011. Today, Jacobs directed the chorus in the US premiere of these works. Here’s a tiny sliver.
What tickled me were the parlor game songs, commissioned by Vassar College Music Department for the Women’s Chorus and put to music by Eleanor Daley. The three poems survived when Austen copied them into a letter in 1807.
Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother played a game where they devised poems where every line ended in a rhyme with the word rose, in “Verses to rhyme with ‘Rose’.” Jane’s was clever, Cassandra’s romantic, their mother’s so funny. Here’s her poem:
This morning I woke from a quiet repose,
I first rubb’d my eyes, and I next blew my nose;
With my stockings and shoes I then covered my toes,
And proceeded to put on the rest of my clothes.
This was finished in less than an hour, I suppose.
I employ’d myself next in repairing my hose.
‘Twas a work of necessity not what I chose;
Of my sock I’d much rather have knit twenty rows.
My work being done, I look’d through the windows,
And with pleasure beheld all the bucks and the does,
The cows and the bullocks, the wethers and ewes.
To the library each morning the family goes,
So I went with the rest though I felt rather froze.
My flesh is much warmer, my blood freer flows,
When I work in the garden with rakes and with hoes.
And now I believe I must come to a close,
For I find I grow stupid e’en while I compose.
If I write any longer my verse will be prose.
She seems destined to be a model for the Twitter-verse!
We wrapped the day with a visit to the campus art museum. Much too short. Lots of great works. I’ll share just one, in honor of the day. A woman artist, of course. Adele Romany, a French artist, and her 1804 “A young person hesitating to play piano in front of her family.” Shame on her! No Austen heroine every would!