On Saturday, Izzy and I took a long drive -- for us -- of 2 hours to Loudon County for a JASNA-DC meeting at Oatlands, ex-plantation house now turned into museum, a place the family rents out for catered affairs (as weddings in the vast gardens), and a land that serves the local hunting clubs for point-to-point exercises each fall and spring. JASNA had hired the ex-carriage house as a place to have luncheon and hear Sandy Lerner give her talk on carriages in Austen. We were then to be given a tour of the house with a guide, and could walk freely in the landscaped grounds.
It was enjoyable to meet with people who love Austen and discuss her once again, to eat and drink at a table with a smaller group, to walk through the house and see rooms set up to reflect real life in the later 19th century and pre- and post-WW1, and to saunter a little through picturesque levels of gardens in a vast area of grounds stretching out in directions away from the highway as far as the eye could see.
A drawing of a curricle: Willoughby drives one, Catherine Morland goes to Northanger in one by Henry Tilney's side
As to Sandy Lerner's lecture on carriages and the like in Austen's novels, I've heard of this lecture before and know she has given versions of it many times. She may be right that there are 394 mentions of carriages in Austen's writing and when studied, all of them are situated socially and psychologically so we may read through them Austen's stance on sociological themes and how we are to understand and judge her characters, but that does not mean (as Lerner averred) that every word in Austen has perpetually circling out subtexts. If this was her thesis, it was too broad and ther talk had no structure. Each instance she cited and described (not all 394 of course) told of how the fiction is rooted so accurately as to mirror character, social circumstance. She un-systematically covered a variety of carriages, cited a variety of texts,and accompanied each one by a drawing or picture or photo of a version of the carriage made today. I wish it had been structured clearly because I could see in each instance she knew a lot about the type of carriage and had studied the specific instance carefully. Lerner was taped by someone from Persuasions. It's said they'd love to have it as an article
Lerner's talk, however, did get more questions than I've seen before. And non belligerent. She did not touch on any larger values whatsoever -- except to mention how badly horses were treated in the era. Not that anyone protested against anything mentioned, nor she either: she was purely descriptive, not analytical (or heavens forfend deconstructive).. Some of her subtexts alerted to me how she's on popular wave lengths in a whole group of attitudes shared by other Jane Austen fans, including every word is significant and (when it comes to talks) a tone of knowingness, though this may be part of popular culture (it's a tone one hears in talk shows too).
The ability to communicate on a popular or wider range of people probably signals a sense of what they are thinking, feeling, will do because she shares it. This may explain why she and her husband hit it big and became rich. As we all know, she is a very rich woman and beyond Chawton and its environs owns property in Virginia too. She owns an inn that is famous in the area. that's then how she came to give a talk to our local JASNA. She owns and knows a good deal about horses. (Very Anglo-upper class in connotation.) Has herself ridden in some of these 18th century carriages -- apparently in Europe somewhere. She intimated that she had driven or gone somewhere for 25 miles in a carriage and never wanted to do it again. I've read trips in closed chaises are uncomfortable. She is at least (as few do) doing some public good with her money, preserving now many otherwise ignored and lost important, great, enjoyable texts by Austen's female contemporaries.
As to the house, it was much of it in a state that really resembled what it looked like around WW1 when it was last lived in. It's a sort of mausoleum, no air-conditioning, not livable at all. As usual endless talk from the guide about the "family" with once in a while a mention that the "slaves" did this or that. If you ask any question about "the slaves" as I did, you are looked at as someone in bad taste. I think to myself they were ashamed of their horrible conduct since they so erased these black people these houses were filled with and once slavery was ended destroyed all the back stair cases and everything that had been used to keep black people down and apart. I did ask whether when the slaves were freed as he presented this family as ever so entrepreneurial and going into so many other areas of economic life beyond wheat, did they then survive the Civil War without growing very poor. Many of the richest grew poor at first or for good once they lost their slaves. He remarked immediately that they had a period of real poverty.
The family were originally Carters and alas TB ran in the family and many died relatively young. We could see the rooms for the children where the dolls and toys showed how hard it was to have such things before plastic reproduction. Everything in wood and not subtly carved. We saw the room of a companion-friend of one of the female members of this family. I hoped she was treated with respect.
Clearly they came back to wealth after the Reconstruction as there are pictures of them with FDR more recently. This piece of property is very well kept: it's rented out as a place for weddings and other vast social (conspicuous consumption) occasions. The family belongs to the local hunt. Jim and I and Izzy have been there numerous times, fall and spring, for point-to-point races are held on the wider arc of the land.
Indeed we were there a few weeks ago.
I did manage to talk with someone who said a reading group for Austen and like- books was going to be formed. I was enthusiastic and said I would come if they were to organize it. I hope someone will phone me. There is hope for a meeting in August as one member of JASNA-DC or someone who knows a member has written an Austen sequel and of course will want to advertise her book.
We are hoping to meet in December to see a Maryland Roundhouse production of a new play, Pride and Prejudice. It's nowadays a lively experience run by an intelligent "fearless" group of women who are willing to travel far from home and see and try experiences on offer in our tri-state/city area (see patterned or figure dancing at JASNA-DC).
Hope springs eternal in the human breast/Man never is but always to be blessed.