Ann Arbor's Jane Austen jones is sated with many bicentennial events


Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: The first edition in this form was printed in October 1894; reprinted March 1895. The Austen drawing is from her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh's A Memoir of Jane Austen, 1886, sixth edition. Both images are from the University of Michigan Library collection.

Jane Austen once said, “There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.”

But Ann Arbor-area fans of Ms. Austen have no reason to stay home these days as local booksellers and libraries are honoring the bicentennial of the author’s death with book readings, workshops, and events celebrating the beloved author and her work. 

Not all authors from 200 years ago appeal to modern audiences. The Hatcher Graduate Library's Juli McLoone Austen's said Austen's succinct writing style is a big reason why her works still resonate with contemporary readers -- plus, she wrote about issues that still resonate today. “To quote from The Jane Austen Project," McLoone said, "'Austen concerned herself with bigger questions -- how to distinguish good people from plausible fakes ... and the problem of how to be an intelligent woman in a world that had no real use for them.'”

Sarah Van Cleve, a Ph.D. student in English at U-M, said Austen "dignifies ordinary and mundane human relationships and lives -- and in part because of her concise, stylistic mastery. She is writing about an 18th-century world that is very different from our own, but that appeals to us both because it is so fully realized and because she is asking some of the same social questions that we continue to wrestle with today."

Austen was born in interesting times that informed her prolific writing. The mid-to-late 1700s saw great upheaval in Great Britain -- colonies across the ocean launched their bid for independence, embroiling Britain in a years-long war. A decade later the French Revolution began, leading Britain into more years of battle. The period also saw troops mobilizing for an anticipated invasion by Napoleon, financial instability, and slight changes in the view of women and land inheritance. At the same time, more citizens became literate and the production of print materials increased. 

Austen was the seventh of eight children in a closely knit family led by a clergyman father. While still a teenager, Austen began writing. The careers of her brothers and the romances of her sister influenced Austen; however, neither Jane nor her sister Cassandra married just for the sake of matrimony and instead cared for their widowed mother. The three women lived in a Hampshire village where Austen finished all six of her novels before passing away at the age of 41 in 1817. Austen’s novels have been celebrated for centuries, and the bicentennial of her death led to numerous events in the Ann Arbor area starting in November 2017.  

On Nov. 30, the Hatcher Graduate Library opened The Life and Times of Lizzy Bennet, an exhibit that explores the historical context inhabited by Austen’s characters. The Hatcher show features "significant early editions of Austen’s works held in the Special Collections Library," but it also draws from contemporaneous books, including A Companion to the Ballroom, The Book of Common Prayer, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species..., and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, so we can better understand Austen's world. You can have a sneak peek over at Jane Austen 1817-2017: A Bicentennial Exhibit

“Austen’s writing offers many different entry points in which to explore history," McLoone said, "and we are so excited about how much interest there has been in the community.”

There is a special exhibit tour on Feb. 15 at 12 pm with the exhibit's curators, McLoone and Sigrid Cordel. On March 28 at 5 pm, there will be a special exhibit tour that looks at the Lizzy Bennet diaries. (Additionally, on Jan. 19 the Hatcher Graduate Library held a conference called Mapping the World of Jane Austen. Attendees explored Austen’s world that she lived in as well as the lands inhabited by her characters.)

But the Hatcher isn't just hosting Austen events; its restoration efforts for rare Austen editions is detailed in "Spotlight on Conservation: The Novels of Jane Austen."

On Dec. 13, the Ann Arbor District Library hosted Lights, Camera, Austen, a discussion of movies based on her works, from the 1940 Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier classic Pride and Prejudice 2016's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. And on Jan. 23 AADL held an "evening of embroidery and Austen." Read McLoone's blog post "'New and elegant borders:' Embroidery and needlework in Jane Austen's England" to better understand the importance of needlework in the Georgian period.

The AADL fun continues on Feb. 8 when it hosts an event at Live nightclub in downtown Ann Arbor. Attendees can play Austen-themed games, including one called Who Wants to Marry a Single Man in Possession of a Good Fortune? Audience members will have the chance to win fabulous prizes during book and movie trivia games. "This event is for Austen lovers of all stripes," says AADL's website, "so whether your fandom extends to wearing a bonnet or is limited to discreet snickering at Emma Woodhouse jokes, please join us!"

Meanwhile, fans can join the Jane Austen Book Club Discussion. Over the course of three weeks, readers will meet at Nicola’s Books and AADL's downtown branch to discuss books by Austen and about her characters. On Feb. 7 at Nicola's, Van Cleve will focus on Longbourn by Jo Baker, which focuses on the servant characters from Pride and Prejudice.

"During the book club, I'll spend about 10 minutes giving a bit of historical background about some of the themes that arise in Longbourn," Van Cleve said. "I'll talk about the consequences of Britain's nearly constant wars with France in the 18th century, the urban and rural makeup of the population, the abolition of the slave trade, the status of transportation, and general standards of 18th-century cleanliness.  Then we'll open up the floor to a discussion of Longbourn."

For those wanting to dive into the novel that is the basis for Longbourn, they need only wait two weeks for the book club discussion on Feb. 21 at Nicola’s of the classic Pride and Prejudice.

"I think Pride and Prejudice asks some fundamental questions," Van Cleve said. "What rights do we have to happiness? What role do manners play in society -- are they overly confining or are they protection from harm? Is pain or humiliation necessary to achieve self-knowledge? What does it mean to love someone at least in part for their money/status? These questions all continue to be relevant today, even though most of us don't have the same ideological assumptions that birth and worth are correlated."

The final book club is on March 7 at AADL's downtown branch; it features author Kathleen Flynn in conversation with U-M’s Laura Thomas. They will discuss Flynn’s debut novel, The Jane Austen Project, which tells the tale of two researchers sent back in time to find both Jane Austen and an unpublished novel. (All the Jane Austen Book Club Discussions are at 7 pm.)

"During my freshman year in college, I took a lecture course with Claudia Johnson, a renowned Austen scholar," Van Cleve said. "She opened the class on the first day by saying, 'To want to read and reread Jane Austen is a universally recognized sign of great intelligence and taste.' I agree."

Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and cat.

Visit the Jane Austen Bicentennial Events Calendar for more details.