“How pleasant it is to spend a weekend in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like Jane Austen Summer Camp! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of good company, good food, a bit of naughtiness and a rollicking good time! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent weekend party such as this one has been.”
Okay, so Caroline Bingley never quite said it exactly in this manner — but she well might have done had she experienced first-hand the Jane Austen Summer Camp/Getaway weekend created, coordinated and orchestrated by members of the Connecticut chapter of JASNA from 26-28 July. And forty or so ladies and gentlemen of quite better character than Miss Bingley, I am certain, will agree with me that first impressions of a delightful time to come were borne out in full measure by the time our carriages pulled away from the inn on Sunday after noon.
My enjoyment began actually before the event could do. I had arrived at the Middletown Inn quite earlier than required, earlier than I had anticipated even, shortly after the noon hour. The lovely inn, with its showpiece curved staircase in the lobby center, was nearly deserted at such an hour but for hotel staff – and to a person, they were accommodating, pleasant and enthusiastic. I must offer an unsolicited plug for this Inn. It was wonderful – the staff, the facilities, the food and drink – just a total delight from check in to departure. If you will be travelling to this area of Connecticut, I highly recommend the Middletown Inn for comfort. But I digress…
A footman named Brian assisted me with disposing of my carriage and relaying my goods to my assigned chamber – which I was able to check into though it was so early, huzzah! – and when I met with him a short while later on my way to their tavern for lunch, he asked me to explain what the Jane Austen Society should find to do all weekend. When I asked him what he knew of Jane Austen and he responded with a recitation more applicable to Annie Oakley (“I’m thinking out west somewhere, great shot…”) I decided the ten minute condensed history of my favourite author was in order. Brian was interested and quick, and even recognized a few of the novel titles I rattled off. When we finally parted, he to his chores and I to my roasted tomato and basil soup, I felt I had done my duty by him but in one respect. Although we talked of his acquiring breeches, a tailcoat and top hat and joining in (“there is always a shortage of gentlemen at these things, you know”) – alas, he could find no tailor to accommodate him. However, when my friends arrived some time later, followed by Brian with their goods, I was quite proud to know that, upon being quizzed on the matter, he spouted the relevant facts of Miss Austen’s life and works as though born to it; assuring me he had been educating all the inn’s guests as they arrived. My work, it seemed, was done. I could now sit back and simply enjoy being waited upon at every turn.
And so I was.
Registration in early evening was smooth and pleasant, all the ladies and gentleman most amiable and attentive. A brief review of my tote bag found not only my event confirmation and useful information, but a garter for my stockings proclaiming me to be on “Jane’s Team” (one would not wish one’s stockings to sag provocatively), a snack bag to ensure I did not faint from lack of sustenance as we moved through our activities, and one free raffle ticket for a myriad of baskets of goodies to be awarded throughout the weekend. (Of course, I purchased more tickets to better my chances when I saw what lovely basket contents were to be had.) I followed this with a quick perusal of goods on offer in the Camp Shop (oh! How these things do tempt one!) and then signed the Guest Book (cleverly disguised as a corset) and back to the Tavern to meet my friends. Though we were to be three for dinner, on arriving I met a lovely camper – without question it was immediately apparent that Miss Laurie was a lady of the ton – and our party soon swelled to four for a delicious repast and the best conversation. A most excellent way to start off!
At half seven, we joined the now swelling throng for the official opening event of the weekend. Fashion of high repute was on display everywhere amongst the crowd, even as our hostess scandalized us all by encouraging that we indulge in a bit of naughtiness during our time together. As fans were set fluttering at the suggestion, she introduced our first speaker – Dr Mark Schenker from Yale College.
Dr Schenker’s discussion was as fascinating as it was informative. The first of two talks he would deliver, this one concerned the place Jane Austen held in context of her time. He focused on the manner in which she beautifully managed in her writing to reflect and bridge the changes of two evolving centuries: the “Regulation” of the structured society of the 18th century and the “Vitality” of individual expression rising early in the 19th; the shift from ‘rank’ well established and immutable to ‘class’ where the middle one was rising. He emphasized that the little bits Miss Austen wrote about which seemed insignificant to some of her contemporary critics, were in fact very important in chronicling this evolution, and spoke of so much more as well than I can summarize here. I sat enthralled by his lecture, scarcely aware of the passage of the evening, and when it ended, I was only glad to know that we would hear from Dr Schenker again before our camp would disband two days hence. (AGM planners, take note – I would love to hear more from this gentleman in future!)
The opening lecture was followed by tea and dessert – truly, we were dined on the finest fare every time we turned around all weekend – before reconvening for a bit of rousing entertainment to end the evening. Miss Caitlin (who served as our mistress of ceremonies as well as being the Regional Coordinator for JASNACT) was to offer one of us the chance to be made a Duchess! All we had to do was outlast the others in a quiz. Simple, yes? Not with the questions Miss Caitlin had prepared! Just as one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other, so one half of our room was not allowed to answer the questions posed to the other. Questions were put to a dozen ladies until but one remained, and then the remaining twelve had their turn. Question by question the numbers were reduced. Those who left in the first round were accorded the rank of Scullery Maid, complete with scrub brushes. The next round fared better – Housekeeper! – with a bright duster. If one made it to the next round, they were proclaimed a Baroness complete with an income of £10,000 a year, not unlike a certain gentleman of which we are all acquainted. I was fortunate to be last standing in my group. I saw only one opponent (the survivor of the first group) in the way of my becoming a Duchess. But my joy was to be short-lived. Before we could get that final question, we were reminded that Jane Austen’s world was evolving into one of classes who could be upwardly mobile – and the previous contestants were given another question to ‘win’ their way back up the ladder. So it was that I faced five ladies in the end for the final test. I survived the first quiz question, by good fortune alone I confess – and then there were three. I missed the next question and was retired, alas, as a Baroness myself. (Though I must say I protested strenuously that having risen so far, I should at least be accorded a rank of Viscountess.) In the end, Miss Stephani from the first group walked away triumphantly with tiara, jewels and title! But all of us walked away to end the evening laughing and happy, with expectations of greatness for Saturday.
Saturday once again saw ladies and gentlemen dressed to impress as we made our way to a repast – a lavish affair again, laden with everything but kippers, it would seem. Lively discussion anticipated the day’s events as we broke our fast until, finally, it was time to break into our groups and learn to thrive in Regency society. We would become accomplished (or more accomplished in the case of many)! My group began with Penmanship. Miss Irene Urban provided us tempered and trimmed quills and paper, alphabets and a ruled guide to ensure strokes would meet a precise 53 degree angle. She demonstrated the half dozen strokes which made up the approved rounded alphabet, and we set to practicing our letters with, hopefully, no undue blottings. What a light touch is required for such penmanship!!!
My efforts were readable certainly, but of necessity larger than would be prudent for letters of this period – my poor correspondents would bear the cost of such large-ess! – but I am certain I will be a great proficient when once I have learnt! With our remaining time, Miss Urban demonstrated how to cut and trim our quills, and the process to sand our letters to remove blots and excess ink. The hour flew by and soon enough we were on our way to improve our skill at dressing our hair.
Miss Kandi Carle proved quite proficient indeed in this talent! She has much experience with the stylings and accoutrements of the day and offered advice and demonstration for all hair types and lengths from papillote curls close to the head, to intricate twists, curls and buns embellished with combs and pins. Such intelligence could only enhance our persons for the ball to come in the evening!
After such an exercise we were quite ready for our luncheon, though many had walked away from breakfast vowing never to eat again. We selected our places at table to find each of us provided with a vial of smelling salts, being told by way of explanation only that we might find need of such remedy at the end of the lunch hour.
Intrigued, we nonetheless tucked into our feast with relish. When all were sated, we learnt finally of the benefits of smelling salts when – gasp! – it was announced that an abridged version of Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows was to be performed imminently! I was indeed scandalized, naturally we all were, to hear that this play which had brought such trouble upon the inhabitants of Mansfield Park was to be performed here… before my very eyes… and by a cast of two made from our own party! Indeed, I kept the smelling salts very near and very nearly used them! I confess I felt myself on the verge of running mad often, but I did maintain enough regulation not to faint —
Miss Kandi and her partner in this intrigue, Mr Douglas Gerlach, breezed their way through Agatha’s spiral into destitution; her reunion with her ‘natural’ son Frederick; his encounter and imprisonment by the Baron; the Baron’s efforts to unite his daughter Amelia to the odious Count Cassel whilst she lobbies for the gentler Mr Anhalt; her discovery that Frederick is her half brother and the Baron’s learning that Frederick is his son; the reunion of the Baron with Agatha at last, and Amelia’s gaining permission finally to marry her tutor. Enraptured, we in the audience gasped, hissed and cheered at the appointed moments (ably cued should we miss an opportunity) and I am happy to state that no one, to my certain knowledge, actually swooned to a point of requiring lengthy revival.
Thoroughly entertained, our groupings formed once again as we made our way to our next session, in my case to learn to sew a reticule or wallet. Miss Stephani provided all the necessaries as well as instruction and, for an hour, we stitched happily in anticipation of seeing something approaching a reticule (or wallet) at the end. For the many of us who could not finish in this short span of time, we were provided all the instruction required to do so back in our own parlours.
I approached my next session, the last of the day, with some trepidation. Never accomplished in drawing and painting, we were to tackle watercolours with Miss Lisa Scroggins. I took up my trusty brush filled with enthusiasm if not skill to reproduce a vase of wildflowers upon the paper. My results could only ever be lauded by an indulgent lover, being barely recognizable as the flora in question – but overall there proved to be some very accomplished artists amongst our gathering. One in particular took a flight of fancy and sketched a lovely flower upon which sat a Regency lady (perhaps Miss Austen herself?) reading a book. I wish I knew to whom credit for this delight should go. As we left we also were provided each with the necessaries to produce, on our own, a silhouette of a loved one, our own Mr Darcy or Mr Knightley or Mr Tilney or Captain Wentworth, as it were.
Next came tea yet again. Expecting a small sampling of victuals, I was amazed to see yet another meal laid out! Myriad tea sandwiches, pastries, chocolates – all calling out to offer their pleasures to our taste. It was too much! Once again, amiable discourse was the order of the day as we did our best to deplete the tables. If good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation, you would be mistaken to conclude that ours formed good company – indeed, it was the best company!
While some of our party went off to learn the dances which would feature at our ball that night, others of us retired for a needed rest from our active day. But all too soon it was time to put into practice the hair dressing lessons we’d earlier learnt, and prepare for dinner and the ball.
More little surprises awaited us at the dinner tables – a fan to assist in retaining our elegance at the dance, and some chocolates which had been hand painted with Miss Austen’s image by Miss Jennifer! And I would be remiss if I did not again remark upon the selection of dinners available to us (delectable salmon having been my choice.) As we completed our meal, Miss Urban provided an illuminating talk with illustrations of dining during the Regency, from meal preparation to foodstuffs, serving pieces, etiquette and sundry related topics. Thankfully, her sketches of some of the more objectionable foodstuffs of the day came when seeing them could no longer affect appetites!
And then, of a sudden, it was time for a Ball!!! Miss Susan deGuardiola provided her services to call a dozen dances of lively execution. The finery on display more than merited acclaim as we stepped and slipped and progressed through the lines. Though we did not break for supper, we did take some moments for dessert – another array of delicacies to tempt – and for the first two of several raffles to be drawn. Scrambling to find our tickets, my wish for one of the laden baskets of gifts was thwarted, but I consoled myself that there would be further drawings on the following day and forgot my disappointment immediately upon becoming most agreeably engaged in the dance once more.
Sunday morning dawned bright and warm, and all gathered in our mezzanine center for a photograph to record this momentous gathering – all, that is, except myself and my roommates who arrived somewhat late for the event. But soon after in our walking gowns we joined a promenade to a historic home, the General Mansfield house, a short distance away where we received a welcome from its docent and a history of the house’s chief residents. Though I confess I could have done with ten minutes worth of edification instead of thirty as we stood on the warm pavement awaiting our invitation indoors, the house and gardens were a delight and we took advantage of the fine morning for photographic renderings in the small park attached to the house.
Back at the Inn once more an hour or so later, we gathered all together for one last time for brunch, another sumptuous affair of blintzes and quiches and protestations of tight waistlines (yes, even the high ones.) More little gifts were to be found at the tables – books to engage us after we returned home. Some were books about Jane Austen; most were fictions by current authors who use Austen’s characters or Austen herself at times as their protagonists. I had started out for my Connecticut weekend determined not to come back with ten pounds of books – but between those I must purchase and those that we were given, it will not surprise you to hear I failed in that resolve, quite happily.
And when we had settled our meal, our “dessert” to make it perfect was the return of Dr Mark Schenker for a final talk.
Tying in his comments to his former theme, this time Dr Schenker expanded on the subject of the so-called trivialities of daily life amongst the gentry of the Regency, and the real importance these played both in society and in Jane Austen’s novels. He spoke of Austen’s enduring appeal through the tense little dramas that play out both in her words, and wordlessly (for attentive readers) with excellent examples. He described the importance of paying attention to what people think; of how much ‘bigger’ the world was to people of this period given the relative slowness of travel, and the effect of this on the importance of local communities; of the difficulty of maintaining respect and liking for people when you are so bound to them. He raised the notion of how games function to divide and expose Austen’s characters; of how choices of reading matter provided insight into characters; of the roles ‘blunders’ play in her novels; of the manner in which character and circumstance together form and inform her plots: in short, of the importance of all the insignificant things Jane Austen observed on her little bit (two inches wide) of ivory. And once again, Dr Schenker delighted and informed in equal measure. I felt well satisfied.
Raffle time again yielded me no gains, but was very lively now that acquaintances had become friends. The last of the raffles was for the Jane Austen Summer Camp’s Guest “Book” – a corset which had been signed at registration by all the participants. This high honour went, by random draw but quite rightly, to Miss Jean who had herself admitted to being the eldest ‘sister’ in attendance. And then, as quickly as it had begun, camp drew to a close.
But there was more for those who could not bear to leave yet. Ice cream sundaes (yes, more food!) were followed by a screening of the Sony film, Austenland, which will be released in theaters in mid August. As I had seen the film previously as another screening (and must confess to have been less than impressed) I did not stay to its conclusion, but quietly slipped out shortly after it began. I called to the footman to once again shepherd my belongings into my carriage, and proceeded to drive my horses home, smiling in contentment for the duration.
What this very small group of ladies and gentlemen contrived for our enjoymen – the JASNA CT members – was nothing short of wonderful. From the communication with invitees prior to the event, to the extra touches that spoke of their commitment and talents, to the orchestration of each activity, it was a ‘house party’ characterized by competence, interest, enthusiasm, a readily apparent love of Jane Austen, and a commitment to staging a weekend of delights for all parties. I approached this weekend with high expectations. I return with only the highest praise for its execution. I might be tempted to proclaim it perfection itself – but as you may agree, pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked. So I will only admit to its being nearly so, as I look forward with great zeal to another JASNACT-sponsored experience in the future. (hint hint)
When all was said and done, from our youngest camper at fifteen to our eldest at (well, a lady cannot reveal such a thing)… we were a most happy assembly!