Jane Austen: evergreen (i)con – ArtsHub

Writing and Publishing
Jazba Singh resplendent in Austen-inspired regalia. Photographer: Dan Jackson. Photo Editor: Liliana Braumberger.
Those who think Jane Austen’s fiction is nothing more than dusty, buttoned-up romance between the landed gentry, and therefore anachronistic to contemporary literature’s interest in race, sex and identity politics, are sorely mistaken.
Austen may have been born centuries ago, in 1775, but her work has been perennially popular since the publication of Sense and Sensibility in 1811. As well as numerous reprints, her work has sparked innumerable celluloid and book spin-offs. (Check out, for instance, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters for the sheer absurd joy of the mash-ups.)
Now in its fourth iteration, Austen Con (Saturday 6 November 2021) is a re-appraisal and a celebration of the novelist’s forward-reaching books. Set among the suitably verdant surrounds of Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent, this year’s event will be the first time it’s adopted a hybrid model: an in-person as well as a digital experience.
Featuring a team of guest presenters and expert Austenites, activities on offer range from sewing, crafting and letter writing, to speed dating, dancing and fashion displays. There’s even going to be a dive into what constituted Regency social media as well as a discussion of Austen’s connection to the British East India Company, and even an Escape Room.
One of the organisers, Sharmini Kumar, explains she was keen for a ‘mix of immersive style activities where you can get dressed up and pretend you live in Regency England, and more challenging ideas about how we read Austen in, say, a post-colonial framework or through a queer lens’.
Dr Kylie Mirmohamadi, who’s written a book called The Digital Afterlives of Jane Austen: Janeites at the Keyboard elaborates on this staying power.
‘The plots, characters, and scenarios of her novels have been constantly re-imagined and re-worked on page, stage, and screen. Multiplying fictional texts re-situate and re-imagine Austen’s familiar characters in new contexts, ranging from outer space, to enclosed religious communities in rural America, to the landscapes of colonial Australia. These spin-off narratives come in all different types and styles, including crime, historical fiction, science fiction, horror, contemporary romance, fan fiction, and erotica … This afterlife pays tribute to, but also challenges, the idea of writerly authority. In its global context, it also raises important questions about representation and power, whiteness and race, and colonisation in all its coercive forms,’ Mirmohamadi said.
Hannah Aroni and James Matthews, two of the five co-directors of A_tistic , who are scheduled to speak on neurodivergence at the event, told ArtsHub. ‘It’s no wonder we think her work reflects themes important to autistic people. And because she cared and paid attention, we consider that she managed to capture some significant realities about exciting things like the intersection of neurotype and social position – even if she didn’t use the same words or apply the same theoretical constructs we might use to describe those things now.
‘In fact, she offers us particularly illuminating perspectives on autistic social survival strategies specifically because she was operating without those words. We read Mr Darcy as a masterclass in characterisation of a complex, flawed, intriguing, potentially autistic character who is not at all reliant on the shorthand tropes for representing autism that we might see in contemporary media,’ they said.
‘Austen treated the social sphere with the focus of someone chronicling the best way to defuse a bomb.
ArtsHub asked other writers of fiction, non-fiction and academia why and how Austen has influenced or informed their own work.
Jessica Gildersleeve, Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Southern Queensland, came to Austen relatively late as a third-year undergraduate and in the context of her academic training.
‘I think Austen’s novels have imbued in my own writing an appreciation for the gently ironic, the succinct and the elegant… She is, for all kinds of writers, a touchstone for style and wit, and a palate cleanser for the sometimes heavy and overwrought literature of the present moment,’ said Gildersleeve.
Editor, writer and broadcaster, Melissa Cranenburgh, however, was an early adopter of Austen.
‘From the ages of 11 to 13, I read and re-read Pride and Prejudice 13 times. For me, a mixed-race child, growing up in 1980s outer Melbourne suburbia Pride and Prejudice was undeniably escapist fare. But, more than that, Lizzy Bennet was a clear vehicle for writerly wish fulfilment. Austen did that thing we all do: rewriting the shitty parts of our lives to reflect how we wish they’d gone,’ Cranenburgh told ArtsHub. 
J-L Heylen, purveyor of queer sci-fi and steampunk adventures, admits that although it seems unlikely that Austen would have much to say about gender non-conforming folk, ‘as a trans/non-binary person, I can tell you differently. Many of her stories have outsiders as protagonists. Those characters triumph, more often than not.’
Like Cranenburgh, Heylen sees Pride and Prejudice as rejecting societal norms and points out that, ‘as a reader who’s unconventional in terms of their gender,’ Elizabeth Bennet is an inspiring figure.
After all, ‘she’d rather have her head in a book than try to attract a partner through false femininity. Her speech to Lady Catherine de Bourgh made me realise that other people have no right to dictate how you follow your own inclinations, even in the face of significant family and cultural resistance. She taught me to be myself. And, Austen showed me the sort of gentleman I wanted to be!’
For June Yu, a speculative fiction writer, Austen’s nuanced depiction of relationships transcends genres.
Yu, who specialises in writing about the ways science and technology impact on everyday life, said ‘I [may] write in futuristic settings but her ability to portray the underlying emotions and motivations of her characters is something I strive for in my own work. Some science fiction books can be heavily about the science and light on character development. I aim for a good balance of both, and Austen is one of the writers I use as a model to strengthen the character development side of the fiction-writing equation.’
Regardless of the social milieu she was chronicling, Austen’s way of making you identify with her characters, render her books evergreen and ensure that her work resonates across centuries and artforms.
Even a children’s author can glean much from her, said writer Andrea Rowe. ‘From school essays, to media writing, and short story and children’s book manuscripts, Jane’s writing’s principles have been embedded in my own style. The foils and quirks of my characters move each plot along. I’d like to think she’s be nodding sagely at me from her own writing desk when she reads my works.’
Indeed, one can imagine Jane Austen looking on favourably at Austen Con as its participants limber up to learn the dance steps for the ball, discuss what life was like for people of colour in high society in Regency times, or take a sneak peek at Sense and Sensibility: The Musical.
Austen Con
Saturday 6 November, 2021
Abbotsford Convent, 1 St Heliers St, Abbotsford VIC

 

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and a freelance arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She’s the outgoing books editor of The Big issue. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press. Twitter: @thuy_on
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Oct 15, 2021
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