Exploring the Arts at the JASNA AGM in Chicago

by Brenda S. Cox

“It is felt that distinctness and energy may have weight in recommending the most solid truths”–Edmund Bertram, Mansfield Park

Last month I was privileged to attended JASNA’s yearly national conference. It was held in Chicago and focused on Jane Austen in the Arts. The crowd was smaller than usual–just over 500. Space was limited because of covid and some chose not to come because of such concerns. All participants had to be vaccinated and masked. Still, it was a fun crowd and we got to explore new areas of Austen’s world.

So, where did I find faith, science, and joy at the AGM?

Faith

The only session directly focused on faith was the one I led. We talked about satirical cartoons and Jane Austen’s Church of England. Cartoons by Hogarth and Gillray helped us explore some of Austen’s moral themes. Satirical Cartoons on “The Clerical Exercise” and “The Clerical Alphabet” gave us insights into Austen’s clerical characters. Cartoons satirizing tithes and clerical gluttony and greed led us to explore the clergy’s incomes and how they used their money. An article based on this talk will appear online in the next few months; I’ll let you know!

Another breakout session also touched on the clergy. Susan Allen Ford, editor of JASNA’s excellent magazine Persuasions, gave a talk on Elocution and Acting in Mansfield Park. Henry and Edmund talk in Mansfield Park about the clergy learning to speak better when leading services and preaching:

“Even in my profession,” said Edmund, with a smile, “how little the art of reading has been studied! how little a clear manner, and good delivery, have been attended to! I speak rather of the past, however, than the present. There is now a spirit of improvement abroad; but among those who were ordained twenty, thirty, forty years ago, the larger number, to judge by their performance, must have thought reading was reading, and preaching was preaching.

It is different now. The subject is more justly considered. It is felt that distinctness and energy may have weight in recommending the most solid truths; and besides, there is more general observation and taste, a more critical knowledge diffused than formerly; in every congregation there is a larger proportion who know a little of the matter, and who can judge and criticise.”–Mansfield Park, chapter 34

What “spirit of improvement” was Edmund talking about? Dr. Ford explained that in Austen’s time the Elocution Movement was encouraging better expression, using language and gesture informed by feeling, not just by facts. Speakers were taught to speak from their hearts, using emotions and body language, not just words.

Richard Newton’s “Clerical Alphabet” (1795) contrasts dull Church of England clergymen, on the left, with overly emotional Methodist and Nonconformist clergymen on the right. Nonconformists were some of the leaders of the Elocution Movement which encouraged speaking from the heart. Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

This teaching affected clergy like Edmund, men in Parliament like Sir Thomas, and even young people learning at home like Tom and Edmund. Girls were also taught to read aloud expressively. A revival of the art of speaking was expected to help Britain solve its problems. Certainly for the clergy, appealing to the emotions could better recommend “the most solid truths.”

Sciences

The sessions did not much address what we would now call science. However, in Austen’s writings, she refers to the “sciences” of dance, music, singing, and drawing. “Science” in her time meant any kind of knowledge and its application; see my post on Natural Philosophy

We enjoyed plenty of those sciences at the AGM! We danced at a ball and learned about Ignatius Sancho’s country dances. We heard pieces of music that Jane Austen herself enjoyed. We explored drawing, art, drama, and fashion design from different angles. 

While Austen usually called embroidery “work,” not science, one of my favorite sessions focused on embroidery in Austen’s time.  Robin Henry explained the history of embroidery. She said it was downgraded from an “art” to a “craft” as it became “women’s work.” It was ideal for women taking care of children, since it was easily interrupted and resumed, and without danger.

Embroidery was a social activity, which women usually did together. They often followed patterns created by someone else. (Later this month I’ll review Jane Austen Embroidery, which includes some of those patterns.)

Robin showed us some amazing examples of embroidered works, which are truly art, such as a tiger by Mary Linwood. 

Mansfield Park mentions embroidery fifteen times, while Lady Susan includes no mentions and Persuasion only one. The other novels talk about embroidery five or six times each. Characters use this “work” as a distraction, to hide their feelings, and as a way to unobtrusively observe. Henry Crawford thinks Fanny Price looks lovely while embroidering. Fanny uses her embroidery as a way to ignore Henry.

My own embroidered version of Cassandra’s portrait of Jane
Joy

I find joy in learning, creating, dancing, and getting to know other Austen fans. JASNA provides great opportunities for all that. If you want to know more about this year’s AGM, check out my post “Jane Austen in the Arts.”  I hope next year you can join us for the AGM in Victoria, Canada! The theme will be Sense and Sensibility in the City of Gardens.

How do you see faith expressed in the arts?

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