In a cavernous conference room one block from the White House, next door to the National Press Club, more than 200 people gathered together in the final minutes before the third presidential debate.
An overwhelming majority were women, most with plenty of gray hairs. A few wore velvet hats studded with feathers.
“How is Mr. Darcy?” one attendee asked another. The response came in the form of a quickly procured Facebook photo of a beloved dog named after a beloved, if fictional, man.
So it goes in the alternate universe taking over Pennsylvania Avenue NW this weekend. This is the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Here, no dress is too high-waisted, no Colin Firth joke is left unsaid.
As the presidential debate got underway, the self-professed Janeites at Washington’s JW Marriott hotel were glued to their seats for a presentation on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s current exhibit, “Will & Jane.” At least three audience members chose to knit as they listened; another strategically placed a soft pillow behind her back.
In Las Vegas, Chris Wallace was greeting the candidates. In the District, the floor was just being opened for pressing questions.
The first was this: “Did you think of keeping the shirt wet?” The shirt, of course, is the body-hugging white cotton number that Firth wore as he dreamily emerged from a lake in the 1995 BBC miniseries “Pride and Prejudice.”
Answer: There was talk of using a vegetable mister to keep the shirt damp, but it was “deemed curatorially unsound,” according to Janine Barchas, one of the exhibit’s two curators. She also requested that visitors who go to see the shirt please refrain from defacing its glass case with lipstick marks.
More than 850 Austen enthusiasts are expected to descend on Washington this weekend to celebrate their favorite author, who died 200 years ago next July. And it is not lost on the scholars in attendance that Austen is currently experiencing a revival of interest similar to the one Shakespeare saw 200 years after his death. That phenomenon greatly elevated his stature — and they’re hoping that this one will do the same for her.
Together, the Janeites are a happy, passionate bunch who look like English professors and retired court transcriptionists and react with great enthusiasm to statements like this: “Librarians are awesomeness. They just are.” (Which perhaps explains why attendees are such fervent “shhh”-ers, quieting anyone who dares talk over a featured speaker.)
Debra Roush, a retired editor who is coordinator of the event, which has not taken place in Washington since 1990, attributes Austen’s sustained popularity to her understanding of the human psyche. “She saw people for what they are — noble and good, foolish and useless,” says Roush, who is in possession of the exacting elocution that one would expect of an Austen conference chairwoman.
Usually, the organization sees a spike in membership whenever a new Austen-inspired movie hits theaters. But in recent years, Roush says, interest in Austen has remained steadily high, prompting her to remark that “we’re just very lucky to be living at this time.” (Note to our international readers: This is not how most Americans feel at the present juncture.)
But Janeites are not most Americans. At least not this weekend, when, as Roush puts it, they “have a chance to get away from all the hideousness.”
Instead, the Janeites can focus on learning to make “Elegant Cards for Every Occasion.” Or they can participate in serious scholarly discussions of “Emma,” the novel picked to headline this year’s conference. They might practice set dances from the Regency period in preparation for Saturday night’s ball. Or they could learn about the medicine practiced during Austen’s lifetime. (“It’s not pretty,” Roush warns. “They put leeches in some very intimate places.”) They can shop for floor-length gowns or pick up a new bumper sticker encouraging fellow drivers to “Read Jane Austen, Y’all!”
And perhaps most important, they can just be together, united by their shared Austenthusiasm.
Take Lena Ruth Yasutake, a teacher and theater director from Bridgeport, Conn. She found out just two weeks ago that she was off the waiting list and would be able to attend the conference. “I was hyperventilating,” she says. “My boss was right there. She was like, ‘Are you okay?’ ”
Yasutake, 33, has dyslexia, and as a child, she says, “I hated reading. It was a huge struggle for me.” But after seeing the movie “Clueless,” which takes its plot from “Emma,” she was determined to make her way through the original novel.
“And by the time I finished it, I had discovered the joys of reading,” she says. “And I’ve been in love with [Austen] ever since.”
What keeps Yasutake coming back to the books are the human truths they seem to reveal. “So many of the themes are universal. And yes, all of her characters have happy endings, and yes, all of her characters end up married. I know. But I feel like the focus of the stories is really on self-discovery,” she says. Plus, “I think she was the first feminist who really used humor. People were too busy enjoying the narrative and laughing at the characters to realize she was presenting these really complex heroines that weren’t wilting flowers and had rich minds and developed lives all on their own.”
This is Yasutake’s first Austen conference, but by Thursday morning, it already felt like home.
“I’ve always been kind of like a weird kid who dresses up in vintage clothing and period clothing and designs costumes and reads old French literature,” she says. “And meeting so many people who are just like me? It’s so great.”