More than 180 members and guests attended “It’s All Relative: Relationships in Austen” on June 1 at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, making this one of the largest turnouts ever for a JASNA Southwest regional meeting!

The opening presentation by Austen scholar Deborah Knuth Klenck, a professor of English at Colgate University, and her son, Ted Scheinman, author of Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan, discussed “Those Who Chose to Be Idle Certainly Might: Mothers as Teachers in Jane Austen.”

Knuth Klenck jokingly remarked that a better title might have been “Maria Bertram’s Agreement,” referring to the Mansfield Park character who, when told by her aunt that there was a great deal more for her to learn, replied, “Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen.” Such muddled thinking, Knuth Klenck said, marked most conversations in Austen’s works about what girls, in particular, should know as part of their preparation for adult life and the eventual acceptance of a proposal of marriage. It seems that education ended at marriage.
Scheinman charmed the audience with his amusing narrative rendition of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. This grand lady, noted his mother, was quite clear on what everybody else’s daughters needed to know, while her own daughter was exempted from learning of any kind. In short, mothers in Austen’s novels “did not have time for such cares” as the education of their daughters.
Austen’s heroines were often “intellectual orphans, at least in regard to their mothers,” Scheinman said. He noted that the heroines must undertake a kind of autodidacticism, seeking and sometimes finding temporary surrogate mothers in figures like Lady Russell and Mrs. Allen or else among books.” For Austen, books were a sort of surrogate child; she referred to Pride and Prejudice as “my own darling child.”
In Mansfield Park, Fanny becomes a surrogate for her sister Susan by taking an active interest in her education. Fanny had “longed to give her a share of her own first pleasure and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself” and, under her tutelage, Susan “became a most attentive, profitable, and thankful pupil.” A happy ending, Scheinman said, as the talk came to a close.
UCLA Professor Emeritus Charles Lynn Batten charmed and enlightened guests with his discussion of “Failed Marital Relationships: Causes and Solutions in Jane Austen’s Novels.”
He began by informing the audience of two prejudices that inform his reading of Austen. “Jane Austen emphatically does not write what we nowadays dismiss as chick lit,” he said. He believes Austen wrote equally for male and female audiences and addressed concerns for both. Batten said she offers wise advice to both men and women concerning their choice of a suitable mate, often the most important choice they make in life.
He explained how Austen warns women to stay away from the “bad boys,” like her male rakes Wickham, Willoughby and William Walter Elliot, and that she similarly warns her male readers to stay away from the female rakes like Lady Susan and Lucy Steele.
Although Austen wrote in the Romantic Age, Batten added that she wrote like 18th century neoclassical authors who held that the “business of the novelist is not to examine the particular individual the author knew but the species of individual that the character represents.” To illustrate this point, he challenged the audience to make a list of Austen’s characters and to check them off as each is encountered in real life. He added that it is through her expert characterization that Austen educates her readers.
Austen’s novels, he asserted with some humor, suggest that, in aiming at a successful marital relationship, all her characters conduct two kinds of calculations: probability assessment and cost/benefit analysis. One must first ask: What is the probability of finding a more suitable mate than the one currently being considered? And then consider if marrying a less than suitable partner is better or worse than remaining without any mate at all? He counseled the audience to “think of the plight of the spinster, Miss Bates, against the plight of, Charlotte Collins, being married to a fool.”
Austen’s novels explore remedies to deal with less than suitable marriages, he said with a mischievous smile. Without the option of divorce, her characters developed “coping mechanisms.” Charlotte Collins, for instance, “at times simply pretended not to hear what she didn’t want to hear” and “best of all, she chose a sitting room on the far side of the parsonage where she was least likely to encounter her husband. In effect, she found a way to hide from her husband in her own house.”
Throughout the day, members and guests were able to peruse specially chosen selections from The Huntington’s extensive archival collection. Karla Nielsen, curator of literary collections at The Huntington, spoke to the group about the selection of archival treasures assembled especially for JASNA Southwest’s spring 2019 meeting.
Docent-led tours included a visit to the Chinese Garden, led by The Huntington’s incomparable Botanical Gardens Director James Folsom; a tour of the impressive Bonsai collection, one of the largest in the U.S., led by Ted Matson, including the trees dedicated to the memory of JASNA member William James; and a tour of the art collections (right), led by Jean Uffelman, including paintings Austen herself would have seen at an 1813 exhibition in London.
The meeting was dedicated to the memory of longtime JASNA Southwest board member Jaye Scholl Bohlen, who passed away unexpectedly in May after planning this wonderful event.