May 2023 - Mission Inn, Riverside, California
On May 6th JASNA Southwest hosted 100 enthusiastic Janeites at the Historic Mission Inn Hotel and Spa after a three year postponement. It was a fun-filled Cinco de Mayo weekend with a busy car show on Friday night. Riverside was a cheerful and lively host city for this long-awaited event.
The day began with Susan Straight, author of In the Country of Women (2019) whose humor and vivid descriptions of life in Riverside created a sense of home and familiarity. She engaged the audience with the stories and photos of several resilient women among her mother’s family and her ex-husband’s family. These were the stories of women who faced hardships and overcame them. Her daughters are their descendants and young women who have been shaped by their legacy and are now charting their own paths in life. Like many of us “these three beautiful young women grew up obsessed with Jane Austen [and] they watch Jane Austen for comfort.”
Straight’s discussion centered on the notion of home and what it was like to grow up in Riverside, “growing up here in this particular place, it was sort of a sense of love and war and the military that brought so many people together.” She picked up her first Jane Austen novel in the 8th grade and first read Pride and Prejudice in high school. She also revealed that in high school she opted out of a class on “how to put on a wedding.” The anecdote underscored societal expectations and the socio-economic challenges for women regarding marriage— not just fictionally in Jane Austen’s novels but also in reality— as experienced by her and by some of the women depicted in her memoir, In the Country of Women.
“Jane Austen transcends race and class” and helped us “navigate the world of Riverside Poly High School”. “Whenever anyone tried to make my girls feel bad, we fell back on Jane Austen”. And when they all visited Bath, “we imagined ourselves as Jane Austen”, observing and “just thinking of all the stories you overhear in a dance.”
Congressman Mark Takano (D-Riverside), also a Riverside native, was a teacher for 24 years before being elected to Congress in 2012. He was inspired as a seventh grader to enter politics upon hearing Representative Barbara Jordan speak during the Watergate Hearings.
His talk focused on the challenges and triumphs of teaching Charles Dickens and Jane Austen to underserved high school students in Riverside. He gradually discovering that “so many were several grades below reading level” struggling to decode the text and laboring to gain comprehension— “an experience akin to acquiring a new language.”
One moment of triumph occurred while watching a film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility with subtitles: “They really got into it and then it was really lovely when Willoughby is pictured on a horse looking down at the wedding that he’s not participating in and one of the kids yells out, “That’s what you get, fool!” With a smile on his face he reflected, “It felt so successful. Yes! You’re getting it.”
Invariably when teaching Pride and Prejudice there would always be one female student who would purchase a copy to read ahead. In one instance a bright and pregnant young woman considered Charlotte Lucas’ choices in a transformative way insightful of her own socioeconomic future. “Something about this story really empowered them and it was always inspiring to watch that happen.”
When asked about the connection between Jane Austen and current politics, he noted that the columnist Maureen Dowd references Jane Austen often, that “there’s something very Jane Austen about Nancy Pelosi” in her language and manners, and that we may be interested to know that Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema is someone “who knows Austen’s books very well and was particularly articulate about them in [his] conversations with her.”
With respect to the broad themes of the status of women, he said that as former Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, he noted that the largest and fastest growing new users of the Veterans Health Administration are women. And that one-third of all women who serve in the military are screening positive for military sexual assault.
Congressman Takano spoke about the importance of creating a narrative in relating his teaching experience to his political career. As one of the few members of Congress with an MFA, he understands that “politics is very much integrated with storytelling”.
“I think it’s still important to pay attention to language, how we use language…that while we may not be able to speak like Janeites or speak like Austen’s characters, it’s important for us to still master the complexity of language because you can’t separate thinking from language…it’s really important for all citizens, not just leaders, to be able to at least make the attempt to understand a Jane Austen sentence.”
“Austen’s message about avoiding selfishness and impulsiveness, trying to temper passions with rationality—I think that’s a message for this age. That’s a very important Austen message for our times”.
Dr. Danielle Spratt, a professor in the English Department at California State University, Northridge, in her talk, “Jane Austen and the Politics of Resistance”, described how reading Austen helps us understand and find our own place in time while considering Austen’s subversive language and character depictions.
She discussed the many and varied lenses through which Austen’s novels have been read, analyzed and critiqued over time— in some cases falling short of the mark and in others being the exemplar. Viewing Austen’s novels through the lens of presentism would bar modern morals and ethics from being imposed on history. However, Dr. Spratt suggested viewing Austen’s writings through the lens of activist presentism to allow for looking at both past and present in a way that “might help us move forward changing our behavior or actions.”
Dr. Spratt suggested that Austen’s unpublished juvenilia (Henry and Eliza and Catherine, or the Bower) and her published works create a collective form of political resistance against British paternalism. Austen’s juvenilia, untethered by publish-ability or authorial respectability, construct radical heroines and plots that offer models of connection to her published novels and heroines. Austen’s juvenilia push readers to identify and turn against heteropatriarchal cultural norms of early 19th century British culture for which slavery and colonialism are an insidious natural outgrowth.
Dr. Spratt also discussed the question of what can Austen’s novels teach us about reproductive justice, which is the right not to have a child, the right to have a child, and the right to parent children in a safe and healthy environment. Her novels situate reproductive justice as contingent on vastly inequitable socio-economic and cultural conditions.
Spratt led a lively interactive session in which the attendees collaboratively brainstormed on Jane Austen’s most political characters, plots and themes, which speaks to the number of ways we can see Austen engaging with politics in her own time.
After the main event many attendees joined guided tours of the hotel .The Mission Inn Hotel and Spa was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977. It first opened in 1874, as a small boarding house, owned and operated by members of the Miller family until 1956. Construction of the first wing of the hotel started in 1880 and opened in 1903. The project was financed in partnership with Henry Huntington. The hotel boasts an impressive guest list that included Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Albert Einstein, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant, Susan B. Anthony, Andrew Carnegie, Amelia Earhart, Booker T. Washington, and ten U.S. Presidents. Read more here.
A special thanks to Bernadette Baillie of Printers Row Publishing Group for her generous donation of books for the opportunity baskets, as well as bookmarks and stickers as giveaways; Kathryn Field for donating one of our opportunity baskets; and for joining other local Riverside and I.E. members, Alicia Lomas-Gross, Janna Noyes, and Rebecca Weersing in providing assistance at the meeting.
Many more thanks to the members who made donations at registration and to those who purchased opportunity basket tickets. We are particularly grateful for Claire Bellanti who underwrote the event with a generous donation in memory of her late husband Robert Bellanti, UCLA librarian, who supported this organization for many years.