Vintage coaches, silver fork novels and 18th century spectacles: the 2010 Jane Austen Society Annual General Meeting

“O that he had sprained his ancle in the first dance!” exclaims an exasperated Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Well, the intended recipient, Mr. Bingley, escaped that curse in Jane Austen’s novel. Instead it fell upon me, two centuries later. Not even at any dance, mind you, but stupidly, while getting up from a sofa in the apparent comfort and safety of my apartment.

The incident was all the more maddening that it occurred less than 48 hours before the 2010 Jane Austen Society Annual General Meeting, an event to which I had been looking forward for so long.

It would have taken more than that to deter me from attending. My ankle (or should I spell ancle, like Jane?) properly braced, I took the train at Waterloo for Alton, the closest railway station to Jane’s home at Chawton.

I knew that a bus would be expecting us Janeites at Alton station to take us to Chawton, but a surprise awaited us. It was not just any coach. It was a King Alfred Coach, lovingly restored to its 1961 splendour! New plush upholstery, shiny paint in two tones of green, matched to the uniforms of the driver and conductor. The latter, Mr. James Freeman, explained that, though he was not himself a Janeite, his recently departed mother, Ms. Jean Freeman, had been a member and passionate contributor of the Jane Austen Society. Therefore this year he was offering this service, free of charge, to the members of the Society to honour her memory. What a lovely way of doing so. All my thanks go to Mr. Freeman for this delicate attention.


King Alfred Coach at Chawton House

The programme began with the Annual General Meeting under a vast white marquee, with the obligatory reports of the Chairman, President and Treasurer. Not quite as dour as it sounds. Many items of interest were evoked, in particular the transfer of the large portrait of Edward Austen Knight, brother of Jane and first Austen owner of Chawton House. I had seen the portrait at the far more modest Chawton cottage, home to Jane, her mother, sister Cassandra and friend Martha Lloyd. There it dwarfed the room, occupying an entire wall. Now it will receive a frame commensurate with its size and be moved to the stately mansion.

It was a reminder of the vastly diverging financial fortunes of the Austen siblings, with Jane probably the poorest of all. A theme at the very core of her novels…

After a lunch break, spent for my part as a picnic in the park and a visit to the charming vegetable garden, it was time to return to the marquee, for the address. This year it was given by a fellow American, Professor Edward Copeland. Its theme was the “Mayfair Legacy” of Jane Austen’s novels. While those enjoyed only a limited success during her lifetime, and earned their author very little money, they spawned, as early as the 1830s, a slew of so-called “silver fork” or “Mayfair” novels. They purported to describe the mores of pre-Victorian high society, and their plots and characters were directly lifted from Jane’s works, but unlike them, they were best-sellers. After a period of wild popularity, though, they were forgotten. Indeed I had never heard myself of that literary school.

A delegation of JASNA attended the address. Among its members, I could not help noticing a gentleman in 18th century clerical garb. I approached him afterward, and his attire was indeed perfect! He was dressed as the Reverend George Austen, Jane’s father, would have been as she was growing up.

As I had surmised, the gentleman in question, Nick Wells, of Ontario, Canada, belongs to a group of historical reenactors, The King’s Company. He graciously agreed to be photographed at the entrance to Chawton House for the readers of Versailles and more.


Reenactor: 18th century parson

As I admired the wonderful accuracy of Mr. Wells’s costume, I noticed his spectacles, visible on this photograph. These are actual 18th century frames, in which his optometrist managed to insert modern prescription lenses. I find this sort of detail heart-warming. Bravo, Mr. Wells!

He proceeded to tell me that, after the meeting, he was headed for a ball at Winchester. Ankle brace notwithstanding, I felt a very Austenian yearning for a lively dance myself, but it was not to be: I was due back in London that evening. By the way, Mr. Wells was not to impersonate Mr. Collins there, but he had another costume at the ready for the occasion. I will try to secure pictures of the ball to post here.

I left Mr. Wells to his many other admirers and was privileged to meet Patrick Stokes, former Chairman of the JAS and descendant of Rear Admiral Charles Austen, another of Jane’s brothers.


Patrick Stokes and Catherine Delors at Chawton

Here I can be seen scribbling the URL of Versailles and more for the benefit of Mr. Stokes, who, amazingly enough, had been heretofore unaware of its existence. An omission now fortunately repaired.

I also chatted with the most famous Austen scholar, Deirdre Le Faye, about Eliza de Feuillide. I need not tell you that Eliza was Jane’s “outlandish” first cousin, and the subject of one of Ms. Le Faye’s many works.


Sign at St Nicholas Church at Chawton

I did not omit a few purchases: tombola tickets in the vain hope (I am most unlucky at those things) of winning an Austen-inspired print, and two books: a lovely illustrated 1948 edition of Emma, and Jane Austen’s Town and Country Style, by Susan Watkins.

To conclude my day at Chawton, I visited the diminutive Church of St Nicholas, built of local flintstone. Yes, I was mindful to close the door behind me, to prevent the swallows from entering the building. Indeed a mud-and-twigs nest of these birds, complete with wide open hungry beaks, can be seen under the portal.

And of course I paid my respects at the tombs of the two Cassandras: Jane’s mother and her beloved elder sister.


Tombs of Cassandra Austens at St Nicholas Church, Chawton

Photographs courtesy of Ronald Dunning (a descendant of yet another of Jane’s brothers, Admiral Sir Francis Austen)

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33 Comments to “Vintage coaches, silver fork novels and 18th century spectacles: the 2010 Jane Austen Society Annual General Meeting”

  1. Joyce Spray says:

    The limelight was made for Nick, who posed cheerfully whenever asked. His meeting with the Regency-clad gentleman at the entrance to the Jane Austen Center in Bath was classic.

    We have some photos in Picasa, but unfortunately the captions do not accompany them when we try to e-mail them. We are working on getting them to move as a unit, or you may have no clue what you’re looking at. If successful, we will send them to you in a format you can use. Good luck with your book.

  2. Well, Joyce, it sounds like it! Do you have photos of your trip? I would love to post them, with the permission of all involved, of course. Mr. Wells was very gracious in accepting to pose for this blog, but then I had the distinct impression he was no stranger to the limelight. From what you say, he was the star of your tour…

  3. Joyce Spray says:

    Nick Wells, aka the Rev. Nicholas Digweed, was the lone male in the tour group sponsored by the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) for its members. He was THE hit, our conversation piece, the passpartout on most days of our delightful 10-day+ odyssey called “Landscapes and Seascapes of Jane Austen” (or something close to that). You should have seen the Smee outfit he wore when we toured the HMS Victory in Portsmouth! Other tourists thought he was part of the show, but we knew better.

    Everyone at Chawton was delightful, and the Silver Fork lecture was outstanding. The hospitality extended to us was no less caring than it was elegant.

    On our tour we met no fewer than five descendants of the Austen Brothers, including Mr. Stokes, who read the pivotal Louisa’s-fall-from-the-Cobb scene aloud to us at Lyme Regis, in situ. Could one ask for more?

    Sorry you were unable to take your sore ancle to Winchester for the ball. There you would have had the pleasure of dancing with Nick, who was for that evening, I believe, Sir John Middleton in his distinctive red outfit. In sort, what a trip!

  4. Welcome back, Miss Moppet! For the silver fork novels, if you read Ellen’s comment, the connection with Austen is less iron-clad than the lecturer made it sound. I must acknowledge a total ignorance of the glitz-and-glamour genre. Any recommendations?

  5. Miss Moppet says:

    I had heard of the silver fork novels but never connected them with Austen. Must try one – I love the glitz and glamour genre which is exactly the same thing, updated.

  6. Vern Giulian says:

    Thanks for the blog. I know a little bit about the topic but am always happy to come across additional information.

  7. Deb says:

    Good point! – off to the Library for me, silver forks safely preserved for worthy descendents!

  8. Heaven forbid, Deb! How could you relate to the novels then, sans silver forks?

  9. Deb says:

    Thanks for that link Catherine – that Blackwell book costs $199. so I am hoping the University of Vermont has a copy or access to Copeland’s essay – otherwise I’ll have to sell my OWN “silver forks” in order to get the reading material…!

  10. Deb, I have tried to keep my hopes in check for the raffle. :) Indeed Ron deserves much praise for his beautiful pictures. This blogger doesn’t always get to travel with a dedicated photographer. So I felt I owed it to him to try the walk back to Alton, even if it means a few extra days in the brace… Just kidding, of course.

    For the Copeland lecture, here’s a link:

    I don’t have a Blackwell account, and can’t check it out, but this must be a similar paper. $875 for a series of silver fork novels? Copeland mentioned a paperback edition of The Hamiltons, if you want to give it a try.

  11. Deb says:

    Mr. Dunning – so will hope that Catherine might yet win the raffle! moreso deserved for enduring the long walk from Chawton to Alton – and a thank you for your lovely photographs!

    Thank you Ellen for the “silver fork” clarification – I see that that term does indeed generate a fair amount of information online unlike the “Mayfair” tag –

    Pickering & Chatto publishers offers a 6-vol. set collection at – and might be a nice beginning for $875. [yikes!] [authors: Gore, Bulwer-Lytton, Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, Marguerite Countess of Blessington, Letitia Landon, and Thomas Henry Lister]- though in fear of your “puking” potential, one might perhaps just do a re-read of Austen’s SIX novel set and have a far more enjoyable experience… [though my interst is piqued and will have to try at least one of them…]

  12. Thank you, dear all!

    Ellen, this is why I wrote on the lists that I wished you had been there. Copeland was interesting in that he made me discover a part of C19 English literature I had never heard of, but I would have loved to have a broader perspective on Austen’s early legacy. He did mention at length Catherine Gore’s The Hamiltons as inspired by Sense & Sensibility.

  13. ellen moody says:

    A little on the silver fork novels, then. Just on Copeland’s thesis about Silver Fork books. I’m not sure he’s right: first of all in France (it’ll be said he is just talking English novels, but there is a perpetual back-and-forth in this period), Austen’s novels begin to be influential with Isabelle de Montolieu (who translated and directly imitated them), and Margaret Cohen’s Sentimental Education of the Novel (a very important book, very readable) shows a line of books ending in George Sand if not demonstrably influenced by Austen, very much like hers and some other of the French women’s books (beginning with Charriere). There’s also Susan Ferrier’s Marriage (Scots fiction), not a silver fork novel at all. Mary Brunton’s Discipline (an Emma book, also Scots) came out around the same time as Emma so one can’t claim influence but it could have been so.

    I’ve read about these Silver Fork books – and read a couple of examples, or parts of those I could stand. They are also lurid and very very snobbish. Bulwer-Lytton gets his start writing these things (Pelham comes from these but is far more intelligent); Disraeli’s books really partly come out of them (especially Vivien Grey — which however is much better). They are often slightly bizarre and nonsensical. These bejewelled surfaces: Mrs Gore was the queen of the kind – she was was born Catherine Moody (not that that’s my name by genetic family) and Gore was her married name. I once tried Catherine Gore’s Cecil and came near puking. They were a publisher’s concoction (Catherine Delors might find this amusing) to reach a niche in the marketplace for people who found it delicious to think they were reading scandalous stories about real aristocrats.

    George Eliot’s famous Silly Lady Novelists has as its prime target one of these silver fork novels. Now the opening “book” in Middlemarch is really influenced by Austen. Thackeray attacked them in Dukes and Dejeuners, Hearts and Diamonds. They irritated Trollope no end. Even Michael Sadleir (capable of reading tremendous trash) finds the true examples of the species awful.

    It would be believable and probable that many of Austen’s kinds of details could fit into a silver fork novel, but I do think that’s a misunderstanding and reading of her books as set into a far more upper class set of households than they are. We’ve been doing that way before the films started to reinforce this. Lately they’ve been trying to be more accurate as to class and money, but are going overboard in the opposite direction.

    I don’t say Copeland’s wrong, only that this gives a skewed idea of these books and whatever details he finds they use are probably put to perverse use. The first critic to appreciate Austen for real (and her themes) was G. H.Lewes, a genuine liberal-radical thoughtful sensitive type. He also liked Mme Dudevant’s books (his name for Sand).

    A good account of these silver fork books, Mrs Gore, is in Sutherland’s Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction.

    Austen loved Crabbe, said she could have been his wife.

    In short, I guess my instinctive comment is Copeland is probably leaning far too hard on a few details, but it does illuminate how people misread Austen, what they want to see in her (stories of rich English people).


  14. Penny says:

    Sounds like a wonderful day despite the ankle. Hope you are having some time to relax.
    2012 JASNA Brooklyn!

  15. Ronald Dunning says:

    Deb, you can be assured that the raffle draw hasn’t been held yet, and an accomplice of Catherine’s is keeping the tickets safe in the eventuality that she DOES win. She also deserves credit for her fortitude in humouring said accomplice’s desire to walk from Chawton to Alton Station – a walk of rather more than the mile that a local resident claimed it to be.

  16. This sounds like a wonderful day, despite the ankle (or ancle as the case may be). Good for you for soldiering on despite the tricks of fate!

  17. Deb says:

    oops! me again – the link in the above comment is to the 2009 JASNA AGM in Philadelphia – scroll down for a photo of Nick Wells [a.k.a. George Austen] as General Tilney – the man is a wonder of personages!

  18. Deb says:

    Oh thank you Catherine for posting about your wonderful day at Chawton! – how frustrating for us to be on THIS side of the pond… I agree with Mr. Dunning – please write more! The Mayfair Legacy novels is new to me as well – and if you search that term, you get your post and a series of links to the Ann Rice Mayfair trilogy about witches! – do hope his talk will be published in the Reports. And how lovely for you to meet Ms. Le Faye and discuss Eliza and the feminine point of view! Sorry to hear about your “ancle” and not winning any raffles, but what a day to be had! – thanks so much for sharing!

  19. I am always ready to write more… What would you like to see addressed?

  20. A wonderful day indeed. A complete set of Austen’s novels are IMO an indispensable part of any library. :)

  21. Allan Dunning says:

    Your story is much too brief! Please write more!

  22. gene says:

    super et emouvant…

  23. Elisa says:

    Wow, it sounds like you had a wonderful day! Thanks for sharing… I have all of JA’s novels on my bookshelf at home including a volume of her childhood writing and another of her uncompleted stories.

  24. I am utterly delighted, Ron! And thank you for taking these beautiful pictures.

  25. Ronald Dunning says:

    Catherine, I’ve already heard it on good authority that Deirdre Le Faye enjoyed meeting you very much, and looks forward to any possible contributions you may make to Austen scholarship!

  26. Deirdre was very kind, and encouraged me to research the “feminine” side of things when it comes to research. Sound advice, which I intend to follow if at all possible. My legal training tends to skew my vision towards the “hard” facts.
    Yes, I thought much could be read into Edward’s move from the cottage to the mansion. Quite evocative of Jane’s life.

  27. Christy Somer says:

    Ooh, what an ouch to contend with Catherine!!

    And I’m so glad that little *ancle* sprain did not divert such an important traveling imperiative-how lovely to be there around this time!

    Thank you for the photos and posting!

    Did your special Eliza *chat* with DLF spring forth any epiphany’s?

    The immensity of difference in perspectives when taking the large portrait of Edward from the cottage to the Great House is quite an ironic metaphor for Jane Austen’s humble beginnings and now massive fame-quite a frame of reference to be sure.

    And I seem to read a very special type of humility within her stories and character formations, that for me, make them precious beyond words.

  28. Thanks, Diana! Maybe a day of Janeite exertions worked wonders, but I am feeling much better already. I didn’t know about your Marianne Dashwood experience. The great thing about being a Janeite is how our lives and the novels are so closely intertwined…

  29. A post that meant so much, Catherine – it flooded me with sunshine and memories. Of having been there last summer (at the New Directions conference); of hearing news of Ed Copeland, a California friend of nearly 30 years standing; and your observation of so many inimitable charming details: the lovely story of the King Alfred Coach, Mr. Wells’ eighteenth century spectacles, and more. And, sorry though I am about your ancle sprain, I must share that a dozen years ago, while staying with Joan Austen-Leigh at a mutual friend’s house in Bath, I sprained my own ancle simply standing upon a cobblestone at a great house overlooking the city. I very nearly had to be carried back to the house (as Willoughby did Marianne), where my friends actually produced a bottle of Constantia wine, just as Mrs. Jennings did, to ease my sorrows! No ancle brace, and I wasn’t able to take ballet classes for another three months – I hope yours will heal more quickly. Thanks again for a delightful post, which, as you see, brought back many memories.

  30. Oh, Melanie, we had plenty of sunshine, barely a few drops around noon. Perfect weather for a wonderful day. Certainly you should join the JAS since you are a Janeite. Well worth the £20.

  31. Melanie says:

    Oh this is fascinating! I’ve often considered joining the Jane Austen Society but have, rather stupidly, never got around to it despite being a huge fan! I’m really interested in learning more about Eliza de Feuillide.

    What a lovely day – really glad the weather held off for you all so you had some sunshine!

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