IN A windowless, strip-lit room hidden behind countless doors and up various corridors at Glasgow’s stately Kelvingrove Museum, 30 women (and two men) are talking about Jane Austen.
Or “Jane”, as she is fondly known to this bunch. On today’s agenda: a lecture by an academic from St Andrews University on Austen’s little known fragment, The Watsons, a mildly titillating discussion of sexual rivalry between sisters, lots of mutual admiration of bonnets and breeches, and tea and scones. Welcome to a meeting of the Scottish branch of the Jane Austen Society.
Every strain of Janeite is represented here: students and pensioners, Scottish and English obsessives (and one Scottish Pakistani woman whose “idea of what a future husband could be came from Pride and Prejudice”), librarians and civil servants, Colin Firth devotees and Regency purists, and, most unexpected of all, two people who have never read a word of Austen in their lives.
This year is the 200th anniversary of her most famous novel, a work of literature so adored it’s practically the only one with a first line everyone can quote. Since its publication in January 1813, 16 years after Austen wrote it in a fevered nine months, Pride and Prejudice has sold more than 20 million copies and never once been out of print. It has spawned a zombie sequel, a Japanese comedy, a Bollywood remake, a Broadway musical, and one of the most rewatched television moments of our time. Yes, that would be Colin Firth emerging from a lake in Derbyshire, wet shirt clinging to his Regency pecs.
Anyway, for the 80 members of this society, every year belongs to Jane. The Scottish branch was established in 2004, more than 70 years after Dorothy Darnell founded the Jane Austen Society (JAS) to preserve Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, where the author lived with her mother and sister between 1809 and her death in 1817. Scotland-based members come from as far north as Inverness and as far south as Ayrshire and meet several times a year to eat Regency food cooked by a chef in Fife who apparently makes an excellent white soup (served at the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice, didn’t you know?), and debate the finer points of some of the six most beloved novels in the English language. By the end of this year they will have discussed “dads, cads, and lads”, travel and technology, and the decidedly obscure question of whether Marianne (from Sense and Sensibility) sang Scots songs.
“My mother gave me Pride and Prejudice when I was ten,” says Patricia Bascom, a 76-year-old retired book editor who is sporting a grand lilac dress and matching bonnet, has taken her watch off “to avoid appearing anachronistic”, and has been a member for nine years. “It’s been a lifelong love affair for me. The perception of Jane has changed considerably. She used to be considered rather too feisty by the Victorians, then too safe, and now she is a proto-feminist.” She chuckles and lowers her voice conspiratorially. “The fact is, Jane was very adventurous. If you sent me to a desert island I would take her complete letters with me and then she would be my companion for life.”
Meanwhile, a group of giggly young women in spencer jackets and skirts are removing their Converse trainers, straightening their hair, and turning off their mobile phones. Basically, the 21st-century version of what Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice might call “the silliest girls in the country”. Older people compare well-thumbed copies of The Watsons and exchange news about upcoming events: a Regency dance group in Edinburgh and a play called Austen’s Women at Dunfermline’s Carnegie Hall. A young man in specs and full Regency garb rests his fractured leg on a chair, encased in a suspiciously modern looking cast. Mr Darcy on crutches, basically.
“I fell off a horse whilst fighting the French,” jokes Seumas Bates, a 27-year-old PhD student in anthropology who set up an affiliated society, Students of a Jane Austen Persuasion, at Glasgow University six years ago. They have more studenty ways of loving Jane: pub quizzes, Facebook groups, an annual recreation of the Box Hill picnic in Emma, and a bar crawl that finishes up at Mansfield Park … a square in Partick.
“Actually I’m not sure I could ride a horse while wearing this outfit.” He gestures at his breeches, stockings, voluminous shirt sleeves, and embroidered waistcoat. “I’m not very comfortable. Actually I’m boiling – I’m wearing three layers of wool. Men’s fashion changed a lot between 1800 and 1850, much more than women’s. For example the invention of trousers happened around this time. Something as simple as flies hadn’t been invented. You just had this pouch in front.” How does he feel when he dresses up like this? “Fantastic. I say things like ‘good day!’ and ‘huzzah!’ a lot and open doors for people. Actually,” he adds, looking glumly at his leg, “people have to open them for me.”
It’s a family affair. His mother, dressed in an emerald green Regency dress and straw bonnet is Ann Bates, secretary of the Scottish branch that she established nine years ago. “My husband gave me life membership to the society for my birthday, bless him,” she tells me later. “I went down to my first AGM, stood up, and shouted, ‘Anyone else here from Scotland?’”
Why was she so keen to connect with fellow Janeites? What is it about Austen, unlike Eliot, Lawrence, the Brontës, even Dickens to the same extent, that makes people want to dress up, recreate balls, write fan fiction, and eat white soup? “She’s like a friend,” Ann says. “These characters do more than come off the page. They come and live with you. I also felt that what was written about her didn’t ring true. She is always made out to be some dainty little person who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. No way. This woman has an edge. I just had to find out more about her.”
Her son tells me that with a “Jane fanatic” for a mother he had no choice but to join in the fun. “People always talk about the great female characters but the men are fantastic too: Mr Darcy, Colonel Brandon, Captain Wentworth…much better role models than any you would find in Andy McNab. And I find the whole period thrilling. It was such a radical time. The Napoleonic wars, America had just gained independence, the abolition of slavery, the industrial revolution. Austen would have been aware of all of it, yet she chose to write about none of it directly. That fascinates me.”
“I’ve never actually read any Austen,” whispers Hayley Mitchell, 26, keeping her voice down so as not to induce the wrath of the society with this shocking news. “I just love dressing up and am basically here for the clothes. I’ve seen the BBC TV series, though, and love watching Colin Firth.” She giggles into her white glove. “I suppose it’s a bit rebellious to be a woman of my age who hasn’t read Austen.”
“Emma is my favourite,” sighs her friend, Sheelagh Harwell, 27, studying medicine at Glasgow University. “She’s just so bad!”
Time to quieten down for Nora Bartlett’s lecture, which is accompanied by the obligatory rustle of sweetie wrappers and the occasional tut-tut when, for example, someone confesses she last read The Watsons in 1974. Members are known to frequently move their lips along with the lecturer at these events, able to quote entire passages from memory. The knowledge in the room is forensic, even of an obscure work like The Watsons, which is just 50 pages long and was abandoned by Austen after the death of her father in 1805.
There is serious debate about the difference between a carriage and a curricle, the rare appearance of the word “luck” in Austen’s novels, and a joke about “wiping away tears with a pigeon pie” that goes completely over my head. After a lively Q&A session about poverty, domestic labour, and the burning question of whether Jane did her own laundry (the consensus is no, but she might have made the toast), it’s time for tea and scones.
What about the connection between Austen and Scotland? Everyone I ask refers me to Lesley Castle, another obscure fragment that Austen wrote when she was 16. “Matilda and I continue secluded from Mankind in our old and Mouldering Castle,” she wrote, “which is situated two miles from Perth on a bold projecting Rock, and commands an extensive view of the Town and its delightful Environs.” There are other links, however. Though Austen never ventured north of the Border, she was a great admirer of Mary, Queen of Scots. The publisher of Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion was John Murray, from Edinburgh. For others, Scotland will forever be associated with Lydia and Wickham’s surprise elopement in Pride and Prejudice.
Perhaps most interestingly, it was in Scotland that Austen’s brother, Henry, revealed her to be the author of Pride and Prejudice. “Henry heard P&P warmly praised in Scotland by Lady Robt Kerr & another Lady,” Austen wrote to her brother Francis. “What does he do in the warmth of his Brotherly vanity & Love, but immediately tell them who wrote it!”
“I came to this country from Israel when I was six years old,” says Sharron Bassett, 55, society treasurer and librarian who proudly tells me her birthday, “is the day after Jane’s, but not in the same century”. It was Austen who taught her English. “A lady taught me to read and write and she loved Austen,” she says. “So the very first book I was able to read in English was Persuasion. I got completely hooked.”
Like everyone else here, Bassett can’t remember how many times she’s reread Austen’s small but vastly influential body of work. “Her wit and wisdom are quite incredible,” she says. “Nothing against Mr Dickens but it takes him seven pages to describe what Jane manages in three sentences. I love her economy.” She gestures around the room at the women (and two men) sipping tea and talking, as always, about Jane. “We all love her for different reasons,” she says. “And we have such a good time together. The fact is, none of us will be here in another 200 years. But one thing’s for sure. Jane will be.”