Anybody who has had the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of two facts: First, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are 25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighborhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts.
–Virginia Woolf, “On Jane Austen,” New Republic, January 30, 1924
Jane Austen is the iconic crossover literary figure overrun by cult followers from both academia and the general public. Her artistry challenges the most sophisticated literary critic to catch her, as Woolf put it memorably, “in the act of greatness.” Her subversive fairy tales win the hearts and minds of readers within the general public. It is fitting that on the bicentenary year of her early death, we hold a conference celebrating her achievement.
The theme of this conference is “Jane Austen & the Arts.” She herself used a painting metaphor to describe her work with characteristically understated irony: her work, she wrote, consisted of “little bits (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with a fine brush, as produces little effect after much labor.” Needlework, bonnet-making, song, dance, piano-playing, and other arts suffuse Austen’s novels. Her characters either engage in the arts or are judged by their apparent failure to do so: Marianne Dashwood enthralls with her gifted piano playing and voice; Elinor Dashwood paints pretty screens; even Lucy Steele works filigree. Anne Elliot recites poetry and plays the piano. Catherine Moreland obsesses over Gothic novels. Mansfield Park implodes after an attempted theatrical production. Pride and Prejudice heats up when sparks that fly at an English Country dance. Both Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet squander their respective talents as painters and pianists by refusing to practice. By pointed contrast, Jane Fairfax is both gifted and disciplined as a musician. The plot of Sense and Sensibility is neatly pieced together by the ubiquitous appearance of scissors: Willoughby cuts a lock of Marianne’s hair early in the novel, the unruly Middleton children abscond with scissors midway through the narrative, and the novel closes after Edward Ferrars nervously picks up a pair of scissors with their sheath “spoiling them both by cutting the latter to pieces,” a fitting image for his nervous release as he reveals his freedom from the fetters of a secret engagement.
This conference is intended to bring together the considerable recent scholarly work of faculty both within and outside of the SUNY system. It welcomes members of the general public, many of whom are themselves experts on Austen. One day of the conference will be devoted to undergraduate papers in order to provide students with professional experience. Fittingly, there will be an English Country Dance, complete with a dance workshop led by Sharon Schenkel.