Corsets and Cotillions: An Evening with the Jane Austen Society


Arts & Culture

From the Jane Austen Society of North America’s 2013 Netherfield Ball.


In Minneapolis that fall, while my mother lay on a couch in upstate New York with her legs elevated as she healed from a recent knee replacement, it fell to me to deliver her paper at the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). During the Q&A that followed my rendition of her paper, I was roundly congratulated for this service to my mother, though no one voiced the rather obvious question of why such an apparently dutiful son wasn’t where he ought to be: at her bedside. The answer would have been that I was working on a book, researching and trying to understand the Janeites, this intoxicating secret society of superfans that was beginning to feel like an unexpected birthright. But they were too polite to ask, and I would have been too guarded to offer the answer.

At the grand ball in Minneapolis, my dancing showed certain improvements since the long weekend I had spent at the Jane Austen summer camp three months before. Though still clumsy in following the choreography, I was at least not a total amateur the second time around. Nevertheless, the size alone of the annual JASNA meeting meant the ball would be far more populous, collisions would be more frequent, and no one was safe from a camera. As the ball was set to begin, the writer Deborah Yaffe dragged over a friend, the two of them insisting that “Jane Bennet” (an elegant-looking historical novelist with bouncy blonde ringlets) had been eyeing me. 

“Go over there!” Yaffe told me. “Tell her she’s the very image of Jane Bennet. That’s your line.”

I thanked Deborah and turned to locate the woman in question, who had just materialized on my right arm.

“They’re taking photographs of us,” she whispered into my ear as she steered me toward a phalanx of camera phones. “I hope you don’t mind.” Her poise before the cameras, and the commanding way in which she had taken my arm, felt absurd, like a moment of stage management on a red carpet outside the Oscars. There were camera flashes all around us, and I didn’t even get to use Deborah’s line before the lady had reserved two dances with me. Things were looking up.

At dinner, while scribbling observations in my steno pad, I noticed Inger, a professor of mine, and one of her daughters seated two tables away in the banquet room. After the chicken course, Inger spotted me, smiled, rose, and approached.

“Ted, at the risk of meddling, I should like to say that the two ladies on either side of me would both be tickled if you reserved the first four dances for them.”

Craning, I spotted them: Prashansa, a young Indian scholar in a crimson sari, and Maria, a young Coloradan with doe eyes and lashes the length of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Maria wore a beautiful white gown with a red sash.

“Of course, Inger. Depend upon me. Shall I pretend we never had this conversation?”

“Yes, I think we’d better.”

Staff began clearing tables to make room for dancing, and I approached the women in question.

“Excuse me—I wondered whether you ladies would do me the honor of reserving the first portion of your dance cards for me.”

They smiled—Maria actually curtsied—and agreed, with a sly glance at Inger.

We were novices, and there were one or two moments when our costumes came between us (the breech clasps below my knees kept coming undone, while Prashansa’s sari did its best to trip her graceful feet), but no one trod on anyone else’s toes, and we acquitted ourselves well. Conversation during the “Duke of Kent’s Waltz” was quite literally by the book.

“And now it is your turn to talk,” Prashansa told me as we spun down the dance line. I lost only a moment in finding my bearings—Pride & Prejudice, Volume I. She’s Elizabeth. You’re Darcy. Get on it.

“Perhaps something about the number of couples?”

“Yes!” Prashansa cried. “Or the size of the room!”

Maria’s dress was far better behaved, an arrangement that left her free to bat her eyes at a rate that would turn any warm-blooded man epileptic.

“You’re very good, you know,” I told her.

“Don’t tell anyone I didn’t attend the instructional sessions,” she stage-whispered. We interlaced with other couples, parted, reunited at the center of the dance line.

“It’s so crowded!”

“I would have twirled you, but there wasn’t sufficient real estate.”

“Oh, we can twirl next time; just don’t let Glasses over there step on your toes.”

Deborah Yaffe and her partner appeared next to us, in one of the kaleidoscopic reconfigurings that form the ritual intricacy of the Regency assembly dance.

“I see you’re doing well for yourself,” Deborah said.

“You as well,” I said.

“But what happened to Miss Bennet?”

“Miss Bennet, sad to say, is married.” (This was true.) “But I really must thank you for your matchmaking efforts.”

Deborah pulled me aside for a moment. “Well, at least we know,” she said in a tone of delectable conspiracy.

As a break in the proceedings, the staff refreshed us with meats, cheeses, and white soup, the latter a favorite with Charles Bingley. (“As soon as Nicholls has made white soup enough I shall send round my cards,” he promises Lydia before the Netherfield ball.) Making my way toward a table, I came upon a group of women discussing their conquests at previous years’ balls. “I’ve tried to explain to my cousin,” said one lady. “Nobody comes here for the sex. But we’re warm-blooded people—”

“I like to watch a man struggle with a corset.”

“It’s like you get the best of then and now! You can dress like Emma but still go to bed with Frank Churchill.”

“Assuming his fiancée isn’t around.”

The women agreed that a JASNA ball was a bit like visiting a resort in Austen’s day, when, as a tourist in Bath or Southampton, a man or woman of means could behave much more freely than at home, especially given that most people would be strangers.

“Do you think Austen would have considered Minneapolis a resort city?”

“I don’t know, but we’re here, and we’re thoroughly disguised.”

“Imagine just putting your hand down Willoughby’s pants. What a power move that would be.”

“I think one’s allowed a bit of fun after being so studious all day.”

“I should think Jane would be happy to see modern ladies getting to enjoy themselves, though I’m not sure she’d be impressed with the selection of men … ”

I sat myself with Maria and Prashansa and several older ladies. The lady to my right, in a green bonnet, offered us a gracious smile as we installed ourselves.

“Oh, I know you—I attended your mother’s talk,” said Miss Green Bonnet. “She seems to have the proper idea about Austen and sex.”

“Your mother had many thoughts on this score,” Prashansa said with a smile.

“My mother,” I explained to Maria, “disagrees with Ruth Perry, who argues that film adaptations have blinded us to Mr. Collins’s status as an eligible bachelor.” Maria laughed.

“Yes, that is going too far. But the films always make us read the books differently, don’t they?” The table issued nods and slurps. “For instance: Do you like the Olivier-Garson version?” Maria was referring to the 1940 adaptation, directed by Robert Z. Leonard with a script by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin.

“I do, very much,” I said with a generous wave of my soup glass. “Despite its famous liberties!”

Maria nodded. “Which include a thorough rewrite of Lady Catherine.”

“A public rehabilitation in the third act?”

“Indeed. And of course that’s all a wartime thing—the American P&P leaves us with warm feelings toward this crusty exponent of the traditional gentry virtues.”

“Right. Because we’d never send troops to help Mrs. Norris,” someone added.

The evening’s wines were beginning to take effect; this remark was met with titters around the table. I told the ladies about the man whom I had met in the elevators that morning. There were two conferences happening concurrently at the Minneapolis Hilton: JASNA and a separate much-smaller weekend seminar called “Financial Planning for Lutherans.” In general, it was not difficult to tell which hotel guests were attending which of the two conferences. The gentleman in question (who struck me as the very model of a fiscally prudent Lutheran) had cast a smiling eye over the dresses and petticoats in the lobby of the hotel before joining me in the elevator to observe that “everyone seems to be dressed very nice.”

I laughed, uncertain as to what he meant, whether he was joking. “What do you think of the bonnets?”

“Well, I guess I didn’t realize they were back in fashion!”

He wasn’t joking.

“You realize it’s the big annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society?”

His smile widened, but he remained blithe, unfazed. “Oh! How funny. I had no idea. I thought perhaps there was a wedding or baptism.”


Excerpted from Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan, by Ted Scheinman, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux this March. Copyright ©2018 by Ted Scheinman.  All rights reserved.

Portions of this book were published, in their early stages, on The Paris Review Daily.

Ted Scheinman is a writer and scholar whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Oxford American, The Atlantic, Slate, and a variety of other publications. He is based in Southern California, where he works as senior editor at Pacific Standard magazine.