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Pittsburgh’s 3rd Jane Austen Festival marks author’s lasting appeal

Michael Machosky
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Michele Senko
Participants dance in the style of the era Jane Austen wrote about at a previous Jane Austen Festival.
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Michele Senko
Men and women don their Regency era finery for Pittsburgh's Jane Austen Festival.
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Michele Senko
The day-long Jane Austen Festival will feature speakers, period music, food and vendors.

Conquering the world is a tall order, even with vast armies at your disposal.

Try doing it with only wit, charm and a Regency bonnet.

Jane Austen is tougher than she looks.

“What I appreciate is that she’s very, very funny, and the second is that she has quite a bite to her,” says Allison Thompson, president of the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. “It’s not purely comic, and it’s not pure romance — it’s some sophisticated social commentary. The final thing is the extraordinary purity of her language that sets her off from her competitors, both back then and now.”

The cult of Jane Austen — pioneering novelist and peerless observer of her times — is certainly not new. But these days, it seems to be everywhere.

Case in point, this weekend is Pittsburgh’s third Jane Austen Festival, with the theme “On the Road With Jane Austen: Travel, Translation and Transformation.” It’s a recognition that Austen’s books (and their film adaptations) have an appeal that seems to go way beyond typical English majors and historical-dress enthusiasts.

Even India has found Austen. The festival kicks off with a screening of “Bride and Prejudice” (2005) at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont. It’s a Bollywood take on Austen — imagine “Pride and Prejudice” starring Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai, with lots of choreographed dancing, singing and elephants.

“The story itself is easily transplanted to a variety of cultures,” Thompson says. “It works well in Indian culture, because it’s also caste or rank-oriented culture. The fact that Mr. Darcy is of a higher rank than the girls is very believable.

“We wanted to look at travel. There’s this image that Jane never traveled much. She did move around a fair bit (in England), and her brothers traveled around the world. Some speakers will talk about how fashions traveled from India and the Middle East to England.”

But Austen’s popularity isn’t that new.

“The fact is, she’s been popular for well over 100 years, but her hard-core fans — the Janeites — liked to think they were very exclusive in admiring her work,” says Linda Troost, a professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College, and co-editor of the book “Jane Austen in Hollywood.”

“The films, especially the two adaptations of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ the one with Colin Firth and the other with Keira Knightley (2005) — changed that. They propelled Austen into super-stardom and abolished the snob element.”

Austen’s iconic characters have become so familiar, that it’s easy to forget how original her writing was at the time.

“She was a genius, and she really shaped the modern English novel,” Thompson says. “Her competitors were writing Gothic romances … with overblown language, amazing coincidences. She set the tone for change in the English novel.

“Stylistically, she had a cleaner, purer language — and was the first to be writing about ordinary people and ordinary circumstances, two or three families in a country village. They remain relatable, while the medieval romances are no longer (so).”

The film adaptations often take plenty of liberties with the characters and tone of her stories.

“Contemporary manners and mores do impact Austen adaptations,” Troost says. “Austen’s novels have plenty of sex in them, but her attitude toward it is not like our own today. She is less preoccupied by it and less sympathetic toward those who lack self-control. Second, we are less tolerant of the shy, retiring, physically fragile heroine than Austen was. Austen has a couple of these, and films have to enhance their spunkiness if they are to sell in the 21st century. Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse don’t need much enhancement, but Anne Elliot in ‘Persuasion’ does. Also Fanny Price in ‘Mansfield Park.’

“Finally, we are more sympathetic to mushy romanticism than Austen was. Marianne Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ gets a fair amount of satire aimed at her in the novel; that’s really toned down in the 1995 film (where she’s played by Kate Winslet). Instead, she’s highly sympathetic. Many of my students strongly identify with her, a fact Austen would have been very sorry to learn.”

For super-fans who really get into it, the festival will host an English Country Assembly Ball, with many coming in full Regency-period dress, at the iconic 19th-century Pittsburgh Athletic Association in Oakland. There’s also a daylong festival with food, period music and speakers on subjects like “On the Road With Austen: Latin America” and “Empires of Fashion: Global Influences on Women’s Clothing in Austen’s England.”

Thompson has written extensively about Jane Austen fandom, and she has an article coming out in the United Kingdom: “Crafting Jane: Handmade homages and their makers.”

Even Jane Austen fandom was ahead of its time. The ultimate contemporary fan tribute is to write your own stories, set in the world of your favorite author-filmmaker.

“I’ll be talking about the first translation of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ into French from 1817,” Thompson says. “The writer didn’t like the end of the book, so she rewrote it. It represents the first fan fiction.”

Visitors are expected from as far away as Florida and Nova Scotia, though most will likely be members of the very active local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (janeaustenpgh.org).

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7901.

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