To all y'all, from all us - the podcast season 2
A year of Jane Austen. A future of Jane Austen
We are saying goodbye to 2021, and hello to 2022.
So this post is a look ahead to what’s coming, and a brief look back on highlights from this year here at the Austen Connection.
And most of all, thanks to each of you. If you are getting this as a letter, it means you are part of this Austen Connection family that has been such a highlight of this year for us. And if you are not yet signed up, you can sign up for free here:
As many of you know, this project was begun out of the quiet of the pandemic lockdown, for conversation and community around something that matters. As it turns out, there is so much that matters in Jane Austen’s stories - as we have said many times, these stories connect to us today, and connect us to each other. They are stories about history, equity, marginalization, hypocrisy, cruelty, humanity, and finding resilience and love and joy in the midst of it all.
This project began about eight months ago (not including about four months’ ramp-up time before our first publication in April) with the aspiration of exploring some of this - partly to see if it were indeed true. And the conversations we’ve had this year have revealed that this and more is all very much part of excavating the stories of Austen. And what is also clear to us writing at this year’s end, is that there is so much more to excavate.
As we wrap up this year, the conversations and analysis of so many wonderful Austen writers and scholars are very much in mind; but what’s also in mind are the many scholars and analysts and creators that we’ve yet to connect with.
As it turns out, there is so much that matters in Jane Austen’s stories - as we have said many times, these stories connect to us today, and connect us to each other. They are stories about history, equity, marginalization, hypocrisy, cruelty, humanity, and finding resilience and love and joy in the midst of it all.
Our dream list for future conversations is below, and below that, at the end of this post, hang around for two bonus book reviews - one from my Substack sister and engaging book-writer Elizabeth Held, the host of the newsletter What to Read If - check out a couple of bonus book reviews from us at the very end of this post.
But first, let’s take a breath and appreciate the wonderful conversations that have made up the Austen Connection podcast and posts in 2021.
Season 1 and Season 2 - this is not about climate, it’s about podcasts!
First, the podcasts: It’s hard to believe that we managed to squeeze in two podcast seasons in a few months.
Let’s look at the highlights, taking it backwards, starting with Season 2:
We kicked off Season 2 of the Austen Connection podcast in September, with playwright Sarah Rose Kearns, who spoke with us about “Comedy, Romance, Pleasure, Pain” in adapting Jane Austen’s Persuasion for the stage. Her play performed to sold-out crowds at NYC’s innovative off-Broadway Bedlam theater company in the autumn.
Next up in Season 2, we celebrated Halloween with Professor Maria DeBlassie, on “Finding your path through story, romance, magic and Jane Austen.” Dr. DeBlassie is a bruja and professor in New Mexico who teaches on the gothic romance genre and Northanger Abbey.
For episode 3, writer and educator Damianne Scott joined us to talk about “Jane Austen for the People” - and how through her Persuasion retelling, her teaching, and her popular Facebook group “Black Girl Loves Jane,” she challenges Austen fans to keep Austen “among the people,” and not on a pedestal no one can reach.
Author Uzma Jalaluddin joined us for episode 4 of the podcast - for a wonderful chat about her book Ayesha At Last, which puts the story of Pride and Prejudice in the Toronto neighborhood of her youth, and “Muslim romance right out of Jane Austen.”
And for episode 5, author Vanessa Riley talked with us on her book Island Queen, about unearthing untold histories and stories of Regency colonialism in her historic fiction, and “Regency women of color finding romance, making history.”
And we have a sixth episode coming up - with long-time New Yorker writer and Harvard professor Louis Menand. This was such a fun conversation - and you may have noticed we’ve been mentioning this one for weeks! It is on its way to your inbox soon, and it’s a great conversation, so stay tuned!
Back in the summer, when Austen Connection was a baby community just starting to walk, we rolled out the first podcast season, which featured author Soniah Kamal, The Ripped Bodice romance bookstore owners Leah and Bea Koch, Historian Gretchen Gerzina, Professor and Jane Austen & Co. co-host Danielle Christmas, and author and scholar Devoney Looser, and for our month in September on Everything Emma, we threw in a really fun bonus conversation with Professor George Justice.
These podcast conversations have deepened our views on literature, art, life, and Austen - and have also been a huge amount of fun and inspiration.
These podcast conversations have deepened our views on literature, history, art, life, and Austen - and have also been a huge amount of fun and inspiration.
You got lots of letters
But, there were also the posts. What exactly is a Substack post? It’s basically a letter. Or you might think of it as an essay.
For the Austen Connection, these posts are somewhere in between it all. If you are getting the newsletter in your inbox, you are essentially getting a first draft (mistakes and all!) of what is continually worked into, eventually, a sort of essay. This is a place and space created by this project for a sort of continuous working-out - of what’s going on in Austen, what it all means, and why it matters and connects to us today. (We’re probably not supposed to say this, but there are no real editors on this project - just one epistolary Plain Jane radio producer, one sister, two daughters and an enthusiastic Austen-reading niece to bounce ideas and occasional drafts off of - that’s why we really think of you, subscribers and letter-openers, as our Austen Connection family and your being here is truly valuable.)
One thing this year that was a pleasant surprise was the reactions and interactions and engagements with not only the actual podcasts, but also with the posts, or the letters. As a conversation producer and convener for the day job, we knew that the podcast episodes would reach an audience. What was surprising and very exciting was to find that the posts - the essays - have been even more engaging for you all. A couple of you have told us that they save the posts to savor in a quiet moment. That’s a wonderful way to engage with these conversations - whether through the podcast or the letters/posts.
This is a place and space created by this project for a sort of continuous working-out - of what’s going on in Austen, what it all means, and why it matters and connects to us today.
So, here are the top posts you as readers responded to:
Our biggest surprise of the year may have been when two posts went way out on a limb intellectually, to suggest that the novel Mansfield Park is a horror show, This one got more feedback and engagement than anything up to that point.
The other big post up to that point was the post about how Mansfield Park’s heroine Fanny Price is not as mousy as she seems, and in fact might be compared to a monster. These two posts received more feedback and engagement than any posts of the year up to that point. My prediction was that they would be puzzled over, and then ignored - but Fanny hit a nerve!
Another highlight of the year was to chat with Jane Austen biographer Claire Tomalin. We spoke during the lockdown where she was at home in the UK, enjoying her garden. Unfortunately, because of our limited tech setup for this one the audio quality was not great - but it was a wonderful conversation, and at some point we can release audio snippets from this conversation because she is a wonderful storyteller.
The truth is that every post, every week, gets more engagement and more “hits” than any other post so far, for the most part - and this is because of you, friends. You are engaging, and sharing, and getting in touch - and because of that this community is steadily growing. “Audience” is not at all the goal here - but conversation, and community is: So keep sharing what you see here, with your bookish friends and those in your life who are Austen fans, or should be Austen fans, and invite them to join this conversation.
Here we come, 2022: Heartbreak, regret, and ‘Persuasion’, you’re on
So, what’s coming? We are really excited about the conversations to come.
On the horizon, we’re diving deep into Persuasion, starting in January. This is one novel that I have been dreading. I just did not want to spend the time with the loss, regret, and disappointment that seeps off of the pages in Austen’s last completed novel. There is so much sadness, and to be brutally honest I have felt that it is not the space to be in during this time.
But we went there, friends - and here is a discovery that has arrived at the end of this year, and that we’ll take with us into the new year and this project: Where Jane Austen goes darkest and deepest, she also offers hope. And this is not because she is writing within the structure of comedy. It is also because she is a visionary - and she is constantly revisioning an alternative to the gothic and darkness and ordinary evils her stories portray, even through humor. Austen is also showing an alternative human - one that is kind, strong, equitable - and this kind of human makes a better leader. Add it all up and that makes a better society. If there’s one thing we’ve learned during this Jane Austen Year, it’s that Jane Austen shows us a more hopeful, better future.
So: Let’s embrace all that sadness and disappointment and nostalgia and regret in Persuasion - and our bleak winter January will celebrate it all, together, with topics we can’t wait to look into, including: about Bad-ass Sophie Croft, perhaps the most genuinely bad-ass character and also most bad-ass marriage in all of Austen; we’ll look at Anne Elliot and The Conversation, drawing from and “talking back to” the fascinating work of scholar Linda Bree; we’ll look at Anne’s Choice, and explore how it seems each of Austen’s heroines are faced with a key choice that provide pivotal plot points as well as subtle displays of agency, and pivotal take-home truths; and we’ll explore the meaning of Time, Mortality and Transcendence, drawing on work from two of our favorite Austen scholars, Nina Auerbach and Jocelyn Harris, as we explore this most soulful and romantic of Austen’s novels.
Coming up in February, wait for it - the theme we’ll tackle is: Bad Love.
We’ll examine Austen’s terrible couples, excavate what’s wrong and right about them, what’s absurd and hilarious about them, and search for any happy ones that defy the Austen universe. And maybe while wading through the mud we’ll find some romance and hope and joy along the way.
In the spring and summer, keep a lookout for a Season 3 of the podcast. We’ve absolutely no idea who we’re talking with, but we have a long list of dream guests.
Shall we share the list with you? This is not what producers do - but shall we?
Oh alright then, what the heck - you can keep your fingers crossed with us! (And also you can help us add to this list!)
Our Austen Connection podcast dream guest list includes: the brilliant Jocelyn Harris, whose deep study of Persuasion, A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression, has been our holiday reading. Also, the highly engaging UCL professor John Mullan, author of What Matters in Jane Austen. It’d be wonderful to speak with author Sonali Dev about her next novel The Emma Project when it’s out in the spring; and we plan to catch up with designer Jennyvi sometime around New York Fashion Week to talk about her approach to Jane Austen through fashion. Other dream guests include Andrew Davies (yes? Why not try!), perhaps Autumn De Wilde (tbh we tried this already and were ignored), and Julia Quinn just in time for Bridgerton (also tried and her team said they’d be interested, so fingers double-crossed). Also on the list is author Alexandria Bellefleur to talk about LGBT romance and her Pride and Prejudice retelling Written in the Stars and author Ibi Zoboi whose retelling Pride is a favorite among Austen readers.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned during this Jane Austen Year, it’s that Jane Austen shows us a more hopeful, better future.
So, friends: Who’s not on this list that you’d like to see land in your inbox from Plain Jane? Let us know, and we’ll add it to the guest list! We can’t make guarantees other than to say that we know there will be many exciting, surprising guests and conversations on the Austen Connection in 2022!
And, most of all - it is YOU that we are so happy to have with us. Your being here, and our being in this space together, is the most exciting thing about this project.
It is actually the goal - to convene, converse, and commune with a diverse group of minds and voices around the stories of Jane Austen.
So, most of all: Thank you for being here.
Have a wonderful, joyful, literary, and soulful holiday and new year. We look forward to the new year with you - we’ll be here, and we’re excited that you’re here too.
Yours now and yours in 2022,
Bonus: Book reviews, book clubs, and ‘What to Read If’
Elizabeth Held produces the newsletter What to Read If It lands in my inbox, and I look forward to the conversations about books that Elizabeth and her community are constantly engaged in.
As a new year’s gift for you all, Elizabeth and I are trading book reviews - with a Jane Austen theme, of course.
Here’s Elizabeth’s take on one of our favorite retellings:
Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘Eligible’
Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible, a modern-day Pride and Prejudice retelling with a reality show twist, is one of those books I'm always putting in people's hands. Eligible opens with Lizzie and Jane Bennet back in their parent's Cincinnati home, after their father suffers a heart attack. Jane quickly meets Chip Bingley, a handsome doctor fresh off a stint on a Bachelor-eque TV show, while Liz spars with neuroscientist Fitzwilliam Darcy. It's a charming and delightful tale — with one of the best croquet scenes of any book I've read — perfect for Austen fans and those who weirdly don't appreciate Austen.
-Elizabeth Held, What to Read If
Thank you, Elizabeth!
And, here’s my take, which will publish in an upcoming edition of What to Read If - on Jo Baker’s beloved Longbourn, which I first discovered when author Soniah Kamal mentioned in a panel discussion that it’s her favorite retelling. Having enjoyed Kamal’s Unmarriageable, I knew I had to go right away and get the book, which is what I did.
Jo Baker’s ‘Longbourn’
Jo Baker’s Pride and Prejudice retelling Longbourn is remarkable in at least two ways: It’s both a favorite retelling among the Janeites, and it’s also achieved acclaim as a work of literary fiction. Austen readers and P&P fans immediately recognize the setting of Longbourn as the name of the Bennet family home - made up of five sisters, including Austen heroine Elizabeth Bennet, and their parents, the unhappily married Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. But Baker’s story does a third, even more remarkable thing: It makes these seven family members of the Bennet household into minor characters, and grants Main Character status to the Longbourn household staff. This includes protagonist Sarah, a young houseworker who is intrigued by both the gallant, formerly-enslaved Ptolemy Bingley who works as head servant at the neighboring Bingley estate, and the handsome and mysterious James Smith. A choice - and love - is in Sarah's future. Jo Baker is an Oxford-educated novelist who was inspired to center the stories of the Regency servant classes because her own family ancestors worked in service. She says this viewpoint gives her a different framework for encountering the stories of Austen and Regency novels. And she gives us that framework too: Like the best in world literature, Longbourn is perspective-altering. But it’s also an intimate, soulful, and deeply romantic love story - worthy of Austen, and perfect for winter fireside reading.
You can see this and other reviews at What to Read If - join us there!
Also, during the winter I have enjoyed so many Zoom meetups. Many of you have convened at the excellent Jane Austen & Co. talks.
Two others that I’ve enjoyed include the Washington DC Public Library’s series Daughters of Jane book club happening by Zoom every third Tuesday; and the Rosenbach library’s Sundays with Jane Eyre book club that has something going on every single Sunday, by Zoom, with an impressive guest list.
Keep reading, convening, conversing, friends - and happy new year, from the Austen Connection!
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