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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

English majors attend Jane Austen Festival

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Six University of Southern Indiana English majors, two chaperones, and several fancy tea hats made a July visit to Louisville, Kentucky, for the annual Jane Austen Festival. Chelsea Barber, Lauren Ruggier, Amber Seibert, Allison Skillman, Alissa Tsaparikos, and Melissa Wagner arrived at Historic Locust Grove to find it transformed into Meryton, the fictional hometown of Pride and Prejudice's Bennet family. Shops hawking fabrics and horseshoes, parasols and blended teas, bonnets and buttons of the military persuasion appealed to Austen enthusiasts and historical reenactors alike. Barber purchased a spyglass, while Seibert found a parasol more to her liking.

Seibert liked the open air shopping and seeing ladies with their fans and parasols looking through fabrics, toys, and army supplies. A multi-purpose, one-stop shopping of the Regency era!

Throughout the day, students attended exhibits, performances, and workshops to fully immerse themselves in the Regency period. Wagner and Ruggier participated in a pincushion workshop to learn embroidery and needlepoint, authentic to the era.

As a group, the students attended Cheer from Chawton: A Jane Austen Family Theatrical, a performance of a Jane Austen biographical story, written and performed by Karen Eterovich. Students also attended a Dressing Mr. Darcy workshop led by reenactor Brian Cushing. He detailed the intricacies of nineteenth-century gentlemen's clothing. Students stopped at the gentleman's Hellfire Club and witnessed what happened in male-exclusive company in the Regency era, an opportunity no polite Regency lady would have had.

A Regency Ball led by the Louisville English Country Dancers and hosted by the Greater Louisville chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America was held at the Spalding University Center that evening. While period dress was not required, it was highly encouraged, and USI students attended in their best.

Tsaparikos tried Regency dances while she admits they were "a lot of fun and scary" at the same time, she loves Austen and the Regency era now more than ever.

Wagner said, "Experiencing what the people went through in everyday life and how early they started with learning embroidery and the intricate details of the dances made the characters I've read about amazing." At the end of the night, Skillman declared the ball "the novel of manners brought to life," particularly in the styling of the dress and the dances.

The next day, the students returned to Locust Grove for a four-course afternoon Irish tea. The ladies who hosted and served tea sandwiches explained the details of the event. Students enjoyed scones, and fresh-baked desserts as well as Austen-themed tea blends. Later the students learned about nineteenth-century medical and dentistry treatments from a living history exhibit, experienced domesticity in the living history exhibits inside of the historical Locust Grove residence, and Regency hairstyling by a professional theatrical wig designer.

Barber said she gained a greater appreciation for how literature affects the world, the world affects literature, and how literature becomes a mirror for the world.

Chaperone Mary Keck called watching USI English majors experience the Jane Austen Festival exhilarating. She said, "They're getting an experience with the period they wouldn't have otherwise. They're getting to dance the steps, be in the atmosphere where everyone is dressed in the outfits of the period."

Such an immersion furthers students' involvement with literature and the historical era in which it is written, and being in the company of fellow students and USI faculty deepens students' involvement with their university and regional community."

The Society for Arts and Humanities, who generously funded the students' attendance at the festival, helped these six USI students' as well as their two faculty chaperones' more fully understand Austen, her world, her literatures, and why her legacy lives on, two hundred years later.

Amy L. Montz is a major contributor to the article.

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