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Energized by a lively series on “Race and the Regency,” “Bridgerton” buzz and an interactive murder mystery, the Jane Austen Summer Program makes its virtual debut.

Photo shows a black and white pic of Jane Austen on a purple background with the words "Virtually Yours" at the top.

Last summer, fans of the 19th-century author of “Pride and Prejudice” and several other novels reluctantly packed away their Regency ball gowns for another year. Carolina’s popular Jane Austen Summer Program had to cancel its annual four-day literary summer camp because of COVID-19 restrictions.

But the program is back this summer, virtually, and its organizers have spent the past year building interest in it through a series of free online programs on timely topics through its Jane Austen & Co. arm. Hundreds of viewers from around the world have been tuning in for “Race and the Regency,” drawn in by serious discussions of race and slavery as well as talk about “Bridgerton,” the frothy Netflix romance series set in an alternate, racially integrated Regency society.

“We like to make it fun and make it collaborative. We keep it from being snooty or too academic by having all sorts of people involved in the planning,” said the program’s co-founder Inger Brodey, associate professor of English and comparative literature in the College of Arts & Sciences and director of the Office of Distinguished Scholarships.

This year’s summer program (June 17-20) will be virtual and won’t include such in-person activities as the pub crawl or the Regency ball. But it will also cost about one-fourth as much as past years ($95) and will offer two original dramas and an interactive murder mystery. Participants can also order an optional package of supplies for workshops on handwriting and how to make turbans, tea, scones and other treats. The deadline for early bird registration is April 1.

This year’s theme is “Jane Austen’s World,” focusing on the author’s life as revealed in “Jane Austen’s Letters,” edited by Deirdre Le Faye, and Claire Tomalin’s biography, “Jane Austen: A Life.”

“It’s our first time not having fiction as the main topic, but it’s giving us a chance to really play into our strength in terms of material and cultural history surrounding her work,” Brodey said.

Graphic shows facts like 19 years: Largest Age Gap in Jane Austen's main couples; 500 pounds: the Dashwood's annual income; 1871, year Austen's novel "Lady Susan" was published; etc.
An excerpt from “Jane Austen by the Numbers” blog entry on Jane Austen & Company website.

Sense and sensibilities

Inspired by the Jane Austen Society of North America and The Dickens Universe, whose conferences draw large scholarly and non-scholarly audiences, Brodey and fellow English literature professor James Thompson founded the Jane Austen Summer Program in 2012.

Austen was an easy choice because she has remained so widely popular, with well-known novels never out of print that have been adapted into several movies and mini-series. They have even inspired such modern retellings as “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (“Pride and Prejudice”), “Clueless” (“Emma”) and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

“She inspires such devotion in readers and interest among scholars both. So it’s an easy way to start this kind of an event because there is such a natural affinity. We wanted to use Austen as a way of building this kind of community,” Brodey said.

Held during the K-12 summer break, the program also encourages middle school and high school teachers to attend, offering them scholarships and training for teaching Austen’s novels in their classes. “The schools are only requiring one older author, and that’s Shakespeare,” Brodey said. “I really wanted to use Austen as a way of teaching about literature and her period and also growing literacy to produce the next generation of Austen fans and scholars.”

Jane Austen & Co.

In 2019, Brodey and Anne Fertig, doctoral student in English literature, co-founded Jane Austen & Co. to offer free public humanities programming the rest of the year.

“The goal originally was to have book groups centered around female authors who wrote contemporaneously with Jane Austen, using Jane Austen as an entry point for learning more about other women who wrote in that period,” Fertig said. She scheduled five events in partnership with Durham Public Libraries, completing four of them before the local pandemic shutdown. The program made the switch to virtual programming in June 2020 with “Food, Family and Identity,” an online Q&A session with two Asian American authors who wrote Austen-inspired novels.

Next, they created their first online series for the pandemic period, the appropriately themed “Staying Home with Jane Austen.”

“The idea was that it was going to focus on aspects of daily life and women’s labor during the Regency period,” Fertig said. A broad range of speakers addressed topics such as the food, dress, dance, music, games and crafts of Austen’s era, as well as themes in a creative writing contest.

In 2021, they developed “Race and the Regency,” a nine-part series exploring the role of race, nationalism, identity and representation in Austen’s writing and in Austen-inspired works today. Co-sponsored with Chapel Hill Public Library, the series is funded by a Critical Issues Project Fund grant from Carolina’s Humanities for the Public Good initiative.

Kicking off the series was a presentation on an infamous English court case in which a company attempted to collect money, as property loss, for enslaved people the crew had cruelly thrown overboard. Danielle Christmas, assistant professor of English and comparative literature, had given the talk “‘Mansfield Park’ and the Slave Ship Zong” at a previous summer program and joined Jane Austen & Co. as a co-host of the series.

“We were all really impressed by it and really moved by it, so we thought that would be our anchor for the program,” Brodey said of Christmas’ presentation. “And we just have a fantastic roster, once again, a mix of scholars, authors and cultural critics outside of the academy.”

Topics include discussions on “Abolition and the Female Consumer” and “The Black Woman in 19th Century Studies,” as well as a modern remix of “Pride and Prejudice” set in gentrified Brooklyn and two talks related to the popular “Bridgerton” series.

The first of these, “Representations of Race in ‘Bridgerton’ and the Regency,” drew 600 registrants from five continents. The April 13 presentation on “Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte” will address the portrayal, inspired by some who claim that the historic queen may have had “Moorish” ancestors.

Brodey acknowledges that this online programming has been a great way to give so many participants access via Zoom to international speakers. But the summer program will be capped at 220, even virtually. “We really want to have that intimate aspect of small discussion groups so we don’t lose the character of the event,” she said.

And, while they toyed with the idea of a dancing demonstration online, they decided that the summer program’s signature closer didn’t translate as a virtual experience. So, the Regency ball, once again, is cancelled. Pack up the ball gown and the dance card for the next time.

Early bird registration for the Jane Austen Summer Program ends April 1. The winner of a creative writing contest — a 500- to 1,000-word adaptation of the first scene or chapter of “Pride and Prejudice,” due May 10 — receives free admission to the summer program. Recorded presentations for both virtual series are available online.

By Susan Hudson, The Well

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