As many of you as Jane Austen in Vermont blog readers know, The Governor’s House in Hyde Park, Vermont offers Jane Austen weekends throughout the year (you can visit their website to see upcoming events). This past August Innkeeper Suzanne B. held another of her annual Character Weekends, wherein participants are to choose an Austen character from any of her works [alas! only one of each character allowed – who could take an entire weekend with not only one but perhaps FIVE of a fawning Mr. Collins! And one chatty Miss Bates is certainly enough ….] and play the role all weekend, through all the various activities of reading, chatting, needlework, writing, eating, dancing, horse adventures, and sport [the likes of archery and fencing!] – perhaps only giving up the role for a few hours of contented sleep!
This year a full-weekend I could not do, so I went for several hours on the Saturday and had the pleasure of chatting with the various characters, practicing a bit of archery, watching fencing matches, eating a sumptuous Regency-era meal, and dancing the night away with Val and Tom of the Burlington Country Dancers. I came home well-satisfied indeed, and in Jane’s own words, “[I] smiled & whispered to [myself] ‘This [was] a day well spent.’”
One of the guests was Tess Quinn, who recently wrote a post on this blog about her experience at the Jane Austen Festival in Louisville – Tess has kindly offered to write another post about her weekend here in Vermont, along with many fine pictures! Thank you Tess for sharing this with us! [and it was great to see you again!]
How often have Jane Austen readers wished they could experience Regency life as her protagonists do – at least the romanticized notion of it we derive from her books? I can’t be the only one, or there would not be such a market for the myriad books published that deal with Austen fans, disillusioned with modern society, who suddenly find themselves transplanted in time and place to inhabit the body of an Elizabeth Bennet (e.g. Lost in Austen) or some other early 19th century character – for a day, a month or an eternity. These books and films appeal because, for a little while, they take us away from mortgage payments and term papers and our children’s math homework; they sweep us off into a world our imaginations sketch as more genteel, more polite, less frenetic – more romantic.
Yes, literary time travel has huge appeal, no matter the book genre or historical era in question. Readers well versed in Jane Austen’s society as depicted in her books must ‘experience’ the Regency in their imaginations; for as far as I know, a working time travel machine has not yet been perfected. We cannot practically turn the clock back two hundred years… or can we?
I recently vacationed in Vermont where we came close to doing just that! The Governor’s House at Hyde Park formed a distinguished setting for a gathering of ladies to come together and experience Jane Austen’s era for themselves—or rather, by adopting the personas of her characters for a few days. The Governor’s House (formerly belonging to the gentleman who provided its name, and now a bed and breakfast inn) was built in the Victorian era but as a reproduction of a Colonial house. As such, it reflects both periods in its ambience, yet gives one enough of the ‘feel’ of bygone days to transport one’s mindset to Regency England.
Governor’s House in Hyde Park, Vermont,
the setting for a Jane Austen Character Weekend,
and the whole of the experience was delightful.
We gathered first on Friday evening for introductions, each participant in turn describing something of her background until correctly identified. Most of the books were represented. Present were Elizabeth Bennet and her aunt Mrs Gardiner, along with Miss Charlotte Lucas. Anne Elliot attended in the company of her sister, Mary Musgrove and her friend, Lady Russell; as well as a recently-arrived tenant of Kellynch Hall, Mrs Croft. Eleanor Tilney appeared quite affable in the absence of her father the General. And Emma Woodhouse came, being in company with both her former governess, Mrs Weston and her nemesis, Mrs Elton; as well as a most entertaining trio – Miss Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates and the elder Mrs Bates, the latter making her presence felt all the weekend though she uttered not a word.
Introductions accomplished, we became friends over refreshments, followed by moving to the card tables for an evening of Whist. I was grateful to find myself at one of the less competitive tables; we did not play deep, but we laughed deeply.
As most of us had travelled long that day, we retired after a few rounds, but gathered early on Saturday for breakfast in order to make the most of the day’s activities. We began with a most excellent fencing master, Vivica Fox, who after providing us some historical information on the sport, led the group through the proper positions and stretching exercises.
Throughout the morning, then, Miss Fox gave private lessons to each of us who ventured so boldly. The moves appear so graceful and natural when one observes accomplished fencers; but after many attempts to combine form, technique and strategy all at once in lunges, parries and ripostes, my best accomplishment was a greater appreciation for the skill and difficulty involved. I was highly intrigued by my session, however, and would love to continue my training.
While several took advantage of the individualized fencing lessons, others of us moved to the back garden to take up bows for archery.
I am delighted (relieved) to report that a grand time was had by all, the target often was struck, and no dogs were dispatched.
The morning had begun with a fine hot sun which continued throughout our activities; fans and parasols were employed assiduously. A number of our party, after archery, chose to retire to the shade of a large porch with their books or embroidery, rather than be kept in a continual state of inelegance.
But for some, a short journey to a horse farm brought the next adventure: learning to drive a gig!
The head groom very graciously allowed us to assist in harnessing Judge, an extraordinarily gentle animal (one could hardly call him a beast) – although of course, as ladies we would never perform this task for ourselves in the usual manner of things. We then began by walking Judge around the paddock. This was to become accustomed to working with him, especially for any of us who were no horsewomen. Once each had achieved some comfort with the reins, a lovely small carriage was attached and off we went through a park land of varied prospects. (I must confess that I saw little but the posterior of the horse in my turn, so concerned was I lest I steer poorly and hit a post which might have overturned us.)
Just as we bid adieu to our mount and made to leave, another group from our party arrived for a carriage ride. We bade them a lovely tour and made our way back to the Governor’s House. There we enjoyed a light fare set out by our hostess – since we had breakfasted so early – to tide us over until the dinner hour.
The last hours of our morning were passed again in satisfying retirement on the back porch; for as we all know, to sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment. Some ventured to trundle a hoop, or play the Graces. Most found contentment in a cool libation and the company of clever, well-informed people who had a great deal of conversation – the best company!
Quite soon, it seemed, the time came to dress for dinner and we dispersed to don our fashions.
Our repast for the evening was a full course, enlivened by so much entertaining discourse and laughter that we all remained at the table right up until the arrival of visitors who had been invited to join us for the hour of tea! Mr and Mrs Bennet with their daughter Lydia were presented, the latter immediately pronouncing that what the party required for success was… dancing!
Of course, all were amenable to this particular proposal! Immediately, furniture was shifted and carpets rolled and removed, the music struck up and Mrs Bennet, an accomplished English Country Dance caller (sometimes peculiarly addressed as Val Medve), led us through an evening of dances with only a short ‘supper break’ to regain our breath. Most invigorating, indeed!
When finally the night ended, few I think did not drift into sleep the moment they fell into their beds.
Sunday dawned as bright and promising as had the previous day. Following our breakfast, some of the party went off to ride, others for a lengthy turn about the estate (such prospects to enjoy) and still others preferred the sedentary nature of their work in the elegant parlour. But soon activity called once more.
Since letters are the lifeblood of communication in the world we were visiting, we learned to cut our own quill pens and then practice our hand, writing letters on parchment. No blotting here! And following this, we employed our fingers in an alternative manner – in learning to tat with yet another master of the art. I should like to boast of having made the sample you see below; but in truth I had not the talent. My fingers did not fly through the string with anything like accomplishment. This is indeed one art in which no excellence can be achieved without constant practice.
Sunday noon found us gathering around the dining table for the last time together. A lovely luncheon may have passed serenely but for the introduction of one final pastime, one perhaps not quite of the Regency period but relating to it. It was a Quiz! Questions to test our newly-experienced knowledge of Regency life. Our hostess had gone to some effort to challenge us and had risen admirably to the occasion. I would like to say we responded in kind; and so I will. Our answers as a rule, when we discussed them collectively, were creative, humorous, clever and entertaining. What matter if they were seldom correct?
This capstone event marked the end of our journey to Jane Austen’s time. When we had laughed our fill, ladies slowly drifted off to supervise the packing of their trunks by their maids. All ventured fare wells to friends old and new amid the exchange of addresses and promises to post pictures at facebook. (Whatever can they have meant by such strange speech?)
I retired to my room as I would not leave until the following morning. There my mind was most agreeably engaged in meditating on the very great pleasure which a gathering of fine characters from the pages of Miss Austen’s novels can bestow.
About the Author: Tess Quinn (a nom de plume) read Pride and Prejudice years ago at the age of thirteen, and has been hooked on Jane Austen – and Mr Darcy, unsurprisingly – ever since. She has read all the novels multiple times and doesn’t plan to stop any time soon. Some time ago she was introduced to Austen-based fan fiction and, unsatisfied with some of the depictions and approaches, took up her own pen to try to carry on beloved characters in a manner consistent with Miss Austen’s originals. In 2011, her first short story was published in an anthology called A Road to Pemberley. With that encouraging milestone she is hoping shortly to publish another anthology, all her own stories, tentatively titled Pride Revisited. She has two completed P&P based novels (awaiting final edits and a willing publisher); and is nearing completion on her own darling child, a retelling of P&P from Georgiana Darcy’s perspective.
Tess, in her lovely evening dress, is on the left; do you agree that Mrs. Elton is looking rather miffed?? – perhaps we have caught her unawares displaying her displeasure at not being first into the dining room …