In words similar to “Pride and Prejudice:” It is a truth universally acknowledged, that where there is one Jane Austen fan, there are more.
700 more, to be exact.
Jane Austen has had an enduring hold on fans of literature for more than 200 years — remaining one of the most widely-read authors in history — and Williamsburg is not immune to the Austen enthusiasm.
In 2019, Williamsburg will host the nearly 700 Austen fans at the annual Jane Austen Society of North America conference.
The conference isn’t all, though.
While the excitement is growing for next year’s big event, fans of the author in Williamsburg have other opportunities to show their love for the popular female author — including a tea and ball that will be held on Sunday.
Since 2014, Amy Stallings, regional coordinator for the local chapter of the organization, has worked to make it more involved and help Austen fans in the community connect.
Stallings is feeling the pressure of planning such a large event, but her passion for Austen keeps her going.
“I feel there is a unique and appealing blend of good fun and good people, but also good information,” Stallings said. “The 20th century allows Austen to be categorized as romantic fantasy or chick lit, but she is so much more than that and these people recognize that.”
Austen was her introduction into a world of mentors and fun women, Stallings said. Stallings first joined the Austen Society at age 14 in Rochester, New York. Her chapter of the organization in Rochester was very active, and Stallings considers herself lucky to have meetings with women who were genial and well-informed.
“They were so willing to accept me. They took me under their wing and became my peer group,” Stallings said.
After moving to Williamsburg to attend William & Mary in 2002, Stallings joined the local chapter which, at the time, had a regional director splitting time between Scotland and Williamsburg. Stallings saw the opportunity to grow the chapter and make it as active as the one that had nourished her passion for Austen growing up.
Jenna Simpson, a member of the local chapter and board member of the Williamsburg Heritage Dancers, found that after moving here in 2005, the society has given her a space to connect with like-minded people and experience the fun that comes with loving Jane Austen.
Simpson has been to two national conferences since joining the organization in 2002, and looks forward to Williamsburg hosting it in 2019.
“There is something special about Williamsburg,” Simpson said. “It’s a place for dancers, for passionate people. Here, people can wear the elegant costumes that they’ve made themselves without it being out of the ordinary. It’s really an amazing sight to see.”
Simpson helps connect the chapter with the Williamsburg Heritage Dancers to pull together more of the community. Stallings credits the chapter’s success to connections between people and organizations.
Even though the conference is a year from now, Stallings plans to step down from her position as regional coordinator to have adequate time to plan for it. The conference will bring together scholars, historians, film critics, and Austen enthusiasts from all regions of North America.
The past few national conferences have sold out, Simpson said, and they are expecting this one in Williamsburg to have a similar turnout. Over the course of a weekend, attendees will come together to listen to lectures, take bonnet-making classes, and attend an extravagant ball at the end of the weekend.
Just what is it about Jane Austen that brings all of these people together?
For many, the answer varies, but Stallings and scholars alike agree that Austen’s talent for painting human nature through her writing still strikes a chord with readers today.
“She is a literary survivor for a reason. Austen is an excellent depictor of human character, and at the same time makes readers laugh,” Stallings said. “Jane Austen is for everybody.”