BY JANE MURPHY — “Elizabeth’s mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view.” This is how Elizabeth Bennet reacts to the elegant estate of Pemberley in Jane Austen’s 19th-century novel Pride and Prejudice. And on March 9, an excited group of Austen fans got a sense of what Elizabeth felt at Pemberley when they gathered to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the novel at the Riversdale House Museum.
Built between 1801 and 1807 and nestled in the heart of Riverdale Park, the local mansion served as a fitting backdrop to transport its visitors back to Austen’s time. But unlike Austen’s heroine, this group was eager for conversation.
They had come for the Austen Café, an event inspired by “The World Café,” a book by David Isaacs and Juanita Brown that outlines a way to foster community when hosting large-group discussions.
The process emphasizes intimate discussions in small groups, and then encourages participants to form new groups to “cross-pollinate” ideas, says organizer Audrey McLendon, a docent at Riversdale.
The format is “very participatory; everyone gets a chance to talk and give their opinion,” said McLendon. “So I love this, because I love to talk.”
Greeting the 27 attendees were women donned in period dress. These group leaders, made up of museum staff and volunteers, were there to help lead discussion and lend insight about the time period. One of them was Education and Administration Assistant Maria Grenchik, who also happens to be an avid Austen fan and member of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
As the (mostly female) group settled in with coffee, tea and pastries, Grenchik took the floor to present a clip of the BBC miniseries adaptation of the novel before asking the small groups to discuss the concept of “an accomplished woman” in the novel.
After 10 minutes, the attendees had to get up from their seats and change tables to form new groups. This time the topic broadened to include other accomplished women of Jane Austen’s time. After a third change, the participants were asked to determine what it means to be an accomplished woman today.
The multi-generational crowd offered differing perspectives. Tara Benedetti, a 2006 graduate of the University of Maryland, lent her thoughts as a young professional. Another participant, Marsha Howes, explained her own experience as a mother during the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s.
Discussions varied among tables, but focused on how expectations for women have changed now that women have more rights under the law and economic opportunities. Most agreed that life has gotten better for women, but some argued that life has gotten more difficult for the fairer sex, now that they are faced with more responsibilities and decisions while dealing with many of the same age-old hardships of Austen’s time.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when everyone gives an opinion, disagreement is inevitable. McLendon cautioned, therefore, to treat these opposing opinions as “new information” and “[see] it through someone else’s eyes.”
If you visit Riversdale house and take a tour, you’ll discover that it has been an attraction since it was first built. “This wasn’t the grandest house in Maryland,” said McLendon, quoting a letter written by the original owner, “but it was European, and everybody wanted to come and see the European house.”
And, now that many rooms are restored back to what they originally looked like, the Riversdale House Museum offers American Jane Austen fans a chance to step into a facsimile of her world.
“We think the program worked well,” said Grenchik afterwards. “There are many Austen-related anniversaries coming up in the next few years, so we will certainly be having more Austen-[themed] events.”