By Sue-Anne Hess

Pandemics, power, and politicians. Was there ever a time when we were more fervently in need of a bit of time out? 24 Carrot’s Austen Con whisked us out of the pains of the 21st century and into the universe of muslin, mischief and matrimony – the world of Jane Austen.

Fans of Austen know that to fully appreciate her, you need a grounded understanding of the context from which her six famous works were produced. Fashion, etiquette, privilege, and strictly scrutinized social norms were the canvas upon which Austen painted her deeply relatable pictures of friendship, family, and romance. The Austen Con recreates this world (with a little help from modern technology) and further deepens our understanding of Austen’s genius.

A fully virtual event, the Austen Con hosted two simultaneous YouTube streams, offering a range of activities and presentations. Landscape art, paper piecing, cooking and regency dancing were among the activities on offer, as well as panel discussions and theatre performances.

Hilary Davidson’s presentation on the cultural context of regency fashion was worth the effort of a 9am start. Through this workshop, Davidson outlined the importance of the textile industry of the time, and highlighted how factors such as shipping, trade, and smuggling influenced the day-to-day attire of fashionable young ladies, such as Jane herself. While Austen’s stories were typically set in country England, Davidson illustrated how places such as the East Indies, China and France contributed to fashion for both men and women of the time.

In a similar way, Bonnet’s at Dawn provided an entertaining presentation on the topic of Austen’s literary references, providing insight into her most commonly cited authors. Heralding from Bristol and Chicago, Hannah and Lauren share a deep love of women’s literature, which was clear from their lively (if not slightly disorganised) conversation, and gave the event a warmly international feel.

One particular workshop stood out from the rest; Performing to Strangers: Reading Neurodivergence in Pride and Prejudice. Quite impressively, the two presenters gave a basic introduction of autism, an insight into the experience of it, and a thoroughly convincing interpretation of the behaviours of the aloof Mr. Darcy and the irritating Mr. Collins as consistent with neurodivergent experience –all in the space of 60 minutes! Presented by A_tistic, this conversation succeeded in both challenging the assumptions and prejudices of the time, as well as those that are still made to this day while remaining conversational, nonjudgmental and funny.

There’s no doubt, you would have to be a card-carrying “Austenite” to enjoy the Austen Con. I expect that, under different circumstances, a live event may have run more smoothly (especially the improvised theatre slot in the afternoon). Putting aside some forgivable multimedia glitches, Austen Con gave us all a day away from the woes of the world which, for this Austen fan, was a blessed relief!

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