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I Think of it as a Mom-oir

A Conversation
Ted Scheinman & Deborah Knuth Klenck (His Mom)

Img 0396  1 Ted Scheinman with his sister and mother, Deborah Knuth Klenck, at Jane Austen's grave at the Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, United Kingdom (1992)

When I began to write a short book about attending a Jane Austen summer camp, I did not anticipate how much the resulting book would be about my mother. In retrospect, it could hardly have been otherwise. After all, I was supposed to be writing a personal account of the secret world of the Jane Austen superfans, known as the ″Janeites,″ and Mom is, by definition, the first Janeite that I ever met.

A professor at Colgate University since 1978, Mom has been involved with the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) since giving a paper at their annual meeting in New York in 1987. Her devotion to Austen goes back much further, to her childhood and the little Austen hardcovers she borrowed from her father. As a kid I read very little Austen, but I knew that my mother loved her and I admired my mother for this love. The novels seemed to promise transport to a realm of refinement and wisdom, and I wanted to go there with her.

When you write a nonfiction book in which your mom is a main character, it’s only fair to give her a chance to weigh in publicly. Mom has read the whole manuscript and allowed me to include some simple details—essential to the plot, we both agreed—pertaining to her bad knees (both have been replaced) and good taste (when she needs to use a cane, she uses a very stylish one). At the moment, Mom is stationed in London, teaching a study abroad group from Colgate University, as she has done many times before. (When we were children, my sister and I accompanied our parents to London, and attended English schools. Sometimes, we even visited Austen’s grave in Winchester.) Mom and I spoke via Skype recently to discuss our family’s long-running relationship with Austen, the question of Henry Crawford’s guilt, and why scholarly dignity is overrated.

“I remember you lying on the couch when you were thirteen, reading Mansfield Park, and you looked up and said, 'Well, Henry Crawford's certainly barking up the wrong tree if he thinks he's gonna marry Fanny Price.' And then you went back to reading. ”

Deborah Knuth Klenck

[Ted Scheinman]: Hi Mom, it’s nice to hear your voice. We’re supposed to discuss this book I’ve written, in which you figure prominently. Where should we begin?

[Deborah Knuth Klenck]: I suppose I may have told you that I was totally expecting you to be a girl when you were born, and it was like someone had played a practical joke on me when you came out a boy. I hadn’t had a scan or anything, and it was a total surprise! You were going to be named Jane, and someone had given me a pair of hand-knitted white booties she had made, with little blue ribbons. I had bought pink ribbons to restring the booties, and brought them with me to the hospital. I guess it was everybody’s assumption that you’d be a girl because I came from a family of four girls.

TS: I had forgotten that I was supposed to be a girl! Maybe I should’ve begun the book that way: “I was meant to be born a girl named Jane.”

DKK: Well, you were expected to be born a girl named Jane. I don’t know why exactly.

TS: That’s like an alternate beginning to a Dickens novel.

DKK: But instead you were a boy, and you grew up with Wodehouse and Shakespeare and Austen in the air. If you went to your grandparents’ house and it was raining, Grandma and Grandpa put on a gazillion episodes of Brideshead Revisited for you. I remember you lying on the couch when you were thirteen, reading Mansfield Park, and you looked up and said, “Well, Henry Crawford’s certainly barking up the wrong tree if he thinks he’s gonna marry Fanny Price.” And then you went back to reading.

TS: I’m glad I had at least some sense of what was going on in that fictional world. I must admit that at thirteen I felt like I was coming to Austen belatedly.

DKK: I don’t know that I’d necessarily call it belated, but you began reading Dickens earlier, certainly. You were also imitating these writers—and Oscar Wilde. You wrote a sort of mock-Edwardian play about two guys who lean their elbows on the chimney-piece and drink sherry while shooting their cuffs and things like that. I don’t even know where that came from.

TS: Oh yeah, I remember that. Somehow I got a lot of people from my seventh-grade class to come to the house and perform it.

DKK: Yes! So—

TS: And I think it hinged on them getting violently drunk at one point.

DDK: Oh yes, it did! But they were getting drunk on sherry, which—well, just hearing about it gave me a headache.

TS: Of Austen’s characters, who most closely resembles you?

DKK: I suppose I always thought I was Elizabeth Bennet, which is why I could understand when she’s horrified that her best friend Charlotte Lucas has done this awful thing [by getting married]. She realizes she has misunderstood this woman all along; she thought they were in agreement about everything. The disillusionment that they could never be friends again—all of that I felt incredibly acutely when I was a teenager. Maybe every girl wants to be Elizabeth Bennet and her husband to be Darcy! But, as the oldest girl, I was pretty bossy and probably more resembled Mrs. Norris.

TS: Set the scene for me. How did the young Deborah read Jane Austen?

DKK: I don’t think I had to do any Austen in school until our senior year, in AP English. But I had re-read her a lot, especially Pride & Prejudice. I would read all the time in bed. I had a little portable gramophone, and I had some records I had bought with my own money for $2.99, and one of them was Guiomar Novaes playing Chopin’s Nocturnes. I played that record all the time while reading Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen—stuff like that. Over and over, that was my adolescence. It’s why I wasn’t on any sports teams.

TS: But you also had boyfriends and stuff.

DKK: Oh yeah, no, this is probably in my early teens, I guess before there were boyfriends.

TS: Did Austen enter into your thinking as you began to select boyfriends?

DKK: Maybe unconsciously. I put a premium on wit over looks or height or any of the other things you look at for boyfriend qualities.

“In the end, I really think that it is your memoir and it isn't about me. Except it sort of is. I guess I think of it as a mom-oir. ”

Deborah Knuth Klenck

TS: With Austen, wit can be sort of double-edged. You can’t always trust it! You have Crawford, who’s awfully witty, and you have—

DKK: But there’s also just plain old nonsense that’s clever for rhetorical reasons, and Austen was fond of clever-sounding nonsense—

TS: The juvenilia?

DKK: I was just about to say the juvenilia!

TS: You know Austen too well.

DKK: I know you too well. There’s that hysterical scene by the fireside in Love & Freindship [sic], you know, that you write about in your book. In that scene there is no content, it’s only style, and it’s really just hysterically funny. It’s funny because of the style, it would seem to me, rather than the content. It’s kind of like “Jabberwocky,” where there’s enough syntactical sense for something to be comprehensible at the same time that it is essentially incomprehensible because it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s fun!

TS: It seems relevant to mention you’re in London right now, studying with all women.

DKK: Yes! I happen to have ten women students in my study group this time, and we’ve just finished reading Mansfield Park in one course. For the Restoration course, we did the commemorative march the last Sunday in January, in memory of the beheading of Charles I. We followed the path of the King’s Army reenactment group, and all the students came and took photographs, and then I took them to The Sherlock Holmes pub for lunch. They were charmed. This past Thursday we had our tour of Christopher Wren churches in the City of London, and that’s the model for all the tours that they’re going to do themselves when they lead a study of the Hogarths at Sir John Soane’s Museum, or of the period dress exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, or whatever they choose. It was cold and it was windy and everybody was totally game about it.

TS: And how many of these study groups have you led?

DKK: This is seven. The first one was 1985, when I was pregnant with you.

TS: How is this batch of college students enjoying Mansfield Park?

DKK: We’re about to have The Henry Crawford Conversation. The last time I taught this novel, there was almost a fist-fight in my classroom about whether Henry Crawford could’ve been redeemed if he’d married Fanny Price, or if he was an inherently evil person. They were a great class because they took this task seriously. Anyone who says, “I want to make a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart”—I don’t think Henry Crawford can be redeemed if he likes to go around making holes in people’s hearts, you know, as a break from shooting birds.

That brother-sister collusion is not like anything else I can think of in Austen; Austen really set out to create a contrast with what she called the “light, bright, and sparkling” Pride & Prejudice, and that’s one reason it feels so Victorian. When Fanny says to herself about Henry Crawford, “O, what a corrupted mind, “ you think to yourself, “Oh Fanny, you’re a prig.” But actually priggishness comes out okay in that novel because it’s really being put up against serious evil. But that’s not a conversation that I usually foster in my classrooms because I’m interested in other stuff; I have much too deep an interest in every single awful thing Mrs. Norris says and does. I have to keep sitting on my hands to avoid going off about Mrs. Norris.

TS: Let me ask you now about your first experiences at a Janeite ball, before and after you wore the clothes. What was most striking or funny to you?

DKK: I thought it was kind of silly. My first conference was the one at the Waldorf Hotel that focused on the juvenilia. And thereafter I gave talks at a variety of conferences in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in Lake Louise, Alberta, and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I didn’t dress up for any of those. When I went to the one I went to in Philadelphia—I brought [my husband] Tom with me to that one, his mind was completely boggled by women going around all day in these costumes. But it’s probably my age, I think, that I decided in the last five years I didn’t have to assert my scholarly dignity anymore. I could just be a person, I could just be a fan, and that didn’t mean I was selling myself short in any way. I probably would’ve been too self-conscious to do it before that!

TS: Do you enjoy Austen conferences more when you wear the costume?

DKK: I do. I had this conversation with Jocelyn Harris [the renowned Austen scholar from New Zealand] because we were both wearing costumes but sitting out at the last Jane Austen Summer Program. She, purportedly because she didn’t know the dances, and I because my back hurt too much. But I’ve been in a compromised physical condition ever since I started wearing the costume, so I haven’t been able to get the full value of the dances. That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to as I recover from these latest interventions in my skeletal system: that I’ll be able to wear my costume and actually use it somehow in the dancing.

TS: Will we get to see you do that in June?

DKK: I’m hopeful, yeah! It would be a real milestone if that were the case. You get really good lessons at the summer program and you don’t have to pay extra for them. If I can remember those dance figures the way I remember rhetorical figures, that’d be a nice thing!

TS: Will you save me a dance?

DKK: Oh, if you’re coming, well, yeah of course. Yes, sir, indeed! Though I’ve gotta be extra careful because [my sister] Jane is getting married in July and I don’t want to appear at that wedding propped up on a cane.

TS: Are you at all self-conscious about appearing as a character in a book, or about your portrayal?

DKK: Well, it’s odd to read so much about one’s own knees, but it’s not my book; it’s truthful, and I think it’s very sweet. In the end, I really think that Camp Austen is your memoir and it isn’t about me. Except it sort of is. I guess I think of it as a mom-oir.


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Camp Austen

FSG Originals, 2018

A Paris Review Staff Pick and one of The Millions' Most Anticipated Reads of March

A raucous tour through the world of Mr. Darcy imitations, tailored gowns, and tipsy ballroom dancing

The son of a devoted Jane Austen scholar, Ted Scheinman spent his childhood eating Yorkshire pudding, singing in an Anglican choir, and watching Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy. Determined to leave his mother’s world behind, he nonetheless found himself in grad school organizing the first ever UNC-Chapel Hill Jane...

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