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.