A conversation with Joan Klingel Ray


Jane Austen for Dummies Joan Klingel Ray, Ph.D., is in her third term as President of the Jane Austen Society of North America, a title she will hold until December 2006. A native of New York City, she is a professor of English and a President’s Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Dr. Ray is the author of Jane Austen for Dummies, recently published by Wiley. The Editrix had the good fortune to meet Dr. Ray when she gave a (wonderful) presentation at the Editrix’s JASNA region last March, and she graciously agreed to put up with our Lady Catherine-like impertinence do an e-mail interview.

Getting to Know You

When and under what circumstances did you first read Jane Austen’s novels?

Like many an Austen reader, I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was about 13. I was at summer camp and loved the book at first read. I’ve re-read it many times. Pride and Prejudice is the most approachable of Austen’s novels in terms of its wonderful plot, hero, and heroine, and wondering if they will ever get together. But I did not read all of Austen’s works until I was in a grad course that lasted two semesters and included all the novels of JA. I think this was a great time to read them as I was then 22 and had developed a strong sense of irony, myself. Not that younger readers don’t read and appreciate Austen’s novels. But the older and more experienced in life and literature one becomes, the more one appreciates the full Austen–really a very sophisticated writer.

Which of her novels is your favorite, and why?

When I visited Philadelphia and stayed with Elizabeth (Steele, the Regional Coordinator), we found that we had the same two favorite Austen books and for the same reasons. Using Elizabeth’s words, “Pride and Prejudice is the book of my heart, while Emma is the book of my head.” Re Pride and Prejudice: I love the whole story-line of the way Elizabeth is too clever for her own good and so plays Miss Pert to Darcy, who is remarkably patient with her. I also admire the subtle way Austen presents Darcy–a way that misleads many readers and actors (or their scriptwriters!). Austen tells us that he enjoys conversation, that he smiles a lot at her, that he is–as I’ve already noted–remarkably patient with her, and that the wonderful smile Elizabeth sees on his face in the Pemberley portrait reminds her of the way he smiled at her. So Austen’s Darcy is not the dour, sullen Darcy that we normally see on the screen! This is part of Austen’s witty, subtle treatment of her character. Re Emma: I adore the Emma character because she means well so much of the time, but is so clueless almost all of the time. I love her true sorrow and chagrin for screwing things up. And I love the way Austen lays out the clues of Jane and Frank. When Emma, after realizing how wrong she was to think Elton liked Harriet, and thinking that she should be less clever, like Harriet, then recognizes that “‘It was rather too late in the day to set about being stupid and ignorant,'” I just hoot–sometimes in recognition of myself! Austen is at her most clever and mischievous in this book.

What is your favorite non-Austen reading–fiction or non? Any particular author or book that you particularly like?

I love reading the poetry of George Herbert, which appeals to me spiritually. I admire Middlemarch; but none of Eliot’s books has the charm and wit of Austen’s. (Ain’t that the truth! –Ed.) I have fun reading the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, Jasper Fforde, and Janet Evanovich, all of which I can whip through in a few hours. I read the New York Times daily and admire the non-fiction of Thomas Friedman. I have a long list of novels I plan to read when I retire!

Do you have any non-Austen hobbies or interests that you would like to share with our readers?

Like Austen, I am a desperate walker! But I prefer walking in cities, rather than on country roads, because cities always offer something new to see that interests me more than what the country offers. (All I see is green!) After all, I am a 5th-generation New York City person, born and bred. I am an opera-lover and travel to opera in NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, and Santa Fe, and Denver. When in London, I attend the Royal Opera and the English National Opera. This summer (06) I saw Tosca at the former and Nixon in China at the latter; this was my 12th Tosca and my first Nixon in China, and I loved the ENO production of NIC. In fact, NIC may well be my new favorite opera, but it must be seen, as well as heard, to fully appreciate–unlike Tosca, which I love even just hearing.

What do you think of the recent resurgence of interest in Jane Austen among the general public (that is, not us fanatics, who of course are always interested in Jane Austen)?

Great! Austen wrote for her contemporary audience or the common reader, and it was only in the mid- to late 19th century that the idea spread that one must be especially sensitive and cultured to appreciate Austen. The more readers who come to Austen, the better, as far as I am concerned. One point for newcomers to keep in mind, though, is that the culture of Austen’s period, which is also the period in which her novels are set, was quite different from ours. Consequently, certain customs and manners may seem unusual for readers who are unfamiliar with the novels’ cultural foundations. Austen, of course, assumed her readers would understand them. Reading Jane Austen For Dummies, about which you ask me later in this interview, will help newcomers to the novels understand the culture.


When did you join JASNA? What was your impulse to join?

I joined in 1991, having purchased The Jane Austen Companion, edited by Jack Grey, then President of JASNA, and others. That book mentioned JASNA and how to join. So I sent a postcard to the address provided and received an enrollment form, which I immediately returned with the dues. I thought it would be great to join a group of my own kind: Janeites! Shortly thereafter I saw in the JASNA newsletter (JASNA News) that there would be an AGM (Annual General Meeting) in Lake Louise and that the topic would be Persuasion. I had written a paper on Persuasion called “In Defense of Lady Russell: The God Mother Knew Best,” and I decided to send the précis to the organizers’ (Juliet McMaster and Bruce Stovel) request for paper proposals. (Meanwhile, I had already sent a paper to Persuasions, the JASNA annual journal. The essay, which was accepted, was “Fanny Price as a Case Study of Child Abuse,” and it has led to many a graduate student’s writing to me to say how helpful reading that essay was to his or her thinking and writing about Mansfield Park!)

What has been the most interesting or amusing thing that has happened to you as a result of your involvement with JASNA?

Having been introduced at the 2000 AGM in Boston as the incoming JASNA President, I attended in December, two months after the Boston AGM, an off-Broadway show at which I left my hat under my seat. I had to wait until everyone came downstairs to return to the theater to look for it. The staircase was Λ-shaped, with attendees coming both two staircases at once. Suddenly, a JASNA-NYC member whom I recognized and who recognized me from the 2000 AGM in Boston waved to me as I waved to her. She was being pushed forward by the crowd and so could not stop to talk to me, but she did look back at me as the crowd continued to propel her towards the exit and said to her husband, pointing in my direction, “That’s the new president of the Jane Austen Society…” Those behind her only heard her say, “Jane Austen,” and soon persons were exclaiming, “Jane Austen is here; Jane Austen is here!” What a hoot, especially when the house manager came and escorted me back into the theater through another door to look for my hat (missing, alas!): people must have thought Jane Austen was being escorted backstage to meet the actors!

What is your best or most memorable JASNA moment ever?

My first AGM at Lake Louise, where I gave my Lady Russell talk, gave me my best moments. When I came to the AGM, I did not know a soul as I was brand new to AGMs. (And we did not have a JASNA Region in Colorado at that time.) First, I met a Pennsylvania woman who subsequently became a good friend as we waited for the busses to take us from Calgary airport to the hotel in Lake Louise. Then, as I waited in the hotel lobby for a bus tour to Banff, Joan Pawelski of Chicago, by then a longtime JASNA, came over with a group of her fellow Chicago JASNA members. She introduced herself to me, saw that my badge said I was a speaker, invited me to join her group on the bus and at lunch in Banff, and encouraged her friends to come to my talk! Later, I gave the right talk in the right style (I do not read my papers; I “talk” them) to the right group at the right time. The next thing I knew, I was asked to be on the JASNA Board. And the rest is history. These were my best JASNA moments because I saw that JASNA members were amiable.

What is your best or most memorable AGM moment ever?

As Co-coordinator of the 1999-AGM in Colorado Springs on Emma, I was able to feature Joan Austen-Leigh (one of JASNA’s 3 founders and a collateral descendent of Jane Austen via Jane’s brother James) on the stage at the banquet for an extended period of time: 1. JAL did the champagne toast to Jane Austen. 2. JAL returned to the stage when we introduced the winners of the Young Writers Workshop (high school students), and she gave them their awards. The 1st–prize winner read her hysterical essay about Emma in the voice of Cher from “Clueless,” which had everyone, especially JAL, laughing uncontrollably. 3. Just prior to the piano recital that ended the banquet, I presented to JAL a large, framed proclamation from the Mayor of Colorado Springs saying this was “Jane Austen Day.” This was an especially memorable JASNA moment for me because Joan Austen-Leigh was (unknown to me) ailing at that time, and 1999 was her final AGM. I have since learned that she was very touched by the way we honored her.

Of which of your accomplishments as president of JASNA are you most proud?

There are really two accomplishments: I am the first college professor to be JASNA’s President. While JASNA is a society that is not based in academia–though many academics are members and give talks at meetings–I think it helped JASNA to have me, as a Professor of English, as its president because I could immediately come up with several topics for talks to regions, and I knew how to deliver them. This led to much travel as JASNA’s President, for I not only visited with, but provided substantial talks at the meetings about varying aspects of Austen’s work and life. Students tell me that my classroom demeanor is both entertaining and instructive. This is how I present my talks, as well. My reputation as an entertaining, yet instructive speaker, has led to my visiting dozens of regions, from the biggest to the tiniest (with whom I shared ideas about “growing” their region). For me, size does not matter! My visiting the regions–with a word-of-mouth reputation about my talks preceding me–has led to many new persons coming and then joining JASNA. So I am proud of being a good ambassador for the society. As a veteran of nearly 30 years in the university classroom, I can handle questions and comments easily from the floor. This adds to the congeniality of the meetings.

The other accomplishment of which I am proud is something else I learned from years in university administration, particularly from my last University Chancellor for whom I worked as Interim Vice Chancellor: personally greeting as many persons as possible in the room. When I attend a regional meeting, I go to as many attendees as possible and introduce myself to them, shake their hands, ask how long they have been members, what their favorite Austen novel is, etc. I do this with any JASNA or Austen audience: even when I had the honor to give an Austen-talk at the Library of Congress, I likewise greeted audience members as they took their seats. On the same score, after it was announced at the Boston AGM that I was to be the next President, I made it a point at the banquet to start at the back of the banquet hall and go to as many tables as time permits to greet members, old and new. (The Editrix was one of the n00bz, and was rather bowled over by the encounter. –Ed.) I do this at every AGM, at both the banquet and the cash bar, as well as at any time I can meets folks. I want the members to know that as President, I am grateful that they are members, and that the Society sincerely welcomes and appreciates them. In fact, members have told me how much they appreciate that. I think all future Presidents of JASNA should do the same thing: go to the tables and greet the members at the banquet, etc. (By the way, persons have asked me how I can go to the tables at the banquet and miss my dinner: my trick is to order room service, on my own nickel, in my room about an hour before the banquet. So I am well fed when the banquet starts and do not go hungry! This way I have the strength to go to the tables.)

What’s the best part about being president of JASNA?

The best part has been the travel that has allowed me to meet so many wonderful members! Many of the persons I’ve met have become my good friends outside of JASNA visits, too.

May I please share another “best part?” (Of course! –Ed.) I had two great opportunities as JASNA President in Washington DC in April 2005, when I was on sabbatical from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs: to speak about Jane Austen at the Library of Congress, where 280+ persons showed up, and then to appear on “The Diane Rehm Show” on NPR on April 11, 2005, again to talk about and field callers’ questions about Jane Austen and JASNA. These were excellent opportunities for me to share my enthusiasm for Jane Austen and JASNA, which I very much appreciated.

Would you like to say anything to encourage AustenBlog readers to join JASNA? (Or for our international readers, their local Austen Society?)

As I noted in a reply to an earlier question, the Jane Austen Society, whether of North America or of any other location, is a great way to meet persons who have in common with you a love of Jane Austen. Interestingly, when I meet fellow JASNA-members, I find that we also have many other interests in common! JASNA has over 60 regional groups, which you can locate at our website, www.jasna.org. Besides the friendship and fellowship, the Societies give you the opportunities to learn more about Austen, her life, times, and works in a fun-filled and friendly atmosphere. I recently had a note from a gentleman whose wife, a longtime JASNA member, had just passed away. He made a donation to JASNA because his wife always came home from JASNA meetings–in his words–“bubbling with excitement and joy.” That says it all!

Jane Austen for Dummies

Did Wiley approach you about writing the book or did you pitch it to them? If the latter, what gave you the idea for the book?

I had been approached by a literary agent in NYC who was interested in having me do a book of Austen quotations. She knew I was President of JASNA and also a Professor of English; she had read about my talks and read some of my articles. As a result, she knew that when I wrote about Austen, or any other writer for that matter, I did not sprinkle my prose with literary jargon. (I’m a full professor, and I have nobody to try to impress!) We then saw that Barnes and Noble had beaten us to the punch on a JA quotation book. About a month or two went by, and this same agent met an editor from Wiley who said they were looking for someone to write Jane Austen for Dummies. The agent said, thinking of me, “Have I got the person for you!” She had me send Wiley my curriculum vitae and a sample or two of my professional writing on Austen (articles I had written and that were published). Wiley then sent me a sample table of contents, which I was free to revise and send back to Wiley’s editorial board for approval. I was glad to see that the Dummies book was not going to include plot summaries, etc., because I did not want to write Cliff’s Notes©! The board members at Wiley liked what they saw and then asked for a sample chapter by the following week. I wrote it; they liked it and sent me the contract.

What do you like best and least about the book?

The best thing I like about the book is that it offers newcomers to Austen an excellent background on the culture of the period, which is crucial to a fuller understanding her novels. It also explains her place in the development of the novel. Any teacher of high school or college students could assign this book as supplementary reading for Austen’s novels. And anyone not in school will read this book and come away with a better knowledge of all things Austen.

The thing I like least about the book is the proofreading. I wish Wiley had let me have 48 hours with the final version before it went to press, so I could catch the typos and the little editorial changes they made to simplify my writing, but which caused grammar errors. The good news is that I was able to send corrections to them for future editions.

Did you learn anything new or exciting about Jane Austen while writing it?

I was very happy to be forced to read Deirdre Le Faye’s edition of Austen’s letters carefully again. Every Austen lover should read her letters.

Why should AustenBlog readers rush out and purchase a copy?

This book is a reader-friendly introduction to Austen and her times. It’s a good place for Austen readers to start. Much of what I included in the book is what I have to be sure to include in my Austen classes, what students have asked me about, and what JASNA members ask me about when they see me. So I think the book’s contents will answer a lot of questions that readers either have or should have about Austen and her world.

The Great Pig Kerfluffle

You stirred up a controversy when some harshly critical comments about the recent film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice were published in the British press shortly before the release of the film. We understand that your comments to the reporter were spun a bit out of context. Here’s your opportunity to clarify or expand upon what was published: to paraphrase Eleanor Tilney, “Clear your character handsomely before the Internets.” Or publicly tell Joe Wright to go jump in a lake; your choice. 😀

What I said to the reporter was this:

“Joe Wright’s having a large pig with his sexual equipment dangling walk into the Bennets’ house was inappropriate for the Bennets’ home. The Bennets’ farm was undoubtedly some distance from the house, not right up to the back door as the film showed it. Just look at Anna Lefroy’s drawings of Steventon and the drawings by Austen’s contemporaries of other Austen-related homes that appear on the walls of Jane Austen’s House in Chawton: they all had farms, but not right up the door of the main house as Wright placed it for the Bennets’ house in the film. The 2005 Pride & Prejudice film needed more background research. Wright’s boar-with-the-dangling-equipment-walking-into-the-house scene is more appropriate for a film version of a Fielding novel–such as another film version of Tom Jones, where a barnyard and a well-endowed boar is in keeping with the rowdy humor of Fielding’s novel and the settings of the poorer farmers in Tom Jones. But the Bennets’ lovely home would not have livestock entering the house, and the farmyard would not be right next to the house.”

My lengthy comment (after all, I’m a teacher and thus go into detailed answers in class!) clearly overwhelmed the reporter, who admitted he had an undergrad degree in English, but couldn’t quite remember the novel Tom Jones, though he fondly recalled its film version. When the reporter finally wrote the interview, he restated my admittedly wordy comment as my talking of Darcy’s supposed “jewels” represented by the boar’s. The reporter’s revision of my remark was then picked up by the wire. The Fielding reference must have been too literary for him.

On this subject of Austen and sexual innuendo: I disagree strongly with Austen critic Jill Heydt Stevenson’s conclusion that in Persuasion in the scene where Anne Elliot, riding with Lady Russell in the latter’s carriage in Bath, sees Captain Wentworth walking down the street and hopes that Lady Russell does not see Wentworth, Austen insinuates a sexual innuendo when Lady Russell, looking intently at the other side of the street for some curtains that she observes are particularly “well hung,” means that the words “well hung” refer to Wentworth’s jewels! Lady Russell is not even looking at Wentworth’s side of the street, let alone at his pants! (But what about Sir Walter describing Mr. Elliot as being “very much under-hung?” Inquiring dirty minds want to know. –Ed.) Stevenson also assumes that the scene in Pride and Prejudice, at Netherfield, where Miss Bingley asks Darcy if she can sharpen his quill pen is meant as sexual innuendo. If one knows anything about writing with quills, one knows that one’s quill point was as idiosyncratic as fountain pen points today are for extra fine, fine, medium, broad, and italics are! His quill is not his penis.

But I do think–and have always thought, back to grad school in 1974!–that Mansfield Park’s Mary Crawford’s reference to Vices and Rears is meant as a pun to show readers how worldly Mary is when compared to Edmund and Fanny, who don’t catch the pun and complain, instead, how the remark shows how disrespectful Mary is towards her uncle who raised her! Austen was born and raised in Georgian England, and so she is direct and candid; however, she is also a lady. And on her being a lady: I still remember the review of the Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma film in The New Yorker where Anthony Lane–whose reviews I normally respect very much–complained of Paltrow, as Emma, saying “Good God!” several times in the film as Mrs. Weston surprises her about the Frank / Jane engagement: in the novel, Emma says, “Good God!” several times in that scene!

A final word, if I may: I have heard and read persons comparing Jane Austen to writers such as Shakespeare, Fanny Burney, and Alexander Pope, and to artists like Vermeer or Japanese painters. This is all well and good. But Jane Austen is like . . . Jane Austen! There’s no one quite like her, and she’s like nobody else.

We couldn’t have said it better. –Ed.