By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – It wouldn’t be ladylike, but there’s a chance tea could squirt out of someone’s nose on Saturday.
The Mississippi Chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America will host a tea at His Hers Antiques & Tea Room from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., and Austen’s fans appreciate a good laugh.
“I picked up a copy of ‘Emma’ at a friend’s house and thought it was one of the top five most hilarious things I had ever read,” said 30-year-old Jessi Bailey of Saltillo. “I read through it and very quickly devoured all the other books.”
Austen’s novels illustrate, pick apart and play with the social rules of the early 1800s. Some of the author’s insights are silly, and others point toward universal truths, said Linda Thompson, 62, a Florence resident and treasurer of JASNA’s Mississippi chapter.
“What Jane Austen says about human nature is just as true today as it was 200 years ago,” Thompson said. “I mean, she doesn’t say it. She shows it by example, and it’s very entertaining.”
Bailey and Thompson are fans who aren’t limited to books. They’ve seen numerous movie versions of Austen’s work. Emma Thompson stars in “Sense and Sensibility,” and Gwyneth Paltrow plays the title role in “Emma.”
For Thompson, the ultimate is Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice.”
“I have all the movies, and I have Jane Austen audio books in the car. I listen sometimes,” she said, then pursed her lips and shifted in her seat. “I try to listen to other books and read other books, too. I don’t want people to think it’s always Jane Austen.”
But everyone needs a hobby, and Thompson found hers nearly three decades ago, when she decided to read the classics and came across “Pride and Prejudice.” Now, that book and the rest of Austen’s cannon are gifts that keep on giving.
“With a book like ‘Emma,’ you can read it, then you read it again a year or two later and you see things you didn’t see before,” said Thompson, a retired nurse who grew up in Tupelo. “It’s a romantic comedy, but the way it fits together, the way the characters interact together … you get to the end and say, ‘Oh, that’s why he did that.’ It all fits.”
Thompson’s personal appreciation became a communal experience a few years ago when she took a community enrichment course at Millsaps College.
The Jane Austen Book Club was taught by Carolyn Brown, 51, of Jackson.
“What was just a class has become something much bigger,” Brown said.
A group of four or five women decided it was a shame Mississippi didn’t have a JASNA chapter, especially since a Delta State professor and Austen expert was editor of the national society’s journal, “Persuasions.”
Since then, Jane Austen teas have been held in Vicksburg and Jackson, including one at Eudora Welty’s house.
“Jane Austen was one of Eudora Welty’s favorite authors,” Thompson said. “We put those two together.”
During a swing through Tupelo to visit family, Thompson noticed His Hers had a tea to celebrate the author’s Dec. 16 birthday. It was well attended and the kitchen actually ran out of food.
Mississippi chapter members decided Northeast Mississippi was primed for outreach, so Saturday’s tea was scheduled.
In addition to Austen’s beverage of choice, there will be a pork loin sandwich, potato soup and period-correct sweet scones. Non-members are welcome, and the cost is $20.
“Persuasions” editor Susan Allen Ford will talk about the importance of tea to family and social life during Austen’s day, then assembled fans will swap favorite stories and insights.
The atmosphere will be casual, so there’s no need to dress up as Elizabeth from “Pride and Prejudice,” though that’s certainly an option, and no one will be asked to take a test to prove their mastery of all things Austen.
“If there were a test, I would probably test well,” Bailey said. “I’ve done the reading.”
She joined JASNA a few weeks ago. The dues are $30 a year, and that automatically includes membership in the Mississippi chapter.
“We would love for more people to join, but nobody will be forced,” Thompson said with a smile.
Fans might find themselves dipping into pocketbooks, if not to pay membership dues, then to buy some of the Mississippi chapter’s memorabilia.
The “Read Jane Austen Y’all” T-shirt is a big seller, as is the note card set that features Austen quotes, such as “Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?” and “Her own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions.”
Muslin tea towels are available with the words “Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.”
Thompson and Brown took their wares to JASNA’s national conference in Minneapolis and raised about $700 for that chapter.
The meeting included lectures and exhibits, as well as plenty of people in costumes from the novels.
Dressing up is part of the fun for some, but it’s not necessary.
“I’m not into dressing up at all, but I love a tea party,” Brown said, “and I don’t ever want to be snobby about it.”
The goal is to link like-minded people who get a kick out of curling up on a couch with an Austen classic in their hands or watching a movie adaptation on the TV screen.
“Are you a fan of Downton Abbey?” Brown said. “Because if you love ‘Downton Abbey,’ I think you would enjoy Jane Austen and JASNA-MS. It’s not the same time period, but there are so many similarities with the social roles and the way characters interact.”
Not everyone feels comfortable sharing their personal enjoyment with others. Bailey and Thompson understand why some fans might be hesitant to sign up.
“I had heard of the society before but I’m usually not much of a joiner,” Bailey said.
“Me, either,” Thompson said.
“But if I’m going to be a member of something,” Bailey continued, “a book club works.”
Besides, Saturday’s tea might be good for a laugh or two. It’s Jane Austen, after all. Just remember to take small sips to avoid unladylike eruptions.