It’s a fair day; a soothing combination of breeze, sun and cloud that welcomes a stroll outside. The normally wearisome heat has parted company, inviting a parade of colorful gowns to saunter on the arms of dapper gentlemen. Parasols bloom in the sunshine and afternoon tea is casually served on picnic blankets in the shade of mature trees. Good weather has brought the main thoroughfare of Meryton, England alive with pleasant, convivial chatter as a shopkeeper offers a mirror to a young lady purchasing a cameo locket. She debates blithely with her gentlemen escort between a red and a black ribbon before casually asking the merchant: “Do you take Visa?” Wait…what?
This past weekend found Louisville’s Locust Grove  buzzing with an array of readers, history buffs, craftsmen and merrymakers of all sorts as the fifth annual Jane Austen Festival transformed the historic grounds of William and Lucy Clark Croghan’s 18th Century Georgian home into a vibrant recreation of Regency England. Sponsored by the Greater Louisville chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America , the festivities featured a wide collection of entertainment, discussions, shop vendors, demonstrations and, of course, plenty of creamy tea to celebrate both the classic novels of Austen’s pen and the life of the author herself.
$10 of general admission bought a full day of events for festival-goers, including tours of the restored Locust Grove mansion and grounds, a Regency-style fashion show featuring the creations of Betsy Bashore, side saddle demonstrations with traveling horsefellows Bill and Deborah Glidden, a live action display of proper fencing techniques, a duel to the death between gentlemen, as well as the discussions “Dressing Mr. Darcy” with Brian Cushing and “Austen-it is: Sickness and Health in the novels of Jane Austen” with Dr. Cheryl Kinney presented in the Big Tent. Deeper pockets (or handbags) afforded attractions such as the performance Shame the Devil acted by Fanny Kemble, tea workshops provided by the Bingley Tea Company, fan painting with artist Jenni Miller and a four-course afternoon tea complete with fine china and polite conversation.
My arrival to Meryton found the Village Green erupting with cheerful noise as two well-muscled (and decidedly shirtless) young men tussled in an enthusiastic display of bare-knuckle boxing. Welcome Jane Austen fans! While a bespectacled chap explained the finer points and history of the fighting sport, viewers were treated to a playful—albeit physically-demanding—demonstration of raw, Regency brutality (no gloves here, folks). A good-humored spar between one of these well-oiled lads and a brave lady spectator rounded out my first experience with the day’s unspoken theme: casual, good-old-fashioned fun in the name of history.
The crowd ranged in a surprisingly wide variety of ages and an even wider assortment of costumes, with the majority of attendees fully outfitted in beautiful summer frocks, bonnets, knickers, coattails, trousers and cravats (my personal props go to the gentlemen with the impressive mutton chops and the monocle). The enthusiasm was contagious, even for a stolid non-believer such as myself (I admit it: not a Jane Austen fan, sorry), and the temptation to swap my polka dots for petticoats was fierce browsing the trinkets, goods and finery of the shoppes of Meryton populating the main thoroughfare.
And make no mistake, festival shop vendors were not simply hocking merchandise or making a quick buck. Each tent provided a unique opportunity to explore a myriad of craft skills and a unique perspective shared by the craftsmen and women. Whether offering hand-dipped soaps and wax candles, artisan spices, hand-forged silver, tea sets and tools or carefully stitched Rengency fashion, the Meryton vendors were far more than simply costumed salesmen. These are dedicated, truly-skilled tradesmen. But why spend 21st Century dollars and countless hours hand-dipping candles? “It’s a love of history,” says Randolph Tucker, co-owner of the Virginia Floor Cloth & Textile Co. “It’s keeping history alive and educating people about it while at the same time making a living – and it is an interesting way to make a living!”
Perhaps the sweetest treat to be found amongst the booths came from the hands of first-time festival vendor John C. Bielik, a craftsman practicing the delicate art of hand-making Turkish-style marbled paper – intricate and colorful pieces most often used in the endpaper of 18th and 19th Century book-binding. Bielik’s tent was the first I visited along the promenade, and his graceful, careful designs were not only displayed for sale but were taking shape front and center for the crowd as Bielik used a toolbox of paint, water and ox bile to create one elegant sheet at a time. Definitely a crowd-pleaser. “It’s something you can’t find at Walmart.” Bielik graciously jibes. With an 8-hour drive behind him and a enthusiastic gaggle of festival-goers grouped around his tent, it’s a safe assumption that this first visit won’t be the last: “It’s wonderful. The people here have treated me very well. I love the history of the site; I love the built-in environment. It’s beautiful.” Another successful blending of function and fun.
With my Letters of Credit (the preferred reference given to more digitally-aged forms of currency) denied at the Earl of Sandwich Shop and the line for Afternoon Tea a daunting and well-bonneted queue of true enthusiasts, my day at the Jane Austen Festival came to a close with a final trip to the Village Green as gentlemens Brian Cushing and Michael Ramsey exchanged both insults and gun powder with a very public duel. Dressed in only the height of fashion, Misters Cushing and Ramsey with the aid of their Seconds and the good Doctor, Albert Roberts, settled a dispute over cards with what is surely an unsung form of diplomacy: pistols. The duel ended with Mr. Cushing’s honor defended and a quite a fair bit of appreciative laughter from both spectators and re-enactors alike. All in a day’s play, all in a day’s work.
However serious the professional characters may be in their craft – “The Doctor” gave me quite a nice business card – all Regency fans on the spectrum seem to enjoy a taste for tongue and cheek in creating the festival atmosphere. The Jane Austen Festival is, of course, about literature and history and preservation, yes indeed. But first and foremost? “It’s just fun!” chimes 3-year Festival veteran, Heather. “Basically we never grew up; it’s playing dress-up for us.” And that, in my opinion, is as good a reason as any to wear a bonnet in mid-July.
Additional photos: Erin Day