To transpose for a moment people’s personas onto those of long-dead British authors, some of us are Brontës (as in Charlotte, Emily and Anne) — all stormy, dark and moody, like psychotic divas on a bender. Others are light, well-mannered, impeccable and wry, just a bit flirty, perpetually trying to make things come out just so. They detest imbalance and there are no crazy wives trapped in their attics (none, at least, that they would admit to). These people are Austens. As in Jane. As in the much-celebrated authoress of such endlessly film-adapted novels as Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. For those unfortunate Brontës who wish they were Austens — or for those partial, prejudiced and ignorant few who have yet to adopt a literary persona — I offer the following field guide, of sorts, to Jane Austen’s world in our times.
On a recent November evening, one that sends chilly shivers across bare, unshawled shoulders, the two dozen or so members of the Friends of the English Regency society stroll into the Lindberg Park Hall in Culver City, where they meet once a month to dance in the manner of 19th-century aristocrats. When not co-opted for period dancing, which begins promptly at half past 7 and lasts until midnight most first Saturdays, the modest, slightly dilapidated hall serves as a children’s rec room, and it takes a talented imagination and a bit of squinting past crayoned drawings to picture the place as a grand ballroom. But as the FOTER society Web site puts it, “The floor is good, there is a kitchen we can use, and room for period card games, books to buy, and similar ornaments.” As would never occur in Austen’s time, the gathering cuts through almost every social stratum: women and men over 50 and under 30, dark skin and light, heavyset and slender, avid dancers and beginners, a lady leaning precariously against a cane, a 12-year-old boy in ill-fitting boots, and several obviously dedicated couples in graceful empire-line gowns and gentlemen’s coats with tails.
We line up in two rows for a “longways” dance called Childgrove, men on one side, women on the other. “Cultivate a relaxed comportment,” says choreographer and dance historian John Hertz, who calls out the movements. “For those who are more experienced dancers, try to be better. ‘Better’ means ‘more effortless.’ It means the right steps, at the right place, at the right time. A maximum of effect with a minimum of effort. A lady is in charge of all social situations. If something goes wrong, it is instantly the gentleman’s fault.” When Hertz declares that women of the English Regency are placed upon a pedestal and that men polish the pedestal, he is received with a sea of bemused smiles, nods and chuckles.
The Regency friends have done other things besides dancing — taking lessons in quill cutting, for example — but dancing is their main joy. The Regency style of dance is a floaty set of movements, its complex patterns a seeming metaphor for the mating dance itself, for the holding close and casting off of partners until you find your one perfect match. We begin with a bow and a curtsy. From there, it is all upper torso, squirrelly footwork, arms held aloft and pelvis in check. We are, for whatever reason — the charming Mozart playing on the portable stereo, maybe, or the headiness of our collective Austen fantasy — more gallant, more proper, more delicate and deliberate with our movements, with the carriage of our bodies, than we are in our everyday lives.
“Members of the aristocracy had dance masters, riding masters, writing masters,” says host Alice Massoglia. “From the time you could walk, you took lessons in comportment and manners. These people were obsessed with appearances. Were your horses evenly matched? Is your dress au courant? Are the vegetables at your supper parties imported? If you were the Countess of something, you could expect to be invited out to society every night.”
In between sets, Hertz, who is a lawyer by trade, slips a small blue pamphlet into my hands, a miniguide to the Regency period he’s assembled. Napoleon was at large in Europe. George IV, before becoming king, was running things as Prince Regent while his father, King George III, was busy going insane. “It was the last time when a man was expected to dance as well as he could duel — or better,” Hertz says. “One could be forgiven for not dueling.”
But there’s no excuse for not writing if you are a true Austen. This city is full of shops with a plenitude of writing accouterments. If you are desperate for a fresh notebook from the complete Russell and Hazel line and a fountain pen with green ink to write your own novel of manners, and even a lavender candle to place inside a Moroccan lantern to keep the cold night at bay as you scribble, not to mention a silk pillow to sit upon, a porcelain tea set to sip Darjeeling, a dollop of honey to swirl into said tea, and a tiny terra cotta pot of moss or even a bouquet of flowers to place in a glass vase on your desk for inspiration, you really should head to our city’s stationery mecca, Soolip Paperie & Press, on Melrose.
Austen’s time was, of course, a period of mad letter and diary writing. Wordsworth and Coleridge were her contemporaries, as were Byron and Walter Scott and the Shelleys. “If they’re buying an ‘I’m sorry’ or a ‘You suck’ card, I get to hear the story of what happened to them,” says Urbanic Paper Boutique owner Audrey Woolen of the customers who crowd into her tiny stationery parlor on Abbot Kinney in Venice. As a child, Woolen, who sells a small but hearty selection of paper goods, loved making cards. While she talks, she keeps an eye on her son, who reaches one chubby hand into a box of new Moleskine pocket notebooks. She and her husband fell in love with each other after a year of long-distance letter writing. He lived on the East Coast, she on the West. They poured their hearts into letters, “trying to out-cool each other” via cards and packages. “I almost gave up,” she teases. “I would make these amazing letters with layers of collaged paper and pull tabs, and he would send a bit of scrap paper that said, ‘Hey, how are you.’ ”
The sweetest establishment for the epistolarily obsessed, however, is Chelsea Shukov’s shop, Sugar Paper, in Century City. Shukov, who has long hazel hair and hazel eyes, and is pretty, young and clever in the way of a modern-day Austen heroine — Emma Woodhouse comes to mind — explains that she and her best girlfriend Jamie Oberg opened the store several years ago after many shared lunches and afternoon teas at Clementine next door.
Sugar Paper is a diminutive jewel box of a shop, with bakery-box pink floors and creamy walls. A scented candle is almost always burning. Shukov leads me through the backroom, where the Sugar Paper letterpress machine lives, and where for the past three hours, two young men have been printing test prints of a custom holiday card, trying to achieve the perfect (and so far elusive) shade of olive green. “The boys are a new addition,” says Shukov, stepping nimbly past an island of neatly merchandised boxed monogram cards and coasters. “We were all girls before.” Similarly, their clientele is made up of two-thirds women, who buy the bulk of the girly stuff, and one-third womanly men, or metrosexuals. (The men less comfortable with their feminine side sit at husband benches outside at Clementine.) This clientele was built up from networks of women passing the word along to other women about a great place to order custom invitations, announcements, thank-you cards, will-you-be-my-bridesmaid cards and the like.
Like the customers, everybody who works at the store is snobby about paper. The exact weight of their 100 percent cotton card stock, for instance, which feels thick enough to bite, is a close-kept secret. To distinguish itself in the cutthroat stationery market, Sugar Paper specializes in crisp, elegant designs on letterpress. “It’s the oldest form of printing. The Gutenberg Bible was printed on letterpress, as was the Declaration of Independence,” Shukov says. “Letterpress is experiencing a resurgence lately. About 10 or 15 years ago, people were discovering old letterpresses in their grandmothers’ attics, which revived the practice.” She watches the boys meticulously hand-feed each card, one by one, into the machine. “You’re either a paper person or not. I like taking the time to collect my thoughts and jot them down for someone special. My mother taught me to write thank-you notes when I was very young, though I don’t receive them now as much as I used to.”
Our state of affairs, like Austen’s, is far from ideal: Friends fail to correspond, a letterpress plate smudges, great writers show their prowess early on (Jane was just 21 when she penned Pride and Prejudice), only to die young, an uncouth someone sits in the wrong chair at the dinner table. For each of those occasions, there is an appropriate card to be sent, a letter to be composed. At Sugar Paper alone, there are thank-you notes aplenty in rows against one wall. Beside these are samples of personalized calling cards, which Shukov can design to reflect your name and phone number (or, alas, e-mail address) only. Had this been 1807 instead of 2007, you might present one to the butler when you pay a call to a friend’s estate and, much to your dismay, your dear friend is not home, having stepped out for some fox hunting, or grouse shooting with the hounds.
Friends of the English Regency “drums,” or parties, held first Saturdays of most months. Next drum, Sat., Dec. 1, 7:30 p.m. at Lindberg Park Hall, 5041 Rhoda Way, Culver City, www.geocities.com/~foter. Repertoire of dances includes Childgrove, The Dressed Ship, An Easy Competence, Croft House, Vain Parting and Want of Management. Admission $5.
Soolip Paperie & Press and Soolip Bungalow, 8646 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd., (310) 360-0545 or www.soolip.com.
Urbanic Paper Boutique, 1644 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 401-0427 or www.urbanicdesigns.com.
Sugar Paper, 1749 Ensley Ave., L.A., (310) 277-7804 or www.sugarpaper.com.
The Jane ? Gang
Jane Austen Evening, a formal ball with English country dancing and high tea, hosted by the Society for Manners & Merriment, Pasadena Masonic Lodge, 200 S. Euclid Ave., Sat., Jan. 19, 2008. (310) 643.6530 or www.lahacal.org/austen.
The Virtuous Virtuoso: A Recital of Works for the Pianoforte From the Musical Notebooks of Jane Austen. Pianist Elizabeth Morgan plays selections drawn from music books found at Austen’s home, including works by Haydn, Steibelt and Pleyel. Presented by Powell Music: Concerts in the Rotunda, UCLA College Library, Fri., Nov. 30. (310) 825-5756.
Jane Austen Society of North America Essay Contest 2008. Wax poetic on the subject of new film adaptations of her novels; see www.jasna.org for details.