SINGAPORE: It all started in an apartment in Novena in 2011, when a small group of women gathered to discuss the finer points and literary richness of Jane Austen’s works.
But the group - called the Jane Austen Circle Singapore (JACS) - is no mere book club. The local chapter of the society which has arms in the USA, UK, Italy, Pakistan and Australia, has morphed into an elaborate hobby, complete with costuming and celebrations.
Seven years since its inception, the “Janeites” as they call themselves, have a number of gatherings under their belt, where members come adorned in gowns of the 19th century Regency period and hold dances and dramatic readings. Every detail about the bygone era is adhered to, from food to etiquette.
Founding members of JACS include Margy Supramaniam, an English teacher, Nicole Kang, a dance instructor, and Chris Kelley, a gemologist. They pour considerable amounts of time and energy into hosting these elaborate Austen events twice a year since it moved to The Arts House in 2014.
“We’re all working and too busy to put in the time we’ve put in, but we do it because we love it,” said Ms Supramaniam who is the co-president of JACS.
To reproduce the style of Regency period in an inexpensive way, Ms Kang hand-makes what she can, from hanging artwork to table ornaments.
Members of the society also say they aim to keep the group’s setting intimate, despite its growing popularity. The intention is to imitate Jane Austen’s sense and sensibilities, as she often read her novels at home to her family and close friends.
“I do everything myself to keep the costs very low. We continue to be a non-profit, because we want to keep the setting intimate and inclusive, just as how Austen would like it to be,” said Ms Kang.
She added that the society donates its proceeds from ticket sales to charity organisations, which includes the Mission to Seafarers, VIVA Foundation for Children with Cancer, to name a few. Austen, a daughter of a reverend, was known to have a heart for the poor, Ms Kang said.
“I’ve been attending the society’s events for five years, and I keep coming back every year. Everybody kind of knows everyone,” said Ms Guo Shu Hui, a senior executive who attended a recent Regency dance. She grew to love Austen through movie adaptations.
Ms Ng Pei Wen and Ms Elaine Mok, both students in local universities, have been members of JACS since taking up Literature in junior college. “We get to experience what we’ve read from Jane Austen in JACS.We get to see the stories unfold before our eyes,” said Ms Ng, who turned up at the dance in a Mr Darcy-style coat.
“Stepping into a Jane Austen Circle event is like stepping into another time in history - a fantasy of sorts; a really nice escape from reality,” said Ms Mok.
“We all love escapism. I love escaping into that world of dance and costumes and being someone else for a few hours,” said Ms Supramaniam.
She has amassed a treasure trove of Regency costumes. These include dresses and hats from local thrift stores that have been “upcycled” with lace, pleats, ribbons, frills and other embellishments.
Even a dead parrot she found by the roadside ended up as decoration for her fancy dress. “This sounds rather morbid but I didn’t want this beautiful green parrot to die in vain, so I used the green feathers on Lady Catherine’s bonnet,” said Ms Supramaniam.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE IN SINGAPORE?
Although Jane Austen’s novels were written more than two hundred years ago in England, the fans in Singapore say the themes resonate to this day.
“Actually the culture of Jane Austen is part of the culture of Singapore,” said Ms Supramaniam. “Money is very important in Jane Austen’s novels. Everybody wanted to marry Mr Darcy who (was making) £10,000 a year. It is still important who you marry; it’s important how you bear yourself and it’s important how you behave.”
Echoing the sentiment, Ms Guo said: “Women here in Singapore face a lot of societal pressure to marry men of equal education, preferably earning a higher salary. A lot of parents still prefer their daughters to ‘marry up’. It hasn’t changed much since Austen’s society.”
Ms Kang pointed to the comic exaggerations in the novel that could be seen as criticism of social class and standing.
“We want people to note that Austen’s works are not elitist nor exclusive,” she said. “What she writes about is very relevant. While Austen’s characters may still seem like caricatures, these people do exist in real life as well. The idea is not removed from (us),” she said.
She added that JACS will continue to help people have a grand old time while bringing Austen’s works and world to a wider audience.
Quoting Jane Austen, Ms Kang said: “My idea of good company... is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation. That is what I call good company.”