When I heard that JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of New York, was having an April conference in Saratoga Springs, NY, called “Spas and Spies”, I knew that was one I wanted to attend. I love the Hudson Valley, so beautiful and history-filled, and riding alongside the river on Amtrak is a joy. Knowing that Abigail Reynolds would be there too, clinched it, and I booked.
From Penn Station I boarded Amtrak, and gloried in watching the river roll by, while wondering if Jane Austen had known anything about it. In Mansfield Park she has Tom Bertram talk about “this business in America,” at a time when the War of 1812 and the blockading of American ports, was on the public mind. And in a humorous poem about her niece Anna, she made several mentions of America, comparing Anna’s wit to Niagara Falls. She was indeed aware of what went on in America, and the Hudson Valley in particular saw plenty of action in the Revolutionary War and afterwards. Still, American authors Washington Irving and Fenimore Cooper had closer associations with the region than their contemporary, Englishwoman Jane Austen, who never set foot in America herself or sent her characters there – except in the Variations of our imagination (such as my own Mrs. Elton in America).
Rivers don’t feature greatly in Austen’s writing, either, it is true, but spas certainly do. Spa towns such as Bath, Brighton, Lyme, Sidmouth and Ramsgate are all featured in her novels, and she and her family made many visits to spas, actually living in Bath for a period of five years following her father’s death. Not all spas featured mineral springs, where the fashionable, the ailing, and sometimes raffish people went to “take the waters,” but Bath did. So this American version of the spa, Saratoga Springs, is a fine place to luxuriate in Jane Austen lifestyle and associations. The Mohawk and Iroquois Indians drank from the springs first, but the mineral waters became popular among early settlers and George Washington was a patron in the 1780s. The town reached its social height later, famous during the Gilded Age in the mid to late 19th century for its horse racing, as well as the springs. Jane Austen was certainly familiar with racing, but seems to have rather disapproved of the sport (as well as other activities that went on in spa towns). She has Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park become very ill after a fall at the famous racing town, Newmarket, and her very last piece of writing, the poem “Winchester Races,” dictated just days before her death, has St. Swithin curse the frivolous racegoers. Jane Austen would probably have found Saratoga Springs a familiar sort of place (despite American differences), but she disliked Bath, and might not have liked Saratoga Springs either!
Arriving in Saratoga Springs we were picked up at the station by shuttle vans, and taken to the Holiday Inn, directly across the street from the handsome Victorian Bachellor Mansion, which we toured later. The Friday evening speaker was Professor Celia Easton of SONY/Genesco, who talked about “Seduction and Seducers in English Spa Towns.” She mentioned a few of the risque and undesirable incidents that occurred in spa towns in Jane Austen’s novels, such as Willoughby’s seduction of Col. Brandon’s ward in Bath, and Lydia’s elopement with Wickham to Brighton. On Saturday, Captain Steven E. Maffeo, a retired Naval Intelligence officer who has written about military intelligence in the age of Nelson, gave a fascinating talk about the methods employed by spies during the wars with France. Sunday morning speaker, Professor Sheila Hwang of Webster University, talked about Bath and other watering places of Jane Austen’s day, with emphasis on the louche behavior so prevalent in spas.
In between the talks, there were tours of the Congress Park with its mineral spring, and the Bachellor Mansion. This gave a good idea of what it was like to live in one of the many Victorian mansions in this gay spa where you can almost sense the lively social life of past times. The conference finished up with a book signing at one of the town’s wonderful bookshops. Abigail presented her brilliant newest variation novel, Conceit & Concealment, in which Napoleon intriguingly wins the war; Captain Maffeo was there with his book on Nelson, as was the debut novelist Kathleen Flynn whose The Jane Austen Project, about going back in time to meet Jane Austen, is winning fine reviews.
An enjoyable weekend indeed, but my only cavil about the conference was that I had not seen quite enough of Saratoga Springs. The racetrack was closed for the season, and the town is only home to the New York City Ballet during the summer, but I would have liked to see more of the surroundings. Fortunately for me, Abigail, who grew up in the area, generously drove me around on an idyllic personalized tour, which included seeing Lake Saratoga, the gorgeous grounds of the Yaddo artists’ community, and the ballet theater. We also had a beautiful walk by the river, to a picturesque spot where a mineral spring ran into the water, and wildflowers were plentiful. We chatted about our lives, writing, and cats, and it was truly a golden afternoon.