Life is better with a good cup of tea

September 2020

“It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.” ― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

With the tumultuous weight of 2020 pressing down on us, the thought of returning to a kinder, simpler time is sometimes appealing. A world of literature and conversation, of poetry, music and ideas. A world of day-dresses and bonnets and sunny English gardens, where a drop of sugared gossip is the most delicious thing. The Thunder Bay Jane Austen Society offers an open door into this fanciful world, so lace up your corset and step on to the dance floor with this delightful group.

“It’s a small but wonderful society,” says Mrs. Irena (Irene Warmenhoven). “Sharing a love of historical fashion, dance, creative arts, and of course, the literature of Jane Austen.”
The Thunder Bay Jane Austen Society (TBJAS) was founded almost by accident in 2014, when Mrs. Irena was discussing historical fashion at the local shop, Unveiled Bride. Overhearing the conversation from the back, seamstress Elaine rushed out, elated to find someone who shared her love of period fashion, and she immediately volunteered to become the group’s first member!

“It’s a lot of fun meeting people with the same interests in Regency time,” says Mrs. Elaine, co-founder of the TBJAS. “Hunting in thrift stores for jewelry, fabric and parasols, etc, and if you find a pair of ball gloves, you’ve hit the jackpot!”

While Austen is known for 6 novels and several short stories, she put an indelible stamp on a particular era of British history, and her influence is still felt around the world.

“I’ve been acting, and re-enacting, for over 30 years,” Mrs. Irena says proudly. “And the JAS is very much like theatre. I met my husband in the theatre. We courted in the theatre. Many in our group are members of Cambrian Players, or Canadian Corps of Voyageurs who volunteer at Fort William Historical Park.”

Not surprisingly, re-enactment of period history is no stranger to Thunder Bay. FWHP has carved a niche as Canada’s #1 tourist attraction for precisely this reason. As a cosplayer myself (cosplay is the word for costumed play), I can attest to the sheer delight of dressing up in historical clothing that you’ve either made yourself or cobbled from pieces scavenged around town. And, like Mrs. Irena, my family has learned much about the turn of the 18th century, from volunteering in costume at FWHP.

“We are re-enactors who volunteer at FWHP and other places,” says FWHP volunteer Jeff Burglund, who also serves as the TBJAS’s historian. “And the Jane Austen era ties in with the Old Fort period, and the War of 1812. My wife Laura can dress up in better garb than as a camp follower, and I can be a gentleman instead of a British Army Private, covered in dirt and soot!”

Mr. Jeff and Mrs. Laura have used their re-enacting skills to prepare authentic meals for the group, including roasting on a spit and cooking over a fire. In fact, delving into the period is at the heart of the TBJAS, and of course, dancing is a core component. They never miss a chance to break out the flutes (Miss Barbara & Mr. Bert Wintergreen), violins (Mr. Ken Jacobsen & Mrs. Anne Livingstone), harp (Mrs. Marianne Wahl) and mandolin (Mr. Ryan Jones) for a jig.

“Life was hard for people of all social classes in the Regency era,” says Mrs. Irena. “So, the dance was hugely important. The country dance, the harvest dance, the ball - any chance to let go and have fun, they took it!”

But, like the theme of so many Austen novels, what is a dance without a partner? Mrs. Irena smiles.

“Well, there’s the thing,” she says. “We had an equal number of men as women at our last ball, which is unheard of in any Regency ball around the world! We have men who come out to support their wives, and we draw from the Canadian Corps of Voyageurs for our ‘militia.’” (Ooh, did someone say Mr. Wickham?) In fact, the men seem to enjoy being the centre of attention, and they get into character as easily as the women.

“I come out to escort her,” says Mr. Hans, husband of Mrs. Irene, “And, in doing so, I get to dance with pretty young women!”

Mrs. Marla can attest to the attentions received by husband, Mr. Brian. “He doesn’t mind being my accessory! He tags along and flirts on the dance floor. But honestly, we have been wanting to find things to do as a couple, and TBJAS has been fun for us!”

One of the goals for the group is a pilgrimage to Bath, UK, where Jane Austen lived and wrote. In fact, it’s a destination for all things Austen, as they host a yearly Jane Austen Festival, where enthusiasts travel from all over the world to spend days in costume, walking in the author’s footsteps.

“It’s like winning the lottery,” says Mrs. Irena. “You walk the streets and stand on the doorsteps of where Jane lived. There are lectures and shopping, balls and fine dining and tea. The festival is expensive but so worth it. Bath loses that special magic when it’s over.”

There is more to the TBJAS than dancing, costuming and Austen. The group frequently gets together for charity work, and is often called upon to add character flair to city and charity events. They have also become increasingly engaged in workshops teaching life skills of the era.

“We’ve run classes on historical cooking, embroidery, bonnet- and corset-making, historical games, parasol etiquette, etc. Recently, (in the time of Covid) most of this is online, but if we’re able to gather out of doors, we will. If we have a workshop, folks will just come to chat while they work on a project. We’ve built a community of sharing, caring and laughter. The most important thing for people is to just get together.”

“It’s like I travel back in time,” says member Mrs. Karen (Merkley), “To a more genteel period in which courtesy and relaxed pursuits were the order of the day.”

As a cosplayer, Austen enthusiast, and two-time visitor to Bath myself, I understand this sentiment.

“Right now, Covid is all about coping,” says Mrs. Irena, on a serious note. “About finding mental health and comfort in a gentler era. I was an immigrant to Canada. I was shy and didn’t speak the language, but I could play the violin/fiddle and I could read. When I started reading Austen’s books, she taught me how to be more confident and I just wanted to share that.

It may be 200 years later, but society hasn’t changed that much. You can find a Mr. Darcy, or you can find a Mr. Collins. It just depends on where you look.” She laughs. “Of course, it helps if you appreciate the pomp and ceremony of an elegantly-set tea table!”

And I do. If you’d like a glimpse into a gentler time, or just want a place to discuss the Darcys and Wickhams and Lady Susans of life, check out The Thunder Bay Jane Austen Society on Facebook. See you at the ball!

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

Visit her website at www.hleightondickson.com

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