Would-be Mr. Darcys add spice to festival

Jane Austen fans dress  the part, dance  at festival

It is a truth universally acknowledged that bringing a bunch of Jane Austen devotees together will inevitably lead to a lot of talk about Mr. Darcy.

That was certainly the case Saturday and Sunday in Mandeville when the Sixth annual Old Mandeville Jane Austen Literary Festival celebrated the beloved author and the fact that “Pride and Prejudice,” the story of said Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, was published 200 years ago.

Mandeville resident Lillian Hornsby, who was browsing through books on Austen displayed by the St. Tammany Parish Library, said her 25-year-old granddaughter in Savannah, Ga., called her after watching a movie version of the story to say she finally understood why she was still single.

“She’s waiting for Mr. Darcy. When he walks across the moors, she just falls apart,” Hornsby said.

But she completely understands. “I love Darcy,too,” Hornsby said.

Kathy Cantrell of Chalmette, another “Pride and Prejudice” fan, said she named her cat after another character in “Pride and Prejudice,” the charming Mr. Bingley. But now that he’s out of kittenhood, she said, she realizes he’s really more of a Mr. Darcy.

Fortunately for Jane Austen fans, there were plenty of kindred spirits at the Mandeville Trailhead on Saturday who understand perfectly the difference between the two. Even better, there were some men at the event who were willing to participate in the “Looking for Mr. Darcy” contest.

Granted, it took a bit of arm-twisting for some. While 10-year-old Nicholas Gonzalez, dressed in a powdered wig and period attire, was carefully studying his Darcy speech for the contest, Dan Mangiavellano, a festival board member, was scouring the crowd for likely candidates. He landed on Ed Ernewein, a member of Louisiane Vintage Dancers. He pointed to the top hat and dapper costume, made by Ernewein’s wife, Marty, as perfect for the role. “The country needs you,” Mangiavellano said.

“And he know how to read, too,” Marty Ernewein said with a chuckle.

And then there was Scottie Bell of Collins, Miss., who cut a dashing figure in period costume but had not been planning to take the stage. His wife, Laura, is fascinated by the time period, and a friend had made the couple costumes for last year’s festival.

“If she had a time machine, she’d go back and just live forever in that era,” he said.

Like any proper literary hero, though, Scottie Bell couldn’t disappoint his heroine, and so he gamely read aloud an excerpt from Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, finishing with an apologetic shrug. “I don’t know what that meant,” he said.

But the audience loved it, and the would-be Darcys were well rewarded for their bravery. Festival board member Lynn Larsen Ruffin said that first second and third place were deemed too boring. Instead, the contestants were given certificates naming them Most Authentic and Well-Spoken, Most Distinguished and Swoon-Worthy and Most Fiery and Passionate, among others.

Christian Paille, 18, who was named Most Dashing and Heart-Rending, looked bemused. “I’ve never been called that before,” he said.

While the festival certainly drew out literature lovers and plenty of empire waist gowns and bonnets, it also attracted a fair number of history buffs.

Cantrell, owner of the cat named Bingley, does historic re-enactments for the Battle of New Orleans.

Normally she wears less fancy gear since she plays a cook, but Saturday she turned out in a pink and white gown with a bonnet she made herself. The Recency Era clothing is more comfortable and simpler than many other historic periods, she said.

Nathan Hall, a park ranger at Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve — more commonly known as the Chalmette Battlefield — was resplendent in a scarlet military uniform. Normally, he dresses as a U.S. officer leading the Tennessee Militia and the Free Men of Color of New Orleans, both Battle of New Orleans re-enactment groups made up of ROTC students. But he managed to get a British uniform from a re-enactor on the other side in honor of Jane Austen.

He said that he thought someone should be playing the part of Wickham — a handsome soldier in “Pride and Prejudice” who turns out to be quite the cad.

Hall, who had given a lecture for the festival earlier in the day, noted that Jane Austen was writing and publishing at the same time as the United States and England were engaged in the War of 1812. Also during her literary career, the Napoleonic Wars were raging just across the English Channel, no further than across Lake Pontchartrain, he noted.

But no mention of war is found in her witty comedies even though there are soldiers aplenty. Noting the class differences at the time, Hall said, “She’d be insulated from that.”

The festival, sponsored by the Jane Austen Foundation of Louisiana, afforded plenty of opportunities to learn more about the author and her times as well as period hairstyling, music, poetry reading and, of course, a dance.

There were other contests too, a No Plain Janes Costume Contest for women and a Perfect Love Letter Writing Contest.

And in a new addition to the festival, participants were asked to write their own ending to the famous opening sentence of “Pride and Prejudice:”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

While the list had not grown too long Saturday, one festival goer offered another universally acknowledged truth: “Real men drink tea.”

And, apparently, go to Jane Austen festivals.