Two of us with Jane Austen Society of Australia President Susannah Fullerton and NSW Dickens Society President Walter Mason
We have lunch together quite often, or he comes to my house for coffee. We’re talking about food: Walter’s partner Thang is Vietnamese, and Walter is very knowledgeable about Vietnamese food and culture as well as books.
I think Emma is the greatest novel in the world, while Walter rolls his eyes and says, “Oh, Susannah. You and Emma!” He prefers Mansfield Park. I find Fanny less amusing than the other heroines. I always feel like she needs a good dose of iron pills! But Walter admires his quiet strength.
Speaking of heroines, secretly I still think Walter has a lot of Anne Elliot in him. She’s calm, kind, polite, considerate – just like Walter is. The last few years he’s had health concerns and migraines and things that worry me, but he never shows it. He’s always happy, he always has that smile. He always says “Hu-llo, Susannah!” and I’m wrapped up in this big big hug. She’s just a lovely, lovable person.
Walter: I had heard about Susannah for years: Jane Austen expert, wonderful speaker, president of JASA, lived in Paddington in Sydney. I had a vision of this terrifying woman – a true great lady. Then I went to her lecture at the Strathfield Library – Strathfield, not Ashfield, where she’s queen – and it was a flop. I was the only person there when I got there, so we started talking, and she was so humble, so friendly. And an incredible speaker! At the end of her speech, I was completely in love with her. I bought all of his books – read them all – then I joined JASA, then Dickens Society, then Australian Brontë Association.
Friendship developed by going to his events: I arrived early or stayed late, and we just chatted. I always carried a small present for her, and that guaranteed that I would have a chance. It wasn’t that I needed it – she was always very open. Real book lovers recognize each other.
She was instrumental in founding the Dickens Society in Sydney: she taught a course at WEA, and the whole class had enjoyed Dickens Week so much that they suggested they start a society. I first read Dickens when I was 12 or 13 – David Copperfield – and I noticed that my father and my grandfather were immensely proud of what I was doing, so I kept doing it. I found it difficult for the first few chapters, but I also found it fantastic: I was captivated.
“As a company, we are only half the size of JASA. Their encounters are incredible. The first time I went I was expecting half a dozen elderly ladies in a room, but there were over 100 people, a shop, a library, and afternoon tea. All thanks to Susannah.
It is important to me that people keep reading him: the most popular writer of the Victorian era; one of the most famous men in the world of his time. But I’m pretty terrified of being president. I’m a big man of ideas – “wouldn’t that be fabulous!” – and four years later, it’s still not done. It is procrastination, disorganization and laziness. All traits foreign to Susannah. She just does things, constantly.
As a company, we are only half the size of JASA. Their encounters are incredible. The first time I went I was expecting half a dozen elderly ladies in a room, but there were over 100 people, a shop, a library, and afternoon tea. It’s all due to Susannah. She is so charismatic: people want to join her, they want to listen to her; they want to do stuff for her. My partner first saw her at a Dickens meeting [where Susannah is a member] giving a bit of a bossy speech about something, and he said afterwards, “She’s absolutely magnetic.”
She has an OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia) for service to literature, but she’s not valuable: friends went to that little garden club meeting a long time ago and she was there , sitting on the minutes and apologizing for giving a talk on Austen and Gardens.
I have terrible headaches, but Susannah appears to be in supernatural health. I’m very interested in spirituality – and not Susannah, really. I never detected in her this quality that I sometimes felt in other atheists, of a love or a sublimated desire for God. I think it feeds on literature.
We’ve talked a lot over the past year – as both of our careers fell apart! – and she was amazing: she did everything I said I would and didn’t. She recorded lectures and sold them; she did digital things on subscription; she has toured Australia rather than overseas. When the restrictions were really bad, she toured the Southern Highlands of New South Wales! I am just in awe.
Who does she remind me of in Dickens? It is complicated. He is so well known for his struggles with female characters: they are all very pure consumerist young girls or stupid, poisonous old witches. I’ll tell Biddy to High expectations – intelligent, quick-witted, kind – and when she wants something, completely determined.