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For the Love of Jane: Austen Fans Keep Her Memory Alive

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by Patricia Villacin

Netherfield Ball

The Jane Austen Society of North America is dedicated to the enjoyment of Jane Austen and her writing. Its North Texas chapter meets several times a year, inviting scholars and experts on Austen’s works, organizing conferences and balls, and participating in Regency activities.

It is a truth universally acknowledged: for more than 200 years, Jane Austen has spawned a legion of devout fans.

Around the world, self-proclaimed “Janeites” celebrate the life and work of their favorite Regency era spinster. Here in North Texas, a chapter of the 4,500-member Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) has been active for 16 years. Society members meet several times a year to participate in book discussions, attend scholarly conferences, including a recent Annual General Meeting, organize balls, and go on pilgrimages to England – all in the name of Jane.

“I think Jane has a true vision,” said Susan Jelen, who serves as the North Texas chapter’s treasurer. “I think she talks about people the way people really are. She’s looking at truth and it’s not just manners; it’s not just who has money and who doesn’t have money – it’s character studies.”

Jelen, who has been a part of the chapter since its second meeting, was just a teenager when Austen’s writing and dynamic characters first captivated her. Her first Austen book, Pride and Prejudice, also happens to be her favorite. She loves the book’s plot and wit so much that she finds herself reading it in its entirety every year.

Rosalie Sternberg purchased her first copy of Pride and Prejudice for $1.25. It was 1953 when the New York native was introduced to Austen through her high school English class. Years later, having married and raised two daughters, Sternberg and Austen’s paths crossed once again when she decided to take a class about the author at Texas Christian University.

“I loved it,” Sternberg said. “There were about 10 of us and we didn’t want it to end.”

Lindy Bell

When it did end, Sternberg continued to meet with her classmates at bookstores to discuss Austen’s work. She later joined JASNA on the national level and went on a JASNA trip to England, where the society’s national president suggested she establish a chapter for the North Texas region.

She returned to America and did just that.

JASNA’s North Texas chapter was born in Sternberg’s living room in 1997, with just nine people in attendance. That number increased to 22 by the second meeting and gradually grew to its current count of about 130 members. More information about the group can be found at its website.

The group is an eclectic bunch: a mix of homemakers, academics, lawyers, doctors, and even a few men.

“It’s so different from what I do on a regular basis, and I really enjoy that,” Jelen, a Dallas-based administrative law judge, said about the group. “I like the intellectual challenge of it because you do have to think and be able to argue your points.”

But not all Janeites fall head-over-heels for Austen the moment they are introduced to Pride and Prejudice’s proud but noble hero, Mr. Darcy.

“I thought it was ridiculous romantic dribble,” Cheryl Kinney said of reading the novel in high school.

Kinney then went on to Indiana University as a biology major, but was forced into taking humanities courses. She thought she found an easy way around this requirement when she saw that English literature was an option she could take.

Beowulf about killed me; I still don’t understand Chaucer; I failed a Shakespeare sonnet and I never thought I’d get into medical school after that,” Kinney said. “Then we went on to Jane Austen and Emma, and I just went, ‘Oh my gosh. This is the cleverest; the most witty; the most ironic; the most economic writer I have ever read in my life.”

Kinney is now a gynecologist and one of the North Texas chapter’s most active members. She is a frequent speaker at Jane Austen events and combines her medical expertise with her knowledge of the Regency era to come up with unique lectures, such as her well-received 2002 talk, “Hot Flashes and Hormones: Menopause in the World of Jane Austen.”

Kinney was also a featured speaker at this year’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Minnesota. Every fall, hundreds of JASNA members gather for this three-day literary conference. Two years ago, the North Texas chapter hosted the AGM, bringing about 600 Austen bigwigs and fans to downtown Fort Worth.

“Having an AGM was Rosalie’s dream,” Kinney said. “She really wanted to do that, and I think all of us from the region got behind her, worked hard and made it happen. There isn’t one person who deserves credit; everybody worked so hard.”

The conference also attracted the attention of filmmakers. A BBC film crew came and covered the event for a documentary called “The Many Lovers of Jane,” gracing Channel 13 viewers with shots of the Fort Worth skyline, singing cowboys and interviews with our local Janeites.

“At the end of the day, we had a conference that was incredibly important from a scholarship’s standpoint, but it was also incredibly fun,” Kinney said.

Although JASNA is, first and foremost, a literary society, the group still finds ways to appreciate Austen’s work outside of the typical book club discussion circle. Members take lessons ranging from cooking to archery; they also enter essay-writing contests, wear period gowns and celebrate Austen’s birthday with grand balls.

“A lot of people in the group are interested in history and are far more interested in what’s going on in the Georgian court than Jane Austen herself,” Theresa Kenney, an English professor at the University of Dallas and another frequent JASNA speaker, said. “But there will also be people who just like buying tea and looking at the period dresses.”

While many long-time Janeites trace their devotion to Austen back to her books, Kenney says recent film adaptations of Austen’s works have sparked a new generation of fans. New Wave Janeite Lindy Bell was swept into the Austen craze after watching “The Complete Jane Austen” on PBS Masterpiece Theatre four or five years ago. Other screen adaptations include the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries and its 2005 film version; the Oscar-nominated 1995 Sense and Sensibility film; the 1996 Emma film and Clueless, its 2001 modernization.

“The movies are what pulled me in,” Bell said. “I think that’s what happens to a lot of people, but then when you get into it, you go and back and read the books and realize how good” they are.

With an entire IMdB page of film adaptations and with her beloved Pride and Prejudice turning 200 years old this year, scholars are impressed by how Austen has posthumously managed to maintain a fan base as fervent as its younger Twilight-loving counterparts.

“There’s a lot of reasons people still like Jane Austen,” Kenney said. “I have heard people say that it’s all about the dresses and all the things aesthetically beautiful – it can be as simple as that. When you turn to the books of course, the material aspect of the culture is not all that present. She really focuses on the interplay of personality. Her heroines have different personalities, but they share a strong ethical core and have high standards for themselves.”

Austen’s impact is evident in each Janeite’s life. It is manifested through the worn copy of Pride and Prejudice on Sternberg’s bedside table; Bell’s collection of handmade Regency gowns; Kinney’s clever presentations and the disappointment Jelen feels when she has to miss a JASNA meeting.

“The thoughts behind her books are just timeless and she always put her characters through a lot, but they were always happy at the end,” Bell said. “Her stories have brought people together – the associations, the friendships, the camaraderie – there’s just no comparison.”

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