Most Jane Austen fans remember the first time they read one of her novels. I was 15 and found a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” one boring summer afternoon on the top shelf of my oldest sister’s closet. I don’t think she had read it, and so it became mine. I devoured the author’s other five novels in short order, and I went through high school as a closet Jane Austen worshiper. In college, I majored in English literature and brought tattered copies of
“Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” with me to my job at Acapulco restaurant, to read during breaks. To this day, fiesta platters and busboys humming Mexican love songs remain associated with the perils of Elizabeth, Jane, Elinor, and Marianne.
It was a purely personal interest until 1990, when I discovered there was a formal group of people just like me who couldn’t stop reading her books: the Jane Austen Society of North America. What’s more, these people studied her life, knew how many brothers and sisters she had, and could discourse with astounding ease and enthusiasm on the general themes of marriage, naval history, entailed estates, the slave trade, feminist implications, and Austen’s subtle, exquisite satire.
During the week, I was an editor, interviewing franchisors and inventors and covering small business technology. On weekends, I looked forward to attending the Orange County Reading Group and diving deep into Austen topics.
I saved so I could attend the group’s Annual General Meeting that year in Washington D.C. I met Iris from Ohio, who specialized in Austen limericks; Pat, purveyor of early edition Austen novels; and Beatrice from Virginia, who preferred neat bourbon over tea as an afternoon refresher. Joan Austen-Leigh (an honest-to-goodness descendant!) was there, as were the rest of the small group of people who founded the society in 1979. Mary McGrory, famed political columnist for The Washington Post, brought down the house with a plenary talk that proposed a bit of husband-swapping for Elinor and Marianne.
Her ideas felt exhilarating and a bit scandalous—what, change things? Play around with Austen characters? Alternative plots and endings? An entire new world opened up for me, moving beyond the six books and embracing modern interpretations, revisions, and what-ifs.
I became more involved, taking on the newsletter-editor role and meeting like-minded people. Together we took trips to see special screenings of Austen film adaptations, often receiving exclusive invites from the studios.
It was around this time that I began a love story of my own. Tim and I met at a young adults group in Newport Beach. After a few years of being friends, we started dating. In the summer of 1993, I questioned whether I ever wanted to get married and asked him for a month off. He was heartbroken, but agreed. I missed him but distracted myself by planning for another conference, this time in Lake Louise, Alberta.
I took my mother to this one. It was themed “Persuasion” after Austen’s novel about a woman who gets a second chance with the man she had loved and lost years before. The hotel was next to the incredible green-blue lake. We set about having a grand time; on Saturday we joined nearly 600 members for the traditional banquet, followed by the Regency Ball.
After a few bites of prime rib, I was summoned to the mezzanine to take a call from Tim, who was at a business meeting in Texas. The elegant space was deserted; I walked over to the phone. There was no one on the line. I heard a door squeak and turned around—there was Tim, dressed in breeches, a waistcoat, and a tall black hat. He had been waiting out on the terrace, in the 6-degree night air. He walked to me and knelt down; with his hands shivering, he pulled out a ring box and asked me to be his wife.
How can I describe the thrill of being loved by someone so wonderful as this man? The only thing I remember was wondering where to put him during the rest of the evening since he wasn’t a member of the society. We walked to the hotel bar, where I deposited him breeches and all, and he drank wine while surrounded by burly dudes from Calgary watching a hockey game.
Word of a wedding proposal quickly swirled around the banquet hall. As the discovery unfolded, Tim was plucked from the bar and forced to promenade in all of his period finery. The proposal went down in the group’s history.
I didn’t give Tim an answer until about a month later. My father died a few days after the conference, and things were rough. Around Thanksgiving, I asked Tim if his offer still stood; it did.
Being a part of this group for so many years has been like having my own portable Jane Austen—pulling her out of the bookshelves and into my peripatetic life. While in labor with my first child, Elizabeth, I begged my mom to read aloud from “Pride and Prejudice” to calm me down. I brought my baby girl to a few meetings, clunking delicate chairs with my heavy, plastic infant carrier. Eliza-
beth was raised with a legacy and has responded in kind. Last summer she helped all of us 40-and-over members learn a flash-mob dance to publicize the Annual General Meeting in Huntington Beach this October. She is now 20 and studying fashion journalism at the London College of Fashion, about 50 miles from Chawton, Austen’s last home.
My modernist daughter Caroline doesn’t read much Austen but appreciates the principles of the Enlightenment. She hopes a Regency England version of the video game series “Assassin’s Creed” will come out soon. My son Dana, who spends much of his time on a surfboard or in a jujitsu studio, doesn’t have much enthusiasm for life in a 19th century sitting room. Yet whether they know it or not, my family’s cultural tapestry contains golden threads, woven from my involvement in the society.
I’m no reenactor with a closetful of Emma gowns. I have no illusions of the early 19th century being “more gracious,” an era in which five women out of 1,000 died in childbirth. My feet are planted right here in the 21st century, with all its flaws. What keeps me an enthusiastic southwest region member is the sense of belonging to something that adds dimension to my ordinary suburban life.
Not everyone can say, as Anne Elliot does in “Persuasion,” that they enjoy “the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation.” Here with my clever, well-informed fellow Orange County Janeites, I certainly can.
→ Join the Jane Austen tribe. Registration for the 2017 AGM in Huntington Beach opens in May. For more information, visit jasna.org.