By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
It was not until 1940 when the first organized Jane Austen Society was founded in England. That group worked to purchase and then to open to the public the home in which Austen lived in the last years of her life—Chawton Cottage. Chawton Cottage is now known as Jane Austen’s House and welcomes thousands of visitors each year.
Few of the objects originally found in Jane’s home could be found by 1940, but the museum at Chawton Cottage opened nonetheless in 1949.
The nearby great house, Chawton House, was one of the homes in which Jane’s brother Edward Knight lived during Jane’s lifetime. Chawton House was eventually leased by later descendants of the Knight family to an American tech magnate, Sandy Lerner.
Sandy turned Chawton House into a library and study center. Today, it, too, is a museum devoted to Austen and women’s writing. It places a special emphasis on the Knight family having once had a library by which Austen had gained access to books.
At several points in Austen’s afterlife, her Janeite fans and her collateral descendants converged. None is perhaps more important than the late Joan Austen-Leigh and her activities in the 1970s.
Joan Austen-Leigh, who died in 2001, was the great-great-granddaughter of Jane Austen’s nephew and memoirist, as well as a novelist, playwright, and author-society visionary in her own right.
Austen-Leigh, a Canadian, wrote a play to celebrate the 1975 bicentenary of Jane Austen’s birth. In the preface to her play, ‘Our Own Particular Jane’, Joan describes how, in each generation, members of her family have written about their famous ancestor. It prompts Austen-Leigh to reflect on “the weight of generations looking over my shoulder”.
But Joan Austen-Leigh created something new and important, despite the weight of those generations. She co-founded the Jane Austen Society of North America, or JASNA, in 1979. JASNA stands today as one of the world’s largest author-appreciation societies.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Idea for JASNA
Austen-Leigh wrote humorous accounts of how the idea to create JASNA first came about. She writes, “You could say that the first gleam in an eye [to found JASNA] occurred … at the meeting of the Jane Austen Society at Chawton, on Saturday, July 19th, 1975”, at the celebration of the bicentenary of Austen’s birth. It was then, Joan Austen-Leigh wrote, that the Jane Austen Society’s president, Sir Hugh Smiley “refused the use of a washroom to my husband”.
The United Kingdom’s Jane Austen Society, founded in 1940, had been meeting once a year, often outdoors, on the lawn of what was then a private home, Chawton House. It was still owned by collateral descendants of the author. As Joan Austen-Leigh notes, her husband Denis, a Canadian, being refused a washroom there made him very angry as they “had been travelling all day by bus and train to reach Chawton from the east coast of England”.
Joan Austen-Leigh writes that her husband then “put forward the idea, which no one took seriously, it was a mere joke among ourselves, that we should found our own Jane Austen Society. We laughed. What an idea! But Denis was serious: if we founded a society, said he, people would speak to each other, the committee would be democratically elected, and compassion would be shown for those who needed a washroom.”
Creation of JASNA
While Joan’s husband went back to Canada, she stayed for the bicentennial ball in Chawton. She wore a special Regency-style dress, but she later wrote that, even in a stunning dress that was literally movie star glamorous, “My finery did me no good. I knew no one, and, like Jane, was only prevented from dancing through want of a partner.”
Before the evening all came to an end, however, an American man, J. David Grey, who called himself ‘Jack’, introduced himself to her. As Joan writes, “In those few minutes—not more than five—so much was said! So much was felt! Little did we imagine that this brief encounter would change not only our own lives, but those of hundreds, no thousands of other people.”
And so it happened that the Canadian great-great-great niece of Jane Austen, along with an English teacher and school administrator in New York City, went on to dream up the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Work by JASNA
JASNA now has more than 5,000 members and an annual meeting that has attracted sellout crowds of nearly 1,000 participants. It includes lectures, workshops, bookstalls, tea, and a ball, with costumes optional. The organization also runs a scholarly journal, called Persuasions, which suggests that the supposed divide between scholars and Janeites is no longer quite as strict as it was once said to be.
JASNA’s late co-founder, Joan Austen-Leigh, in one of her lectures to the literary society, referred to Austen as her own aunt but also as a kind of ‘spiritual aunt’ for countless others. Many readers, over the years, have affiliated in just that way with the author. Others, however, would prefer to keep family metaphors out of the conversation. They believe that doing so will better allow for reading and studying the author and her writings with more appropriate depth and greater distance.
Whatever one’s preference of vision, this much should not be up for dispute: two centuries of Austen family descendants, Janeite admirers, and Austen scholars have worked, together and separately, to maintain the novelist’s status as a household name. Their work, collectively, has kept her fiction before readers. Relating to Jane Austen has always been about communities—familial, created, and chosen.
Common Questions about Jane Austen Societies in England and America
Chawton House was one of the homes in which Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight lived during her lifetime. It was eventually leased by later descendants of the Knight family to an American tech magnate, Sandy Lerner. Sandy turned Chawton House into a library and study center. Today, it is a museum devoted to Austen and women’s writing.
JASNA is Jane Austen Society of North America. It was founded in 1979 by Joan Austen-Leigh, the great-great-granddaughter of Jane Austen’s nephew and memoirist.
JASNA holds annual meetings that include lectures, workshops, bookstalls, tea, and a ball, with costumes optional. The organization also runs a scholarly journal, called Persuasions.