According to members of the Jane Austen Society of North America, a multi-chapter fan club for the famous 18th-century English novelist, their encounters are the kind where introductions are never necessary. “We are bonded to each other by our love of Austen’s novels,” Newton member Neil Kulick explained. “There’s nothing better than getting together to discuss books you love with like-minded companions.”
The organization, also known as JASNA, currently has over 5,000 members and 80 regional chapters across the United States and Canada – from Maine to Arkansas to Saskatchewan. Each group of dedicated janeites (as Austen’s acolytes are commonly known) dedicate their time to a series of events and programs that spread the good word of the scribe “Pride and Prejudice” – coming together for lectures, lectures and group visits to England. Coming soon, the Massachusetts JASNA Chapter will meet via Zoom on March 13 to host a lecture by Wellesley Professor Emeritus Timothy Peltason on “Writing the Life of Feelings in Persuasion.”
JASNA’s roots go back to the 1970s, according to Juliet McMaster, an Austen scholar and professor of English literature at the University of Alberta, who was present at the inception. She recalls that Joan Austen-Leigh, a descendant of the Austen family, joined forces with two aficionados, J. David Gray and Henry Burke, to create a North American version of the English Jane Austen Society, a platform for support the author work. As a copy of the official invitation on file with McMaster says, the inaugural meeting in New York was posted to “‘talk about Jane’ with other similarly afflicted people.” The New Yorker covered the 100-attendee event with a “Talk of the Town” caption that began: “Some people who love Jane Austen got together the other night.”
Today, the Massachusetts chapter of JASNA has over 200 members and meets five times a year, including a festive Jane Austen birthday party each December. Annual memberships range from $20 to $45, and meetings consist of lectures and performances largely focused on deepening members’ understanding of Austen’s work and life.
“Once I started attending meetings, I started learning a lot more about his novels, which improved my understanding of them, including the social history of the time and his style. distinctive songwriting,” said Bolton’s 20-year veteran member Jill Crowley.
For some members, the organization serves as a bridge between academia and enthusiasm. JASNA Massachusetts Regional Coordinator Marcia Folsom, Emeritus Professor of Literature at Wheelock College, believes that membership not only supports her academic achievements, but also her social achievements. “[My involvement has] been important to my success as an Austen Scholar,” she said. “Perhaps the friendships I have made with people who have a wide range of reasons to become involved with Austen beyond the academic realm are perhaps more important to me.”
And for others, it’s all about Jane Awesome. “Local Meetings continue to be an eye opener, with every possible way to enjoy, appreciate and indulge Jane Austen,” said Leslie Nyman of Pelham, who first heard about JASNA at ‘a pilgrimage to the Jane Austen’s House museum in the village of Chawton in England. “Each time, I leave with a new insight into the six novels. It never gets old.”
Although united by a love for Austen, the Massachusetts group encourages prospective members (and Austen neophytes) to attend one or two meetings before committing to paying the annual dues. Following Peltason’s March “Persuasion” event, the group will host Vanderbilt University’s Roger Moore on May 15 for a virtual lecture and discussion on “Mansfield Park.”
To visit JASNAMA.org to register and for more information about the group.
Betsy Groban is a columnist for Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf and has worked in book publishing, public broadcasting and arts advocacy.