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Janeites Pride Themselves in Their Prejudice Toward All Things Austen

December 12, 1985|MARY BARBER

Had she been able to attend her 210th birthday party, Jane Austen would have been delighted with the company, but probably not with all the hullabaloo.

Although the daughter of a clergyman wrote her 6 1/2 novels in the seclusion of English country parsonages, she loved a good party with high-spirited guests, good conversation, good wine and good food. But the spinster who was not well known in her time and died at 41 in 1817, never wanted to be the center of attention.

Best known for "Pride and Prejudice," which has been adapted for plays, films and television, Austen received the widest literary acclaim for "Emma," one of her later works. She never left the rural England she described in great detail in all of her novels.

Austen was the center of attention when 170 people who call themselves Janeites celebrated her birthday Saturday (it's actually Monday) on the Claremont Colleges campus. They came from far and near for the annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America-Southwest just to talk about Jane, hear about Jane, hear Jane's written words read aloud, collect her recipes, see the kind of clothes she wore and try to reconstruct country life as Jane lived it 200 years ago.

They marched off to lunch to the music of a bagpiper, winding through college streets to the Faculty Club behind a brilliant red banner bearing Austen's name.

They toasted her with fine wine, received a book of her recipes, and competed for answers to an "Austen detail pursuit" because, they said, nothing relating to Austen could be considered a Trivial Pursuit.

"This is like an extended family," said Kenneth Turan, film critic for California magazine and a Janeite for about five years. "You can form a simple bond on a single subject."

"It clicks because it's so widely based," said Edward Copeland, a Pomona College English literature professor who on Saturday was reelected to a second term as president of the Southwest group. "We're people from all walks of life so new ideas come from all sides.

"We can be passionate about something here, but not in a silly way. People seem to be quite sophisticated in their passion for Jane Austen."

Since the Southwest chapter's founding in 1979, the birthday celebrants have increased from about 50 to last Saturday's 170, Copeland said. The greatest growth occurred in 1983 when several newspaper stories reported an increasing nationwide interest in Austen. That was the year the world first saw Jane Austen T-shirts, tote bags and bumper stickers that said, "I'd rather be reading Jane Austen."

There appears to be no generally agreed upon explanation for the popularity of an author who was single-mindedly devoted to the business of getting her heroines married. Some people love the romantic plots; some love Austen's literary style; some are drawn to the high value Austen placed on morality and ethics.

In 1983 Olive Evans, a British-born actress who lives in Manhattan Beach, first decided to read aloud an Austen passage in what has since become a favorite portion of the Jane Austen Society's annual program.

"I expected an audience of about 15 people, and here was this huge roomful!" Evans said of the meeting in the Huntington Library and Art Gallery.

This year she read the opening chapter of "Pride and Prejudice," and she agrees with critics who call it a near-perfect piece of literature.

Speakers discussed the consumerism in Austen novels, the art of elocution in 1800 and the domestic arts that Austen took pride in. Edward Maeder, curator of costumes and textiles for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, described "Dress in Jane Austen's Time." Alma Zook, Pomona College professor of physics and astronomy, spoke in the Planetarium in Millikan Laboratory on "Jane Austen's Knowledge of the Stars."

"I wouldn't miss this for the world," said Harriet Williams of Long Beach, who leads tours to literary sites in England.

"It's like nothing else, and it gets better all the time," said Lucy Perkins of Redondo Beach.

"I think I should have been alive when Jane Austen was," said Iris Bath, an actress from Sherman Oaks who read aloud another passage from "Pride and Prejudice." "I like the pace, the manners, the reserve. There's too much brashness today and no romanticism."

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