One hundred twenty-five members of the New York chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America gathered Saturday at the Grolier Club to celebrate the author's 209th birthday with great pride. But there was more than just a bit of prejudice here. After Laurie Kaplan, an assistant literature professor at Goucher College, delivered the guest lecture, she delivered a warning about the publication of a new, unflattering biography, "The Life of Jane Austen" by John Halperin. "He calls her snarling," reported Kaplan. "He says she bares her fangs, that she was a woman who may have been incapable of love and was full of sexual longing, that 'Pride and Prejudice' is full of nastiness."
When several audience members asked for more information about this Mr. Halperin, Kaplan told them, "He's a distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University."
"Distinguished at what?" asked a snarling Janeite.
"Let's lynch him," said another devotee, baring her fangs.
"Who isn't full of sexual longing?" said someone else clearly more full of nastiness than "Pride and Prejudice."
"He just wants to be controversial," said another, who plans to read the book. "But I'm certainly not going to buy it. I'll get it from the library."
Most so-called "Janeites" don't need to resort to the library for her books; they own multiple copies -- and they come out of a venerable tradition of devoted Austen fans. While prince regent of England, George IV insisted that editions of her entire oeuvre be placed in each of his country estates. Winston Churchill brought one of the novels with him on an overnight visit to the White House and was caught guffawing over it by FDR. And whenever he was ill, Charles Darwin asked that his wife read Austen's work aloud.
These gentlemen were in spiritual attendance at this birthday celebration. Indeed, they were also in spiritual attendance last month at a pre-birthday fete in Victoria, British Columbia; last week when the Los Angeles Chapter of the society toasted the author; and yesterday, Austen's actual birthday, at a dinner in Victoria based on the food mentioned in "Emma," at a church service in Toronto and at modest parties in Ottawa, Philadelphia and Washington. And yes, they will be there for a celebration next month in Baltimore and a Valentine's Day Love-In in San Francisco.
To be sure, the society isn't the only group whose raison d'e tre is an abiding interest in a particular author. There are organizations for the devotees of the Bronte s, Dickens, James Joyce and John Barth. There are groups like the Baker Street Irregulars for male aficionados of Sherlock Holmes (women have had to band separately).
"But we're just concerned with the novels," explained J. David Grey, who with Henry J. Burke and Austen's great-great-great niece, playwright Joan Austen-Leigh, founded the society seven years ago. "We're less interested in esoterica or ephemera than groups like the Baker Street Irregulars. We're not a national shrine to Jane Austen."
Initially, Grey was something of a reluctant founder. There was, after all, a Jane Austen Society in England, which had been established after World War II by biographer Lord David Cecil. Organizing one in the country that had barely gained its independence during Austen's lifetime (1775-1817) seemed a bit redundant if not a bit presumptuous. "But I had known Joan Austen-Leigh for several years and I had visited her several times at her home in British Columbia," said Grey, an assistant junior high school principal in East Harlem. "It was her husband who forced us to start the group here."
While Jane Austen would have deplored the use of force -- wit was her preferred weapon -- she would surely be pleased with the success of the society. While it has taken the Austen Society of England 40 years to collect 1,600 members, the North American society already has that number. They meet two to three times a year, and the annual dues of $10 buys an annual newsletter.
Its members, a blend of teachers, writers, psychologists, social workers, doctors, lawyers and housewives, have essentially nothing in common except for love of Austen's novels -- but that seems quite sufficient.
"You get to meet a nice class of persons here, people who believe in the eternal verities, in order and tranquility," said Clive Caplan, a Long Island doctor who takes turns reading aloud from the novels with his wife Janice. "Before joining JASNA, I felt cast adrift, like the only one in the universe who felt this way about Austen."
"I thought I'd be the only person at the first meeting of the society, and there were a hundred people hungry to talk about Austen. Hungry," said board member Helen Dickerman of Levittown, N.Y. "They didn't want to talk about their jobs or their children or their spouses -- just Austen."
Indeed, the society's membership chairman, Joan Brantz, has been known to get phone calls that state without preamble, "I'm an addict," and letters like "I'm a closet Janeite." A woman recently widowed wrote to Brantz requesting a life membership "because my husband would have wanted me to do this."
But why such fervent interest in a writer whose works have been viewed by many as a more effective soporific than sleeping pills, whose works have been dismissed as ending with the rustle of bank notes and wedding gowns. "I deplore the fact that they allowed Austen to die a natural death," was Mark Twain's intemperate view of the matter.
"She makes good common sense," is the simple explanation of Carol Muratore, a securities analyst with Prudential-Bache.
"Austen gives a sense of order to a chaotic world," believes Laurie Kaplan.
"Austen and Shakespeare make good supplementary reading to my professional books," said Long Island social worker and past society secretary Jane Kemp.
"She's a wonderful diagnostician," said Manhattan psychologist Arlene Kagle, the proud owner of an "I'd Rather be Reading Jane Austen" sweat shirt. "There are few better descriptions of a narcissistic personality in the professional literature than can be found in 'Lady Susan.' "
Fans of Austen are used to having their passion not understood; surely they would not allow themselves to be daunted by even the most negative biography. The specter of John Halperin did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the Janeites digging into chocolate-striated birthday cake. "This 18th-century writer is talking about me and my family," said Dickerman. "She's speaking to the 20th century. She has to be special. Why else would 125 people be here on Saturday afternoon right before Christmas?"