Nice fellow, that Edward Ferrars. But a worthy match for Elinor Dashwood?

We think not.

Not all of us, of course. But a good many of those attending the Jane Austen Society of North America's 12th annual general meeting here this past weekend believe the heroine of "Sense and Sensibility" deserves better than Edward, who lacks "peculiar graces of person or address."

The lecture on this thorny topic is one of the hits of the meeting, attracting such a crowd that it has to be moved to a larger room. Austen fans listen intently and react with fervor. When the speaker makes an apt point, their heads bob up and down. "Yes! Yes!" they call out. It's almost like a church meeting.

Worshipers of Jane Austen can debate about her novels for hours, citing every nuance of language, of look and manner, to justify their conclusions. The author didn't waste words, and her admirers weigh every one.

This year's gathering of the Jane Austen Society, or JASNA, was the first in Washington, and it attracted more than 350 from as far away as Britain and Australia. They came from dozens of states -- Maine, Florida, Oregon, Wyoming, California -- and from Canada.

They are riveted by everything and anything associated with the writer and her works.

There is a seminar on "Development of the English Landscape Garden and Jane Austen" given by John Dixon Hunt of Dumbarton Oaks.

There is a lecture on Virginia Woolf's views on Austen and one on Austen's views on the Romantics. There is a talk on medicine and disease in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. (A slide flashes on the screen. The speaker begins: "Here is a selection of British freshwater leeches... .")

Jean Bowden, the curator of Jane Austen's home in the village of Chawton, in Hampshire, brings listeners up to date on the cottage. "It was a very sad day a couple of years ago when the last of Jane's oak trees had to come down," she says ruefully. "It had a fungal infection. But I managed to rescue a seedling. It's now taller than I am."

Jane Austen fans love a happy ending.

The theme of this year's meeting is "Sense and Sensibility," an early and relatively schematic novel that is rarely mentioned as a favorite. In fact, one woman declares during a seminar that she "never liked" the novel very much.

Why then, the lecturer asks coolly, did she come to the meeting? The woman hastily corrects herself. "I shouldn't say I don't like the book that much," she pleads. "It's my least favorite."

For the uninitiated, the novel is about Elinor and Marianne, sisters who fall in love with very different men. Elinor is discreet about her feelings for the unglamorous Edward -- especially since she isn't certain that he reciprocates.

But Marianne, scorning social rules, lavishes what she later acknowledges to be "a most shamefully unguarded affection" on the dashing but corrupt Mr. Willoughby. Marianne pays a high price in emotional and physical health while Elinor, of course, fares better.

But is Edward a fair reward? The question is addressed in a talk by Washington Post columnist and Jane Austen devotee Mary McGrory, who argues that Elinor deserves more.

McGrory figures that the Elinor-and-Edward debate is "the most rational discussion that is probably going on in Washington at this time."

She speaks for the group when she says that Jane Austen's works remain timely. They were written in another century and the setting is usually an English country village, but McGrory feels "a piercing shock of recognition" when she reads them.

Aside from her unblinking perceptiveness, Austen's irreverence stands up well in the late 20th century. That spirit is revealed in her novels and in her letters, cited often by the lecturers.

In the lecture on medicine, for example, excerpts are read from Jane Austen's letters to her sister. In one famous passage, Austen wrote, "Mrs. Hall of Sherbourne was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband."

And announcing the death of an acquaintance: "Poor woman! She has done the only thing she could possibly do to make one cease to abuse her."

J. David Grey, one of the founders of JASNA, lurks in the corridor outside a lecture, smoking a cigarette and observing what he has wrought. "We thought maybe we'd attract 300 people in the long run and now we have more than 2,500, I think," he says of the society.

Grey is principal of a junior high school in Harlem and obviously a true believer. Will the society ever run out of lecture topics? (There are, after all, only a handful of Jane Austen novels.)

Grey shakes his head. "People would be happy if we just did 'Pride and Prejudice' every year," he says.

At first, he admits, he opposed the sale of memorabilia now offered at the annual meetings. It's not quite the thing, for a purist. There are Jane Austen T-shirts, bookmarks, videos, and that is just a sampling of what's out there. Grey is taking it in stride.

"It gives people a lot of fun, so what's wrong with that?" he says. He's been the recipient of many such items over the years. "I have a collection of things that would curl her hair, or straighten her hair."

The worst? "A Jane Austen doll sold at Fortnum & Mason's a dozen years or so ago," he says readily. "It's more like an idol."