Persuasions #6, 1984                                                                                                                                            Pages 24-25





Beverly Gherman

San Francisco, California


I came late to Jane Austen. Most of my friends were weaned on her books. But I was to discover there are still a few people in the world who don’t know her.

In the fall of 1981, I was serving on a committee to plan JASNA’s San Francisco Meeting. I called a caterer for our gala banquet only to be informed, “Sorry, we don’t work for charities.” It took me several hours to realize he had confused Jane Austen with Jane Addams of Hull House.

Several days later I was speaking to an assistant at a local hotel. As I was leaving, she casually asked, “By the way, which soap does your guest of honour appear in?” To top it off, the young man at the print shop looked at our roughs for the program, then shook his head. “Why does a dead gothic novelist draw crowds from all over the United States, Ireland, and Canada?” Such encounters made me realize Jane Austen might require a brief introduction outside our own circles.

Regional chapters seem to be finding excuses to meet more frequently than at the annual October Meeting. Our devoted San Francisco group gathered to celebrate Jane Austen’s 208th birthday on a Saturday afternoon in December 1983. One of the worst storms of the year arrived that morning, bringing with it gale winds and pelting rain. Jane Austen would not have chosen such a day for any of her fictional outings. We had no other choice.

Our drenched committee arrived at the main branch of the library laden with tea and crumpets, lace tablecloths, and sugar cubes. We juggled coffee pots and cookie tins through the intricate sensors at the door. We were forced to dodge bodies squatting nearby and to step over “literary winos” lying on the stairs.

The library is situated across the street from a park that, in fair weather, serves as home for many of San Francisco’s destitute. The blustery storm brought everyone inside: the homeless, the scholar, and the Austen fan alike. The women’s restroom had become a dormitory of cold, wet mothers and their babes. They lay on the floor wrapped in newspaper and cast-off clothing. In the halls, other creatures were pulling their belongings in plastic bags or decrepit suitcases, as they searched for a dry corner.

Jane Austen’s novels may concentrate on England’s fine estates, but even in Fanny Price’s mean family dwelling at Portsmouth, with its small rooms and thin walls, there was food on the scarred table and a servant, of sorts, to serve it. If worse poverty and hunger existed, she did not choose to describe it.

The “Janeites” who braved the elements of the day came in all sizes and shapes. There were students, professional writers, personnel agents, professors, librarians, a detective, a car rental agent. There were young and old, men and women, all prepared to argue the virtues of their favourite characters.

The chairperson, Kay Austen-Weigand, legally added Austen to her name as a visible sign of her affection for the author. She and Marilyn Sachs, our regional co-ordinator, have read Jane Austen’s books so frequently they are able to quote unstintingly from all of them. What a delight to listen as they quoted “chapter and verse.”

Guest speaker for the day was Jerome Weidman, an author and editor of note, who had spoken at San Francisco’s “gathering of the faithful” in 1981. Mr. Weidman began reading Jane Austen’s work when he was a youth living in New York’s lower East Side. He reminded us that, “there was no free entertainment like television in those days. The weekly movie cost ten cents and we didn’t always have the money. But we all had a borrower’s card for the library. It was free! Once you were hooked, you’d line up at 8:30 on a Saturday morning to be sure to get the book you wanted. I didn’t want to miss a single book on the packed shelves, so I started in the beginning, with the A’s and there was Jane Austen.” He has remained faithful to the world of Emma, Mr. Knightley, and Fanny Price, even as his own world has expanded.

Mr. Weidman’s illustrious presence did not halt a constant stream of uninvited guests from every corner of the library.* They wandered in and out to gobble cookies and warm themselves on tea. They sat down to enjoy the lively debate, and to listen to the San Francisco State University students read from the Box Hill scene in Emma.

Jane Austen may not have chosen to write about the shadowy aspects of life. She warned us, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can … ” Yet I like to think that she, too, would have found it difficult to remain oblivious to the suffering throughout our library on a nasty December day. Certainly we “Janeites” found it almost impossible to keep our blinders in place for what should have been a jovial and esoteric occasion. We came away agreeing with Fanny Price, who “thought she had never known a day of greater agitation, both of pain and pleasure … ”

On that very morning, the paper included the statement by then Reagan advisor, Edwin Meese, to the effect that he was unaware of hunger in our country. We should have invited Mr. Meese to the party. It would have been an opportunity to introduce him to Jane Austen and the event might have provided him with food for thought.

* The Society was given free use of the Commissioner’s room, providing access was not restricted to members only.

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