Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 7-13
The Founding of JASNA
Although the story has been told before, it seems appropriate, in this issue dedicated to the memory of J. David (Jack) Grey, to reconstruct, once again, and in greater detail than has hitherto been given, the history of the birth of JASNA. I will include also some excerpts from Jack’s letters to me.
You could say that the first gleam in an eye occurred when, at the meeting of the Jane Austen Society at Chawton, Saturday 19 July 1975, Sir Hugh Smiley refused the use of a washroom to my husband, Denis Mason Hurley.
Denis and I had often been to Chawton before, but the conception of our own society may, unperceived by us at the time, have taken even stronger root on that same occasion in the famous tent where the committee was always re-elected “en bloc.” We were sitting, waiting for the proceedings to begin, when my neighbour actually spoke to me! Such a radical departure from received conduct had never occurred before. She was a charming American woman, who told me that while her husband was teaching and reading Persian at Oxford, she was spending her days in the Bodleian devouring everything about Jane Austen she could lay her hands on.
The third and most important circumstance occurred six days later, on Friday 25 July 1975. A bicentennial costume ball was held at Oakley Hall, near Steventon, where Jane Austen had once called on Mrs. Bramston and eaten “sandwiches all over mustard.” There, at the end of the evening, I was approached by a tall handsome man in a blue coat like Mr. Bingley’s.
All these events contributed in their way, and strange as it may seem, probably the first was the most significant, because Denis was so angry – we had been travelling all day by bus and train to reach Chawton from the east coast of England – that that evening at the Wheatsheaf Pub, sipping sherry with Joseph and Joyce Bown of Steventon and the charming American woman who was staying with them and who turned out to be Lorraine Hanaway, he put forward the idea, which no one took seriously, it was a mere joke among ourselves, that we should found our own Jane Austen Society. We laughed. What an idea! But Denis was serious: if we founded a society, said he, people would speak to each other, the committee would be democratically elected, and compassion would be shown for those who needed a washroom.
The next day Denis returned to Canada, but I stayed on another week and went to the costume ball with people I had just met. I wore a dress which had been worn by Sarah Miles when she played Lady Caroline Lamb in the film of that name. Our table was very retired, around a corner, out of sight of most of the room. My finery did me no good. I knew no one, and, like Jane, was only prevented from dancing through want of a partner. Several weary hours later, as we were preparing to go, the man in the blue coat introduced himself. At Chawton, the previous week, he had heard me thank the speaker, Dr. Rowse. My party was leaving, his party was leaving. But in those few minutes – not more than five – so much was said! So much was felt! Little did we imagine that this brief encounter would change not only our own lives, but those of hundreds, no thousands of other people. On a piece of stationery from the Red Lion Hotel, Basingstoke (I have it yet) he hastily scratched out his name and address. “If ever you are in New York, look me up.”
Alas, I thought, I shall never be in New York. I shall never see you again. Twenty years ago New York City seemed like the last place on earth I was ever likely to visit.
But who can foretell the course of events? It is fitting that it was Jane Austen’s own desk which brought us together, and therefore, by extension, is responsible for the founding of JASNA. A month later, back in Canada, I received, to my utter amazement, an invitation from the Pierpont Morgan Library. Would I go to New York at their expense and bring with me Jane Austen’s desk for their bicentenary exhibition? Would I! (The bicentenary, by the way, might have escaped their notice, had Jack not telephoned them two years previously and inquired what they were intending to do about it. He was thanked for reminding them.)
So off I went to New York, carrying the desk with me on the plane in a suitcase. The rest, as they say, is history. Jack was the first person I had ever met who knew as much, or more, about Jane Austen than I did. Two months later we had the pleasure of meeting again, in Edmonton, at a conference organized by Juliet McMaster. I believe that Henry (Harry) Burke was also present. In the spring of 1976 I went again to New York. Jack and I attended an affair in Baltimore arranged by Harry in connection with a display at Goucher College of his wife’s remarkable collection of Jane Austen books. At that time I also met Lorraine Hanaway for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel and we laughingly recalled our evening at the Wheatsheaf and Denis’s suggestion. Later we went back to Jack’s apartment and there was more talk. Nothing, however, was done, or even thought of being done. In the summer of 1976, Jack came out to Victoria to stay with Denis and me. Denis spoke to us again, most forcefully – bullied or badgered might be a more accurate description: “You two must found your own Jane Austen society.”
It was not an idea to be taken seriously. There was, at that time, in the entire world only the one society: the Jane Austen Society which met for one afternoon, once a year, in July, in a tent at Chawton, to hear a speech, drink tea and go home again. Yet here was my absurd husband proposing that we, in North America, Jack living in New York, and I living at the far side of the continent in another country – well, the idea was preposterous.
But Denis did not give up. Four years went by. Jack became my greatest friend. I took to going, went regularly to New York to stay with him and he came frequently to the west coast to stay with us – Denis still harping on his self-appointed goal. Jack and I, however, were not at all keen. Jack was working on his bibliography of Jane Austen (which he subsequently and generously handed over to David Gilson) and I was writing my novel, Stephanie. We loved to read Jane Austen, of course. She was our greatest joy. But that was enough. We did not need the stress of organizing any society.
Eventually, Denis’s persistence wore us down. Early in 1979 Jack wrote to Sir Hugh Smiley and asked for a list of North American members of the English Society.
Sir Hugh was very co-operative, compiled a list with his own hand. The people were contacted. Would they be interested in joining a new society? One based over here? Three hundred and thirty-five replied that they would. Jack then wrote to various distinguished academics, inviting them to be patrons. They did not have to do or pay anything, they didn’t even have to join, only to allow their names to be printed on the stationery. Jack felt that these names, thus displayed, would lend an air of credibility to what seemed to us both at the time an extremely shaky enterprise.
The actual name of our new society gave us a few moments’ pause. Jack wanted to call it the American Jane Austen Society. I objected. I was Canadian. It was I who suggested the present name. Acronyms, then, were not the fashion that they are today. I can still see the look of horror on Jack’s face when he said. Did I realize that the initials spelled JASNA? How unutterably vulgar! But of course, we comforted ourselves, no one would ever actually call it that.
I suggested we should have a third founder, and we decided we would invite Henry Burke to join us. (It could just as well have been Lorraine Hanaway.) Henry Burke was a lawyer. He drew up our by-laws. He loved Jane Austen, and his wife had owned the largest collection (outside the family) of Jane Austen manuscripts in the world. (Bequeathed to the Pierpont Morgan Library.)
“Of course, Joan,” said Jack, “you must be president.” “No,” said I, “I can’t possibly. She is my aunt. You must be president. I’ll edit the Newsletter.” (And Newsletter it was: 32 pages, stapled). After some debate, we decided the name of the newsletter would be Persuasion, aware, of course, of possible confusion with the novel. Jack made inquiries, and I quote from his letter to me, 20 October 1979: “Persuasion: The Journal of The JASNA. (spelled out.) I checked with … at the NYPL and he said that, with the subtitle, that would be o.k. There was a “P” printed in G.B. in the ’40s, but that’s defunct.” [The name was changed to Persuasions by the second issue. Someone had written to us, mistakenly adding an ‘s,’ and we thought how much better a title that was.]
To return to the sequence of events. In the summer of 1979 Jack sent out letters to all who had joined (membership $3.00 that first year, or $5.00 for two years including Persuasions), inviting them to a dinner meeting in New York on October 5, 1979. A hundred people accepted. At the last moment the venue had to be changed from The Players to the Gramercy Park Hotel. Another “period” anecdote concerns the letter Jack wrote to the membership explaining this. He spoke of our plans at last being “finalized,” a verb now quite passed into the language, but then he received I think several letters excoriating him for employing such a very non-Austenian word.
Needless to say, the success of the dinner was extremely gratifying. Like the tea in the tent, we came, we enjoyed ourselves and we went home again at modest expense. Lorraine Hanaway had telephoned the New Yorker. They sent a reporter who wrote it all up in the “Talk of the Town,” describing, in the inimitable New Yorker style of those days how: “Some people who like Jane Austen met – .”
Many curious anecdotes come to mind. The New York Times ran an article about us with an illustration of a woman in Victorian attire wearing a wedding ring, which they claimed to be Jane Austen. The picture had actually been supplied by the New York Public Library! Jack and I, anxiously waiting outside the New York Times office on West 43rd Street at 11 p.m. for the early edition the night before the much-looked-for article was to appear, were horrified. Jack complained. In later editions of that day’s (next day’s) paper the offending picture was removed. I believe it turned out to be of someone called Sarah Austin. But the incident shows how little was known about Jane Austen’s appearance less than twenty years ago that two such venerable institutions as the New York Public Library and the New York Times could each be guilty of such an egregious error.
While Jack toiled at his end of the continent as President, as New York regional co-ordinator with all the business of organization, finances and membership (while working full-time as a teacher), I was doing the same, to a lesser degree, at mine.
I remember being editor of Persuasions, which increased in size yearly (the work included pasting up, paging, and stuffing, stamping and addressing the envelopes, and taking the finished product – many sacks – to the post office – later to the USA); being writer and editor of the Canadian Jane Austen newsletter called “Quips & Quotes,” treasurer for Canada, membership chairman for Canada, regional co-ordinator for Victoria. Stephanie was published that same year, 1979, but for many years afterwards I was virtually unable to pursue my own writing, and the sequel, Stephanie at War, was not published until 1987.
The following excerpts from Jack’s letters to me are of interest in that they show the progress and growing pains of the Society.
[23 July 1979]: Well, as of this afternoon, I’m coming … [to Victoria] I arrive on the 23rd, via Toronto and Vancouver … JASNA has ground to a resounding halt … the Society Library is lending us their 1816 Emma … A cinematic landmark in the Village has consented to show “P&P” for that weekend, whatever that’s worth. The Players remains closed and I can’t do anything about that until August. Which month will be frenetic since all has to be accomplished by the 23rd … So glad to hear Juliet is coming … I asked [Harry’s] firm for the “revised” constitution and they finally complied. I’ll bring it out with me … Gene Koppel, an ardent fan from Arizona, rang me up last week and told me he could get some financing to come …
[20 October 1979]: So I’m still accessing the new membership: 25 since 5 October and about 30 requests for information … The meeting exhausted me and, despite my anticipations, the flurry of activity is only now nearing a conclusion. Now I don’t know where we’re mailing “it” [P’s] from. I assume Canada since we discussed me mailing you the labels. It would be nice if we could do that the last weekend in November so that we could sit back on December 16 and relax.
[24 December 1979]: The Newsletter arrived on the morning of the 16th! But no one’s gotten a copy, yet, as far as I know. I have 60 or 70 more to get out from this end: since my last missive (were we up to 360?) we have climbed to 453 …. Judging from our bank account, next year’s issue will be a smaller affair. I checked to see how many $3-ers we had – 87. If they all renew, we should have $500.00 there, anyway. [Money was a constant source of worry. We often felt we would have to pay out of our own pockets for any short fall in printing costs and expenses.]
[9 February 1980]: Loved the Jane “Austin” Club. [Refers to a cartoon in the New Yorker.] Let’s change our name and the spelling. I have had at least a half dozen checks made out to “in.” I simply don’t understand … I already have an alphabetical list on cards. The labels had to be typed by zip for bulk mailing purposes [no computers in general use then] otherwise we’d have to sort them every time … After much effort I have finally secured the privilege and, instead of costing 15 cents a letter in the future, it will cost 3½ cents …. Out of curiosity I kept track of how much time I spent with JASNA in January = 50 man-hours … I enjoyed most of them.
[15 March 1980]: No word, as yet, from “Country Life.” [He had written a letter to the editor about the alleged portrait, requesting identification.] Shame on me – I never thought of the National Portrait Gallery but solved the riddle, anyway, I believe. Why such antipathy, on your part, to “foreign” members? [I don’t remember this. Possibly the cost of postage was a consideration. JA-L] I honestly, don’t see the point in all the proselytizing that I’m doing, so who am I to question? I do feel that there are certain roads that must be taken to let people know of our existence and then we can rest on the laurels. It’s not the same as Chawton, is it? The cottage is a constant reminder of their existence and we have no such similar hook to hang our hat on. I’m thinking in print right now and I think that this is a problem for Denis to conjure with: what do we do, now, to keep the public informed of our existence? Word of mouth isn’t enough and we haven’t and don’t want a national shrine … I am rather shocked that the response to the Steventon drive fell off so fast. There’s no worthier fund in the world as far as I’m concerned … Aside from steam, I am also running low on practically everything else and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I can use the thousand envelopes. Members come in at about 4 or 5 a day and the supplies are low.
Jack and Joan holding Jane Austen’s spectacles. This photograph was taken in Victoria, British Columbia in 1979 in preparation for the first meeting of JASNA. The desk is Jane Austen’s desk, which, owing to the astute researches of Ed Copeland in Hampshire, may be found described together with the cost of the purchase in his article in this issue: Persuasion: The Jane Austen Consumer’s Guide.
[27 April 1980]: I think people who do go on about their jobs are crashing boors [bores?] I’m afraid it’s getting that way with me and JASNA … When we say membership extends from 12/16 to 12/16 we should stick by our decision. We’re well over 600 now … The consensus of opinion among the 5 or 6 members of the Board within reach is that California members have to belong to JASNA, too. I have written and told them as much … [The 1981 meeting was in San Francisco.]
[20 May 1980]: (From JAL to JDG) Re your problems balancing JASNA funds. I write receipts for everything, and collect receipts for everything. Then it must (and does, after hours of agony) balance. Bank charges and interest have to be taken into consideration of course … I have about 30 copies [of P’s] left. Maybe I should send them to libraries, later on in the summer, when there won’t be any more demand, presumably.
[1 June 1980]: The dinner reservations [for Baltimore conference] are hereby stopped. We have 97 as of today and the Baltimore committee thinks we should not move to accommodate any more. Roz (secretary) checked out a printer in NY and he says “stick with Victoria at ‘all, any’ cost(s).”
I am a bit concerned, however, that we are becoming too academic …
[2 August 1980]: The trivial dust that can be raised by 750 members is inconceivable. Now the Baltimore attendees forgetting what they signed up for on the green slip! And sending checks for the wrong amount …. Our lackadaisical Board, I think you will agree, has been a flop, and we must consider that, too. – promised a blurb to heads of Departments of English months ago. One thousand addressed letterheads sit here in anticipation … The awful apprehension that our members expect interim mailings haunts me. One has sent her change of address twice and I can read between the lines … On that sombre note I shall get to the garlic chicken and minted carrots, of which arrant mundane-ness your great-great-great aunt would have approved.
[8 August 1980]: I did get a chance to re-read S&S and P&P and wish for more time to do that sort of thing instead of tallying this or that or whatever.
[23 November 1981]: I was so pleased to hear/read that you’re excited about P’s #3. Cannot wait to see it … [He speaks of his exhaustion and proposal to retire as president.] Next year I can sit back, relax, watch and listen …
22 Hans Place; Henry Austen lived at No. 23 [22
August 1982]: [Jack and Joan had gone
to Cambridge in England to take a course on JA. This letter is from London.]
Joan – the room at The Cadogan was splendid. In the back, on Pont Street.
I opened the window and there was a small balcony. Out I went, looked down, saw a blue plaque
on a house on the corner of Hans Place and knew immediately what it said. Yup, JA stayed here with her brother
Henry. I had four days of looking at
that thing and it rather made the whole trip for me... I continue to worry about the proliferation
of JASNA publications especially different ones. [Reference is to a production, claiming to be official, issued
without consulting or seeking permission of the Board.] The whole thing is getting out of hand for
that matter. Too many ideas, not enough
thought going into them and too little control. I’ll show you what the Washington Irving Society, founded about the same time as us, has done. Of course they have Rockefeller money, and a
built-in staff, behind them … There
were two shopping bags’ worth of mail waiting for me and, I am proud to say, I
have gotten through both of them.
Yesterday, Saturday, I wrote 19 letters (not this length) and I think
that is a record for me. These letters, I think, show how much Jack and
I considered it “our” society, and how hard we struggled to keep our own
darling child alive. All our fears of
the work any such society would entail were demonstrated many times over. But then, wasn’t it worth it? JASNA now has nearly three thousand members
worldwide. The pleasure it has brought,
and the friends we made enriched our own and many other lives.
No. 22 Hans Place; Henry Austen lived at No. 23
[22 August 1982]: [Jack and Joan had gone to Cambridge in England to take a course on JA. This letter is from London.] Joan – the room at The Cadogan was splendid. In the back, on Pont Street. I opened the window and there was a small balcony. Out I went, looked down, saw a blue plaque on a house on the corner of Hans Place and knew immediately what it said. Yup, JA stayed here with her brother Henry. I had four days of looking at that thing and it rather made the whole trip for me... I continue to worry about the proliferation of JASNA publications especially different ones. [Reference is to a production, claiming to be official, issued without consulting or seeking permission of the Board.] The whole thing is getting out of hand for that matter. Too many ideas, not enough thought going into them and too little control. I’ll show you what the Washington Irving Society, founded about the same time as us, has done. Of course they have Rockefeller money, and a built-in staff, behind them … There were two shopping bags’ worth of mail waiting for me and, I am proud to say, I have gotten through both of them. Yesterday, Saturday, I wrote 19 letters (not this length) and I think that is a record for me.
These letters, I think, show how much Jack and I considered it “our” society, and how hard we struggled to keep our own darling child alive. All our fears of the work any such society would entail were demonstrated many times over. But then, wasn’t it worth it? JASNA now has nearly three thousand members worldwide. The pleasure it has brought, and the friends we made enriched our own and many other lives.