What is it about a novel that entices the reader to return to its pages again and again? What brings a centuries-old character to life in a way that resonates with twenty-first century men and women? How is it that an author whose name never appeared in print before her death continues to inspire discussion, laughter, and scholarship more than 200 years later?
For Jane Austen fans, the answer is simple: Austen’s brilliance, humor, and critical eye not only invite readers into a bygone era, but continue to speak truth today.
“Her novels provide me with a lot of joy. I laugh out loud every time I read them. She has a gift of continually delighting,” says Liz Philosophos Cooper, vice president of regions for the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Liz is a second-generation JASNA member who fell in love with Austen’s work as a high school student. She was taking an independent study on British literature when she read Pride and Prejudice for the first time.
“You have such a different perspective as a romantic seventeen-year-old. I’m sure I thought Mrs. Bennett was awful. I’m sure my head was turned by Wickham, just like Elizabeth’s. It would be fun to remember exactly what I thought,” Liz says.
Her mother, Joan (pronounced Joanne) Philosophos, shared Liz’s fascination with British literature, and specifically Jane Austen. The two of them planned to take a literary tour of England after Liz finished her senior year. Unfortunately, just two weeks before their planned departure, Liz’s father had a heart attack. While he survived, their trip to England did not.
Liz went on to major in Communications Arts, focusing on radio, TV, and film in college at the University of Wisconsin. She wanted to be an English teacher, but her professors said it wasn’t a thriving job market. So she worked, got married, and had four sons. She got involved in a Great Books program at her sons’ elementary school, which fueled her passion for literature. Meanwhile, her mother got involved in the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) in the 1980s.
“I became a life member around 1990, and so did my sister-in-law Molly,” Liz says.
Raising four boys kept her busy, and her husband traveled for work a lot, so Liz’s involvement in JASNA was limited. Her mother, on the other hand, was very involved. Her mom served on the national nominating committee for JASNA, attended luncheons, and annual meetings, and eventually became the vice president of regions.
At the Jane Austen birthday luncheon every December, Joan Philosophos would often write a toast in the voice of one of Austen’s characters. She considered these luncheons and the Annual General Meeting to be “red letter days” on her calendar, Liz reminisced. Her favorite Austen book was Emma.
“She thought Emma was Jane Austen’s masterpiece,” says Liz. She also loved to have the debate about who was the worse parent in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet or Mrs. Bennet.
Joan loved having fun with Austen. Every Christmas she would wrap a gift to herself and sign it from Jane Austen. Liz decided to carry on the tradition, recently by wrapping a copy of Two Guys Read Jane Austen by Steve Chandler and Terrence N. Hill, and giving it to her husband. The package read: “To Scott, from Jane Austen.”
A year passed and he hadn’t read it yet, Liz says with a laugh. “So Jane Austen wrapped it up and gave it to him again.” That time he read it—and enjoyed it, too!
Liz’s love for Austen has spilled over into her front yard. She recently installed a Little Free Library there with a Jane Austen theme. She always tries to keep one or two Austen books available in the library for passersby to pick up. She hopes to inspire others to read and love Austen, too.
Although she attended some of the JASNA events, Liz’s own involvement was limited by the busyness of raising her four boys.
“I always said I’d get more involved when things slowed down,” says Liz.
In 2000, Cooper heard the news that JASNA’s annual general assembly was scheduled to be in Winchester, England, in 2003.
“I let my mom know in 2000 that we were going,” says Liz. “She died before that trip.”
Even though she would never get to go to England with her mom, Liz decided to make the trip anyway.
“I called up my sister-in-law and said, ‘We’re going. You’re going to read a book, then watch the movie. Read another book, then watch a movie.’”
Liz wanted her sister-in-law Molly to become as familiar with the characters as the other JASNA members on the trip.
“We went and it was great,” she says.
On the tenth anniversary of her mother’s death, Liz received a phone call from Iris, the president of JASNA, inviting her to serve as JASNA vice president.
“Things had come full circle. I knew my mom would be so happy,” says Liz.
As a volunteer, Liz serves the 71 JASNA regions across North America. She speaks at breakout sessions at the AGM on Austen’s letters and publishing. She and Molly do a presentation about Regency life, dressed up and impersonating the Bingley sisters, Miss Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Louisa Hurst.
At the 2012 AGM, Liz dressed up as historical figure Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire. The theme of AGM that year was “Sex, Power, & Money.” She came dressed in a two-foot high, white wig, which added significant height to her already 5’ 9” frame. She rented a costume from a theater rental place in Madison. A picture of her in this get-up was featured in The New York Times, London Times, and Forbes.com.
“It was hysterical,” Liz says.
While there are occasional opportunities to dress up in Regency fashion or learn English country dancing, these activities aren’t the focus of JASNA. There are many layers to the Regency Era, Liz explains, which include dancing, fashion, male-female relationships, government, and the list goes on.
“All of her readers had this background information that we don’t have,” Liz says. “She didn’t write for fools.”
JASNA has 4,850 members, mostly older women—but there are some men and, recently, a higher percentage of younger members as well, says Liz. The Society serves to celebrate Austen and her books. Along with the annual luncheon and AGM, the Society promotes Austen’s novels through scholarly journals, regional groups, and an annual student essay contest.
Austen was self-educated and wrote her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, published anonymously, “by a lady.” Her second novel, Pride and Prejudice, didn’t bear her name either. Instead, it read, “By the author of Sense and Sensibility.”
“I marvel at her innovation,” says Liz. Austen provided a critique of Regency life with humor and wit. In Northanger Abbey, Liz explains, she was making fun of the novels everyone else was writing—the gothic novel.
Northanger Abbey—originally titled Susan—was also written anonymously and sold to a publisher, but the publisher decided not to publish it. He later agreed to sell it back to Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, for the exact sum he had paid for it in the beginning. He didn’t know it was written by the same author of four popular novels at the time—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma.
“She never saw her name in print. She did make a profit, but when her father died, his entire estate was left to her brother, and she and her sister were at his mercy.”
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously, after Austen died at 41 in 1817.
It’s been 200 years since the publication of Pride and Prejudice, and it continues to enthrall people the world-over. Numerous spin-off books have been written and Austen’s books have been turned into block-buster feature films.
“How lucky we are to be involved when Jane Austen is such an ‘It Girl.’ She keeps on trending and there are no signs of falling off,” says Liz.
The relationships Liz has formed through JASNA have truly enriched her life. She has friends all over North America, England, and Australia. And yet, the importance of JASNA in her life goes deeper still.
“For me, [JASNA] is such a link to my mother. Not a meeting we have in Wisconsin or an annual meeting when someone doesn’t bring up my mom,” says Liz.
Membership in JASNA is open to everyone interested in the life and works of Jane Austen, and includes a subscription to the society’s newsletter and annual journal, an invitation to the AGM, an opportunity to join a regional group, and participation in members-only tours of England.
Photo courtesy of Liz Cooper.
Naomi Krueger is a freelance writer and avid reader of books, blogs, and tweets in Minneapolis-St.Paul. To contact Naomi or read her blog, visit www.NaomiKrueger.com.