A photo of JASNA Southwest members from a 1984 issue of People magazine

A Partial, Prejudiced, Incompleat History of the JASNA Southwest Region

by Diana Birchall

Elizabeth Bennet’s maxim, “Think only of the past as it gives you pleasure,” is well-suited to the history of JASNA Southwest, which brings reflections of pure pleasure. The group was founded in 1979, shortly after the founding of JASNA itself, by Professor Donald Greene of the University of Southern California and Cathy Fried, who invited “anyone interested in JA and living in Southern California, Arizona, Nevada and points adjacent” to meet to consider the formation of a Southwest regional group. Sixty persons convened at Heritage Hall, USC, courtesy of the USC Athletics Department. Andrew Wright of UC San Diego spoke, and it was then and there that rules were laid down and our regional society formally organized. Ruth apRoberts was elected president, Cathy Fried was vice president, James Durbin was secretary-treasurer, and members of the executive committee were Lillian Goldstein and Dawn Griffin-Arnold. Lillian later served as secretary for many years, and is still a member (and co-founder) of the Ventura Reading Group, so she is the only person in the Southwest Region to be active in JASNA-SW affairs for the entire time of the society’s existence, from its foundation to the present.

My own JASNA-SW memories go back to the December 1983 meeting at the beautiful Huntington Library in San Marino, when Professor Albert G. Black of California State University at Long Beach, and his wife, Mary, were serving as co-presidents. Lillian, as secretary, was in fact the first person I met when I joined the group — she took my membership. At that meeting, Professor Marvin Mudrick of UC Santa Barbara, author of Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery, was the primary speaker.

In 1984, the meeting, held at Cal State Long Beach, featured a talk on 18th century dance. This meeting, and a picture of the members, was featured in People Magazine (how young we all look!). The following year, Professor Edward Copeland of Pomona College, who has since written Women Writing About Money and co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, as well as editing the Sense and Sensibility volume of The New Cambridge Edition of Jane Austen’s Collected Works, took over as president. That year, museum curator Edward Maeder spoke on “Dress in Jane Austen’s Time,” and another fondly remembered talk was astronomer Alma Zook’s “Jane Austen’s Knowledge of the Stars.”

In 1986, the annual meeting, again at the Huntington Library, featured Professor Greene’s famous report on Hamstall Ridware. In 1987, my husband, Peter, and I took over as co-presidents and organized a daylong meeting aboard the Queen Mary, at which our guest of honor was JASNA Co-founder J. David Grey. Two hundred and fifty people attended; my notes show that the elegant lunch in the Queen Mary’s ballroom cost each member $12.50! Our 1988 meeting at the UCLA Faculty Center featured a special exhibition of illustrations from Jane Austen’s novels, part of UCLA Library’s Department of Special Collections, which was organized by Lucy Magruder. In 1989, the last year of Peter’s and my tenure, for our 10th anniversary program, Professor Janet Todd, then of the University of East Anglia, flew over and spoke on “Jane Austen and Sensibility.” (I remember we had “Strudel of the Apple Persuasion” at lunch.) Lucy Magruder took over as president in 1990, I became newsletter editor, and we met at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach, where we heard Professor Susan Morgan of Vassar speak on “Love, Sex and Jane Austen.” The famous English comic actress Miriam Margolyes enacted a pastiche I wrote using characters from the novels in homage to her famous “Dickens’ Women” presentation.

In 1991 we instituted our first spring meeting, a slide lecture on London Literary Gardens. At the December meeting at UCLA, Professor George Rousseau spoke on Marianne Dashwood’s hysteric sensibilities, and Joan Austen-Leigh, co-founder of JASNA, honored us with a visit (I remember I wrote asking her to come, using words from Louisa May Alcott’s Jo’s Boys, in which an effusive fan says to authoress Jo, “with somewhat alarming hospitality: ‘If ever you come to Oshkosh, your feet won’t be allowed to touch the pavement; for you’ll be borne in the arms of the populace, we shall be so dreadful glad to see you.’” Joan came anyway.

1992 was the year JASNA’S AGM was held in Santa Monica, organized by Lucy Magruder and Harriet Williams, and a description of that packed and glorious program would fill a volume! I will add that Harriet Williams was the founder of the famous program “Literary Women,” and that she acquired for our region a selection of costumes from the Elizabeth Garvie/​David Rintoul Pride and Prejudice, and other films, including War and Peace. We modeled these at the AGM and they were later auctioned (Sandy Lerner got the best one). This was an historically important AGM because Nigel Nicolson and Deirdre LeFaye were speakers, and it was at this meeting that the creation of both the Chawton House Library and the Jane Austen Centre in Bath were under discussion.

The following year there was a changing of the guard, and my records cease, but the organization was more formally reconstructed as a region of JASNA, and it continued to flourish under the long-term regional coordinatorships of Nancy Gallagher, Norman and Mimi Dudley, Susan Ridgeway and Claire Bellanti. It was for some years a tradition to hold a December celebration dinner at the elegant Atheneum at Caltech and to have a more speaker-filled program in the spring, but our traditions and programs have continued to change and to grow through the years. It is a happy retrospective (as Mr. Darcy told Elizabeth, “Your retrospections must be so totally void of reproach”) or, as in Emma, “That was the wind-up of the history; that was the glory of Miss Hawkins” — this, then, is the wind-up and the glory of our history.

A network of fine and flourishing reading groups has long been the bedrock of the region. As the region is so spread out, the groups are in far-flung communities: Ventura, Pasadena, the San Fernando Valley, the Westside and Santa Monica. Some of these groups have been functioning since the early 1980s and have not only read the works of Jane Austen too many times to count, but also books written about her; books by women of her period; books by writers she influenced; and much more. In this way the groups have contributed to the region’s dynamism, and long, we hope, may they read.