(Two comments on the picture. Sorry so small. I had to peer between two people. Comment #1 - why do people with big hair (and/or tall) always sit in the middle? Sub-comment: why are they always in front of me? I was already seated when she came in. Comment #2 - isn't that an adorable hair clip on the right?)
If you’re not familiar with Lerner: “Lerner in 1992 bought and restored an estate once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, called Chawton House, in Hampshire, England. She has transformed it into the Center for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing, and is currently underwriting the digitization of the works of female authors who lived in England between 1600 and 1830. The 10,000 volumes, not all of them novels, include works by Austen, Mary Shelley, Frances Sheridan and Maria Edgeworth, among many others, as well as a collection of cookbooks by Quakers.” (Piedmont Maverick by Suzanne Gannon). Lerner co-founded Cisco Systems with her (now ex) husband, and later a cosmetic company called Urban Decay, which sold unusual (at the time) nail colors like green and blue. Their slogan was ‘Does Pink Make You Puke?’ She once posed naked on horseback for Forbes Magazine. In short, she is an interesting, eccentric, wicked smart woman who owns a farm in Ayrshire, Virginia. She bought a 125 year lease on Chawton House in 1993.
My friend Clare and I went to the talk at Goucher College in the (still shiny and new!) Athenaeum. This is where Alberta Burke’s famous Jane Austen Collection is housed. The Batza Room, where the Jane Austen Scholars talk every two years was packed. So were the chairs. We were all pretty much sitting on top of each other, so that made it rather unpleasant when a man reeking of onions and gin sat down next to poor Clare. She bore it bravely, but we joked about how much we wished women still carried lavender scented handkerchiefs to bury their noses in.
Goucher’s president Sanford (Sandy) Ungar was there, which always signals that the visitor is a big deal, as if we didn’t know! Outside the door, the table was laden with the very prettily bound books (sort of blue and leathery looking) and elaborate bookmarks from Chawton Library, which you received when you bought the book. I couldn’t get a clear shot of the table because of the swarm of people.
When Lerner took the podium, the first thing she said was that she had just decided what she was going to talk about, which might give you an indication of how well prepared she was. Clare and I enjoyed the talk, for what it was, a quick summary of her love of Austen and buying Chawton and what it is today, and a quick recap of writing the book, with some lamenting about not receiving the proper reviews, how agents and editors won’t talk to her, because she self-published. I think she spoke for, maybe 15 minutes? (My notes on her talk will follow the post.) There was an awkward pause and she offered to read, but didn’t have a book (!). One was borrowed from the audience and she read for 10 minutes, a very quick scene between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Colonel Fitzwilliam.
Then there were questions, which were mostly answered briefly, with a few exceptions. The gathering closed in under an hour. The crowd was a little subdued and didn't ask many questions, which is not like the Jane Austen Lovers Crowd that comes to these events, so I chalk it up to the bewilderment and surprise of some of the audience members at how quickly her talk was over, how quickly the reading was over, how quickly the event itself was over. I felt rather disoriented and disappointed myself. Clare was just happy to get away from the onion guy.
Lerner was quite funny at times, she is obviously an intellectual and a scholar; her creation of the library to house and highlight 18thCentury women’s literature is an amazing legacy we can all be grateful for, and I plan to read her book, but I found her ill at ease and unprepared and wished she had put more thought and effort into her talk, or even enjoyed herself (which it didn’t seem like she did). I teach writers and poets how to read their work for an audience, and so I’m hyperaware of a person’s presence when they talk and read, both good and bad. I wanted to pass her a note that said, "You're among friends. We are excited to see you! Please be excited to talk to us!"
That said, I do appreciate an actual talk rather than the reading of papers the Jane Austen Scholars do (sometimes they read quite fast!), fascinating as they are. And I certainly feel very lucky to be a Goucher alum and enjoy the benefits of having the Austen collection there. I would rather have talks of any kind than no talks at all!
Here are my notes from the event (there’s lots here because I’m pretty good at dictation so I wrote down just about everything but, trust me, the talk was super short):
Many of you probably figured this out, but Lerner’s pseudonym for the book is Ava Farmer. If you parse that out, it’s A VA Farmer, or A Virginia (VA is that state abbreviation) Farmer. We all thought that very clever.
Her interest in Austen began with reading all the novels while at Stanford and watching the 1980 Pride and Prejudice.
These left her wanting more from women writers of the period. She found Dale Spender’s book, Mothers of the Novel and discovered a wealth of women writers writing from 1600-1820 that she’d never heard of because English literary criticism has been written without them.
Spender catalogued about 574 of these women, but Lerner found out there were really 2,000-3,000 of them who wrote 10,000-15,000 novels. Too many for her to physically collect at Chawton. Most of them are lost, we’ll only see about 25% of them. These women, mostly single and poor, were writing 150 years before Fielding and Defoe were dubbed the creators of the modern novel.
Some books she recommended that trace the antecedents of Jane Austen’s work:
A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression traces the cultural, literary, and historical context of Persuasion.
Fact and Fiction of Jane Austen - which I couldn’t find anywhere so maybe she got the title wrong. What I did find was Matters of Fact in Jane Austen.
When writing her sequel, Lerner used a lot of auction catalogues like Sotheby’s to find furniture of the period that she could describe accurately, and for paintings depicting landscapes and cityscapes long gone.
She also used 37 dictionaries including on for robbers, prostitutes, and thieves. (Where can I get that dictionary!) She used 1500 books from Chawton Library for her research/sources, and considers her novel a journey of homage.
Second Impressions is published by Chawton House Press, the Library’s own, new press. There are 4-5 other titles coming out soon and 4-5 more next year.
She says the book doesn’t really deal with Darcy as much as it deals with minor characters and she only killed those off when she needed to, or brought in another character from another Austen novel when she would have created that character anyway – so why not bring in one of Austen’s already created?
(Unfortunately, someone asked a question later about a character that was killed off that was a total SPOILER and elicited annoyed gasps from most of the audience because many hadn’t yet read the book. I mean, really! You don’t ask a question like that without letting people know it’s a spoiler so we can protest, or don’t use a specific name so you don’t ruin the book for others. Notice how I’m not telling you the name of the character?)
Chawton Library has a Novels Online project and they are painstakingly typing the novels they want to post from Xerox copies. They can’t scan them because the paper and ink is too cheap and therefore fragile. The purpose of the online library (downloads are free, by the way) is to introduce these women writers and their works to a new and wider audience, and encourage critical scholarship. (What’s needed though, is for the author’s names to also be hyperlinked and lead to a bio page. Currently the links are just to the novels.)
Lerner, apparently, didn’t read any fan fiction or watch the movies. (Which I think we all found rather odd. She says it was because she didn’t want to be accused of stealing anyone else’s plot but since most of the fan fiction overlaps all over the place (take the Georgiana becomes strong and independent and marries Colonel Fitzwilliam plot, for example), that didn’t carry much weight for me. I think it’s better to have a sense of what is out there so you aren’t repeating the same plots, or at least give them unexpected twists.)
She had much help with the novel from some ‘heavyweight’ Janeites, and said Deirdre Le Faye, famed Austen scholar, only found one inaccuracy in the novel, which Lerner debates and thinks is more a half-inaccuracy.
Like Jane Austen in the writing of Persuasion, she had a rare fit and also threw out her last two chapters and rewrote them.
She was always working on the book even when she couldn’t write – reading, mostly. Her mid-life took a turn and she decided to buckle down and finish the book rather than have a mid-life crisis.
She feels she knows more about English history than she does American history, now and thought about a sequel that follows the Wickhams to America but felt they were too boring. She’s thinking of writing about John Wallis, who was the chief cryptographer for Parliament and later the royal court in the mid-1600s.
She plans to make a movie of Second Impressions, she can afford it, and will write the screenplay herself.
Two things she said about two beloved characters raised my ire a little. One was about the significant character (at least I think most would think of this character as significant, to a degree), that she killed off in the book. She said ‘it was the work of a moment’. Hmm. Could a true lover of Austen actually say that? Oh, it wasn't Mr. Collins. I think we could all agree that would be the work of a moment.
Lerner also called Elizabeth Bennet "naturally lazy" and thought it best that in her book Lizzy work to improve her marriage and be a partner to her husband. I found this completely baffling and was offended on Lizzy’s behalf. Elizabeth is prized by millions of readers for her independence, strength, wit, and good judgment (except where Darcy is concerned, at first). In P&P Darcy learns that she will be an equal partner (Lizzy will accept nothing less), and it is through this partnership that they can fully love and be loved and have a happy life where they contribute to the happiness of others.
And so ends my First Impressions of Sandy Lerner’s talk. If you’ve read her novel and want to weigh in on how it compares with the info she gave here, please do! I’d love to hear your comments.
Proceeds from the sale of Second Impressions go back to Chawton Library to further its work.