Austen lives on, thanks to Lerner

AUSTEN ADDICT: American author Sandy Lerner.
AUSTEN ADDICT: American author Sandy Lerner.

If you got to the end of a Jane Austen novel and wondered what happened next, the person best- placed to make a guess is coming to Dunedin. Mike Houlahan reports.

Most people have a favourite author, but few people are as devoted to their literary heroine as Sandy Lerner.

In 1992, the American businesswoman - who co-founded Cisco Systems with her former husband Leonard Bosdack - bought and subsequently restored Chawton House, the country house where Jane Austen lived her final years. The house is now an Austen shrine and home to a redoubtable library of works by early English women writers.

As if that wasn't enough for the Austen legacy, Lerner published Second Impressions, a sequel to the Austen classic Pride And Prejudice, under the pen name of Ava Farmer. Now sequels to the remainder of Austen's books are in the pipeline.

University of Otago emirita professor Jocelyn Harris - herself an expert on Restoration era women writers - met Lerner through the two speaking at various conferences on writers of the period, and extended an invitation for her to lecture in Dunedin.

"Her work is valuable and an ambitious thing to do, " Harris said.

"There is an interesting connection between her life as a computer boffin and the creation of a virtual reality for Jane Austen's characters going on in to the future. After all, what is a novel but a virtual reality?"

That said, Jane Austen can also be read as a social historian of her era. People talk about Jane Austen being universal and timeless, but she was very deeply embedded in her time and her works reflect that, Harris said.

"Jane Austen criticism has gone through a number of phases depending what was going on in our world. At the same time, it is right to hone in on the historical context, becausethere is a lot to be learned from that.

"Jane Austen refers to the controversies of the day in her novels. She can't say some things outright because that would be treason, but she does it by allusion. For example, Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion is a man who is forced to retrench because he hasn't been paying any attention to money. It is a wonderful spoof on the Prince Regent. Lady Russell says it is something our first family should be doing, so she is a much braver social commentator than I think has generally been recognised."

Ultimately, Austen's books are love stories, and stories about love and marriage. They are also about making what, for a woman of her time, was the ultimate and most important choice she would ever make.

"Jane Austen's novels are about courtship and marriage, which is still of very great interest to everybody today, " Harris said.

"The courtship period was the only time when a woman of that era had any say over what was going to happen to her, and that is why Austen spends so much time on it and shows women turning down good opportunities. What is different then from today is that then, once you were married, it was very difficult to get out of it, and so it was an extraordinarily significant decision for a woman to make.

"It was their only real moment of autonomy."

Open lecture by Sandy Lerner. February 28, 5.30pm, Archway 3 Lecture Theatre.

D Scene