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Jane Austen's work remains as popular as ever in world of literature

| Monday, March 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Carol Chernega, 57 of Apollo poses for a portrait with a copy of her 1890s addition of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice.' Chernega, a former president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) is one of the organizers of the upcoming festival, Cult-ivating Jane, which will explore how Austen’s popularity has made her a cult figure. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Michael McParlane
Forever Jane illustration by Michael McParlane

In 1811, a book whose author credit simply read “By A Lady” about a pair of sisters living life and finding love in the age of landed gentry soon became a fashionable selection among readers.

Centuries later, that lady's work remains in print, is the focus of academic study and continues to enjoy popularity among generations of readers and filmgoers alike.

Jane Austen's name never appeared on her first published work, “Sense and Sensibility,” or any of her other novels, until after her death in 1817. This year marks the 200th anniversary of one of her most popular titles, “Pride and Prejudice,” and to celebrate, local Austen enthusiasts are planning a party worthy of Mr. Darcy's Pemberly.

March 15 and 16, the group will celebrate Austen with a festival including lectures, film viewings and a ball. With the theme “Cult-ivating Jane,” the event will explore the author's enduring popularity and how it has made her a cult figure.

“People tend to think her popularity started in the 1990s, when several adaptations were released — the mini-series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, ‘Sense and Sensibility' with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. But she's really been popular since the late 1800s,” says Carol Chernega, 57, of Apollo, a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Pittsburgh chapter and festival co-chair.

The chapter held its first festival in Pittsburgh two years ago. It attracted more than 100 people. The national society holds an event in a different city each year drawing close to 700.

The Pittsburgh festival will kick off March 15 with a viewing of various film adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice” at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont. Lectures will be throughout the day March 16, and the event will end with a Regency Ball at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association in Oakland.

“The Regency Assembly Ball is always a pretty sight,” says Allison Thompson of Squirrel Hill, co-chairwoman of the festival and author of “Dancing Through Time: Western Social Dance in Literature, 1400-1918.” “About half of our dancers dress in costume, which adds to the ambiance.”

Thompson's lecture, “Cultivating Jane through Conspicuous Consumption,” will explore Austen memorabilia — everything from action figurines to thong underwear — and discuss how each item supports or conflicts with society's image of Austen.

Chernega, a gardener who worked at Jane Austen's House in Chawton, England, for two months in 2005 through a grant from the society, says part of Austen's literary longevity is linked to the themes her work explores.

“There's the sense of community, which people still long for — why else would Facebook be so popular?” Chernega says. “Her sense of family is really strong. She was very close to her sister, Cassandra, and wrote letters to her almost daily.”

Austen was a feminist long before any movement, Chernega says, even though norms of her time forced her to publish anonymously.

“I think she would have heartily embraced feminism,” Chernega says. “She wrote for money at a time that just wasn't done. A ,proper lady did not work and earn an income. Only her close family knew she was writing.”

Society's interest in Austen was fueled by a memoir the author's nephew wrote after her death. Publication of many of her letters followed, though Cassandra had burned some before they could be printed.

“It makes you wonder what was in there,” Chernega says. “Jane's letters were known to be very biting. She was very critical of other people. Maybe her sister did not like the image that presented. It adds to the mystique.”

Today, more than 4,000 people are members of the Jane Austen Society of North America. The Pittsburgh chapter meets four to six times a year. They hold informal teas with group discussions, view movie adaptations of Austen's work or feature a lunch with a speaker who discusses Austen, her life, books and movies, as well as Regency England.

Chernega owns an 1890s edition of “Pride and Prejudice,” a gift from her time spent tending the garden at Chawton Cottage. But the book's surly leading man puts it below “Sense and Sensibility” and “Emma” on her personal “Best of Austen” list.

“I don't like Mr. Darcy,” Chernega says with a laugh. “That initial impression of him is hard to put aside. I can't help wonder if he's really changed.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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