JASNA’S AMIABLE FOUNDERS
These reminiscences were gathered by former JASNA president Elsa Solender, who was present at the JASNA’s inaugural dinner in 1979, from her own memories and those of friends, colleagues and relatives of the Society’s founders.
JASNA’s remarkable founders—a trio of gifted individuals with different backgrounds, professions, personalities and talents—exemplify the universal appeal of Jane Austen.
Joan Austen-Leigh, a native of Victoria, British Columbia, was a great-great grand-niece of Jane Austen. A novelist in her own right, she also wrote some 30 plays under her married name, Joan Mason Hurley.
Henry G. Burke—a Baltimore accountant, attorney, civic leader and holder of a Ph.D. in political science—acquired, with his wife Alberta, the finest private Jane Austen collection in the world.
J. David Grey, vice principal of a junior high school in Manhattan’s Spanish East Harlem, was the first in his New Jersey family to earn a college degree. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Jane Austen’s life and works and an extensive Jane Austen collection of his own.
Their common love of Jane Austen united the three friends after initial encounters in England. Follow-up visits on both coasts developed a desire to create for other American and Canadian enthusiasts an active and welcoming Jane Austen society of their own. At a dinner at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York on October 5, 1979, that ambition was fulfilled.
Jack became JASNA’s first President; Joan, the First Vice President; and Henry, the Second Vice President. Joan also served as founding editor of Persuasions.
Although Joan, the mother of four, did not begin her writing career until she had earned her B.A. and Master’s degrees in her forties, her literary output was prolific. Her two popular “Stephanie” novels dramatized the coming of age in British Columbia in the ’30s and ’40s of a girl not unlike herself. Later came Mrs. Goddard, Mistress of a School (originally entitled A Visit to Highbury) in which she breathed life into a very minor character of Emma and added personalities of her own creation for a charming “back story.” Joan wrote some 30 plays, including “Our Own Particular Jane,” and was proficient enough to win first place in a drama competition in Canada in 1985 when she was 65. A boating enthusiast, her private craft was named Elizabeth Bennet, and its dinghy was Mr. Darcy. Among the greatest legacies she left to Jane Austen devotees was the portable writing desk that the Rev. George Austen bought home from Basingstoke as a birthday gift for his writer-daughter. In 2000 Joan donated it to the British Library, where it is on permanent display. Jane Austen letters that were handed down to Joan through the Austen-Leigh family remain on long-term loan to the Library. In Joan’s memory, friends and admirers established the Joan Austen-Leigh Prizes given to the winners of the J. David Grey Young Writers Workshop at each AGM.
FIRST ENCOUNTERS: At a Jane Austen bicentennial costume ball in 1975 at Oakley Hall near Steventon—where Jane Austen had called on Mrs. Bramston and eaten “sandwiches all over mustard” —Joan Austen-Leigh first encountered J. David Grey, “a tall handsome man in a blue coat like Mr. Bingley’s.” Dressed in a gown previously worn by Sarah Miles playing Lady Caroline Lamb in a film of the same name, Joan found herself, like Jane Austen, “prevented from dancing through want of a partner” because her husband was not present. Before the evening ended, however, the charming man in blue approached her: “So much was said. So much was felt.” Joan later wrote that “Jack was the first person I had ever met who knew as much, or more, about Jane Austen than I did.” At Jack’s suggestion, the J.P. Morgan Library in New York invited Joan a month later to bring the writing desk to its bicentennial Jane Austen exhibition, notable because its holdings had just been significantly enhanced by the legacy of letters and manuscripts left by Alberta H. Burke. That meeting lead to several more pleasant encounters between Joan, Jack and Harry Burke —and others with Lorraine Hanaway and Juliet McMaster—on both North American coasts. Joan’s husband, Denis Mason Hurley, “bullied and badgered” the two principals to overcome their misgivings and the distance between their homes to get a new society going. The two invited Henry Burke to join them as the third founder, and he provided the legal work needed to create the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Like Joan and Harry, Jack made frequent trips abroad, especially to England. When he learned that repair and renovation at St. Nicholas Church at Steventon were needed, he urged JASNA to assist the church in which Jane Austen was baptized. JASNA members responded to the appeal, and St. Nicholasbecame known as one of the best-supported, best-kept country churches in England. Jack also organized and led the first known tour of Americans to sites important in Jane Austen’s life and works.
Jack’s close friend Susan Schwartz recalls his contagious enthusiasm for a wide variety of interests. He had collections of Dick Tracy memorabilia, rhinos and Battersea china, as well as basketball memorabilia and, of course, his extensive Jane Austen collection. Susan and Jack frequently went to his sister’s house in New Jersey to celebrate Halloween, a favorite family holiday. Jack loved dressing up in Regency costumes —particularly knee britches, which suited him admirably— and he loved travel, especially in Great Britain, but not solely for Jane Austen interests: Susan accompanied him on a memorable (and lively) tour of distinguished distilleries in the Scottish Highlands. Jack co-edited, with Brian Southam and A. Walton Litz, the landmark Jane Austen Companion. Thanks to a bequest from Jack Grey to JASNA, the Young Writers’ Workshop of the AGM is funded in perpetuity and is named in his honor.
Blessed with nearly total recall, Henry Burke was a gifted raconteur. He relished recalling the furor that his wife caused at a meeting of the British Jane Austen Society in Chawton: After listening to complaints that “some American” had bought at auction a lock of Jane Austen’s hair, she rose, declared herself the American and presented the Society with her purchase, now on exhibition at Chawton Cottage (Jane Austen’s House Museum). Towards the end of World War II, when the Burkes had to forego their annual Atlantic crossing by ship, Harry saw on offer a first edition of Hobbes’ classic treatise on government and tersely wired his London bookseller to ”Send Leviathan!” He was promptly visited by the wartime equivalent of the CIA since he had unknowingly utilized the code for the forthcoming Normandy invasion, which occurred shortly thereafter.