Persuasions #3, 1981 Pages 16, 18
SAN FRANCISCO: THE MEETING BY THE ORGANIZER
by Marilyn Sachs
“I am a private detective,” the letter explained, “and have always been an admirer of Miss Austen.”
“There is nobody here I can talk to,” read another. “Please, please tell me if there are other Janeites in my area.”
Yes, Virginia, there are other Janeites in your area. There are Janeites in every area and they range from private detectives in San Francisco to little old ladies in Hong Kong. Some of them gathered in San Francisco on the weekend of October 9-11 to celebrate our beloved Jane and her book, Sense and Sensibility, in the third annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
“Why that one?” I had demanded maybe a year earlier in a letter to our president. “Why no Emma or Persuasion which everybody likes better?”
Of course we could do whatever we thought best, he advised but also pointed out that since Sense and Sensibility did take place in the west of England and since the conference would be held in the western part of the United States …
His logic will be immediately apparent to all Janeites and Sense and Sensibility was finally cheerfully selected by the planning committee.
But let me backtrack to my own selection as chair of the JASNA III committee. My organizational qualifications included the following: I had baked cookies for the P.T.A. when my children were at school; I had marched in peace marches during Viet Nam; I had signed a number of petitions to end capital punishment, provide non-smoking sections in restaurants and eliminate pay toilets at the San Francisco International Airport. I had also written a huffy letter to the president of JASNA after the announcement of the first general meeting in 1979 in New York, protesting the price of the $30 dinner meeting.
In his kind, patient reply to my letter, J. David Grey appointed me chair of the upcoming conference in San Francisco. As all members who attended the conference will recall the price of the dinner in San Francisco was $35. But – the meetings and reception which were held separately, as they were the year before in Baltimore, cost only $12, a compromise which might be described by paraphraising the title of Ed Copeland’s talk as “Cents and More Centsability.”
The planning committee grew effortlessly. One future member was first encountered at a book sale buying a copy of Pride and Prejudice. Another taught a seminar at U.C. Berkeley. (I attended his lecture on Mansfield Park and was entranced by his keen criticism even if he did approve of Fanny Price.) A branch librarian came forth and offered her lovely home for a wine and cheese reception. A geriatric specialist joined up and then a carpenter from East Bay … Our numbers swelled. We met frequently to plan and consume large quantities of refreshments. Janeites, we discovered, love to eat almost as well as to talk. Only one member of the committee had ever participated in planning a conference and only one other had attended either of the two previous annual meetings. Perhaps our lack of experience was in our favor. As Jane points out ignorance can be a positive advantage. “Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant.” Our mutual ignorance was certainly very appealing to one another. We continued meeting, eating, planning, talking, laughing and generally anticipating absolutely no problems at all.
Were we mistaken! Misunderstandings with our chef arose over the price of the dinner. Evidently confusing Jane Austen with the well known social worker and reformer, Jane Addams, he thundered over the phone that he hated dealing with “charity organizations.” On other occasions the printer and the stationer made rude, unkind remarks and failed to observe deadlines. The hotel disregarded past promises. Our committee’s vast reservoir of talents and accomplishments did not include that “fearless” commanding presence we all admire in Captain Wentworth.
“You talk to the chef,” I pleaded with the member in charge of the hotel. “But I need you to talk to the hotel,” she pleaded in turn.
We learned to be tough. We spoke to the chef. We snarled at the printer. We threatened to withdraw from the hotel …
Towards the end, some sleepless nights were spent. Would enough people come to our meeting? Most of the members lived east of the Mississippi. If we did not fill 50 rooms at the hotel extra charges would be levied. The chef would be roused again if less than 100 attended his dinner. How many Janeites could we expect from California anyway whose only claim to culture according to Woody Allen rested on its mashed yeast diets and right turns on red light signals. And what would the west coast variety of Janeite be like compared to the east? The letters began to arrive. Not only from the east but from the north, south and especially from the west.
“I never knew,” said one, “that you were there. I thought I was all alone.”
At least 170 people finally turned up on Saturday for the meetings. They came from all parts of the United States, from Canada, England and Ireland. Whatever their differences, their delight was total in finding each other and in talking, listening and basking in the company of those who could distinguish the real nightingale from all the artificial ones.
As ever, our own Jane must have the last word in describing the meeting and its members.
“My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”
“You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company; that is the best.”