The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) was founded 40 years ago, with an inaugural dinner on October 5, 1979. Since then, JASNA has become the largest literary society in the world devoted to Jane Austen. JASNA brings together thousands of members—Austen's enthusiastic readers and professional scholars alike—to promote the study and appreciation of her works, life, and genius.
From Idea to Reality
JASNA’s story begins in 1975, four years before its founding, when two of the three co-founders met and bonded over their common love of Jane Austen. In Hampshire, England, Joan Austen-Leigh, a Canadian playwright, novelist and great-great-grand-niece of Jane Austen, met J. David (Jack) Grey, a junior high school teacher and administrator from New York City. They were both members of the Jane Austen Society in Britain and were attending events in Chawton and Steventon celebrating the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s birth.
Grey later wrote, “Oakley Hall, near Steventon, might be considered the birthplace of JASNA since it was there that Joan Austen-Leigh and yours truly met at the bicentenary ball in the summer of ’75."1 The Canadian and American became great friends and continued their acquaintance at Austen-related events and trans-continental visits over the next four years. Joan Austen-Leigh's husband, Denis Mason Hurley, encouraged them to form a North American Austen society to allow others to share the same camaraderie.
Plans fell into place in early 1979. Jack Grey wrote to Sir Hugh Smiley, then the Honorary Secretary of the Jane Austen Society in England, and requested a list of the organization’s members living in North America. Joan Austen-Leigh and Jack Grey also invited Henry Burke to join them as a third co-founder. A Baltimore accountant and attorney, Burke’s late wife, Alberta, had amassed one of the finest private collections of Austen letters, books, and ephemera in the world. Burke handled the legal work required to create the non-profit organization, The Jane Austen Society of North America, Inc.
Learn more about JASNA's founders.
Thanks to articles published in Persuasions by Jack Grey and Joan Austen-Leigh, as well as letters shared by Professor Joseph Wiesenfarth, one of the original patrons of JASNA, we can reconstruct the groundwork laid by the founders in 1979.
- January: “We, the undersigned, propose founding the Jane Austen Society of North America as a registered non-profit organization.” Jack Grey and Joan Austen-Leigh sent a letter to distinguished North American scholars of English Literature asking them to lend their names as patrons of the new Society. Forty-four scholars accepted.
March: On letterhead listing the fledgling Society’s 44 new patrons, JASNA’s founders invited Canadian and US members of the Jane Austen Society in Britain to join the new North American Society. Membership dues for that first year were $3.00 for the remainder of 1979 or $5.00 for two years. (See Figure 2.)
Figure 2. March 1979 Member Recruitment Letter
(courtesy Prof. Joseph Wiesenfarth). Click to enlarge.
- April: Members and patrons were invited to JASNA’s inaugural meeting in October, where they would have the opportunity to “dine, exchange ideas, and have the pleasure of being able to 'talk Jane' with others similarly afflicted."
- October 5: By October, JASNA had 335 members. Thirty-six members and four reporters attended the inaugural business meeting,2 and 100 gathered for dinner at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City, where they toasted the “incomparable Jane” and enjoyed two after-dinner speakers.3
During the business meeting, JASNA’s first nine regions were organized: New England, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Pacific Northwest (including Canada). The Board of Directors was elected, and dues were set for 1980 at $5 per year for individuals and $50 for a life membership.4 (JASNA still has members who joined for life at that bargain rate!)
The New Yorker and The New York Times reported on the dinner. The November 8, 1979, issue of The New Yorker included this item in “Talk of the Town”:
Some people who like Jane Austen got together the other evening in order to hold a dinner meeting inaugurating the new Jane Austen Society of North America. . . . By around 5:30 nearly a hundred people had assembled (dinner dresses, subdued-looking jewelry, comfortable-looking jackets, a distinct sense of style). . . . As cocktails continued to be consumed, we spoke with Mr. Grey . . . . “We’re optimistic about our new society,” he said. “So many people still read and like Jane Austen.”
- December 16, 1979: JASNA's first publication, Persuasion (as it was then called), was released on Jane Austen's birthday—a tradition continued today, with the annual publication of the web journal, Persuasions On-Line. After the first issue, the title of the journal became Persuasions.
Joan Austen-Leigh and J. David Grey were photographed in preparation for the first meeting of JASNA. They are pictured with Jane Austen's writing desk and are holding her spectacles. (1979)
An Active and Welcoming Society
By October 1984, JASNA had more than tripled its ranks, to 1,320 members,5 and the number of Regions had increased from 9 to 23. Since then, JASNA membership has continued to grow, boosted at times by new film and TV adaptations of Austen's novels. At the end of 2018, JASNA had 79 Regions and more than 5,800 members, proving that the founders were correct: a Jane Austen Society “on this side of the Atlantic” would be well received.
Perhaps the key to JASNA’s success is that it welcomes everyone who is interested in Jane Austen. The Society is a “big tent,” where amateur Austen enthusiasts mingle with academics and scholars in a collegial atmosphere, bonding over their shared enjoyment of the author’s writing and genius. JASNA is also an active organization, thanks to the enthusiasm and skills of its many volunteers at the regional and national levels.
- JASNA’s regional groups—from Hawaii to Nova Scotia and from Alberta, Canada, to the Florida peninsula—bring together Austen enthusiasts to “talk Jane” and participate in a variety of local activities: discussions of Austen’s novels and the works that influenced her; lectures on her writing, life, and times; English country dancing; the celebration of her birthday on December 16; and much more.
- Over time, JASNA’s Annual General Meeting has grown from a one-day affair to a three-day conference, hosted by a different Region each year and attended by 750 to 850 members. The program includes plenary lectures by well-known scholars and dozens of breakout sessions, as well as workshops, exhibits, entertainment, and a banquet and Regency ball.
- Many members join JASNA to receive its outstanding publications. Persuasions, The Jane Austen Journal, has become a prestigious, peer-reviewed collection of Austen studies. The newsletter, JASNA News, was introduced in 1985 to chronicle the Society’s activities and developments in the world of Jane Austen. And in 1999—JASNA’s 20th anniversary year—the web-based journal, Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line, was launched to expand the number of essays published annually and to make them freely available worldwide.
- JASNA established its online presence in 1997 with the creation of its website, jasna.org. Over the years, the site has become a major resource not only for members but for all students, scholars, and readers who want to know more about Jane Austen. The website provides biographical information about Jane Austen, analyses of her novels, and thousands of essays on her life, works, and era, as well as news about the Society and its activities.
- For 40 years, members have supported the restoration and maintenance of Austen-related sites in England. At its first meeting, JASNA launched an appeal for contributions to fund emergency repairs at St. Nicholas Church in Steventon, Hampshire, where Jane Austen was baptized and her father served as rector. JASNA continues to support English institutions that further the Society's mission: Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton House (formerly Chawton House Library), and English churches associated with Austen and her family.
- Since 2001, the JASNA Essay Contest for high school, college, and graduate students has inspired the study of Jane Austen’s works. The Essay Contest receives an average of more than 200 submissions each year from students around the globe.
- The JASNA International Visitor Program, launched in 2005, supports Austen research by providing an annual grant to a JASNA member working on a creative or scholarly project that requires access to resources in Chawton.
"Wasn't it worth it?"
As JASNA turns 40, we honor the foresight and hard work of our founders, who took the leap and launched the Society. But we also owe a debt of gratitude to all of JASNA's officers and board members, regional coordinators, and members who have served at the national and regional levels during the last 40 years. Their leadership, dedication, creativity, and enthusiasm have made JASNA the vibrant and dynamic Society it is today.
We conclude this brief history of JASNA's founding with words from Joan Austen-Leigh, which continue to ring true:
“All our fears of the work any such society would entail were demonstrated many times over. But then, wasn’t it worth it? . . . The pleasure it has brought, and the friends we made enriched our own and many other lives.”6
The information presented in this history of JASNA was drawn from articles in past issues of Persuasions, from the minutes of JASNA Board Meetings, and from letters shared by JASNA patron Dr. Joseph Wiesenfarth from his private collection. We invite you to read the articles listed below for even more historical details.
1 “From the (Past) President.” J. David Grey. Persuasions #3, 1981.
2 “Brief Highlights of the Meeting.” Lorraine Hanaway. Persuasion #1, 1979.
3 "Our First Dinner." Lorraine Hanaway. Persuasion #1, 1979.
4 “President’s Report.” J. David Grey. Persuasion #1, 1979.
5 “President’s Letter.” Lorraine Hanaway. Persuasions #6, 1984.
6 “The Founding of JASNA.” Joan Austen-Leigh. Persuasions #15, 1993.