Jane Austen, as was once said of John Wayne, reverses the laws of optics. The further away she gets, the larger she becomes.
In the two centuries since her death, the author of Pride and Prejudice has evolved from literary standby to cultural phenomenon. Her slim output of six irreverent novels has inspired a broad range of tributes, including the movie Clueless, the novel Bridget Jones's Diary, and the recent Gothic mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
But who knew that Miss Austen (1775-1817) had Philadelphia connections?
"Jane Austen's Brothers and Sisters in the City of Brotherly Love," the 31st-annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, runs today through Monday at the Society Hill Sheraton. It will bring more than 600 Janeites to the city that burned bright when she did.
Philadelphia, as it happens, is something of an Austen living history museum. The Historical Society of Philadelphia is home to letters Austen wrote. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Pennsylvania Hospital house Benjamin West paintings she much admired. Publisher M. Carey (now defunct), with offices at Fourth and Chestnut Streets, printed Emma, the first U.S. edition of an Austen novel. The Library Company of Philadelphia, Rosenbach Museum and Library, and Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania hold first editions of her novels. (Austen had an Aunt Philadelphia, too.)
From as far as New Zealand and near as Cherry Hill they are coming, 630 strong, for the second-largest JASNA meeting ever. "We really kicked Fanny Price," says Elizabeth Steele, meeting coordinator, euphemistically invoking the name of the heroine of Austen's Mansfield Park. "Most of the attendees are practically rabid to see Philadelphia."
Yes, some of them might play whist, master the intricacies of Regency penmanship, and savor the refreshment of afternoon tea. But primarily JASNA members, who include leading scholars in the field, are coming to walk, talk, think - and dress - Jane.
"The natives shouldn't be too freaked out by ladies and gentlemen wandering around in period costume," cautions Maggie Sullivan, a JASNA stalwart from Lafayette Hill and author of the indispensable "AustenBlog" (austenblog.com). "They might just assume they are Mummers having an early practice session."
As Miss Austen might say, members of the Eastern Pennsylvania branch of JASNA, one of the nation's largest chapters, are all excitement!
"Philadelphia is particularly Austen-friendly because much of the old city is of an age with Austen, who was born in 1775," says Kelly Fineman of Cherry Hill. "She would have recognized our buildings and streets," says Jennifer Winski of Oreland.
The town-and-country lifestyle of Philadelphians has parallels with the characters in Austen novels, says JASNA's Jeff Bohn of Malvern, "which helps people relate to the books."
While professors Jan Fergus and John Mullan speak to the issues of sibling rivalry and sisterly solace in the Austen novels in their papers, panelists and participants also will address broader themes.
"The most interesting question is whether Jane Austen is being subversive and trying to change the status quo or merely descriptive of the ways things were," observes Susan Weisgrau of Narberth. For William Galperin, professor of English at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Austen's genius resides in "her ability to be somehow a representative of the world she wrote about and exceptional by virtue of her extraordinary capacity to register the things about her."
Is there another 19th-century author equally beloved by Ivy League presidents, NBA superstars, and teenagers?
Penn president Amy Gutmann is inspired by Austen's "signature blend of irreverence, eloquence, and wisdom." Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade speaks to how a writer from Regency England is still relevant to a 21st-century basketball player from the South Side of Chicago: "Class struggle, overcoming stereotypes and humble beginnings, getting out of your own way and letting love take over - these are things I can relate to, definitely."
(Although not a card-carrying JASNA member, bluesman B.B. King is a fan and owner of three Jane Austen T-shirts.)
Elizabeth Sollecito, 16, of West Chester, finds sustenance in Austen's writings of female life and likes how reading Austen has helped her on the vocabulary section of the SATs.
"Nobody ever lived in as small a world that made so much room for everybody," observed A. Walton Litz, a former Princeton professor, the last time the Janeites came to town, in 1985.
The Austen tent makes room for everyone, says organizer Steele. "Absolutely, there will be discussions of Jane Austen and zombies, though informal. While all of us might not be fans of zombies, we are thrilled that the walking dead - as well as the undead of Jane Bites Back - are bringing attention to our favorite author."