Jane Austen expert builds collection of early writers

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When Sandy Lerner was a Stanford graduate student in a dizzyingly difficult computational mathematics class in 1981, she found an unlikely path to serenity.

"When you're the only woman in a class like that, Jane Austen has to be your drug of choice," said Ms. Lerner, 56, who not only survived the class but went on to found the pioneering computer company Cisco Systems with her ex-husband in 1984.

These days, it's Austen, not algorithms, that preoccupy Ms. Lerner, who delivered a lecture Saturday at the Carnegie Library in Oakland about her recently published book "Second Impressions," a meticulously researched sequel to "Pride and Prejudice" that she wrote under the nom de plume Ava Farmer.

Twenty-six years in the making, "Second Impressions" -- a nod to the original title of Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," "First Impressions" -- has gotten mostly positive reviews from Jane Austen fans, bloggers and feminists ("Each sentence is a model of humanity and humor," said Gloria Steinem).

Ms. Lerner fluidly channels Austen's style as she takes Mr. and Mrs. Darcy on a grand tour of Europe toward the end of the Napoleonic Wars, populating the novel with many of the same characters of the original and adding some new ones.

And the reaction by Austen scholars?

"Some of them have been a bit peevish, but many have been very generous to me."

Not only did she rely on 1,500 different primary sources, Ms. Lerner told her audience, but 37 different dictionaries to ensure historical accuracy. In chapter 8, for example, the word "obmutescence" comes straight from the works of 18th-century essayist Samuel Johnson.

The road to Pemberley has been circuitous.

After leaving Silicon Valley, the polymathic and very feminist Ms. Lerner's addiction with all things Austen grew to include the early women writers who came before her.

But she had other interests, too: She started a wildly chic grunge makeup line (Urban Decay) and sold it for a bundle; bought an 800-acre organic farm in the heart of Virginia hunt country where she raises heritage livestock (humanely, she stresses) and produce she sells to restaurants, including a nearby pub and a butcher shop she started herself.

She's also jousted, rode Harleys, started an audio-engineering studio and, because of her passion for Austen, became an expert on 19th-century carriage riding -- translating the definitive history of that sport from the original German into English.

In 1993, after purchasing a country house called Chawton House Library owned by Austen's brother Edward, Ms. Lerner set out to build the definitive collection of books and ephemera by early women writers, a task of great importance, she believes.

"Can you imagine Mozart without Bach or Boccherini or Salieri?" she asked the audience. "Austen is our Mozart, and you understand her more if you read those earlier women novelists."

Whoa. Weren't the first British novelists men? Laurence Sterne? Henry Fielding?

Actually, Ms. Lerner said, Fielding's sister Sarah was known to have written parts of his novels and was a more popular novelist than her brother.

During the Georgian era (roughly 1714-1830) there was a deliberate attempt to suppress women writers' novels, she said, which continued into the 20th century, even though the British Library and the Bodleian at Oxford were required by law to preserve them.

That didn't happen until recently, with the advent of women's studies and feminism, ironically complicating her own efforts to preserve these works for scholars.

Once, Ms. Lerner could buy an original manuscript for $3,000, "but the last book I was outbid on went for $16,000," she said, noting that "the Japanese are crazy about Austen."

Feminist literary scholars estimate that there may be nearly 10,000 novels by women written between 1600 and 1840, but it's not clear if another literary genius is among them.

"These are very good novels, or good pieces of very good novels," Ms. Lerner says, noting that Chawton House Library is not only open to the public but sponsors conferences, school visits, and fellowships for those willing to come and read through the collections to find out if another Austen is in there, somewhere.

She's also touring and lecturing and promoting "Second Impressions" as much as possible. While only one of many Jane Austen sequels out there, hers is the only one whose proceeds go to the Chawton House Library and its research efforts. And unlike the great mystery writer P.D. James, whose "Death Comes to Pemberley" was recently released to great acclaim, "Second Impressions" is about historical fidelity.

Austen "has a knowable, fixed taxonomy of what people do and what they don't do," she said. "There are no vampires in this book, and I am not P.D. James.

"We are about halfway there," she said. "We are trying to rewrite English critical history."


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com.


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