Lady Godiva

Renee Tawa is a Times staff writer

Prologue -- "In polite society, you cut off your crusts."--Overheard at the Jane Austen Society's annual meeting.

*

The Janeites speak of her as a concept, a rather puzzling concept. "Oh, Mrs. Lerrr-nah," they muse. Otherwise, though her absence is notable, here, at Jane Austen's ancestral home, no one notes it.

Really, what they want is to be left alone with their tea and pre-buttered scones and tiny cucumber sandwiches, and to hurry off to a picnic spot under the beech trees on the wide lawn of Chawton House. Once a year, the grounds of the estate in the South of England turn into a Buckingham Palace for keepers of the flame, the place where Janeites gather for the spectacle, the tradition, the notion that all is right with the British Empire, that all is right with Jane Austen. They have come because Austen wrote or rewrote her six novels in a cottage on the Chawton estate, owned by the same family since 1578.

Every July for 40 years, Jane Austen Society members have parked their Volvos and Saabs along the skinny lane outside the 51-room mansion with its climbing-ivy Tudor brick. Under a billowing white tent pitched on the lawn, the dames and sirs, ladies and lords gather alongside a handful of 60ish-plus men in snug suit jackets and wide ties, and hundreds of white-haired women in straw hats with big bows and ankle-baring floral print dresses. In a land of savoir-faire, the only bit of grumbling is over the sandwich triangles with inexplicably attached crusts.

Only when a Janeite must ponder the future of Chawton House is the comforting clink of teacups on saucers jarred in a blink of low-grade anxiety. "It's just the sort of thing an American would do, isn't it?" "What if she goes off on a tangent and wants to buy an estate in Texas or something?" "People just don't know much about her."

And then a deft--so smooth!--turn of conversation . . . .

On this afternoon, a soft wind stirs through the avenue of yew trees, the same ones that Austen would have known in the early 1800s. No one frets about rain, though a gray sky has sputtered all week over the medieval village. It has not rained on the society in more than 20 years.

Interview with Jane Austen Society secretary Susan McCartan:

Q: You mentioned the [society's officers] all have other jobs. May I ask what they do for a living?

A: Confidential information.

Interview with Sandy Lerner:

Q: Are you a speed freak?

A: Totally.

On a busy street in Orange County, Sandy Lerner cranks her black Jaguar into a rib-rattling turn. Sorry, she says to her passenger. But she doesn't sound sorry at all. Lerner, who is slim and leggy with waist-length hair streaked a reddish purple, once showed up at a party for then-British Prime Minister John Major in blue body glitter and a little black dress, and she's not sorry about that either.

Really, what she wants is to be left alone with a Cuban cigar, a glass of Port and a bowl of SpaghettiOs. She says she's a quiet, 42-year-old nerd, no good at small talk. She prefers jeans with clunky sandals and no makeup but doesn't mind an empire-waist ball gown or Mildew eyeshadow. She doesn't laugh much but is a wicked mimic (a dead-on British accent) and silly enough to quote her cat, Lily. In flat, tenor-low tones, she also will quote H.L. Mencken or Jethro Tull and explain that she posed nude on her horse for Forbes magazine to be edgy and GET A LIFE if it bothers you and, what the hell, it was only her backside shot by a female photographer.

She is, she insists, an untidy bundle of stupidities and frailties who invented hip nail polish colors and sewed her own medieval jousting outfit and read Austen's "Persuasion" more than 65 times and gave millions to animal welfare and built a digital recording studio for fun and . . . God, would she love to work a makeup booth at Lollapalooza if she ever gets a minute.

Lerner is CEO of Urban Decay, the hottest, most in-your-face cosmetics company in the country, with offices in Costa Mesa and Mountain View. With creepy, ironic names like Asphyxia and Gangrene, the company's colors often fall on the glo side of Day-Glo. Its products, which include lipstick packaged in faux bullet shells, are sold at Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom. Devotees include Dennis Rodman and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy.

Years before she started Urban Decay, Lerner co-founded Cisco Systems, the Silicon Valley company that produces most of the world's e-mail and Internet routers. She and her former husband sold the business in 1990 for $200 million and then set up their own charitable foundation, which so far has handed out large grants to projects like the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. But that's not the foundation's most audacious undertaking--its most audacious undertaking, at least if you ask the Janeites gathered on the great lawn, and you must ask, because if you don't, they would never bring it up--is her decision to buy and restore Chawton House and turn it into a study center for women's literature.

Lerner bought the Heap, her description, in 1994, and the Janeites have not been the same since.

*

Chapter 1

-- A little Jane Austen humor for you: At Chawton House, the society's chairman reports on an Austen Web site, which includes the author's "Punishment List." On the list, he notes, is "a day's ramble with Mr. Collins." The crowd roars.

Chawton is an hour's train ride southwest of London in Hampshire County, where ancient hedgerows hide sunken lanes crossed by foxes and pheasants. The thatched-roof cottages and half-timbered houses have names like Five Daggers and Rotherfield Park. About 400 people live in the village, which has no street lights or stoplights. Residents include an eye surgeon, a retired police chief and the ex-commander of British forces in Gibraltar. Chawton's graveyard is full of families--including Jane Austen's--going back hundreds of years. Chawton House, once 5,000 acres strong, used to own the entire village.

Rose-dappled Chawton has clinched the South of England gardening competition nine years running. The locals celebrate with a pint or two at the village pub, perhaps the only bar in the world with a portrait of Jane Austen over the fireplace. Across from the pub is the brick cottage where the unmarried Austen lived for eight years until her death in 1817 at 41; it's now a private museum. Austen used to walk to Chawton House, five minutes away, and read stories to her nieces and nephews.

Since 1995, four of Austen's novels have been adapted for TV or films, including the blockbuster "Pride and Prejudice." The deluge began. Movie fans arrived clutching a paperback "Sense and Sensibility," with Emma Thompson on the cover, asking if Austen might sign their book. Around town T-shirts popped up: "Jane Who?" Crowds at the cottage more than doubled to 57,000 a year. Curators called in structural engineers to see if the 17th century building could bear the load. Hampshire County set up a hotline for tourists, with a recorded voice saying, "Hello, this is Jane Austen . . . "

Although Austen-mania began after Lerner bought the Chawton estate, which includes 275 acres of farmland, the besotted fueled suspicion. Who knew, the society muttered, if Lerner was truly one of the faithful or just an Austen-tatious fan roused by temporary passions? The British press speculated that she would turn the grounds into a Disney-esque theme park or lesbian commune and reported that she talked daily with the spirit of Benjamin Disraeli (she doesn't, but she used to have his picture on her wall). The Guardian sneered that she was "a wispy young thing with luxurious hair . . . nymphish in the best kind of way."

It was the sort of reaction that might have erupted, say, if Johnny Rotten had bought Monticello.

The fuss wasn't just about Jane Austen. Indeed, Sir Hugh Smiley, a co-founder of the U.K. Jane Austen Society in 1940, used to say that he had never read her books (neither had the current society president until after taking office). Nor was the fuss simply about Chawton House, a listed historic building but not the grandest property in Hampshire. This was about preserving the ghost of Austen's dewy Regency England, a time of manners and order, when the mighty British Empire was riding high. Could an eccentric gunslinger from California understand this?

*

Chapter 2

-- Mind the nettles!--A warning villagers give outsiders about the stinging plants.

*

In late October 1992, Lerner booked a couple of oceanfront suites at Santa Monica's Miramar Sheraton hotel for friends at the Jane Austen Society of North America conference. They took a class on Georgian cooking, learning how to grill lamb chops rolled in marjoram and thyme. Afterward, they hit a local bakery and stuffed themselves with pastries and wine.

That Sunday, Lerner and her friends settled into a small ballroom for a closing speech by English biographer Nigel Nicolson, a fill-in for a speaker who had canceled because of family illness. Lerner knew him only as the author of "Portrait of a Marriage," the story of his gay parents, diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson and novelist Vita Sackville-West, who were prominent members of the Bloomsbury circle. Nicolson also had written a book about Jane Austen's homes, the topic of his speech in California.

By the way, he said, Chawton House is on the market. Again. A $40-million proposal to turn the house into a luxury hotel and two golf courses, which had been approved by the local planning board, was dead. A group of distant Austen relatives was now trying to buy the crumbling mansion and create a research center. Anybody who bought that ugly house, Lerner remembers him saying, would be a silly old cow. She looked around the room. She felt he was insulting the audience, mostly women over 60. Smart women who had gone to Swarthmore or Smith and then raised smart kids.

Nicolson, a tall, imposing former member of Parliament, charged ahead. His idea was to start an Austen study center in Bath, where the novelist had lived for four years. Anyone who didn't back his idea, the Bath project, was really stupid, and who cares that Austen probably never wrote a word there?

Lerner turned around and caught the eye of a friend, Alice Hutter. "Maybe I should buy that house," she whispered. Hutter thought she was kidding. "Well, if you need a chatelain or something . . . " she whispered back. Lerner doesn't remember if she waited for Nicolson to finish. That morning, she called her secretary. Arrange to buy that house, she said.

Word floated across the Atlantic to Gloucestershire grain farmer Richard Knight, owner of Chawton House and fourth-generation descendant of Jane Austen's brother, Edward Austen Knight. He had inherited the place in 1988 after his father's death. His father had tried to hang on to the house by subdividing it for tenants. But Knight, then 48, could no longer afford the upkeep.

The Victorian wing was pulling away, the roof was collapsing. He hated the idea of selling the house--it had been in the family for more than 400 years. The inheritance taxes were killing him, though. Janeites had floated competing plans for the house, but how much longer could he hold out? He had hung his head until Lerner arrived, "a knight in shining armor," he says, "galloping to the rescue."

*

Chapter 3

-- As a young girl, Jane Austen sneaked into the local church and scribbled in the register. She married herself off to two men at the same time.

*

Lerner's mother was drunk. Let's teach you how to drive, her mother suggested. Mother, Lerner explained, 3-year-olds don't drive. Of course they can, her mother insisted. No, they can't. For one thing, they can't reach the pedals. Her mother insisted: I'll do that for you. Mother, Lerner retorted, I don't think that's going to solve the problem.

Her father, a painter, and mother, a store window designer, divorced when she was 4. A year later, she moved from Phoenix to her aunt and uncle's cattle ranch in the foothills of Clipper Gap, between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento.

Her aunt and uncle, Doris and Earl Bailey, delivered fuel and tires by 18-wheel truck and left her to run their 100-acre ranch, with 30 shorthorn cattle. She fed the cows, cleaned the barn, fixed fences, cut wood. As a kid she was slinging 100-pound feed sacks on the back of a Jeep and driving around the ranch. "She didn't have time for anyone to hold her or hug her," remembers her aunt, now 79 and a widow. "She just wanted to get moving."

She didn't fit in with the other girls in Auburn, a 45-minute bus ride away. There the girls spent two hours each morning on their hair and makeup. Lerner tried to iron out her curly hair by sleeping in orange juice cans that went clink-clink when she camped on the front porch on warm summer nights, and her uncle would tell her to stop that racket.

By fifth grade she had stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance. She told teachers it was a religious thing--she was the only Jewish kid in school--so they left her alone. At 11, she used to lie awake at night, waiting for the rain of nuclear bombs, sure she would be toast by morning. By 12, she decided she was a socialist, like another aunt and uncle, who grew organic, electrified vegetables. At 13, she marched in a Vietnam War protest and was detained by police. As a skinny teenager, she wore cut-off jeans, cropped tops and no bra.

"To say the right things and attempt to look like you're fitting in--I've just never taken the time," Lerner says. "I was too busy, I was moving too fast. To me, it was hypocritical, from the time I was a tiny kid . . . and I think that has caused me more trouble than anything."

At 16, she graduated from high school and took a job as a bank teller in Auburn. She and the other women had to kneel so the manager could make sure their skirts were long enough to hit the floor. The bank president mixed her up with another teller, Louise, an overweight woman in her mid-30s with poofy Elizabeth Taylor hair. They were just girls.

Lerner saved money so she could go to Chico State and make it home on weekends to feed the cows. She whipped through college in two years, studying comparative communist theory. She was never going back to that bank.

*

Chapter 4

-- "I suppose you know all about the Wars between [Henry VI] & the Duke of York . . . if you do not you had better read some other History . . ."--Jane Austen, age 16, "The History of England."

*

After graduating from Chico, Lerner accepted a scholarship to study international relations at Claremont Graduate School, but the place bored her. One day in 1975, she stumbled into the computer lab and never came out. Computer programming paid big bucks--$15 an hour--and made sense, unlike people. She heard Stanford was a good school for computers and signed up for the graduate program.

Stanford was brutal. She was locked out of the boys' world of computers until she met a graduate student named Leonard Bosack, who liked that she dribbled chocolate sauce on her chocolate ice cream. She liked that he wore clean clothes and ate with a knife and fork, which, among computer geeks, was unusual. She married him in 1980.

The next year, Lerner got a master's degree in computational mathematics to add to the one from Claremont in econometrics. She stuck around Stanford, running the computer department for the business school. One night, when Bosack was flipping channels, she caught the end of Masterpiece Theatre's "Pride and Prejudice." She was transfixed. Jane Austen was everything Stanford was not. Kind. Gracious. Funny.

On campus, she ran into people who raved about the TV program; they talked about starting a club, an idea just fringe enough to engage her. At monthly meetings, Lerner and a dozen or so members of the Stanford Jane Austen Society talked about how to tie a cravat and why, in "Persuasion," Captain Wentworth bought Anne a pretty landaulette. Lerner rushed through all six Austen novels in order and cried when she had no more to read.

At Stanford, it bugged her that she couldn't send e-mail to Bosack, who worked on computers in another department. He was right across campus: How hard could it be? He fiddled around until he came up with a software-filled box about the size of a microwave oven. The box, called a router, links networks of computers.

In 1984, the couple put together a company called Cisco to sell the routers. They borrowed against their credit cards, mortgaged their house and put the routers together in their living room. When they left the company in 1990, each had about $100 million in stock. (Since the sale, the company has continued to grow phenomenally; it currently turns out 70% of the world's e-mail routers.)

By then, Bosack and Lerner had separated. They had spent all their energy on Cisco and none on their marriage. But they were, and still are, best friends. In 1991, they started the $32-million Leonard X. Bosack and Bette M. Kruger Charitable Foundation in memory of his father and her mother. Her deal with God, says Lerner, is to spend the money well.

Bosack and Lerner, who do not accept grant applications, find projects that strike their fancy. Bosack picks weird science projects; Lerner's animal welfare programs include an anti-poaching air patrol in West Africa. The proposals fly by their board of directors: Bosack, Lerner and their attorney.

Chawton House was Lerner's baby. Sight unseen, she started negotiating to buy the estate in late 1992. Eighteen months later, the place was in the foundation's hands for about $2 million and Lerner was psyched. Finally, a home for her books--Jane Austen's house, no less. By then, she had amassed one of the largest private collections in the world of early English women writers--more than 4,000 items, including novels published between 1600 and 1830.

She would put the books online, make them available to everyone through the Chawton House Library, which would be open to scholars by application. The restoration project team would include members of the Knight family: Richard, who was born in Chawton House; his daughter, Cassandra, a landscape designer; and son, Adam, an architect. It's still their house, insisted Lerner--under the sales agreement, the Chawton estate will revert back to the Knight family in 125 years. Everything seemed to fall into place--Jane Austen, computers and rare books--in one parallel universe.

*

Chapter 5

-- "It was a sweet view--sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive."--Austen on the view from Mr. Knightley's Donwell Abbey in "Emma."

*

At Chawton House, the model for Donwell Abbey, Lerner shuts the front door and turns to look at the place. "I think," she says, "it's the ugliest house in Great Britain." With the electricity turned off, the house is dark, and a weak gray light struggles through thick, dirty windows. The empty rooms are cold and musty. Dust and cobwebs coat the fireplaces, the carved 400-year-old staircases, the oak wainscot. The oak floorboards--almost wide enough to seesaw on--are buckling and speared by shards of glass. The ceilings are cracked and water-stained. The attic is full of asbestos and rats.

In the '70s, the place was cut into flats. The tenants of one apartment left behind a cheap red velvet curtain and a small kitchen with linoleum floors. In one room, a bare lightbulb dangles from the ceiling; in another, someone drilled a hole in a thick red Tudor door to vent a dryer.

Still, from the outside, you can see how perfectly the handmade bricks were fired and stacked, and get a sense of the 3-foot-thick Elizabethan flint walls. Near the front lane, hundreds of sheep graze on an untilled field.

In England, Lerner stays at the estate's seven-bedroom Old Manor, a converted Elizabethan horse stable. Sprawling on an easy chair in the living room of the Old Manor, she has surrounded herself with pictures of her five adopted cats and four Shire horses. She thinks the neighbors are stuck on the feudal notion of noblesse oblige, of patronage--"I don't tink so, mama," she purrs the way her cat does.

She has invited the neighbors numerous times for drinks to explain her plans for the study center. A couple years ago, she danced at the village ball and handed out raffle prizes. Her staff hand-delivers copies of the center's thick newsletters to every resident of the village.

See, she told them, we want to start this study center and invite a dozen or so scholars to live and work at the house every year. We want scholars to know the house as Austen did. We will provide candles, chamber pots and period quilts. We want to restore the grounds and farmlands to an 18th century splendor.

The neighbors protested. They didn't want Chawton House's traffic up their lane--even if it would only include service vehicles--and didn't want parking near their houses, even if the lot would be screened. Then there was the Badger Brouhaha.

As part of the landscape restoration, Lerner wanted to remove a 1920s swimming pool. Animal rights activists claimed that underneath the pool burrowed some badgers, a protected species in England. The Americans can't boot the badgers from their summer chalet for the sake of a view, the badgers' defenders insisted.

Lerner was stunned. She had given millions to animal welfare causes; she would be the last person to harm a badger. So for most of 1997, the badger debate raged. Until the issue could be resolved--experts were called in to monitor the pool--the project was dead in its tracks. The delay was costing her $50,000 a month in upkeep.

"I'm just so f - - -ing sick of it right now," Lerner said late last year. "I just wish it would all just kind of go away, or somebody would go, 'I really want to do this project.' OK! Take my project, please!"

As it turned out, the experts never did see a badger, and in September, the local planning board approved the landscape plans for Chawton House. Restoration of the house and grounds will begin later this year and is expected to be completed by 2003. But, tired of fighting the neighbors over the roads, Lerner gave up the idea of a residential study center.

"So the study center now has changed. People won't be staying there," she says. "A hotel for poor, starving grad students--I don't need to do that. So now it's a library. Really, the only thing that's not happening is the part that I wanted, which was people getting to live in these 18th century conditions.

"To be able to go through and read those books in what I consider to be a proper context, I think would add immeasurably to our ability to look at them critically. To me that sort of milieu was what gave birth to this literature."

The neighbors, she says, never gave her a chance. "I would have problems in the village of Chawton if I looked like Margaret Thatcher and spoke like the queen.

"And the other thing is they don't believe what you say anyway, so what the f - - -? I might as well have a good time. I enjoy the theatrics. The way that I look is a way of signaling that they will have to deal with me on my terms."

On bad days, she wonders what she's doing in England.

"I'm a terrible rich person," she wails. "I should be lunching with Mick Jagger. I should be buying vinyl jeans. I should be eating my Pop Tarts off a silver tray."

*

Chapter 6

-- "Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick & wicked."--Austen in a letter to sister Cassandra, 1816.

*

Here at Urban Decay in Costa Mesa, next door to a Harley shop, amid a staff of men and women, most of whom are in their 20s and sporting out-there toenail polish and even more out-there tattoos and who are bustling about the warehouse offices or slouching in thrift shop chairs, Lerner stares at her toes.

"Is that the total toe color?" she asks. She wiggles the toes and then rocks back and forth on the balls of her bare feet. She is happy. A harsh light bounces off her toenails, which are still wet from a coat of shimmery indigo. "You know, my toes were so gross-looking before, and now they're cute . . . toes need to be this color."

Lerner's here to play with color. Color haunts her, makes her crazy. Creative director Wende Zomnir joins her, and they trash sample hair dyes that the lab has sent over. Lerner cannot believe she is looking at Acid Rain, which is usually a bright yellow-green. "He-llooo? No way," she snaps. She wants more of a tortured-swimming-pool-twisted-blond look.

She flags passing employees and listens to their opinions. (She hugs them, too). She is trying to create an emerald green for an upcoming movie by the Coen brothers in which nail polish plays an important role. Dozens of bottles are littered before her. With a toothpick-sized stick, she mixes dabs of color on white paper, praying that she won't make a pukey green. Hours later, she hits it. "Ooooh, ooooh, I'm in love," she says.

This is how Urban Decay started, with Lerner trying to cook up the perfect color a year after she completed negotiations for Chawton House. She had just turned 40, and her aunt had told her that she should start wearing makeup. She thought her aunt was probably right but found no hip, grown-up colors on the market. So she started mixing and, through a friend, hooked up with Zomnir. In 1996, its first year of business, Urban Decay did $5 million in sales.

Urban Decay still eats up most of her time. She travels a couple weeks each month on business for the company. Once a month, she visits her 85-year-uncle, Jack Takiss, in Beverly Hills, whom she used to stay with during summers growing up. She owns an apartment across the street and stocks his freezer with homemade matzo ball soup and pot roast.

She also lives part time on her 800-acre horse farm in Virginia and French Normandy-style house in Los Altos. In between, she drops by Clipper Gap, always, her aunt says, bringing a present--a bracelet or earrings or a collectible spoon. Among her close friends are Carol Jenkins, a Fox News anchor in New York, and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem.

Steinem recently faxed a birthday message to Lerner in England: "Remember, you don't always have to be smart and brave, and remember there's a bunch of us who have elected ourselves to watch out for your back."

*

Conclusion

-- "Oh! dear me! I have not time or paper for half that I want to say."--Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1813.

*

The Janeites who know they're going to nod off at the society's morning business meeting wait until the afternoon session to show up at Chawton House. For them, the chairman repeats the Punishment List joke to fresh peals of laughter from the crowd of 600.

David Selwyn, editor of the society's newsletter, reminds members how a pack of journalists dropped in a couple years ago to show how "eccentric, batty and quaint" the society was, when, of course, the group is about scholarly study. He is wearing a cravat.

Nigel Nicolson, on the other hand, is trying to escape. The day's main speaker, Nicolson had agreed to talk about his speech on Austen's homes five years ago in Santa Monica but then back-pedals. He protests that he has never met Mrs. Lerner. But what do you think about her plans for Chawton House? "I don't have anything to say. I've never been inside Chawton House, you see . . . . Look here, I'm afraid I'm being very, very useless to you . . . ."

He gets up so fast that he spills his glass of water. But what do you think about her plans? He tries to shoulder his way through the crowd to the safety of the tea tent and then home to Sissinghurst Castle. "Well, I'd rather not cramp poor Mrs. Lerner's style. I just don't know why she's going to get a large number of people to study here, when they can study in their own universities. You see, I don't know the details of her project."

Mr. Nicolson? One last question, sir? He turns around reluctantly. He is too much of a gentleman to escape without leave-taking. Do you remember saying in Santa Monica that anyone who would buy Chawton House is a silly old cow? (The sentence can't be found on the tape of his speech.) "Oh, I remember saying that. All right, bye!" He raises a hand in farewell--or surrender--and disappears into the crowd.

On the grounds of Chawton House, a tribal ritual unfolds. Tight social circles form on the lawn. No one wears name tags except the society's directors, who wear badges that look like state fair ribbons. Wicker picnic baskets appear. "The Battle of Prague," someone announces to a visitor before scurrying away. It's not clear to the uninitiated whether he's referring to the chamber music selection or the mad scramble for tea.

During a break at the meeting, Helen Williams puts down her paperback Dickens to talk. You see, she hated the Hollywood version of "Pride and Prejudice," starring Laurence Olivier in 1940. Olivier was way too old to play Mr. Darcy, insists Williams, a 26-year-old accountant from Salisbury. How old was he? Thirty two. That was too old? "Darcy," she says crisply, "is 28."

When she heard an American had bought Chawton House, she wondered if the new owner would be the Hollywood type. She thinks it's a lovely idea to put a study center there but . . . . "Maybe it's a little xenophobic," admits Williams, who wears a black sweatshirt and skirt. "But you think, 'An American, ooooh. Do they really appreciate Jane Austen?' "

The crowd is aflutter over the rumored Hollywood production of "Sanditon," one of Austen's unfinished novels. Whenever Janeites say "Hollywood," they extend the syllables to suggest it can never be a good thing.

Jan Foster, a longtime Chawton resident, gets up from a rickety folding chair after the morning session. Sandy Lerner? She stalls. She points out how rooted the society is in tradition and how its recent scheme to sell raffle tickets raised eyebrows. Then she warms up.

"It's a debatable point, isn't it, that someone coming in from California has the same kind of view of English literature, and not just in a selfish way, to say, 'I've bought a bit of Olde England,' " she says. "The English are very protective, aren't they? If it was someone coming in from the outside with purple hair, you'd be skeptical of their motives, wouldn't you?"

Besides Lerner, there was at least one other notable no-show at the gathering this year. Longtime society member Henry Rice also decided to skip. Every year it's the same, he says, with the same tea that grows cold by the time you reach the head of the line. Rice led the original, but failed, fund-raising effort to buy Chawton House and turn it into a study center.

He chuckles at the irony of it all--the feuding members, the offended aristocrats, the vexed villagers. "Jane Austen would have written a very good novel about that, wouldn't she?"

*

Researchers Sheila Kern and Lois Hooker contributed to this article.

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