Starting a Jane Austen Reading Group

My friend Holly Field and I gave this talk at both the 2017 and 2018 JASNA AGMs – “‘Conversations in Good Company’: Starting a Jane Austen Reading Group.” The best part of the talk were the accompanying images, and sorry to say, I only put a few of those in here. But the text gives very helpful information on the ins and outs of starting such a group, with emphasis on doing this through your local JASNA Region (this information is now also online in the JASNA Regional Coordinator Handbook – please contact your RC to get the information).

Putting it on here because many of you asked, especially about the lists of suggested readings – and will emphasize that any list is only a starting point, is never complete, and should evolve as your own group grows. We would be especially interested to hear from those of you either starting groups or in existing groups – what books would you add to these lists? what books have worked the best, generated the most interesting discussions, been complete disasters?? Please use the comment section below to share your ideas with us. I will do a separate post on what you have shared.

Part I.

Last year we presented a short history of book clubs and literary societies, all very interesting, but today will only mention two things:

  1. The Blue Stockings Society was one of the most famous of these 18th century literary salons, started by the hostess and critic Elizabeth Montagu that included the likes of Hannah More and Frances Burney. Women also had their own debating societies – at “British History online” you can read through some of the topics – a perfect activity for your book group!
  2. After the French Revolution, a backlash against “intellectual women” led to such views as this by William Hazlitt (an English writer, drama and literary critic, painter, social commentator, and philosopher – and we might add, little read today!):

The bluestocking is the most odious character in society…she sinks wherever she is placed, like the yolk of an egg, to the bottom, and carries the filth with her.”

On that happy note, let’s review the basics of forming your own group of Bluestockings!

So Why start a group?

  1. First and foremost, Jane Austen serves as a model for us: she was in several book groups throughout her life: In her Letters, she speaks of subscribing to Book Societies or Libraries – where members would pool their money to collectively share and discuss books. Austen praises the Alton Book Society as being far superior to those at Steventon and Manydown:
  • She is critical of those “Ladies who read those enormous great stupid thick Quarto volumes – I detest a Quarto” (Ltr. 81);
  • Austen subscribes Cassandra to Mrs. Martin’s Library in Basingstoke and writes: She tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of literature, etc, etc – she might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so…” (Ltr. 14)
  1. A Book Group serves as educational outreach for your Region
  2. It is one of the best ways to find new members for your Region
  3. The bonding affect, a book club offering a small group interactive experience, especially for a large Region
  4. We are Bluestockings after all! – and what is better than sharing Jane Austen with others: reading her, comparing her to other authors, and learning more about Austen and her times?

Speak with your RC about spearheading the group: We offer two suggestions: Make your start-up decisions after finding members so you can all feel some “buy in” in forming the group; and discuss Pride & Prejudice at your first meeting, since most readers have at least some familiarity with this novel.


Starting up: Questions to ask:

We can all agree that when Miss Bingley opines: I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” (and forever memorialized on the £10 note!), she could have been referring to her creator! And is there anything better than talking about Jane Austen in a group of like-minds??

Here are the questions you should ask, the decisions you will make:

How do you find Members?

-Use your member list and the JASNA unaffiliated list to set a start-up meeting and email all; invite members at Region meetings, and put an ad in your newsletter

-To find outsiders (and potential JASNA members!) who might be interested in Jane Austen, email your general mailing list, post fliers in local libraries or put a blurb in the local paper

-Use Social Media: Facebook, Meetup, Twitter, etc.

-Men? Yes, absolutely!

What is the best size for a Book club?You can maintain a larger mailing list, but usually 8-12 is the magic number; or create multiple groups

Where and When will you meet?

  • Your local library, a church, restaurants, bookstores; but the best location seems to be in member homes
  • Will you meet monthly, every other month, afternoons, evenings, weekends?
  • And how long? 2-2 ½ hours is best (unless you get talking about the movies!) 

What’s in a name? – Yes! You should name your group – Makes it unique… no limits to your imagination!

  • Bingley’s Beauties
  • Knightley’s Literary Ladies
  • Pemberley Readers
  • Tilney Fans
  • The White Soup Readers
  • Classic Broads
  • Austen Groupies
  • The Donwell Damsels
  • etc…

Who will be the Organizer and / or Facilitator?

  • Who’s in charge, communicates with members about the reading schedule, meetings, and follow-up? and maintains records of what you read so you can remember 20 years from now!
  • What do you use? Email, Social media, or a Newsletter
  • Who compiles the discussion questions, offers some background on the author (both easily found online), and oversees the conversation, keeping on track at each meeting / and do you vary this each meeting?
  • Who will “enforce” Ground Rules – such as “No Highbury Gossips” allowed!

What is your group’s mix between Serious and Social?
– How can you spice up your meeting agendas so you focus on the books and stay on topic (and not just talk about Food!)?? – Some ideas:

-In reading and discussing the month’s selection, send out discussion questions in advance and ask each member to choose at least one of the questions they would like to discuss – this gives everyone a chance to speak and participate

-Have members take turns leading discussions, or occasionally invite an outside speaker

-Read aloud passages or share favorite quotes

-Group “assignments” – for example: everyone writing a synopsis of their own ending of “Sanditon” or “The Watsons.”

-Acting out the Juvenilia, such as the Juvenilia Press Mini-Dramas, or Jack & Alice; or even scenes from the novels (The RC Handbook links to various options in the JASNA Script Bank


What of those little extras?

  • Food?Yes!! Does the hostess provide the goodies or do you ask attendees to bring something? The menu can range from full meals, or afternoon tea, to simple snacks, or even food that matches the meeting, like strawberries for Emma, – and of course, popcorn for a follow-up movie… which leads us to..
  • The Movies? This adds another dimension to the book discussion – it is best to have a separate movie gathering and discussion AFTER you’ve read the book! … the only exception to this rule is North and South, which if you see the movie first, you can then envision Richard Armitage as John Thornton while reading the book…
  • Field Trips? anything that might relate to the book: museums, art galleries, tea rooms, etc.


What are some of the challenges?

  • Finding a meeting location for a large group or wide-spread Region
  • Accepting the life expectancy of groups: some disband and regroup; so are you an open or closed group? – and if you do lose members, how do you invite new ones in?
  • What about the inevitable “Problem” members? those who dominate the conversation, don’t stay on topic, are continually negative, or don’t read the book – hopefully your facilitator can diplomatically nip these in the bud!

   [Image: Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Breaking up of the Bluestocking Club’ (1815). Lewis Walpole Library]


And finally, How do you select books? And plan your annual schedule?

Alberto Manguel in his A History of Reading, writes that: “Reading is a solitary business” – but book groups make this solitary experience a communal one, and an enlightening discussion can make you look at any given book in new ways, even completely changing your opinion of it!

Selecting what your book group will read is therefore the most important task you will set for yourself – so how to do it? where to start?

  • One of the first questions being: do you read only fiction? Or do you enter the non-fiction realm of history, biography, poetry, etc?

……. Recall again Austen’s letter about subscribing Cassandra to Mrs. Martin’s Library in Basingstoke:

“She tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels… – she might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so…” (Ltr. 14)

  • Plan your schedule a year in advance: decide on general reading or a theme for the year
  • Think about what qualities make a book a “great” choice for book clubs?
  • What resources do you use to discover books? – you must keep a reading list file

There are an infinite number of resources to help you – we have given you a handout with some of the options. But we want to focus on what I have implemented in both Vermont and South Carolina – “The Montreal Plan:” it may sound like a battle plan from the French and Indian War, but she got it from Elaine Bander, who got it someone but can’t remember who!

It’s actually a terrific plan with a well-rounded feast of books, both fiction and non-fiction, and always at least one annual Austen re-read. We select the upcoming year’s books at a December tea meeting, sort of following these guidelines, but always open to suggestions and choosing from members’ want-to-read lists.

This Montreal plan offers a bi-monthly schedule that includes books by and about Jane Austen, her times, books she read, writers she influenced, and popular culture works – it becomes then a classic literature book group.

  1. A work by Jane Austen
  2. A work about Jane Austen
  3. A work Jane Austen read
  4. A work inspired by Jane Austen
  5. A work about her time: the Regency, etc.
  6. A work of popular culture: the many sequels, prequels, rewrites, mash-ups, etc.


We are going to go through these to just give you an idea of some of the books we have read following this formula (more or less!) – a very selective list, and in no way exhaustive:

1.A Work by Jane Austen – after the first year of reading all the novels, we then re-read one each year; and also read:

-The Minor works (Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon, the Juvenilia, and The Letters)

-When you are reading / re-reading an Austen title, start with the JASNA website for resources and discussion questions – for example, here is a link to the Persuasion page on JASNA; and specifically the discussion questions here; and see also the abundant essays in Persuasions.

-Reading the annotated editions of the novels is very informative, especially for the social life and customs and literary references.  

2. A Work about Jane Austen

Ask your RC for this “Suggested Reading for Janeites” in the RC handbook – and if you find a discussion-worthy title not listed, let JASNA know so they can add it – any list is always a work in progress.

Biographies: there are many!

  • Claire Tomalin. Jane Austen: A Life. 1997, upd. 2000.
  • Paula Byrne. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things.
  • Jan Fergus: Jane Austen: A Literary Life. 1994.
  • Park Honan. Jane Austen: Her Life. 1978; updated pb in 1996.
  • Deirdre Le Faye. Updated Jane Austen: A Family Record. 2004. – anything by Le Faye
  • Claire Harman. Jane’s Fame.
  • Elizabeth Jenkins. Jane Austen : one of earliest and best

Criticism: the list is endless! We tend to choose the less-academic works that give us a deeper understanding of her writing

  • Janine Barchas. Matters of Fact in Jane Austen.
  • Rachel Brownstein. Becoming a Heroine. 1982.; and Why Jane Austen?
  • John Mullan. What Matters in Jane Austen.
  • William Deresiewicz. A Jane Austen Education.
  • Johnson and Tuite. A Companion to Jane Austen. [Claudia Johnson and Claire Tuite, 2009, 2012.]
  • Janet Todd, editor of Jane Austen in Context – has a terrific bibliography. [2005, upd. 2007]
  • Juliette Wells. Everybody’s Jane. 2011
  • Copeland and McMaster, editors of the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. 1997. 2nd ed. 2011.
  • David Selwyn. Jane Austen and Children; also his Jane Austen and Leisure
  • Hazel Jones. Jane Austen and Marriage.
  • And one of my favorites, a terrific intro to the novels:Tony Tanner’s Jane Austen. 1986.

And these books, just published this past year: and this isn’t nearly all of them!

  • Devoney Looser. The Making of Jane Austen
  • J. Clery. Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister
  • Lucy Worsley. Jane Austen at Home
  • Jocelyn Harris. Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen

And some just out or coming out:

  • Kathleen Anderson. Jane Austen’s Women: An Introduction
  • Lisa Hopkins. After Austen: Reinventions, Rewritings, Revisitings
  • Fred Parker. On Declaring Love: 18th-Century Literature and Jane Austen
  • Midorikawa and Sweeney. A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf


3. A Work Jane Austen Read

  • See JASNA’s list of “Reading what Jane Austen Read” (in the JASNA RC Handbook) as a starting off point.
  • The Index to literary allusions in Jane Austen compiled by R. W. Chapman is invaluable:
  • And see The Reading Experience Database, where you can search: who read Jane Austen, and search who Jane Austen read:

1. Who read Jane Austen:
2. Who Jane Austen read:

Some examples of other writers:

  • Walter Scott. Waverley; Ivanhoe
  • Henry Fielding. Tom Jones
  • Charlotte Lennox. The Female Quixote
  • Sarah Fielding, Henry’s equally talented sister: The Governess; or The Adventures of David Simple
  • Frances Burney (Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, her Diaries make great reading);
  • Maria Edgeworth. Belinda; Castle Rackrent
  • Mary Wollstonecraft. Vindication of the Rights of Woman
  • Ann Radcliffe. Mysteries of Udolpho [recall Henry Tilney’s hair standing on end!]; Romance of the Forest; The Italian
  • Matthew Lewis. The Monk (1796): this even has its own caricature! Gillray’s “Tales of Wonder!” (1801)
  • Austen’s favorites: everything by Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and William Cowper; Samuel Richardson. The History of Sir Charles Grandison –One thought is to spend the entire year readingThe History of Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson, Austen’s all-time favorite – OR read Clarissa in real-time: the letters are written over the period of nearly one full year, beginning on January 10 and finishing on December 18th!


4. A Work Inspired by Jane Austen or at least following in her stead: the 19th-century, oh! those naughty Victorians!

The 19th century

  • the Brontes: the usual suspects – Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Tenant of Wildfell Hall – but also their other works including their poetry;
  • George Eliot. Adam Bede, Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss
  • Anthony Trollope. Barchester Towers + all the other 42!
  • Mary Shelley. Frankenstein
  • Wilkie Collins. Woman in White, Moonstone, The Law and the Lady, No Name, Dead Secret
  • Thomas Hardy. Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess, Return of the Native, Mayor of Casterbridge
  • Dickens – all 30 volumes!
  • Elizabeth Gaskell. North and South, Ruth, Mary Barton, Wives and Daughters, Cranford
  •  W. P. Thackeray. Vanity Fair

From the Late 19th century – present: where to begin?!

  • Henry James; Edith Wharton (Age of Innocence, House of Mirth), E. M. Forster (A Room with a View, Howard’s End), Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse), Angela Thirkell’s novels, D. E. Stevenson, Barbara Pym, Emily Eden, E. M. Delafield, and Dodie Smith (whose I Capture the Castle begins with “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” – almost rivalling P&P’s opening line)
  • Any and all of the titles at Persephone Books: a small publisher in England – their list of 120 neglected works by mid-twentieth-century mostly women writers will keep you busy for a good while! 


5. A Work about Her Times: the Regency Period
its history, social life and customs, the Napoleonic Wars [so we can understand Captain Wentworth all the more…] – the list is as long as your imagination and research skills can take you! And again, see JASNA’s reading list on historical background. And just a few examples:

  • Carolly Erickson. Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England
  • Brian Southam. Jane Austen and the Navy
  • Brian Lavery. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation 1793-1815
  • Irene Collins. Jane Austen and the Clergy
  • Venetia Murray. An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England
  • Susannah Fullerton. Jane Austen and Crime; A Dance with Jane Austen
  • Ray Porter. English Society in the 18th Century
  • The Adkins. Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England
  • Sarah Downing. Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen
  • Alison Adburgham. Shops and Shopping 1800-1914
  • Dorothy Margaret Stuart. The English Abigail
  • Margaret Sullivan. A Jane Austen Handbook
  • Joan Ray. Jane Austen for Dummies
  • Donald Low. The Regency Underworld
  • Kristine Hughes. Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England
  • Mark Girouard. Life in the English Country House
  • Jennifer Koestler. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World
  • Biographies of people in her time – sometimes their life story is as much (or moreso!) interesting than their own works: Samuel Johnson, Wollstonecraft, Burney

Mary Wollstonecraft


6. The last piece of our plan is A Work of Popular Culture: just throwing out a few (of SO MANY!)

  • The HarperCollins Austen Project: Trollope’s S&S, Val McDermid’s NA; McCall-Smith’s Emma; Sittenfeld’s P&P [Eligible]
  • Jo Baker. Longbourn
  • Stephanie Barron’s mystery series
  • Carrie Bebris’s mystery series
  • Joan Austen-Leighs sequels
  • Joan Aiken sequels
  • Winston Graham. Poldark series
  • Kate Ross. Her Regency era mysteries featuring Julian Kestrel – there are 4 titles
  • Syrie James’s works
  • Juliette Archer
  • Jane Odiwe
  • Stuart Bennett: A Perfect Visit (a time travel tale wherein you meet Jane Austen AND Shakespeare!)
  • C. S. Harris – Sebastian St Cyr regency mysteries – JA appears in one of them
  • The “Austen Author’s” blog – endless reads
  • Georgette Heyer – a ton of reading [one suggestion: each of you read a different title and summarize and discuss]
  • Crazy Rich Asians and sequels!

OR – you can write your own! [this is a new publication]


 Resources for finding books to read:

I. Books: (a very small sampling of an infinite variety)

  1. Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. The Feminist Companion: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.
  2. Knight, Brenda. Women Who Love Books Too Much: Bibliophiles, Bluestockings & Prolific Pens. Berkeley: Conari, 2000.
  3. Nelson, Sara. So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading. NY: Putnam, 2003.
  4. Pearl, Nancy. Book Lust. Seattle: Sasquatch, 2003.
  5. Spacks, Patricia Meyer. On Re-Reading. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 2011.
  6. Willes, Margaret. Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008.
  7. Price, Leah. How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012.

II. Online resources:

A. JASNA website:

  1. Ask your RC for the “Suggested Reading for Janeites” – in the RC handbook
  2. Reading Lists for each AGM since 2009 – links to online essays
  3. Discussion questions and links to Persuasions essays for all the novels and minor works

4. Annual “Jane Austen bibliography” in POL – includes a popular culture section since 2009

5. JASNA Region website / blogs: three examples:

-“Predecessors of JA” – by Ronnie Jo Sokol (related to Northanger Abbey)

-Reading Guides to Emma and P&P:


B. Library at Chawton House

C. Orlando: – A database (by subscription only, free in March)

D. Women Writers Project: (Women Writers Online – subscription)

E. Celebration of Women Writers:

As an example: here is the information on Aphra Behn:

F. The British Women Writers Association:

G. Reading Experience Database:

H. HathiTrust:– out of print books in full-text online

I. Persephone Books:

J. The Chautauqua Reading List, 1878-2018:

K. The Victorian Web:

III. Reading group resources:
help finding discussion questions

  1. Reading Group Guides:
  2. LitLovers:
  3. Shmoop:
  4. Book Browse:
  5. GoodReads:
  6. LibraryThing: (search Jane Austen for a list of possible reads)
  7. Book Blogs – an infinite variety – see for a list!
  8. “Jane Austen blogs” – just google for the many!
  9. George Eliot’s Middlemarch:
  10. Don’t forget your local Library!


Conclusion: Reading Persuasion

Since we did this talk at the AGM celebrating Persuasion, here is an example of choosing books for a year’s worth of reading with Persuasion as the theme. You can do this with any of the novels…

  1. A work by Jane Austen: Persuasion; OR if you are up on your French the 1821 edition La Famille Elliot: warning: Anne is called Alice, Louisa is Anna, and there are other such changes – the translator apparently running riot with the original text…
  2. A work about Jane Austen: something about the Navy – Southam’s Jane Austen and the Navy, by Brian Southam; or Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers, by Francis Austen’s grandson and his daughter, JOhn HIbback and Edith Hubback – and now readily available in print or online.

OR: a critical work on Persuasion – the incomparable Jocelyn Harris’s A Revolution Almost beyond Expression

3. A work Jane Austen read: Check the literary references in Persuasion and you’ll have a rather long reading list! The Arabian Nights to start; along with Benwick you can read various poems by Scott and Byron; or Matthew Prior’s poem Henry and Emma; but also Alexander Pope; Frances Burney’ Cecilia’s; Steel’s Navy List; and, along with Sir Walter, you must take up The Baronetage!

4. A work inspired by Jane Austen: James Fenimore Cooper’s 1820 Precaution – who knew that Cooper was inspired when reading Austen to write his own comedy of manners, originally believed to have been written by an English woman! – but I do promise some laughs…

Howard Fast’s play The Novelist (1976, 1991), is filled with shades of Persuasion: Jane Austen is courted in the last few months of her life by a Navy Captain – Fast giving Austen her very own Wentworth – but alas! even Fast cannot change the real-life outcome of July 1817…

5. A work about her time: the Regency, etc:

Jenny Uglow: In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 (Farrar, 2014) – A brilliant book about these years that Captain Wentworth would have been active in the Navy – actually anything by Uglow should be fitted into your group – especially her biography of Elizabeth Gaskell (but also Goerge Eliot, Johnson, Hogarth, and Fielding…

Or perhaps a Nelson biography: Nelson: The Sword of Albion, by John Sugden (Holt, 2012)

Or John Fowles. A Short History of Lyme Regis, or Maggie Lane’s A Charming Place, about Bath (or anything by Maggie Lane for that matter)

6. A work of popular culture:

Patrick O’Brian – all his 20+1 works are a tribute to Jane Austen – JA = Jack Aubrey = Jane Austen

Folio Society

OR, the endless list of possible retellings: such as these: Sarah Price’s Amish-set Second Chances, or Juliet Archer’s Persuade Me, or for young adults, The Last Best Kiss, by Claire LaZebnik.



One thing is for certain, book clubs across our Jane Austen-infused Land are indeed “Conversations in Good Company.”

Now we want to hear from you! what you have done in your groups… what books have had the best discussion? The worst? Please comment below…

c2018 Jane Austen in Vermont