Austen fans, scholars have a meeting of heart during panel discussion at Leatherby

Visiting authors at "Austenalia" panel included (l-r) Diana Birchall, Syrie James, Laurie Viera Rigler and Karen Joy Fowler. (Photo/McKenzi Taylor)

Everyone knows that Jane Austen has staying power — not to mention box office pull, a bevy of popular imitators and loyal fans who ritually reread her novels.

But she also has our hearts. And she probably always will, because though her world was small, her insight into human nature was vast, said a group of Austen scholars who gathered at Chapman University’s Leatherby Libraries on Tuesday for “Austenalia,” a panel discussion hosted by Lynda Hall, assistant professor of English and a scholar of 19th Century British literature.

“Jane Austen wrote domestic books that are about three or four families in a country village, and their courtships and all the characters and their lives and homes. Two hundred years later we’re still reading them,” said Syrie James, author of The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. “These kinds of books last longer because they speak to our hearts and they are character-driven, and these are the kinds of stories that really stand the test of time.”

The panel discussion marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, and precedes Dr. Hall’s “A Night With …” program next week, when she will portray the famed novelist. “A Night With …” is a Wilkinson College series featuring faculty members portraying historical figures about whom they have particular expertise.

During the wide-ranging discussion, the panelists also shared their writing struggles, recounted their experiences with publishers and urged the audience – which included a large group of students from the Orange County High School for the Arts – to “keep writing,” no matter what.

Also on the panel were Karen Joy Fowler, author of the Jane Austen Book Club, which spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list and was adapted into a popular film in 2007, Diana Birchall, author of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Laurie Viera Rigler, author of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict.

Dawn Bonker