Arts and Humanities
4:55 pm
Tue June 19, 2012

Tech Pioneer Tackles Jane Austen Sequel

When Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sandy Lerner was a computational mathematics graduate student at Stanford University in the early Eighties, she would blow off steam by retreating into romantic world of Jane Austen’s novels. She fell in love with the BBC’s 1980 miniseries of “Pride and Prejudice,” and immediately started working her way through Austen’s books.

“I’m a child of the Vietnam Era. There was thius huge kind of oppressive feeling that everything we were doing was wrong,” says Lerner. “Austen writes from this completely opposite point of view, that everything they were doing was right, they were living in the best of all possible times in the best of all possible places.”

“She was an English Christian and life was the best it could be, so she had a confidence to make fun of it. I find that confidence and security almost drug-like,” she adds.

By 1984 Lerner had co-founded Cisco Systems, producing some of the first commercially successful network routers. The same year, she embarked on another ambitious project – writing a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.”

Austen died in 1817 at age 41 and only published six novels. Lerner has read them all hundreds of times. She simply wanted “more Jane.”

“At Cisco I used to have these tiny little pocket Jane Austen things and when I couldn’t stand it anymore I would go slip into the ladies’ room and read for 20 or 30 minutes, as long as I thought I could get away with and avoid it all,” says Lerner, who left Cisco in 1990. 

Lerner will read from her sequel, “Second Impressions,” Thursday at an event sponsored by the Jane Austen Society at Locust Grove. The program begins at 6:30 p.m. and will include a presentation on the research methods Lerner used to recreate Austen’s 19th century world.

“Second Impressions,” which Lerner published under the pen name Ava Farmer, picks up where “Pride and Prejudice” left off, with Elizabeth Bennett living happily ever after with Mr. Darcy. Lerner worked on “Second Impressions” slowly and steadily for decades, founding a research library on the grounds of Chawton, Austen’s family estate, as she amassed rare historical documents and novels by Austen’s lesser-known contemporaries. All of the proceeds from sales of "Second Impressions" go to fund programs at the Chawton House Library, including fellowships for women scholars. 

Lerner admits the biggest challenge wasn’t nailing Austen’s signature voice or envisioning her iconic characters living on beyond “The End.” It was knowing when to stop researching and let the story take over.

Lerner took great pains to make “Second Impressions” (a hat tip to Austen’s original title, “First Impressions”) a socially, historically, politically, technologically and geographically accurate sequel, studying original historical documents, from auction catalogs to travel diaries, to accurately represent early 19th century England.

“I think a lot of people are really curious about Austen’s life and times and what would produce these wonderful novels. That was really what drove this book and this almost insatiable desire to learn enough to be able to speak with authority in her voice,” she says.

“It’s not about zombies. The dead people in my novel stay dead. It’s not a bodice-ripper. There are two sex scenes and nobody’s found them yet without assistance,” Lerner adds. 

That doesn’t mean she didn’t take the opportunity to right some wrongs along the way.

“I think pretty much everyone agrees that, for example, Mr. Collins married the wrong woman. Charlotte Lucas was a nice girl, but she was not his soul mate. I fixed that,” says Lerner.