Edith Lank, who died on New Year’s Day at the age of ninety-six, was a Janeite’s Janeite. She read and reread Austen’s novels; began collecting first editions when their prices hadn’t yet reached the stratosphere; compiled Jane Austen Speaks to Women, a charming selection of apposite quotations; helped found the Rochester, N.Y., chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America and served on the organization's national board; and attended nearly every JASNA Annual General Meeting for thirty years.
Back in 2011, when I was researching my book Among the Janeites, Lank regaled me with her Austen stories during a delightful telephone conversation whose transcript I reread this week, after seeing her obituary.
While still in high school, Lank worked as a local newspaper reporter in small-town New York; in 1947, she graduated from college as an English major who, in an era with little interest in female writers, had never been assigned any Austen. She discovered her soon-to-be favorite author during a long, cold winter as a college teacher in Maine, when she decided to ease the boredom by reading her way through the library, starting with the A’s.
Her own shelves eventually filled up with Austeniana: second-hand editions of Mansfield Park, initially her favorite of the novels (“of course, the older I get, the more I love Persuasion”); translations in languages from Albanian and Basque to Hebrew and Chinese; and first editions initially bought with the proceeds from a prescient early investment in a little company called Amazon.
She recompensed an Iranian Janeite who provided her with an early edition of Sense and Sensibility in Persian by sending along a copy of Iris Murdoch’s latest novel and an audiotape of Dolly Parton singing “Jolene,” a shipment that apparently had to be smuggled into Iran via diplomatic pouch.
Meanwhile, Lank raised three children, earned her real estate license, authored several real estate textbooks, and eventually returned to her early roots as a journalist, writing a real estate advice column that ran for decades and was widely syndicated.
Her little book of Austen excerpts – literally little: it measures only three inches by three and a half – was published in 2000. The copy Lank sent me after our interview has its place in my own modest collection of Austeniana.
Items from Lank’s far more impressive collection -- including a genuine Austen signature from 1813 that she found in the estate of a local bibliophile and bought for perhaps $500 -- were displayed last fall at JASNA’s AGM in Victoria, British Columbia.
In our interview, Lank also provided me with what I still regard as the definitive answer to an eternally unanswerable question: why Jane Austen inspires such devotion among us Janeites. Every year, she told me, after accompanying her to yet another JASNA AGM, her non-Janeite husband, Norman Lank, would ask her, “What is it about Jane Austen?”
Finally, she said, she gave him the answer that Louis Armstrong offered when asked to define jazz: “Man, when you got to ask what is it, you’ll never get to know.”