Scanning the supermarket notice-board, a familiar face caught my eye: a rather serious-looking woman wearing an empire-line dress and frilly cap. This famous portrait of Jane Austen – thought to be by her sister Cassandra – illustrated a poster advertising a new group for people who enjoy Austen’s books and are interested in Regency history.

Its founder, Frank Underwood, an Oxford folk and blues musician, says dressing up is strictly optional. He himself wears stockings, buckled shoes and Regency dress to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, which attracts hundreds of people from all over the world each September.

Last year he met a man who had been persuaded by his girlfriend to wear the dashing uniform of a dragoon — and to learn to ride a charger.

He hopes the Oxford group will become part of a network of Austen fans around the world, united in their admiration for this brilliant but unassuming writer, who died in 1817 at the age of 41. Her six novels and various shorter or unfinished works have inspired everything from science fiction to a Bollywood film – and, of course, the beloved TV costume dramas that brighten our dark Sunday evenings.

Mr Underwood, who also has an interest in early music, plays several instruments, including guitar and lute, and in the 1970s led the band Windsong, whose other members included Annie Lennox (pre-Eurythmics).

Although he is now fascinated by Austen, he admits it has taken him a few years to see what all the fuss is about. His parents and sisters were all fans: “My Dad used to quote from the books. I grew up to the sound of Mrs Bennet [from Pride and Prejudice] and her tremblings and flutterings,” he said. But at that time, he recalled, the TV and film adaptations were rather wooden and failed to do justice to Austen’s subtle wit.

Studying history and sociology, Mr Underwood became engrossed in the Regency period and the social and political upheavals that were occurring at around that time, notably the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, and the Industrial Revolution.

Although he did not immediately associate Austen’s domestic dramas with these events, he gradually began to see connections: for example, between her clear-eyed vision of the lot of women without independent means and wider debates that were then just beginning about their education and emancipation.

Another example relates to the character Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park, absent for most of the novel attending to ‘problems’ on his plantations in Antigua that are never quite spelled out but are clearly related to Britain’s involvement in the slave trade.

Mr Underwood quotes a sociologist friend of his who said, of Austen: “She is not peaches and cream. There’s deep stuff there.”

Being a musician, Mr Underwood also became interested in the role of music and dancing in her novels. Visiting her former home at Chawton, Hampshire, he discovered eight books of music meticulously transcribed by her from borrowed scores.

These provide a revealing insight into the musical tastes of the day, and some of the songs may be Austen’s own compositions. Mr Underwood sometimes plays the piano at Chawton and has recently brought a comparable instrument to Oxford, to restore and play.

Few people know that Jane and Cassandra were at school in Oxford for a few months in 1783. It was run by their relation Mrs Ann Cawley, the widow of Ralph Cawley, a Principal of Brasenose College. Mr Underwood has written an article about this and other Oxford links on his website.

He hopes some members of the Oxford group will join him in wearing Regency clothes – and that they will find a dressmaker who can create suitable outfits – but stresses that dressing up is entirely optional. He is keen to recruit more members. As Mr Weston says, in Emma: “Such schemes as these are nothing without numbers. One cannot have too large a party. A large party secures its own amusement.”

l The group’s first major event, to which all new members will be invited, is a Christmas ‘soiree’ with music, dancing and food, on Saturday.

For more information see: or telephone Frank Underwood on 01865 515295 or 077924 27088.