Happy Birthday Jane Austen!
The 16th December 2019 marks the 244th anniversary of the birth of Jane Austen, English novelist.
Jane Austen was born at Steventon, Hampshire on 16th December 1775 during the reign of King George III, the second daughter and the seventh child to George and Cassandra Austen.
"We have now another girl, a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion. She is to be Jenny..." wrote the Reverend George Austen in December 1775 in a letter to his sister-in-law. This was the announcement of the birth of one of this country's finest novelists, who we now know as Jane Austen. She began writing at twelve and continued for almost all of her life. A rectors daughter who lived within the confines of her family and her small social circle, but would become one of the world's most famous writers. Today her novels have been translated into over twenty different languages and her popularity stretches around the globe, Jane Austen societies can be found across Europe, North America and Australia.
During her life this quiet and gentle country woman would see the publication of a number of her novels, translations into French and receive financial reward for such works, quite an achievement for one so young living in such a male dominated society as Regency England.
Her passion for writing, we can suppose was a direct result of her love of reading. Jane's family were very bookish, subscribing to a lending library and this gave Jane the opportunity to read the latest gothic novels , very popular in the late 18th century, and create her own witty versions to read aloud to her family. It was obvious that this young woman had immense talent in this area and it naturally led to her writing her first serious manuscript "Elinor and Marianne" , followed soon after by "First Impressions" all before she had turned twenty-one. Writing a novel is one thing achieving publication is the hurdle that all writers must face and Jane was no different . Perhaps her most famous book is "Pride & Prejudice", and this was originally rejected by Cadell Publishers in 1797, in fact they did not even read the manuscript. It would be another sixteen years before it would be published.
For one so interested in reading and writing Jane's education was not viewed with as much importance as her many brothers, that being the fate of young girls at that time. However before Jane's 7th birthday she and her elder sister Cassandra had been placed at a girls school in Oxford. An ideal situation everyone thought, as it allowed the two sisters to escape their quiet country life and experience a little more of the larger world, although Jane did experience homesickness which she described at a later age "It gave me the vapours for two days afterwards." When the school was moved to Southampton, the dull schooldays had an obvious chance of improvement, as they were now in the bustling sea port complete with handsome officers in uniform, which obviously appealed to the older pupils. This move very nearly had tragic consequences, typhoid fever was very prominent at this port and both Jane and her sister became infected and had to be rushed home, without any help from headmistress who even declined to inform the family of their illness. Jane's 7th birthday could very well have been her last.
When Jane turned twenty she meets and enjoys her first flirtatious relationship with a handsome, young Irishman Tom Lefroy, the nephew of a close friend. They danced and chatted together at local dances while he was a visitor in the area. In letters to Cassandra Jane appears to have greatly enjoyed his company, and speaks quite mischievously about their time together. When he returned to Ireland she was to never see or hear from him again.
A few years later while holidaying Jane did meet a young man with whom she may have truly fallen in love. Very little is known about this episode as her correspondence to Cassandra during this period of her life have been destroyed. The Austen family did learn that this young man died and it may be surmised that Jane was broken-hearted and any letters describing her sadness were judged too personal and were burnt.
Prior to her 27th birthday Jane received her only marriage proposal. She accepted the hand of Harris Bigg-Wither, but after a restless night realising that she did not love him, she found him and withdrew her acceptance of his hand in marriage. She then retreated to her home to concentrate on her writing. Unlike the heroines in her novels, Jane would not go on to marry and have children. A theme which she often refers to in her books is the choice between a convenient but unloving marriage or to marry for love "do anything rather than marry without affection.”, Pride & Prejudice, 1813.
When Jane reached her 30th year her father died while the family were residing in Bath. This left her widowed mother, sister and herself financially dependent on her brothers. Of the three women it was Jane who realised that she alone had no money of her own as her mother and sister were at least beneficiaries of legacies. Jane's situation now meant that she may have to look at taking a position as a school teacher, enter into a good marriage, an option not agreeable to her, or rely on her writing to earn an income. We can be very thankful that the third option was the path she chose and her writing became her career. By the time she has reached forty she had completed "Emma", "Mansfield Park", the second editions of "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice" and had them all published. Her earnings were above £600 which she put aside for her old age, but was not to use. Sadly, shortly after finishing "Persuasion" and starting her last unfinished novel "Sanditon", Jane became very ill and was moved to Winchester to receive medical treatment. We are not sure what was the cause of her illness, cancer, Addison's disease and arsenic poisoning have been suggested. This illness caused Jane to become bed-ridden and she took her last breath with her sister Cassandra by her side in a small house not far from Winchester Cathedral, where her body now lies.
It was 18th July 1817 she was forty-one.