Happy Birthday Jane Austen!

Jane Austen came into the world, considerably past her due date, on 16 December 1775 at Steventon Rectory.

Steventon Rectory

Her parents had been expecting her arrival for more than three weeks, and since she was the seventh child the stork had bequeathed to the Austen’s, they had been sanguine about their estimation of her appearance and were somewhat shocked by the wait. Her 44 year old father George joked in a letter to a friend that he and his wife Cassandra had “in old age grown such bad reckoners” that they couldn’t even count the months of a pregnancy.

After making her parents wait for so long, the baby Jane’s birth was sudden and according to her father’s report, “everything was soon happily over.” (Having had a long overdue baby after a mere hour labor, I can assure you it doesn’t FEEL like it’s over soon; it feels like a bull is trying to kick its way out of your pelvis.) 

The Austens were pleased the newest member of the family was a girl. They already had 5 sons (4 of whom were healthy and strong) so “a present plaything” and “a future companion” for her 2 year old sister Cassy was very welcome. George wrote that within the family, “is to be Jenny”, a common nickname for Jane.

According to Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen:

 

“When the children were allowed into their mother’s room, they saw that the new baby had a round face, fat cheeks and bright dark eyes. It was agreed that she looked most like Henry, who had been the longest and finest of all the babies so far, so it is safe to assume that Jane was also long and large. Mrs. Austen fed her daughter at the breast, as she had all her children. She would not dream of going outside the house for at least a month after the birth, whatever the weather. The continuing Siberian winter did not encourage her, and when the thaw began, in February, there were floods, which still kept her in. So the baby enjoyed undivided attention, and three cosy months in the first-floor bedroom.”

Baby Jane Austen

Little Jenny was devoted to all her siblings and her parents, but she was beyond contestation closest friends with her sister Cassy. The devotion between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility, as well as the bond between Lizzy and and Jane Bennett in  Pride and Prejudice , are echoes of the closeness of the Austen sisters. In her novels, Austen would occasionally indicate that a character was seriously flawed or unworthy because they lacked sufficient love and care for their siblings or parents.

After Jane’s father died in 1805, her brothers supported her, Cassandra, and their mother … even welcoming the trio to live in their house, in the case of Frank Austen and his wife. Finally, in 1809 the third-born Austen brother, Edward Austen Knight, who had been adopted by a wealthy cousin when he was 16, was able to offer the ladies a spacious cottage Chawton village as their permanent home. The trio settled in with their good friend Martha Loyd, and Jane’s writing career could begin in earnest.

Austen Chawton Cottage

By 1809 Jane had written three novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey. Now in the security of the cottage, she was able to offer the first of these books to a publisher, Thomas Egerton, who was a friend of Jane’s brother Henry Austen. The novel Sense and Sensibility, which was attributed to “a Lady” as the author, was made public in October 1811. 

Readers and critics alike found Austen’s writing appealing, so Edgerton would go on to publish the public’s perennial favorite, Pride and Prejudice, in 1813. Meanwhile, emboldened by the success of her first two novels and established at Chawton, Jane wrote Mansfield Park, which Edgerton published in 1814.

Austen’s novels were so well liked that the Prince Regent and his daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales, had read them and counted themselves among her fans. The Prince Regent, know to many as Prinny and heartily disliked by Austen, hinted that her next novel be dedicated to him. Over a metaphorical barrel, Jane had no choice but to dedicate Emma to the royal she loathed.

Jane also had to move Emma to a new publisher, John Murray, because her popularity required a firm that could produce bigger orders. Emma came out in December of 1815, and was the last novel Austen was alive to see hit the bookstores.

She was started feeling unwell early in 1816, and by midsummer it was clear this was a serious illness. Modern medical theorists believe it to been the onset of Addison’s disease or maybe Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I personally believe the evidence supports a diagnosis of Addison’s disease, which is “a long-term endocrine disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough steroid hormones. Symptoms generally come on slowly and may include abdominal pain, weakness, and weight loss. Darkening of the skin in certain areas may also occur. Under certain circumstances, an adrenal crisis [which can be triggered by stress] may occur with low blood pressure, vomiting, lower back pain, and loss of consciousness.” It also hurts like hell, and Austen was in profound pain by the time she died in her sisters arms on 18 July 1817.

She was only 41 years old.

Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra

After her passing, Henry and Cassandra Austen worked with John Murray publishing and released a double-set of Northanger Abbey (one of Austen’s earliest novels) and her last completed work, Persuasion.The set included a Biographical Note by Henry giving Jane the credit for her writing in death that she had eschewed during her life. In 1832 Richard Bentley bought the copyrights of her books, and published illustrated versions of them as part of his Standard Novels. They’ve never been out of print since.

Jane Austen was born late, and died MUCH too early, but in her brief life she wrote masterpieces that will be eternally beloved as long as the English language exists.

       

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