On this day - December 16th - 241 years ago Jane Austen came into this world. Like me a second daughter born on a Saturday, (not that I'm desperately looking for a connection with her, and not that I was born to George and Cassandra Austen).
35 years later in 1811 the first of her novels was published (Sense & Sensibility) and then within just six short years all of her completed novels had been published. Six years!! All of those icons of English Literature, all of those stories which have given millions of people pleasure ever since - made their way into the world in just six years.
That same year, 1817, aged only 41 ... she exited this world leaving behind both a legacy she could never have dreamt of, and her stories. Thank goodness she left behind those stories.
I can remember the first time I read any Austen; it was in the first year of my English Literature degree, it was Emma, and from the moment I'd dived into it I wondered how I'd managed to reach my twenties without reading her until then.
I'd never had to read any in school and, during the 90s - a period of many well known adaptations - had also bred a lot of Austen parodies which coloured my perception of her. All I really knew about the stories was that comedians portrayed them as frivolous, a little bit ridiculous, with plots and characters to be made fun of. So when I had to read one I thought I knew what I was getting ...
... how wrong could I be?
The biggest revelation was ... she's bloody funny!
Those parodies that present her work as laughable don't seem to acknowledge that she was actually intending to be funny.
- She's the one making the sharp observations,
- she's the one skewering pompous personalities with her pen,
- she's the one who knows exactly how to draw out character flaws.
If, like me back then, you haven't read Austen because you think it's going to be like the parodies ... can I gently suggest give it a try? Can I persuade you ... (see what I did there?)
Yes, of course it's like the parodies in some ways, yes of course people go to society balls a lot, and of course there are always happy endings but ... honestly ... Austen's writing is there to laugh along with not at.
Oh and, if you've avoided her because of the criticism that she only wrote about domestic life - rather than anything on the world stage (she was writing while the Napoleonic wars were taking place) ... then, please ...
... we've heard enough stories of 'Great Men' from history, and there are plenty of other narratives that can give you a sense of the past. Ditch the men of statues and portraits for a few hours and treat yourself to some time in the intimate, brilliantly observed, company of Austen's women.
Some Austen-alia to look forward to:
- Starting next Monday (Dec 19th) at 10.45am there's a new 10 part BBC Radio4 adaptation - of Northanger Abbey. They'll be available on iPlayer afterwards if you miss any.
- 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of her death and there are all kinds of events happening. For example those listed on the Jane Austen 200 site.
- Plus ... 2017 is also the year she'll be appearing on the new £10.
- And ... there's talk that there are a few £5 notes out there featuring a tiny engraving of Austen which are apparently worth tens of thousands of pounds!!! Or ... as the assistant behind the counter in my local bakery explained to a customer today: "There's meant to be a woman's face on some."
Happy Birthday Jane!