A Proper Gift for Miss Austen

The Rice portrait of a young Jane Austen

The Rice portrait of a young Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, to
George and Cassandra Austen.
Her father served as the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon, Hampshire, and a nearby village. Jane’s family was very close and lived on the lower level of the English landed gentry.

A week from today, we Janeites will celebrate her 239th birthday, and, for the past week, I have been contemplating my gift to her.

If I visited her in her own time period, I would give her a manual typewriter with a large supply of correcting ribbons. The machines were invented in 1860, many years after she died in 1816. A computer would be more useful to her, certainly, but there is the problem of the absence of electricity. Volta did not invent his battery until 1800, so I highly doubt anything requiring a battery would be of any use to Miss Austen. I have always been amazed at people who wrote (and still write) books in longhand. I remember typing my college papers on a Smith Corona electric typewriter, and while it was advanced for 1972-77, it was nowhere near as convenient as as laptop. If Austen could produce six major novels in longhand, imagine what she could have accomplished with a computer.

Though she wrote shorter works beginning as early as 1787, she did not begin to write novels until after 1795. During the years of 1795 through 1799, she wrote her first three full-length novels, though she was not accepted by a publisher until 1811. Those were by far her most productive years. She didn’t finish rewriting her other major works until 1816, and she left two novels unfinished.

Chawton

Chawton



Reading about Austen’s life makes me incredibly sad.
She was talented and industrious, yet she lived in genteel poverty after the death of the father in 1805. In 1809, her brother Edward offered Chawton Cottage to her, her mother, and her sister. During her eight years at Chawton, she was once more prolific. Before her final illness and death, her family again suffered financial hardship.

I began writing this post with humor in mind, but it was not to be.
The unhappy truth is that Austen did not live long enough to enjoy the popularity of her writings, and, to use her words, I could not laugh at it. She did not reap many benefits from her own labors, but had she lived in this time period, she may not have written at all. There is too much hurrying, too many distractions, too much business to allow for contemplation. Her life experiences made her what she was and greatly influenced her writing. What would a modern Jane Austen be like?

Happy birthday to my favorite author, an interesting woman who has brought generations hours of entertainment and reflection.

She influenced my life profoundly.

11 thoughts on “A Proper Gift for Miss Austen

  1. Susan Kaye

    I think correcting ribbons would be the perfect gift. Without backspace and delete … well … I’d be cleaning widows for a living.

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    1. Robin Helm Post author

      I certainly wouldn’t want any kind of typewriter without correcting ribbons. The liquid stuff was nearly useless, and the idea of retyping a whole page is exhausting.

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  2. Laura Hile

    I recall the wonder of seeing the IBM Selectric typewriter with memory–a precursor to the PC. That it could store and then type out several paragraphs (flawlessly) was amazing. Because correction tape was a nightmare, especially for someone like me, the rewriter.

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  3. Laura Hile

    As to Jane’s life and lackluster “success,” I am reminded of how often this was the case for those with great talent. J.S. Bach, regarded by many to be one of the best composers of all time, published something like ten manuscripts in his lifetime. Schubert, whose work is featured in almost every university voice recital, struggled to earn anything. And then there’s Mozart, dogged by poverty…

    Jane wrote stories that pleased her, but money, well, money is always nice. Like Solomon said, “Money is the answer to everything.” How surprised Jane would be to know that her books are beloved worldwide.

    “The book of the moment often has immense vogue, while the book of the age, which comes in its company from the press, lies unnoticed; but the great book has its revenge. It lives to see its contemporary pushed up shelf by shelf until it finds its final resting-place in the garret or the auction room.”

    -Hamilton Wright Mabie

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    1. Robin Helm Post author

      The saddest thing about Jane is that her work is so revered now, but she gets no benefit from her writing. I just bought new floors and furniture, partially by using some of the fruit of her labor. If I could give her a share of it, I would.

      Brahms, author of the lullaby everyone sings, was never able to have a normal relationship with a woman. His growing-up years were twisted by playing in a brothel where his mother worked. He actually had an affair with Schubert’s wife, Clara.

      Jane was actually fairly normal – unusual for such a creative person.

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      1. Laura Hile

        She made some money–I recall an article about that, giving $5,000 as the modern equivalent. Still, she had no idea that her titles would become household words.

        In order to become famous, we have to die? Like that’s helpful!😀

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        1. Robin Helm Post author

          She did make a little money, but not enough to keep her, Cassandra, and her mother in comfort. I’m enjoying my furniture. I have no desire to be famous. I’m too old for that.

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          1. Laura Hile

            You bring up an interesting point. Money I know what to do with. But fame?

            Unless they make a reality TV show about you and me and the Jane Started It! gang. Ha, Writers of a Certain Age.

            Hoo boy, exciting stuff, that. With commentary:

            “Now she’s procrastinating again and watching TV.”
            “Ack, she’s spinning too many plates with her real life schedule. (Wham!) See? Another one bites the dust.”
            “To use an adverb or not? She cannot decide. Let’s watch her wring her hands.”
            “She ate how many taco chips? Is that even possible?”
            “Another cat video? And she calls this research?”

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            1. Robin Helm Post author

              From what I’ve observed, fame is usually destructive. People feel free to take potshots at anyone who has any degree of notoriety. These past few months of watching and listening to football season has cured me of any desire for it.

              I heard last week that our episode of the TV reality show I’ve told you about may air after all. The network may bring it back. *Shudder* If we’re lucky, that will never happen.

              A reality show about writers could be fun. I especially like your “cat video” comment. I suppose mine would be along the lines of:
              “She just posted another picture of her granddaughter. Really?”
              “Eating that will not help you to lose weight. You probably don’t have an author pic on your book because it would take up the entire back cover.”
              “Just finish the stupid book. It’s not rocket science. Who do you think you are? Hemingway?”

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            2. Susan Kaye

              I don’t think any of us need worry about fame. No, really, no worries. Unless we started taking very young, very famous and good looking men to our beds. And then the question would be more along the lines of, “Has anyone checked him for brain lesions?” rather than looking in our direction.

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Why yes, we DO want a piece of your mind. ;-)

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