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.
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.