December 16, 1775- For Unto us was Born this day: an Austen Addict’s Tribute

On this day in 1775, was born in Hampshire one of the most captivating and enduring novelists of English Literature: the one and only Jane Austen. Austen was one of eight children born to George and Cassandra Austen; of her siblings, Cassandra was most notably the closest to Jane, and her brother Henry served as her literary agent.

Among Austen scholars and biographers, she is well-known for rarely straying outside the boundaries of home and family life. Her education was completed largely at home after a brief stint under the care of Mrs. Ann Cawley, during which period she and her sister Cassandra caught typhus and returned home. the sisters briefly attended a boarding-school between 1785 and 1786, returning home when the family could no longer afford to keep both girls in school.

Austen began writing in 1787—a series of poems and short-stories later collected into what is referred to as “The Juvenilia”. During her lifetime, Austen published four novels:/Sense and Sensibility/ (1811), /Pride and Prejudice (originally written in 1795 under the title /First Impressions/), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). /Persuasion/ and /Northanger Abby/ were published posthumously by Henry and Cassandra in 1887. She died on July 18. 1817 after a prolonged illness, and aside from a twelve-year period between 1820 and 1832, her novels have never been out of print.

As Robert Urvine writes in his introduction to /Pride and Prejudice/, “Austen is one of few nineteenth-century novelists who have entered popular consciousness as genre screenwriters”. Her work captures, for her contemporary readership and modern audiences alike, a “fantasy of Englishness,” particularly in her depiction of pre-industrial England. Such literary escapism is clearly evident in novels like /Pride and Prejudice/ which, though originally penned in the midst of French-revolutionary turmoil, deals not with the social and political issues at the forefront of social consciousness, but offers a comical and satirical treatment of “polite society”. Austen’s novels have been the subject of numerous adaptations, from Emma Thompson’s “Sense and Sensibility” and the now legendary BBC/A&E “Pride and Prejudice” to the modernized version of Emma in “Clueless” and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels (/Bridget Jones’ Diary and /The Edge of Reason/, also adapted into film). Not to mention Seth Grahame’s horrifyingly humorous /Pride and Prejudice and Zombies/: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” If not for the fact that Jane Austen is well-known among her adoring readers for her sense of humor, the earth might have felt the tremors emanating from Winchester Cemetery as she turned in her grave.

I adore Austen for her quick wit and satirical sense of humor; for her comical yet thoughtful treatment of issues of social mobility, gender politics, and sexuality; for creating a rich cast of characters as familiar to readers as our own families and friends. I can never resist—rascal though I know him to be—falling in love with Frank Churchill, and witnessing Darcy’s reformation is as rewarding to me now as when I first read /Pride and Prejudice/. As a graduate school professor of mine so rightly put it, we don’t read Austen novels to find out what happens; we know already who’s going to wind up together. The magic of Austen isn’t finding out what happens in the end. It’s discovering how we get there.

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