Happy Birthday, Jane Austen

16 December, 2013 by katelaity

jane-austenHappy birthday to one of the greatest writers of the English language whose influence continues to ripple across the world. Men tend to be lionised more. If you ask people who the most important writer in English is, they’ll doubtless say Shakespeare. It’s not really an ‘either/or’ question, but the pervasive influence of Austen often gets short shrift, dismissed as ‘provincial’ in comparison to the bard.

Do you know she traveled more widely than Shakespeare (though admittedly neither ventured very far abroad)? While he set his plays in Italy and Rome and ancient Greece, they were really just fairy lands of imagination. It’s amusing that in our time period, one which valourises mimetic literature so highly,  the fancies of Shakespeare hold a greater cachet than the sharply observant and mordantly satiric prose of Austen. When you read a book like Sense and Sensibility you see the keenness of that mind and know that here was an intellect abundantly sure of itself.

These days she’s pigeonholed as ‘romance’ — that most reviled of genres. Remember when romance was for everyone? Like all great writers she is not confined by the box she’s been shoved into and her influence continues to grow among those who actually read the books and find a spark of inspiration in the wise words and shrewd eye they find there.

Here are a few snippets from her letters, mostly to her sister Cassandra:

“Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted.”

“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”

“I can recollect nothing more to say at present; perhaps breakfast may assist my ideas. I was deceived — my breakfast supplied only two ideas — that the rolls were good and the butter bad.”

“The General has got the gout, and Mrs. Maitland the jaundice. Miss Debary, Susan, and Sally, all in black, but without any stature, made their appearance, and I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.”

“Mrs. B. and two young women were of the same party, except when Mrs. B. thought herself obliged to leave them to run round the room after her drunken husband. His avoidance, and her pursuit, with the probable intoxication of both, was an amusing scene.”

“You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.” [<– this makes me laugh so much]

“The pleasures of friendship, of unreserved conversation, of similarity of taste and opinions will make good amends for orange wine.”

“I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.”

I could go on forever, but I will stop with one more, for all those writers who struggle:

“I am gratified by her having pleasure in what I write, but I wish the knowledge of my being exposed to her discerning criticism may not hurt my style, by inducing too great a solicitude. I begin already to weigh my words and sentences more than I did, and am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration, or a metaphor in every corner of the room. Could my ideas flow as fast as the rain in the store-closet it would be charming.”

Bless your heart, Jane. You give us so much.


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