HB JA! (Happy Birthday, Jane Austen)!

In a letter dated December 17, 1775, the Reverend George Austen affectionately declared that his second daughter, born on the 16th would be a great “plaything” for his first daughter Cassandra. As if being born so close to the Christmas holiday wasn’t hard enough, to be regarded as a “present” to your elder sibling!

Regardless, even her own father could not have guessed at the time that loyal readers would be remembering Jane’s birthday in 2022, as the Christmas and Hannukah season begins.

Later, in a letter on her birthday (December 16, 1816), Jane Austen wrote to her nephew James Edward Austen:

By the bye, my dear Edward, I am quite concerned for the loss your Mother mentions in her Letter; two Chapters & a half to be missing is monstrous!  It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, & therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them;– two strong twigs & a half towards a Nest of my own, would have been something.– I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me.  What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow?– How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?

Although this quote about ivory is often used to allege Austen thought little of her own art, I would argue that it is more “praising herself with faint damnation.” Austen’s words, as always, are laced with irony about “strong, manly, spirited sketches.” To write on ivory is quite difficult, and writing on ivory is to write on something quite strong and long-lasting.

Today, Jane Austen’s works have been translated into more than 35 languages, and Cassandra’s plaything and the Reverend Austen’s second daughter changed the way the English novel would evolve. Happy birthday, Jane Austen, and to your immortal works!

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