JANE AUSTEN WAS BORN ON THE 16TH OF DECEMBER 1775, IN THE VILLAGE OF STEVENTON, HAMPSHIRE.
The days were short, the nights dark, and that particular winter was a bitterly cold one. She had five older brothers and a sister who would become her closest friend. Her parents were not wealthy, but life was comfortable enough. Jane was to be their second-to-last child.
According to a letter from her father announcing her birth, she was expected to arrive much sooner in November – no doubt her arrival was a welcome relief for Mrs Austen! Her father thought she looked like Henry (who would grow up to be one of Jane’s favourite siblings) and referred to her in this early letter as ‘Jenny’.
The celebration of birthdays was not the expensive occasion it is today. Particularly for a country rector with a large family, the children’s birthdays would have been small affairs. But, as a girl, Jane received precious books for presents. For her eighth birthday she was presented with a copy of Fables Choisies in early December, and for her eleventh birthday she received twelve little volumes of L’ami des enfants from Jane’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, and Eliza’s mother, Philadelphia Hancock.
Over the years, Jane spent several of her birthdays away from home. In 1797 she was most likely in Bath with her mother and sister, Cassandra. It is said to have been a nasty shock for Jane when, three years later, her parents announced that the family was moving there. Jane was notified days before her 25th birthday.
It was not, however, the worst thing that happened on her birthday. Jane spent December 1802 recovering from the mortifying experience of accepting and then revoking an offer of marriage from a family friend, Harris Bigg-Wither. The morning after the proposal, on December 3rd, Jane withdrew her acceptance and the sisters immediately left their friends’ home in embarrassed haste.
Two years later, on the very day Jane turned twenty-nine in 1804, her close friend Madam Lefroy was thrown from a horse and killed. Jane was devastated, so much so, that four years later she composed a poem on her birthday titled, ‘To the Memory of Mrs Lefroy, who died Decr. 16 – my birthday. – written 1808.’
By 1815, Jane was an established author who was no longer anonymous, and while she was staying in London with Henry, who was ill, December became an increasingly busy month for her. As well as helping to nurse Henry, she was liaising with John Murray in the lead-up to the publication of Emma. Jane even experienced a near (if unwelcome) brush with royalty when she was invited to the Prince Regent’s library at Carlton House.
On her birthday she left London early in the morning to return to Chawton Cottage. Several days earlier, The Observer announced Emma’s publication as scheduled for the 16th. However, her novel did not appear until the 23rd – no doubt a source of annoyance for its author who had already dealt with several publishing delays over her career. It would have been a lovely way to mark Jane’s fortieth birthday if her books had been published earlier!
The year after, exactly 200 years ago today, Jane was not feeling her best. She had been invited to dinner on the following day by her niece Anna Lefroy and her husband Ben, but had to decline citing the difficulty of the walk to their home. In typical good humour (or denial?), she assured her nephew, James Edward, that she was “otherwise very well”. It was to be Jane’s final birthday – she died seven months and two days afterwards.
Today around the world, Janeites mark the day with celebration. Fancy meals are eaten in her honour and articles are published in homage, in an age where Austen is worldwide news and her books are more popular than ever. Who, at the time of her birth, could have possibly predicted the outpouring of praise and passion that the 16th of December would inspire in literary enthusiasts around the world, 241 years after a little girl was born to a country rector in rural England?
© Emily Prince, Editor of Pride & Possibilities
Le Faye, Deirdre. (2013). A chronology of Jane Austen and her family (2nd rev. ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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