I’m sure we all started by falling in love with Jane’s novels and characters. That’s how I began. But somewhere along the way, I became equally intrigued with the lady who created them. We can’t help being curious what she was really like and how she came to write the novels which have captivated us all.
So on her birthday, rather than focusing on her work, I thought it would be fitting to talk a little about Jane herself. Then I’ll share an excerpt that depicts an event in her life that happened at Christmastime – her flirtation with Tom LeFroy. And since it wouldn’t be a birthday party without gifts, there’s a giveaway too. Read on!
Born at home (at the Steventon rectory in Hampshire, England), Jane Austen was the second youngest of Rev. George Austen’s and Cassandra Leigh Austen’s eight children. She was educated mostly at home, and her early writing efforts (short pieces of fiction and poetry) were encouraged by her literary family.
It seems to have been a happy childhood, but then, when she was 20, her father suddenly retired and moved his family to Bath, a place Jane never much liked. The style of life they could afford steadily declined too, especially after the death of Mr. Austen, which left his widow and two daughters dependent on the hospitality of others. Ultimately, Mrs. Austen, Jane, and her sister (and dearest friend) Cassandra were given a settled home at Chawton cottage by Jane’s brother Edward. That is where she spent the last eight years of her life, which were also the most productive for her as a writer. She never married and sadly died at age 41 of what might have been Addison’s disease.
In her six beloved novels, she wrote about the world she knew: the English gentry of the Regency period, the social climate and constraints of her time, the plight of the unmarried lady of little fortune. And yet her stories still resonate with us today because her themes are timeless. We still long to find love. People still struggle to balance ideals against social and economic pressures. We still root for the human spirit to triumph over difficult circumstances. None of this has changed in the two hundred years since Jane Austen lived. That and the fairly-tale quality of her stories make them more popular now than ever.
Jane Austen was a gifted storyteller. Her novels are classics, and she is regularly voted among the top five favorite authors of all time. What a remarkable achievement! The fact that she accomplished all this without benefit of a rich patron or an expensive college education is a real inspiration.
So we celebrate Jane’s life and legacy, today on her birthday and always.
I personally wanted to give something back for all the hours of enjoyment she has given me. But what could I possibly do for Jane Austen? I decided to write for her what she had so carefully crafted for each of her heroines: a happy ending. That was the inspiration for The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen, from which I take the following excerpt. In the December Jane turned twenty, she met a handsome young Irishman named Tom LeFroy. Some think he was her one true love, but I believe there was someone else (perhaps a sea captain of her own a la Captain Wentworth?). With Tom, she enjoyed a brief but flagrant flirtation, but I’ll let her tell the story:
“How do you like my morning coat?” he inquired of me two days after our first meeting at a ball at Manydown. He was come into the neighbourhood for a Christmas visit to his Aunt and Uncle Lefroy at Ashe, where this conversation unfolded. “Do you find it fashionable?” he continued, preening for me like a peacock.
We had liked each other at once upon being introduced at the ball, but now a new uncertainty at this second meeting needed to be overcome. Our footing with each other had to be tested once again to establish that the camaraderie we felt the other night was solid and genuine.
After a moment to ponder his question, I shrugged and replied, “It appears a serviceable enough garment. That colour, though…” I made a face and shook my head.
He tugged the white coat into sharper order and checked his reflection in the window glass. “I am surprised at you, Miss Austen. I would have you know that this is the same shade as the one worn by my favourite literary hero Tom Jones.”
“Is that so?” My countenance and manner of speaking betrayed nothing more than mild interest in the subject, when in actuality his reference to Mr. Fielding’s work intrigued me very much indeed. “Now it is you who have surprised me, Mr. Lefroy, for I did not have you marked out for a great reader. Although again, I am compelled to question your taste. Perhaps you are unaware that novel-reading is not considered quite respectable in certain circles.”
“What about in your circle, Miss Austen?” he asked, leaning a bit closer. “Yours is the opinion I most wish to hear at the moment. Do you admit to reading novels?”
I drew back in mock horror. “Really, Mr. Lefroy, this is terribly forward! I am afraid you presume too much upon our rather brief acquaintance. Is not this a very personal question to be asking a lady whom you have known for so short an interval?”
“Quite possibly so,” he said, examining the well-manicured nails of his left hand. “I truly cannot say, for I admit that I am somewhat mystified when it comes to these complex social niceties. They seem, in general, to accomplish very little of value while at the same time requiring a great deal of effort.”
“What nonsense you talk, Mr. Lefroy.”
“Do you think so? Then I must be in error, but not irretrievably so, I trust. I am not a hardened case; I am perfectly willing to be guided by the wisdom of one more expert in these matters.”
I nodded my approval, and he went on.
“Perhaps you would consider undertaking the challenge of reforming me, Miss Austen. And you might start by settling the original problem for me. What would be the appropriate time to ask my impudent questions of you, such as the one concerning your reading habits? If not at our second meeting, then when?”
Instead of being so obliging as to answer at once, I deliberately left the gentleman in doubt of any satisfaction by adopting a pensive expression and taking one full tour about the room before returning to him. Then presently I said, “As to undertaking your thorough reformation, Mr. Lefroy, I can promise you nothing. That monumental task may require more time and industry than I can spare at present. However, it is my judgment that you may safely ask your more personal questions upon our third meeting.”
His aspect brightened. “This is most encouraging news, Miss Austen. So you believe we shall meet again, then, do you?”
“I think it highly probable we shall, Mr. Lefroy, especially if you are determined to persist in the neighbourhood for some little while. In fact, such an occurrence could hardly be avoided. So I suppose I must prepare myself to answer your impertinent curiosity by and by. For tonight, however, we had much better confine our discourse to the usual polite topics.”
“The weather and the state of the roads, I suppose you mean. How dull,” he said, finishing with a sigh.
I smiled. “It needn’t be, Mr. Lefroy, with a little imagination…”
If you always wished our favorite authoress could have enjoyed love fulfilled and longer life, I hope you will read the plausible alternative found in The Persuasion of Jane Austen. To help you along a bit, I’m giving away 3 copies in honor of Jane’s birthday and of her 12 days of Christmas – two ebooks (Kindle or Nook) and the grand prize of one paperback with matching tote bag. Leave a comment below to enter. Good luck and eat a piece of cake today for Jane!
My dear Cassy, I wish you a happy new year. Your six cousins came here yesterday and had each a piece of cake. This is little Cassy’s birthday, and she is three years old… (a portion of Jane’s famous backwards letter to her niece, unscrambled)