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Jane Austen

December 16 marks the birthday of Jane Austen, one of the most influential women in literature.  Born in the parish of Steventon in Hampshire, England, 1775, she came into a family of some wealth and was considered part of the genteel class.  Nevertheless, her father had to struggle to obtain enough money to support her many brothers and sisters.

Austen went to school for a while in Southampton, but she was sent home when she came close to dying from typhoid fever.  Her real education began when she discovered her father's library.  She became an avid reader and began writing stories to entertain her family.  She invented satirical sketches that poked fun at the great 18th-century novelists.  Shortly after she turned 20, she began to write first drafts for many of her novels.  One of these was First Impressions, which later became Pride and Prejudice.  Her father sent the manuscript to a publisher but received no response.

Her family moved to the rural resort city of Bath in 1800, and for many years she apparently wrote very little.  While in Bath, she fell in love with a man she met at the seashore, but he died suddenly soon afterwards.  Then she traveled with her sister to visit a young, clumsy man named Harris Bigg-Wither, who asked for her hand in marriage.  She accepted his proposal, slept fitfully, and the following morning awoke to do something that was literally unheard of in her day.  She told him she had changed her mind.  She went on to live the rest of her life unmarried.

Austen published her first book, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811.  The title page said only that the book was written "by a lady," and nobody outside of her family knew who the real author was.  She began working on a revised draft of Pride and Prejudice, writing on a table in the drawing room and hiding her notebooks whenever she heard someone coming.  Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, and it became a sensation with the British public.

Austen wrote several more novels under her real name.  With her identity no longer a secret, her readers grew less enthusiastic.  Critics ignored her next book, Mansfield Park (1814).  Two years later, she wrote Emma, which is now considered one of her greatest books.  It was coolly received.  One contemporary reviewer said "the work will probably become a favorite with all those who seek for harmless amusement, rather than deep pathos or appalling horrors in works of fiction."  

Under the weight of her flagging popularity, Austen's relatives suggested that she try writing a different kind of a novel, such as a historical romance.  She refused, saying, "I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other." 

Austen's decision would prove monumental.  She is the only novelist published before Charles Dickens whose books still sell in the tens of thousands of copies each year.  All of her novels have been made into movies at least once, and some, several times.

Jane Austen died in 1817 at the age of 41, most likely of Addison's Disease.  Her last novel, Persuasion, was published a year later.

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