Thursday, December 16, 2010

In Memoriam: Jane Austen

Whether it's my relentless modernity, Y chromosome, or disdain for 18th Century grammatical construction, I simply cannot get into the works of Jane Austen. I know they're classics, and I know there are only six of them, but by two pages in I invariably find myself scratching my head trying to figure out what the Hell just happened - at least a hundred pages before anything even has! I keep telling myself that like classical music and what's so funny about Adam Sandler, the works of Jane Austen are something I'm saving to discover in my old age. In other words, any day now...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketTrying to write about the life of Jane Austen is almost as difficult as reading her works, seeing as out of the the 3,000 letters she is reported to have sent in her lifetime - the best available source - only about 5 percent remain, and some of them are censored; fortunately, I like a challenge.

Born on this day in 1775, Jane Austen spent her brief life at the top of England's new middle class; the Austens were landed country gentry, her father the rector of Steventon, in Hampshire, one brother became a banker (and later served as her literary agent), another an admiral. Jane was educated at boarding school alongside her sister Cassandra, though only until the age of 11.

The following year Jane Austen began to write - poems, mostly, in the time-honoured tradition of 12-year-old girls - but her early works (called the Juvenilia) offer a glimpse into the developing writer before mannerism shaped her works into the well-loved stories they are today.

In 1808 or 1809 Austen left her family's bustling home for a cottage at the nearby village of Chawton, where Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother (also named Cassandra) set up housekeeping; the house is now a museum dedicated to her life and works.

In 1811 Sense and Sensibility was published in London by Thomas Egerton, under the coy pseudonym 'A Lady'. The book was an instant success, and was followed by Pride and Prejudice in 1813, and Mansfield Park (which was not as successful) in 1814. In 1815, Austen was more or less compelled to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent, a big fan of hers of whom she was no fan at all.

Changing publishers, Emma and Persuasion - not to mention a second edition of Mansfield Park - were released by John Murray. In 1816, Jane began to feel ill while finishing Persuasion; she finished it despite her encroaching illness (some have said, due to Addison's disease) and was at work on a seventh novel - published in its incomplete form as Sanditon in 1925 - when her pen was finally stilled.

Jane Austen died in July 1817, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral; like the much-later Sanditon both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously. Her works - especially Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility - have been made into films; the latter not only earned its star Emma Thompson an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1995 but it's famous as the only one of Jane Austen's works I've not only sat all the way through in any form but also thoroughly enjoyed while doing it.
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