Beginning this blog on December 16, the 243rd anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth, and finishing it on December 25, the 2018th anniversary of the birth of that little child of Bethlehem, I find myself in a reflective, seasonable mood. There are many gifts in life, and in Austenia. I hope you enjoy your gifts as I have been blessed to enjoy mine.
Jane Austen, in particular, has received several birthday presents. The first is that Winchester Cathedral, where Jane is buried, has announced plans to erect a monument to Austen in the Inner Close on the grass between the Deanery and Pilgrims School (see image above). Sculptor Martin Jennings has been commissioned to do the work for the project, which is estimated to cost £250,000. Both the city and county councils have pledged financial support (how much is unclear).
A few local citizens immediately protested use of public funds for a “vanity project” while public services are under pressure, with one writer asserting that “no doubt the American followers of Jane Austen will be happy to totally fund this project.”
The other present was a tribute by writer and commentator David Baddiel, who called Austen “the greatest genius in the history of English literature, arguably greater than Shakespeare.” One can make the case that Austen’s comedies are the equal of Shakespeare’s (“comedy” for both meant any story that ends with a marriage); but Baddiel apparently forgot that Shakespeare also wrote the greatest tragedies in the English language. We can forgive Baddiel for hyperventilating, though, as he had just been appointed ambassador of Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire.
Jane’s family is also in the news during her birthday month.
Two of Jane’s female collateral descendants are profiled in an article in the Irish Times. Like Jane and her sister Cassandra, as well as the single women in Austen’s fiction, their niece Marianne (May) Austen Knight and their great-niece Cassandra Jane Hill were dependent on the men of the family to provide housing. Nearly a century after their aunts had wandered southern England in search of permanent housing after the death of their father, Marianne and Cassandra faced the threat of eviction in their later years.
Another branch of the family shows up in an unexpected portraiture. Jane’s aunt, Philadelphia, the sister of her father, was part of the “fishing fleet”—poor women who sailed to distant India in the hopes of landing a husband. Phila succeeded, marrying Tysoe Saul Hancock and having a child, Eliza, whom Jane came to know well. (Cousin Eliza eventually married Jane’s brother Henry.) According to a Pakistani TV network, a portrait of Phila’s family has been identified.
The network says the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, once believed to be a portrait of George Clive of India and his family, has now been identified as being of Phila, Eliza, Eliza’s ayah (maid) Clarinda, and Phila’s husband Tysoe Saul Hancock. Hancock was the business partner of Warren Hastings, who became India’s governor general. Hastings was believed by some in Calcutta society to be Eliza’s father as well as godfather.
The always insightful and charming Devoney Looser writes a holiday blog about the cottage industry that’s sprung around Austen and Christmas. The blog includes a reference to Austen Author Regina Jeffers’ Christmas at Pemberley (2011).
In that vein, several Austen Authors have been announcing their new books for the holiday season. Some have a holiday theme, some are taking advantage of holiday book buying. I have no such literary child to deliver, but I am proud to announce that my first published article in JASNA’s academic journal has come out in the last week: “How the ‘Long War’ Affected Jane Austen’s Family and Her Novels.” Some of the content appeared here over the last two years. The Persuasions On-Line article brings together all that and much more about the war and its influence on Jane and her writing.
Speaking of birthday and Christmas presents and American followers “happy to fund” important Austen projects in England, Jane Austen’s House Museum, the cottage where Jane lived for eight years and wrote or rewrote the novels we all love, needs help with roof repair and a “bowing” wall.
Nearby Chawton House, the great house where her brother Edward lived, lost its major financial benefactor last year and is struggling to make up the difference. Home to a major women’s library, as well as wonderful grounds, Chawton House can also use a Christmas boost. The North American Friends of Chawton House Library used Austen’s birthday to announce the launching of its new website at https://www.nafch.org/. Please visit, read about its endeavors on the behalf of Chawton House, and by all means donate. NAFCH has raised more than $160,000 for Chawton House in the last two years and is responsible for the new Jane Austen Garden trail, which will debut this coming spring and which raised $30,000 for the organization.
There’s still time for end-of-year contributions! What better way to honor Jane Austen in her birthday month than to give a little something in support of the two surviving homes that were most important to her?
With that, “Happy birthday, Jane. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’s to all!”
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.
The Trilogy is also available in a single “boxed set” e-book: