December 16: Jane Austen’s birthday. She would have been 235 today. And for all the imitations on bookstore shelves recently, none touches the original. She believed in writing her own way. Indeed, in response to court librarian James Stanier Clarke’s suggestion that she write some other way – he had in mind a historical romance – she replied,
I must keep my own style & 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.
She’s a writer I turn to again and again, to remind myself what I’m shooting for. But I’ll confess to having come late to knowing Austen. I was just starting my first novel, and a mentor, in the course of giving me some much-needed encouragement, said, “But of course you can’t call it ‘Emma.'” To which I replied, “Why not?” I didn’t pick up Emma until I’d finished the first draft of my own “Emma.” And of course I did not keep that title for my book; it went through more titles than I can remember, and was eventually published as The Language of Light.
The story of Austen’s path to publication gave me heart in the days when I was struggling to publish my first novel, and despairing of ever getting into print. The best short telling of it I’ve seen comes from Claire Harman’s “Austenmania” in the British Literary Review:
In 1797, Thomas Cadell made one of the greatest mistakes in publishing history. A Hampshire clergyman had written to him, offering a three-volume novel for publication by a first-time author. Without a word of encouragement, Cadell declined the book, manuscript unseen, by return of post.
Unfortunately for Cadell, the clergyman was the Revd George Austen, soliciting publication on his daughter Jane’s behalf, and the novel in question was an early version of Pride and Prejudice, recently voted the one book that the British nation can’t do without. It would be another fourteen years before Jane Austen saw her first novel in print…
I spent several weeks in England this fall, primarily in the Lake Country, where Elizabeth Bennett was planning to go when her trip was shortened and she saw Pemberley for the first time. But I did spent my first two nights in Bath, and went around seeing the Austen sites there. This photo is of her door, or the top of it, anyway. I was jet-lagged, though, and it was raining. Let’s just say the door that day looked a lot better than I did, standing beside it. But it was a pretty special moment, to be standing where she must have stood.
Happy birthday, Jane Austen! – Meg