Jane Austen, born on December 16, 1775, was a British novelist who wrote of life among England’s landed gentry from the vantage point of being on its outskirts aspiring to be closer in. The concept of gentry is a British foible pretty much disdained by Americans who exist way on its outskirts and secretly aspire to be closer in. (Shut out entirely, early Americans misbehaved with childish pranks such as dumping the grown-ups’ tea in Boston Harbor on this day in 1773).
Basically the gentry (celebrated in a 1940s popular song “Dear Hearts and Gentry People”) were the aristocracy (the haves, the one percent), and Jane Austen’s novels are lousy with them. Jane Austen herself almost married into the thick of it but the fact that the gentleman was a super-sized oaf, both homely and ill-mannered, gave her pause, cold feet, or perhaps writer’s block.
Austen was not wildly popular as a writer during her lifetime – in fact, her greatest popularity seems to have come with the 21st century. Her first novel Lazy Susan became a household word in the 1950s, thanks to the spinning serving dish that bears its name. Other novels had doubled-up attributes such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Senility, and Lust and Loquaciousness, except for those that didn’t, Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey.
Mark Twain was one of Austen’s biggest fans:
“Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”
“Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”
“Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”