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Happy Birthday, Miss Austen!

Very important announcement at end!

As many of our readers probably know, Jane Austen was born on December 16th, 1775. It happened to be a Saturday that year. How did young Jane celebrate her birthday? Did she face the misfortune of so many children with birthdays near Christmas of having the holiday drown out the birthday? Probably not, because both birthdays and Christmas were less gift-focused celebrations than we (especially we Americans) are accustomed to.

During the Regency, unless you were royalty or near to it, you probably didn't do much to celebrate your birthday. The lack of a strong social practice around birthday celebrations explains why Austen does not focus on her characters' birthdays. We grow with them through the course of a year or longer, and never see even wealthy women like Emma celebrate their birthday. In fact, a quick search of Austen's corpus on Voyant indicates that the only time she uses the word "birthday" is Harriet Smith's wondering account of how close her birthday and Mr. Robert Smith's are.

So while Prinny held a lavish outdoor fete for his fifty-sixth birthday in 1818, and had drawn Cruikshank's criticism for a raucous celebration in 1812, most people would content

themselves with quiet well-wishes from close friends and family, such as Austen's greetings to her sister Cassandra, wishing her joy of her birthday "twenty times over" in a letter from 1799.

There were milestone birthdays that might be celebrated for children further down the social ladder than the royal family. A boy's Breeching Day, marking his move from skirts to trousers, likely coincided with his fifth or sixth birthday. The momentous occasion might entail small gifts of fruit or candy, and would certainly be marked with new trousers, even if they were hand-me-downs.

For young ladies, the sixteenth birthday, then as now, was considered noteworthy. In the Regency it signaled she was now a serious contender on the marriage market, and you could tell definitively that she was "out."

Sixteen Candles, 1984, Universal Pictures

The day might be marked with a gift commemorating her nearer approach to adult womanhood, like a string of pearls or new pair of gloves. A very wealthy woman might receive a new gown for the coming Season. The dedication in Volume the Second of Austen's Juvenilia informs us that the vellum notebook was a gift from her father. Kathryn Sutherland speculates that the compositions in this book were written between the age of 14 and 17; it's tempting to speculate that the elegant little book was a sweet sixteen present from a fond father to his gifted daughter.

Another possible celebration - that would not have applied to Austen - was the marking of name days, practiced by Catholic families. Children would be named for a saint (either first or middle name) and celebrate their Saint Day in conjunction with the church calendar. Though Austen may have been jestingly canonized since her death, even if she were Roman Catholic, there is no Saint Jane in the Catholic tradition, so she would not have engaged in this practice as a child.

If you feel inclined to recognize Austen's birthday this Friday - her two-hundred and forty-seventh! - here are some suggestions:

  1. Channel you inner Elizabeth and take a walk. Muddy hems optional. Jump at your own risk.

  2. Write a long letter to someone you care about - whether or not you need to justify your behavior. Whatever you do, do NOT let your spiteful fiancé dictate the letter to you!

  3. While winter is not a congenial time of year for strawberry picking, depending on where you live, you might be able to substitute oranges. Or, if you are very lucky, you might find some hazel nuts that have "outlived all the storms of autumn."

  4. Indulge in some riddles, charades, and word play - last week's post can get you started!

  5. Dance, as Austen's heroines dearly loved to do! This tutorial gives great beginner information for country dancing!

  6. Of course, there is "nothing like staying at home for real comfort," so perhaps it's time to brush up on your harp playing or card games (Speculation, anyone?).

  7. Attend the theatre, a pleasure Austen did not get to indulge as often as she would have liked, despite The Little Theatre being open even when crowds were thin. Thanks to Kate Hamill, there are stage adaptations of Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon's Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly or The Wickhams offer seasonally appropriate Austen fare. Binging seasons one and two of Sanditon or streaming Mr. Malcolm's List are acceptable substitutes!

  8. To avoid being intolerably stupid, you could enjoy a good book, whether you prefer Histories or Receipts. Devoney Looser's Sister Novelists is out just in time for winter reading marathons, and several new adaptations have been published this year: Stephanie Barron's Detective Austen returns in Jane and the Year Without a Summer, Nikki Payne's Pride and Protest is getting good reviews, friend of JASP Sonali Dev released The Emma Project this year, and the YA detective series "Jane Austen Investigates" continues with The Convict's Canal.

  9. Pass the time with some Jane Austen trivia. If you've already taken our quizzes on lines from Austen, distinguishing between Austen and Shakespeare, or how well you know the Juvenilia, The Jane Austen Centre has several from which to choose. (Pop quiz! Did you correctly identify the eleven quotations/allusions in this list?)

  10. Give yourself the gift of attending JASP 2023, June 15-18. Registration opens this week!

However you choose to celebrate, Happy Birthday, Miss Austen!



#1 and #2 in Item 1: (starting off easy!) Allusions to Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and Louisa Musgrove from Persuasion.

#3 and #4 in Item 2: Allusions to Darcy's letter from P&P and Willoughby's from S&S

#5 and #6 in Item 3: Allusion to one of the ill-fated outings in Emma. Quotation from Wentworth to Louisa Musgrove, in Persuasion

#7 and #8 in Item 6: Quotation from Mrs. Elton, Emma; allusion to Mary Crawford's pastimes in Mansfield Park

#9 in Item 7: allusion to Lydia's account of London in Pride and Prejudice.

#10 and #11 in Item 8: Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey and Miss Lutrell to Miss Lesley in Lesley Castle (to finish with a challenge!)


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