Today is Jane Austen's (233rd?) Birthday! (I'm not very good at math.)
I'm a really big Jane Austen fan. I've read all her novels, seen most of the movies, read some spin-offs, read some letters and biographies. I'm a member of JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) and am a member of the regional chapter. (We're celebrating Jane's birthday with a tea party on Sunday!) During a semester in London, I traveled to her grave, her home in Chawton and some sites in Bath, and I visited her original manuscripts in the British Library on mulitiple occasions. I also went to Gracechurch Street (where the Gardiners lived) just to take a picture of the street sign. I have a Pride and Prejudice bath towel, Pride and Prejudice board game (The trivia is WAY too easy! I mean, only the crazy fanatics are buying this anyway so let's step up the difficulty level some!), Jane Austen action figure, Jane Austen mug... I really like Jane.
Jane Austen changed my life. Really.
In 7th grade I bought Sense and Sensibility because the movie (with Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson) had just come out and the previews looked good. However, I had some difficulty reading it so I set it aside. In 8th grade I had an assignment to read any book by any famous author and I remember asking my teacher if Jane Austen was famous enough for this project. She was. So I pulled Sense and Sensibility out, gave it another shot, and I fell in love. Eleanor was a truly admirable heroine. I thought she was absolutely amazing. I don't know if I had ever been as happy about any literary conclusion as I was when Edward asked, "You mean Mrs. Robert Ferrars?" and Eleanor allows herself to feel completely the emotions of the moment in the actual moment and runs from the room crying with overflowing joy! It's amazing!
A year later I read Pride and Prejudice and from then on out I was completely hooked. (I remember reading it during class and laughing out loud during Mr. Collins' proposal and the aftermath. I got some strange looks.) So much so, that even Mansfield Park could not persuade me against my new favorite author. (One of my life goals is to learn to love Mansfield Park.)
It wasn't just that I had a new favorite author and a new favorite book and a name for my first-born daughter (Elizabeth, of course!). My whole sense of literature and literary taste changed. I moved on to Dickens and the Bronte sisters. Oscar Wilde made me laugh out loud and on Friday nights I would travel to one of Gatsby's parties. Not to say that good books still aren't being written today. They are. (I also love Harry Potter, John Green, Nikki Giovanni, John Irving and I really really need to read David Sedaris, the guy who wrote Fight Club, and Phillip Roth.) But before Jane, I read a lot of books that focused on plot, suspense, surprise. After Jane, I realized that I would rather trade in a high-speed criminal chase for people and places I'll never forget.
Jane Austen did not only shake up my summer reading list, but for the first time, I was really passionate about an academic topic. I had always been a top student and there were several subjects that I liked, but now there was a subject that I really loved. Without Jane I might never have completed my transformation into a total nerd. I might have gone off to law school or been a wretched business major. Instead I went to a small liberal arts school (where academic passion and nerdiness is strongly encouraged) and was an English major. (One of my professors once said that English is the major for lovers, because when you ask people why they're English majors they say it's out of love for the subject.) Who knows where I would be at this point in my life without Jane?! Perhaps I'd be making a lot more money, but I might not have Lee and that's just scary!
So here's to Jane. Thank you for my favorite books, my favorite heros and heroines, my favorite places, and for shaping me to be the mildly obsessive but passionate, happy, well-educated and delightful person I am today.
I also have several friends with birthdays today too, so happy birthday to you all as well! As I say to you every year: Happy Birthday! Aren't you glad you get to share it with Jane?