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Happy (belated) birthday, Jane Austen

Gainsborough, The Painter's Daughters (detail)
National Gallery

Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775, twenty years after Gainsborough painted his daughters. She arrived at the rectory in Steventon, near Basingstoke, Hampshire, the seventh child of George Austen, rector and private tutor, and his wife, Cassandra

The number of great Brits who were the fourth or fifth or sixth or even, in Jane’s case, the seventh child in the family is a little disconcerting. (Gainsborough was the ninth child.) The modern two-child family would never have produced these geniuses.

A tomboy

The Oxford DNB says that Jane was a tomboy, rolling down the grassy bank behind the house, and playing cricket with the boys whom her father tutored and who lived with them. I have always thought that Elizabeth Bennet, striding out on a long muddy walk across fields in Pride and Prejudice was Jane, and perhaps she was. Jane Austen was the same age as Elizabeth – twenty-one – when she began writing Pride and Prejudice. (It was not published until years later.)


Jane's books have never gone out of print, and six of her novels have been turned into popular films and a television series. I mentioned last year that I thought I encountered literary wit for the first time on the Christmas Day I received Pride and Prejudice as a present. I can still remember my thrill of surprise and pleasure.

Austen wrote her last books at Chawton House.