Two hundred and forty-six years ago today, a daughter was born to Cassandra Leigh Austen and her husband, the Reverend George Austen. The new arrival "is to be Jenny,” he wrote to a relative the next day.
As that baby girl grew into the woman who would become one of the giants of English literature, her birthday did not always bring happiness. On December 16, 1804, the day that Jane Austen turned twenty-nine, her fifty-something friend and mentor Anne Lefroy was killed in a riding accident.
Four years later, Austen recalled that sad coincidence in her poem “To the Memory of Mrs Lefroy who Died Dec:r 16 – My Birthday”:
The day returns again, my natal day; What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise! Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away Since thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes. –
The day, commemorative of my birth Bestowing Life and Light and Hope on me, Brings back the hour which was thy last on Earth. Oh! bitter pang of torturing Memory! –
It goes on like that for another eleven stanzas.
Yeah. I know. It’s respectable enough verse, but – well, let’s just say that, as a poet, Austen was a great novelist.*
Two centuries later, of course, we remember Anne Lefroy only because of her association with Jane Austen, and this day of mixed emotions for Austen has become, for us fans, an occasion for unmixed celebration. Many happy returns, little Jenny.
* No shame in that! You can't be a genius in everything. Michael Jordan wasn’t very good at baseball, after all.