We have in our book database hundreds of literary “events” – author birth dates, publication dates of books, and the like. You can view them, one week at a time, on our website (the bottom right corner of the home page shows “This Week in Literary History”). Because this table of literary events was compiled over the course of many years, not all the information in it is consistent. So from time to time, as a diversion, I update or correct the entries. This week happens to be a big week for Jane Austen buffs: she was born on December 16, 1775, and one of her classic novels, Emma, was published on December 15, 1815. The existing entries were okay, but I wanted to add to them.
Specifically, her birthdate entry reads:
English novelist Jane Austen, author of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, was born in Steventon, Hampshire on December 16, 1775. In her lifetime her novels were published anonymously, and it was only after her death that her brother made her authorship public.
These lists of events can be pretty dull, so I often try to add a little trivia of some kind to spice things up. I recently learned, for example, that nothing so became the life of Norman Douglas as his leaving it. The author (another December baby) best known for the novel South Wind and the obscene anthology Some Limericks, whose life was a series of scandals, committed suicide on the island of Capri in February, 1952 at the age of 83 after a long illness. His dying words, appropriately enough, were “Get these fucking nuns away from me.” (This according to Wikipedia, and so good enough for me.)
For Jane Austen, I wanted to add a sentence mentioning the cottage industry of films and television adaptations (not to mention books by other authors) based on her works, and the fact that she of course saw none of this, nor the proceeds from said productions. Therefore I went to the Internet Movie Database to look up when the earliest Austen film adaptation was made. Apparently in 1938 the BBC, which I have read elsewhere was producing early television dramas at this time, made a version of Pride and Prejudice with British stage actress Curigwen Lewis as Elizabeth Bennett. This was followed two years later by the much better known, and certainly more often seen, film version with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.
So the entry for Jane Austen’s birthday will now read:
English novelist Jane Austen, author of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, was born in Steventon, Hampshire on December 16, 1775. In her lifetime her novels were published anonymously, and it was only after her death that her brother made her authorship public. Furthermore, it was not until 121 years after her death that the first of the numerous screen adaptations of her work, an early BBC television version of Pride and Prejudice, was produced. She received no royalties.
Not very exciting, but there you have it. But that’s not why I love IMDB. I love IMDB because of what else caught my eye when I visited the Jane Austen page. Each page on IMDB has a Message Board, a space at the bottom where the masses of plugged-in cinephiles can argue over how much the next Star Trek movie “is gonna suck” (something that they seem to do even when they are not on a Star Trek-related page for some reason).
At the moment the most current discussion for the IMDB Jane Austen message board was started by one cherry_fizz55 and reads:
OMG I like totally met her! She was SO nice! I was walking through JCPenny and ran into her! She gave me her autograph and asked me over for tea!!! She was such a nice person.
The Internet being the social mechanism that it is, a user by the handle of Julie-30 was the first to take the bait, responding within minutes:
Jane Austen’s been dead for almost 200 years. How could you have run into her?
These two entries are then followed by dozens of further comments ranging from quick appreciations of the meta-humor exhibited by the original poster to weak subsequent attempts at additional humor (“Yeah, I heard she was dating Brad Pitt…”), to additional blatant proof of a lack of humor (“I am going to give this poster the benefit of the doubt by assuming that she was writing about another Jane Austen.”), and everything in between. (I didn’t read them all, but I’m sure there is a Star Trek comment somewhere in there for good measure.)
I don’t really love this (although I do love IMDB), but I am continually mystified by it. Before the Internet I would never have guessed that so many, many people simply HAVE to express themselves. They can’t stop. It’s almost as though the Internet is an invention that humanity has been waiting for, for the entire span of our species. As though some future anthropologist will write, “As the second millennium of the Christian era came to a close, mankind finally achieved three major advances which marked the most significant turning point since the extinction of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis 30,000 years before: 1) they traveled beyond the orbit of Earth, 2) they achieved the widespread use of flushing toilets, and 3) they invented a mechanism whereby every individual could continuously prove and document his or her own stupidity.”
On one of his comedy albums Tom Lehrer once commented, “I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up.” But apparently I can’t. Happy Birthday Jane.