To commemorate our second anniversary, we invite you, our loyal readers and friends, to join us this month at Austen Variations. We have grand plans! For February, we intend to share the endearing moments of Jane Austen’s beloved characters as they celebrate their own anniversaries.
It is curious that Jane Austen does not describe anniversaries in her novels, and barely touches on them in any of her other writing. This may partly have been because birthdays and wedding anniversaries were not as commonly, universally celebrated in her day as in our more commercially enthusiastic age, with greeting cards and presents for everything from births to bar mitzvahs. And it may have something to do with her extra large extended family – if she attended parties for every one of her many young nieces and nephews it would have been a heavy incursion on her novel writing time!
Presents given to Jane Austen mentioned in her letters, such as the topaz crosses her sailor brother brought back for her and Cassandra, don’t seem to have had anything to do with birthdays. As for the other two pieces of jewelry known to belong to Jane, the turquoise ring and bracelet, no one knows who gave them to her, or when.
In seeking to discover evidence of what Jane Austen thought of special days such as anniversaries, we find that her most famous mention of a birthday or anniversary is, perhaps tellingly, a very sad one. This is a poem she wrote on her own birthday, December 16, 1808, when she was thirty-three years old. What made the day sad is that one of her dearest and closest friends, Mrs. Anne Lefroy, had been killed in a fall from her horse on Jane’s birthday four years earlier, in 1804. Jane wrote:
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 is a bitterly sad poem, and in it she painfully remembers what Mrs. Lefroy, a gracious older woman who seems to have been something of a motherly mentor, meant to her. She extols her friend’s qualities:
Let me behold her as she used to be.
I see her here, with all her smiles benign,
Her looks of eager Love, her accents sweet.
That voice and Countenance almost divine!–
Expression, Harmony, alike complete.–
I listen–’tis not sound alone–’tis sense,
‘Tis Genius, Taste and Tenderness of Soul.
‘Tis genuine warmth of heart without pretence
And purity of Mind that crowns the whole.
She remembers “Her partial favour from my earliest years,” and closes with the wish that the coincidence in the connection of dates might be an omen that they might meet in Heaven.
Oh! might I hope to equal Bliss to go!
To meet thee Angel! in thy future home!–
Fain would I feel an union in thy fate,
Fain would I seek to draw an Omen fair
From this connection in our Earthly date.
Indulge the harmless weakness–Reason, spare.–
It would seem probable that the thought of Mrs. Lefroy brought a shade of sadness to the rest of Jane Austen’s birthdays.
In her letters, the only mention of an anniversary that I know of, appears in a letter to Cassandra on January 8/9, 1801, when Jane Austen had just turned twenty-five. She was at home at Steventon, and Cassandra was visiting their brother Edward Knight and his family at Godmersham in Kent. The circumstances were that Mr. Austen had just announced, the previous month, that he was going to retire from his parish at Steventon, and move the family to Bath. (This is the occasion when Jane Austen was said to have fainted at the news.) Her oldest brother James Austen was going to take over Steventon rectory, and it is said that his wife Mary made herself unpleasant, being all too eager to move into her new abode. Jane Austen was clearly feeling shaken and unhappy at this turn of circumstances, for in telling Cassandra how James and Mary were planning to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary, she writes:
“The wedding-day is to be celebrated on the 16th because the 17th falls on Saturday – and a day or two before the 16th Mary will drive her sister to Ibthrop to find all the festivity she can in contriving for everybody’s comfort, & being thwarted or teized by almost everybody’s temper. – Fulwar, Eliza & Tom Chute are to be of the party; – I know of nobody else. – I was asked but declined it.”
From this we can see that the idea of having an anniversary party was not an unheard of thing, and such an anniversary was referred to as a “wedding-day.” For example, in Heartsease, a novel by Charlotte Yonge, an author born just after Austen died, who grew up to be a friend of Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen Leigh, she has the young wife Violet wish her husband Arthur not to go traveling because it will be their wedding-day, the first anniversary of their marriage.
Perhaps we may detect a shade of disapproval in Austen’s letter. She writes with slight wry disdain of Mary trying “to find all the festivity she can,” as if she is perhaps making an unnecessary fuss; and the only people she knows who are going to the party are the wealthy family that lived at The Vyne, just within the parish that had been her father’s, and was now James’. Perhaps she thought James and Mary were courting the “county” important people. There is nothing ambiguous about her decided, clipped comment, “I was asked but declined it.”
Even though there are no anniversaries mentioned in the novels, we can turn to them for glimpses of what Jane Austen thought about the operations of time passing. In Sense and Sensibility, when Edward Ferrars finally makes his proposal to Elinor, he does not “expect a very cruel reception. It was his business, however, to say that he did, and he said it very prettily. What he might say on the subject a twelvemonth after, must be referred to the imagination of husbands and wives.”
Here she is making humorous mention of the ways young married people might feel about each other, from the glamour of the proposal, to the common daily life on their first anniversary.
Back to her letters again, she allows herself some musing about time’s passage when describing a ball that takes place while she is living at Southampton, on December 9, 1808. She was then thirty-three, and she writes:
“Our ball was rather more amusing than I expected. Martha liked it very much, and I did not gape till the last quarter of an hour. It was past nine before we were sent for and not twelve when we returned. The room was tolerably full, and there were, perhaps, thirty couple of dancers. The melancholy part was, to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders.”
This leads her to remember another ball, that occurred on an earlier visit to Southampton in 1793, when she was just eighteen years old:
“It was the same room in which we danced fifteen years ago. I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then. We paid an additional shilling for our tea, which we took as we chose in an adjoining and very comfortable room.”
In a similar remembering vein, three years earlier, she writes to Cassandra from Bath on April 8, 1805:
“This morning we have been to see Miss Chamberlaine look hot on horseback. Seven years and four months ago we went to the same riding-house to see Miss Lefroy’s performance! What a different set we are now moving in! But seven years I suppose are enough to change every pore of one’s skin and every feeling of one’s mind.”
Jane Austen later uses a similar thought to devastating romantic effect in Persuasion, when she has Anne and Captain Wentworth engage in this dialogue:
“’I am not so much changed,’ cried Anne, and stopped, fearing she knew not what misconstruction. After waiting a few moments he said, and it was as if it were the result of immediate feeling, ‘It is a period, indeed! Eight years and a half is a period.’”
From these thoughts, quotations and recollections it is not unreasonable to surmise that Jane Austen thought of anniversaries and the passage of years with some emotion and solemnity – not at all in a gleeful celebratory “happy birthday” mode that is typical of what we expect people to feel today.
If anyone can remember any other anniversary references in Austen’s writing, I’d love to hear them! I have technical trouble accessing this website regularly, so please keep checking back for my comments. Thanks for reading!