Welcome to All Things Austen in April!
What did the month of April mean to Jane Austen? Something mercurial, as the month is ever famed to be. A month of declarations, of stormy emotion, of disappointment in love, and of activity of all kinds…
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“If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once,” begins Mr. Darcy, in one of the most famous and anticipated speeches in English literature, “My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”
Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, the one that took place in Hunsford in April, certainly constitutes a stormy scene if ever there was one, and so we learn, once again, how Jane Austen attended to details in everything she did in her art!
If April is an emotionally stormy month in Pride and Prejudice, in Emma it is a month of activity, as epitomized by Mrs. Elton. “Here is April come!” she tells Jane Fairfax, eager to obtain for her a position as governess. “I get quite anxious about you. June will soon be here.”
In Sense and Sensibility, April is also a time of activity, when people go a-traveling. It is when Elinor and Marianne leave London after Marianne’s disappointment in Willoughby, and travel to stay with Mrs. Jennings. Here is the passage:
“Very early in April, and tolerably early in the day, the two parties from Hanover Square and Berkeley Street set out from their respective homes, to meet, by appointment, on the road. For the convenience of Charlotte and her child, they were to be more than two days on their journey, and Mr. Palmer, travelling more expeditiously with Colonel Brandon, was to join them at Cleveland soon after their arrival.”
Although Marianne sheds many tears, Elinor is pleased to be going, as after the visit they will head home, and “she looked forward with hope to what a few months of tranquillity at Barton might do towards restoring Marianne’s peace of mind, and confirming her own.”
For Fanny in Mansfield Park, April brings her considerable torment and the discomfort of neglect:
“The ensuing spring deprived her of her valued friend, the old grey pony; and for some time she was in danger of feeling the loss in her health as well as in her affections; for in spite of the acknowledged importance of her riding on horse–back, no measures were taken for mounting her again, “because,” as it was observed by her aunts, “she might ride one of her cousin’s horses at any time when they did not want them,” and as the Miss Bertrams regularly wanted their horses every fine day, and had no idea of carrying their obliging manners to the sacrifice of any real pleasure, that time, of course, never came. They took their cheerful rides in the fine mornings of April and May; and Fanny either sat at home the whole day with one aunt, or walked beyond her strength at the instigation of the other.”
The following April Fanny is at Portsmouth, and it is a time of waiting:
“Easter came particularly late this year, as Fanny had most sorrowfully considered, on first learning that she had no chance of leaving Portsmouth till after it. It came, and she had yet heard nothing of her return—nothing even of the going to London, which was to precede her return. Her aunt often expressed a wish for her, but there was no notice, no message from the uncle on whom all depended. She supposed he could not yet leave his son, but it was a cruel, a terrible delay to her. The end of April was coming on; it would soon be almost three months, instead of two, that she had been absent from them all, and that her days had been passing in a state of penance, which she loved them too well to hope they would thoroughly understand; and who could yet say when there might be leisure to think of or fetch her?”
Also in Mansfield Park, Jane Austen gives us one of her fine word-pictures of season, of weather, of outdoor pleasures, in the scene where Henry Crawford walks with the Price family on the Ramparts at Portsmouth:
“The day was uncommonly lovely. It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute; and everything looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever–varying hues of the sea, now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound, produced altogether such a combination of charms for Fanny, as made her gradually almost careless of the circumstances under which she felt them.”
Turning from her fiction to her letters, it is surprising to find how few of them Jane Austen wrote during the month of April. Perhaps it was a time of year when she was too busy with visits. But between April 8 and 11th in 1805, she wrote a cheerful letter to Cassandra, from Bath. “Did Bath or Ibthorp ever see a finer 8th of April? – It is March & April together [see the similarity of phrase she uses in MP nearly a decade later!], the glare of one & the warmth of the other. We do nothing but walk about.” In her next letter, still in April (21st to 23rd), she writes: “Yesterday was a busy day with me, or at least with my feet & my stockings; I was walking almost all day long.”
In 1811 there are again two April letters, written from Sloane Street. The weather is warm: “I think Edward will not suffer much longer from heat; by the look of Things this morning I suspect the weather is rising into the balsamic Northeast.” [Wonderful phrase, but I cannot discover what balsamic means in this context. Balmy?] “It has been hot here, as you may suppose, since it was so hot with you, but I have not suffered from it at all, nor felt it in such a degree as to make me imagine it would be anything in the Country. Everybody has talked of the heat, but I set it all down to London.” She is correcting proofs of Sense and Sensibility, as well as a heavy social round of dinners and music and plays, as she is staying with Henry and Eliza. “Your Lilacs are in leaf, ours are in bloom,” she tells Cassandra. “I had a pleasant walk in Kensington Gardens on Sunday with Henry, Mr. Smith & Mr. Tilson – everything was fresh & beautiful.”
The next April letter is not until 1816, April 1, in the midst of the Prince Regent and James Stanier Clarke incident, when she has to acknowledge the Prince’s thanks for the copy of Emma she had been directed to send him, and makes polite demurrals to his suggestion she write an Historical Romance founded on the House of Saxe-Cobourg. She wrote a business letter to her publisher James Murray the same day, and on the 21st, a short letter to her young niece Caroline.
Her last two April letters are in 1817, near the end of her life. On 6 April she writes to her brother Charles. She is already ill, with what she calls a “Bilious attack, attended with a good deal of fever. A few days ago my complaint appeared removed, but I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle’s Will brought on a relapse…I am the only one of the Legatees who has been so silly, but a weak Body must excuse weak Nerves.”
Her very last April letter, of Sunday, 27 April, 1817, is, starkly, her last Will and Testament, written in the form of a letter to her sister.
More cheerfully, at the other end of Jane Austen’s life, we learn from Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen A Family Record that Jane Austen was actually christened in April:
“The cold weather did continue, and the winter of 1775-76 was one of the bitterest for many years, so it is not surprising that, after her private baptism on 17 December, the new baby was not taken out to the freezing little Steventon church for her public christening till 5 April 1776. She received just the single name of Jane, and her godparents were her great-aunt Jane, wife of Mr. Francis Austen of Sevenoaks; Mrs. Jane Musgrave, wife of Mrs. Austen’s cousin the rector of Chinnor; and Revd. Samuel Cooke, vicar of Great Bookham in Surrey and husband of another of Mrs. Austen’s cousins – her namesake Cassandra, daughter of the Master of Balliol.”
So what did the month of April mean to Jane Austen? Something mercurial, as the month is ever famed to be. A month of declarations, of stormy emotion; commonly of disappointment in love (for Mr. Darcy, Fanny, Marianne). Of changing weather, a time for energetic activity, walking, travel, social life; and for Jane Austen herself, a month of sacrament at the beginning of her life and at its ending – her christening and her last will and testament.