Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe it’s already 2015! What better way to start the new year than with Jane Austen! During the month of January, we are having a ‘Jane in January’ event, focusing primarily on “Pride and Prejudice,” with a few exceptions. (See the January 2nd post and the big giveaway associated with it! We think you will really enjoy it!) The giveaways associated with our Jane in January event will be distributed through rafflecopter, so be sure to sign into it. We will announce winners by Sunday afternoon of each week (beginning January 11) through the whole month.
What did Jane Austen do in a January, what were her activities, her habits, her amusements, in that month especially? How did she feel about that time of year, did she mostly spend it in the country, and did she tend to be in a state of dejection or amusement? Did her mood inform her writing? We can best attempt to discern answers to these questions by journeying through January with Jane, in her letters and novels.
The very first letter we have of Jane Austen’s was written in the January of 1796, when she had turned twenty years old less than a month previously. In this letter, Jane is joyous. She is very much a gay, high spirited young lady, living at her father’s rectory at Steventon, and writing in the liveliest fashion to her sister Cassandra, then on a visit to her fiancé Tom Fowles’ family at Kintbury. This is the letter in which she writes about her flirtation with Tom Lefroy, how she danced with her “Irish friend”, as she calls him. Cassandra has been scolding her about the friendship, and her high spirits are almost shrill – “I am sorry for the Beaches’ loss of their little girl, especially as it is the one so much like me,” she writes with rather unfeeling humor. But it is clear that this January in the country is a gay and social time indeed. A week later she writes about a ball to be held at Ashe Park, for which she is impatient, as she rather expects to receive an offer from her friend. As to kisses, she means to confine herself to Mr. Tom Lefroy, “for whom I do not care sixpence.” Does she care? Is she pretending not to care? Surely there’s something there.
We next meet Jane in January in two letters from 1799. At twenty-three she is still writing of balls, and is to wear a “Mamalouc” cap that is all the fashion. She has a cold, and sore eyes, but it does not keep her from the gaieties – the ball at Kempshott, a dinner at the Harwoods; she often sleeps at the house where she goes to dinner. She tells of her partners, solemnly says she was not much in request, yet “one of my gayest actions was sitting down two Dances, in preference to having Lord Bolton’s eldest son for my partner, who danced too ill to be endured.” Jane Austen still sounds quite a girl, yet by this time she has already written First Impressions.
There are no fewer than five letters in January of 1801, when Jane is now twenty-five. The first letter is almost entirely taken up with their plans to move to Bath in May; in the cold dark days of January there is much conjecturing what house they would take. But it’s not all planning by any means; the busy winter social to-and-froing continues. Cassandra is visiting at Godmersham, and Jane writes hoping that she is wearing a white gown when the “gay party” is with her. Her own parties include going to Ashe Park and playing cards. There is much hardship in the winter of 1801, and Jane mentions her father raising his tithes, but her own focus is on making the best of the upcoming move to Bath. In the second letter her dinings-out continue with a visit to Deane where Mrs. Powlett is “at once expensively & nakedly dress’d; – we have had the satisfaction of estimating her Lace & her Muslin, & she said too little to afford us much other amusement.” This does not sound much like thick winter wear!
The third letter tells of more visitings, “a party of fine Ladies issuing from a well-known, commodious green Vehicle, their heads full of Bantam-Cocks & Galinies, entered the house – Mrs. Heathcote, Mrs. Harwood, Mrs. James Austen, Miss Big, Miss Jane Blachford. Hardly a day passes in which we do not have some visitor or other.” This seems to be quite true, though some of the visitors have to do with the upcoming move, as they are appraisers, or have business about the servants. Between visits to Ashe Park, Deane, and Jane’s staying with the Biggs at Manydown, it is clear that wintertime most emphatically does not prevent visits in her world, despite the difficulties of traveling in carriages on muddy roads. She mentions the weather on 25 January: “How do you like this cold weather? I hope you have all been earnestly praying for it as a salutary relief from the dreadfully mild and unhealthy season preceding it, fancying yourself half putrified from the want of it, and that now you all draw into the fire, complain that you never felt such bitterness of cold before, that you are half starved, quite frozen, and wish the mild weather back again with all your hearts.” Despite her joking, we do hear of some inconvenience from the weather: “While I was there [at Deane] a sudden fall of snow rendered the roads impassable, and made my journey home in the little carriage much more easy and agreeable than my journey down.” Deane and Steventon were only a mile apart.
The next set of January letters takes us to 1805. Jane is twenty-nine, and her letter of January 21, to Frank, is for the purpose of announcing the death of their father. Here she writes in a most masterly, sombre style of perfection, suitable to the occasion: “Our dear Father has closed his virtuous & happy life, in a death almost as free from suffering as his Children could have wished,” yet softening it with sensitive thoughts to console a brother who would be reading this news far from home. “Heavy as is the blow, we can already feel that a thousand comforts remain to us to soften it.” The language is heartfelt (“The loss of such a Parent must be felt, or we should be Brutes”). We can picture the bleakness and melancholy of such an event being underscored by it happening in January.
Her next January letter is two years later, 1807, written from the Southampton lodgings where she was living with her mother, to Cassandra who was at Godmersham. James and his family have just departed for Steventon, and Jane seems relieved of the house guests (“I shall be left to the comfortable disposal of my time, to ease of mind from the torments of rice puddings and apple dumplings, and probably to regret that I did not take more pains to please them all.”) They are making baby clothes for Mrs. Frank Austen’s expected baby, and there is much reading in the evenings – they have exchanged Alphonsine for The Female Quixote. There are the usual winter drawbacks, combated with vigor. “We did not take our walk on Friday, it was too dirty, nor have we yet done it; we may perhaps do something like it to-day, as after seeing Frank skate, which he hopes to do in the meadows by the beach, we are to treat ourselves with a passage over the ferry. It is one of the pleasantest frosts I ever knew, so very quiet.” She does not, however, skate herself.
In 1809, Jane Austen, at thirty-three, is still at Castle Square, Southampton, while Cassandra is at Godmersham again, where she spent so much time with their brother Edward Knight’s family. She is writing about future travels, as she often seems to do of a January; this time she writes about leaving Southampton in April, journeying to see her Cooke cousins at Bookham, and then on to Godmersham. “These plans of course depend on the weather, but I hope there will be no settled Cold to delay us materially,” she writes, though the “settled cold” might likely be less in April than in January. The coldness of the latter can be ascertained by her mentioning, “Has your Newspaper given you the sad story of a Mrs. Middleton, wife of a Farmer in Yorkshire, her sister & servant being almost frozen to death in the late weather – her little Child quite so?…[They] are said to be tolerably recovered, but the Sister is likely to lose the use of her Limbs.” The ladies are doing a good deal of reading, and getting through Anne Grant ‘s Memoirs of an American Lady, Margiana, and Marmion. Such reading aloud was an important part of a winter’s evening entertainment.
The following week she writes, “Yes – we have got another fall of snow, & are very dreadful; everything seems to turn to snow this winter.” Yet this does not prevent visits from James and Mary, nor a ball being given by “that silly Mr. Hammond.” Reading continues; Jane does not think much of Ida of Athens: “If the warmth of her Language could affect the Body, it might be worth reading in this weather. – Adieu – I must leave off to stir the fire & call on Miss Murden. Evening. I have done them both, the fire very often. – We found our friend as comfortable, as she can ever allow herself to be in cold weather.” She mentions a doctor’s comment “that he never remembered such a severe winter as this, in Southampton before. It is too bad, but we do not suffer as we did last year, because the wind has been more N.E. – than N.W.” Her mother is “quite as well as one can expect her to be in such Weather, which deprives her of Exercise.” A few days later, the weather has not improved: “This day three weeks you are to be in London, & I wish you better weather – not but that you may have worse, for we have now nothing but ceaseless snow or rain & insufferable dirt to complain of – no tempestuous winds, nor severity of cold. Since I wrote last we have had something of each, but it is not genteel to rip up old grievances.”
The weather talk continues, amusingly laced with reflections on her own reading and writing: “Could my Ideas flow as fast as the rain in the Storecloset, it would be charming. – We have been in two or three dreadful states within the last week, from the melting of the Snow &c. – & the contest between us & the Closet has now ended in our defeat; I have been obliged to move almost everything out of it, & leave it to splash itself as it likes.” There is yet another ball, and she tells who was there, dryly noting that “a Mr. John Harrison was deputed by Capt. Smith, being himself absent, to ask me to dance.” She also mentions being well entertained and that she “could have staid longer but for the arrival of my List shoes to convey me home, & I did not like to keep them waiting in the Cold.” (I have not been able to discover what kind of fabric list is, or if these were overshoes.)
The following week, January 30, she writes, “Here is such a wet Day as never was seen! – I wish the poor little girls [two of her nieces] had better weather for their Journey; they must amuse themselves with watching the raindrops down the Windows.” She does call the weather “delightfully mild” (after all it was raining, not snowing), and adds, “Yesterday was a very blowing day; we got to Church however, which we had not been able to do for two Sundays before.”
There are two January letters in 1813, when Jane Austen was thirty-seven. It was not such a cold or wet January as others. “This is exactly the weather we could wish for, if you are but well enough to enjoy it,” she wrote from Chawton to Cassandra at Steventon. Henry has sent them a Stilton cheese, and Jane is much entertained by an essay on the military police by Capt. Pasley, for whom she jokingly claims to have a passion. (“The first soldier I ever sighed for; but he does write with extraordinary force and spirit.”) She mentions “the many readers or retainers of books we have in Chawton,” but in addition to reading, there is, as usual, much social life in January, and she writes of being taken to a festivity in an uncomfortable cart, though she would rather have walked. Even in January she likes walking about the neighborhood, and writes of walking to Alton, paying calls, and dining out. She teases Cassandra for writing about “a very sloppy lane,” while it was “just greasy” at Chawton. “Upon the whole, the Weather for winter-Weather is delightful, the walking excellent.” It is at this time that she receives her “own darling child,” Pride and Prejudice, from London, and reads it aloud to Miss Benn. But despite this great event she does not neglect to admire some charades Cassandra has written, and adds, “I grant you that this is a cold day, & am sorry to think how cold you will be through the process of your visit at Manydown. I hope you will wear your China Crape. Poor wretch! I can see you shivering away, with your miserable feeling feet.”
There is one letter in January, 1816, and that only a short note to her niece Anna, who has just given birth, sending her a copy of Emma: “As I wish very much to see your Jemima, I am sure you will like to see my Emma.” And finally come the three letters of January 1817, the last year of Jane Austen’s life. She is now forty-one, and already ill. The first is the short letter she wrote to her young niece Cassandra-Esten, written in backward script to amuse the child; the next is to her niece Caroline Austen. She writes in a cheerful style, assuring Caroline, “I feel myself getting stronger than I was half a year ago, & can so perfectly well walk to Alton, or back again, without the slightest fatigue that I hope to be able to do both when Summer comes.” The final January letter was written the next day, to her friend Alethea Bigg. She observes that the weather is mild, though damp with “Ponds” everywhere, but she asserts, “I have certainly gained strength through the Winter & am not far from being well; & I think I understand my own case now so much better than I did, as to be able to keep off any serious return of illness. I am more & more convinced that Bile is at the bottom of all I have suffered, which makes it easy to know how to treat myself.” She has not been seeing much of her niece Anna as “the rain & dirt divide us a good deal…as this is not a time of year for Donkey-carriages.” She closes by asking for a “receipt” for some excellent orange Wine made at Manydown, from Seville oranges. Perhaps she hoped it would make her feel better.
An account of Jane Austen’s experiences of the month of January would not be complete without seeing what she made of the month in her novels. Her brief word-picture in Pride in Prejudice of life in the country at that season, very accurately reflects what she describes in her letters: “With no greater events than these in the Longbourn family, and otherwise diversified by little beyond the walks to Meryton, sometimes dirty and sometimes cold, did January and February pass away.” Similarly, in Emma, she has Emma reflect on why Jane Fairfax came home to Highbury for her health: “In the summer it might have passed; but what can any body’s native air do for them in the months of January, February, and March? Good fires and carriages would be much more to the purpose in most cases of delicate health, and I dare say in her’s.” And in Persuasion, Mary Musgrove pouts about the boredom of the season: “I have not had a creature call on me since the second week in January, except Charles Hayter, who has been calling much oftener than was welcome.”
But the most truly dramatic scene set in a January, occurs in Sense and Sensibility. In this passage Jane Austen uses the bleakness of January as a most effective backdrop to Marianne’s misery and despair, as she receives and responds to Willoughby’s cold (cold as January!) letter:
Before the house-maid had lit their fire the next day, or the sun gained any power over a cold, gloomy morning in January, Marianne, only half dressed, was kneeling against one of the window-seats for the sake of all the little light she could command from it, and writing as fast as a continual flow of tears would permit her.”
And the letter itself is truly as frigid a heartbreaking horror as Jane Austen’s art could make it:
Bond Street, January .
MY DEAR MADAM, — I have just had the honour of receiving your letter, for which I beg to return my sincere acknowledgments. I am much concerned to find there was anything in my behaviour last night that did not meet your approbation; and though I am quite at a loss to discover in what point I could be so unfortunate as to offend you, I entreat your forgiveness of what I can assure you to have been perfectly unintentional. I shall never reflect on my former acquaintance with your family in Devonshire without the most grateful pleasure, and flatter myself it will not be broken by any mistake or misapprehension of my actions. My esteem for your whole family is very sincere; but if I have been so unfortunate as to give rise to a belief of more than I felt, or meant to express, I shall reproach myself for not having been more guarded in my professions of that esteem. That I should ever have meant more you will allow to be impossible, when you understand that my affections have been long engaged elsewhere, and it will not be many weeks, I believe, before this engagement is fulfilled. It is with great regret that I obey your commands of returning the letters, with which I have been honoured from you, and the lock of hair, which you so obligingly bestowed on me.
I am, dear Madam,
Your most obedient
A cold January, indeed!
Here are some of the prizes we are giving away in Jane in January:
Week One Prizes:
From Maria Grace: 2 sets of 4-notecards (good for valentine’s day) (one each to two people); 4 ‘Jane Austen Said it best’ magnets (one each to 4 people);
From Susan Mason-Milks: 1 print book (US only); 1 ebook (anywhere); 1 audiobook
From Abigail Reynolds: 2 ebooks of “The Darcys of Derbyshire”
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