Dear friends and readers,
How can we remember her best this anniversary? Last year I put a poem she wrote for her birthday in 1808: it’s the only year that we have a record showing that her remembering her birthday: on December 16th, 1804 her good friend, Anna Lefroy died from a fall from a horse, and four years later, Jane wrote an elegy on the occasion of her friend’s death: “The day returns again, my natal day;/What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise!”
It’s a deeply emotional poem, a kind she wrote a few times. For example, this one to Anna Austen Lefroy, with lines like “Let not thy heart be blighted by the feeling/That presses on thy soul, of utter loneliness.” Or on her migraine headache just around the time of the publication of Sense and Sensibility: “When stretch’d out on one’s bed/With a fierce throbbing head” or the seething passion of the poem she wrote a day before she died, asserting immortality: “When once we are buried you think we are gone/But behold me immortal!”
She does not call the day her birthday but her “natal day” and a search through all her searchable texts on line (the six famous novels) showed that she never used either word in her novels, nor do I remember any reference to a birthday of a character or a birthday in her letters as a day to celebrate. In her novels she does tell us enough to work out birth years for some of her characters and for a smaller group enough to make a guess as to which part of the year or near which month, but the lacuna suggests that usually she did not think such chance happenings (it’s a chance what day one is born, to some extent a chance what day one marries) important. The coincidence of her friend’s death occurring the day she was born prompts her one birthday poem.
So, I thought a poem which puts before us felicitiously what she thought important, an attitude that shaped her writing and maybe her decisions in life would be most fitting. What is it Jane Bennet says to Elizabeth upon being told Elizabeth means to marry Mr Darcy: “Oh Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection” (P&P III:17). Emma Watson cries out to Elizabeth her sister in their first conversation: “I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like” (The Watsons 1st section). Or Austen explaining to a niece why she had encouraged her to think of marrying someone: “tho’ I did not think you then so much in love as you thought yourself, I did consider you as being attached in a degree — quite sufficiently for happiness; and then upon the girl showing her feelings were much “cooler” than even Austen supposed and perhaps preferred someone else: “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound to one without love, bound to one & preferring another” (JA’s Letters 109 & 114, 18-20 Nov & 30 Nov 1814).
A genuine congenial, a tenderly affectionate companionate relationship (as we might say) which includes respect, trust and constancy that is what her heroines seek, and the poem from the 18th century I know which best expresses this ideal (and in anniversary form) is Samuel Bishop’s “To his wife, on the sixteenth anniversary of her Wedding day with a Ring”
THEE, Mary, with this ring I wed,’
So sixteen years ago I said –
Behold another ring! ‘for what?’
To wed thee o’er again? — Why not?
With that first ring I married youth,
Grace, beauty, innocence, and truth;
Taste long admir’d, sense long rever’d,
And all my Molly then appear’d.
If she, by merit since disclosed,
Prove twice the woman I supposed,
I plead that double merit now,
To justify a double vow.
Here then to-day, (with faith as sure,
With ardour as intense, as pure,
As when, amidst the rites divine,
I took thy troth, and plighted mine)
To thee, sweet girl, my second ring
A token and a pledge I bring;
With this I wed, till death us part,
Thy riper virtues to my heart;
Those virtues which, before untried,
The wife has added to the bride:
Those virtues, whose progressive claim,
Endearing wedlock’s very name,
My soul enjoys, my song approves,
For conscience’ sake, as well as love’s.
And why?–They shew me every hour
Honour’s high thought, affection’s power,
Discretion’s deed, sound judgment’s sentence, –
And teach me all things — but repentance.
Samuel Bishop (1731–95), headmaster and poet, married Mary Palmer (a relative) in 1763, so this poem was written in 1779, four years after Austen was born. They had at least one daughter to whom Bishop also wrote loving poems. Mary survived him and married his biographer, Rev Thomas Clare who also published the majority of Bishop’s poems (1796). Bishop wrote prolifically but had published only a few poems before he died.
Reader I give you Jane Austen, 237 years after she was born, a toast to her … What she would have said of this cult I hesitate to imagine …