Yesterday was that annual love-fest of St. Valentine’s Day. Did you want to be done with it, to let it go so soon? Well, I hope not, because today we’re going to talk about a Valentine, a written one, from none other than Jane Austen herself.
My husband was surprised to learn that Valentine’s Day cards are not the invention of Hallmark. They have, in fact, been a popular tradition since the 1600’s. In the lifetime of Jane Austen, most of the Valentines that were being given were handmade and often were folded into what was known as a Puzzle Purse Valentine. I don’t know to what degree it was considered improper for a woman to receive a Valentine from a man she wasn’t related or engaged to, but judging by this hilarious story, it wasn’t exactly welcomed by fathers of maidens.
Since poetry, in general, was popular in the Regency era, it would seem fortuitous that Valentine’s day was made for poetry! Before Hallmark printed cards for us to give, one might find a sonnet worth sharing with the object of your affection in Cupid’s Annual Charter or Cupid’s Album. If a man was particularly daring, a Valentine’s Day gift might be ventured.
To my knowledge, there is no surviving Valentine of the folded or poetic variety that can be associated Jane Austen. Our dear Jane did leave one for her readers, however. It’s more of an Easter Egg really. It took only a century before a sharp Janeite ferreted it out. I was so delighted on learning about it that I decided to search for clues to the puzzle myself. It’s found in Austen’s Novel Emma. And here it is: Frank Churchill’s grand gesture of love to Jane Fairfax—a pianoforte—was delivered to her at her aunt’s house on Valentine’s Day. They are, of course, engaged, so a gift that will furnish their future household is actually quite appropriate, with one little (okay, not so little) problem. The engagement is secret, so the anonymous gift, arriving on Valentine’s day and therefore loaded with romantic significance, could potentially ruin Jane’s reputation.
The clues to this are subtle, but they are there. There are a few assumptions one has to concede to arrive at this conclusion. First, is that since “Emma” was written in the years 1814-1815, it is fair to use the 1814 calendar as the basis for the date calculations. Jane doesn’t come right out and say “On the 14th of February, a piano was delivered to Jane Fairfax.”
The clues regarding the timeline in question are scattered across multiple chapters. Let’s start with the big references. We are specifically told that Frank was at Highbury in February for a fortnight. This period of 14 days is the closest reference we get to the number 14, but that may still be significant when considering that we are looking for hidden clues to Jane’s puzzle.
Frank Churchill was originally supposed to make a visit to his father the second week in January, but as the day of his visit approached, a missive arrived that postponed his arrival to what he hoped was “no distant period.” In the meantime, word on the street is that Jane Fairfax is going to arrive for a three-month visit with her aunt, Mrs. Bates on a Friday or Saturday in January. The second assumption is that that the timing of Frank’s visit was adjusted to ensure that his visit would coincide with Jane’s.
Since we know that Frank spends a two-week period in February at Highbury, the third assumption is that I’ve picked the correct two-weeks. It is possible that he arrived a week earlier than supposed here, but if it were pushed back a week, we would cross over into March. The things that persuade me toward the more romantic notion are Frank’s repeated references to the pianoforte being a gift of love. So let’s take a look at the calendar:
There is one fixed day mentioned in the fortnight, and that is that the dinner party at the Coles was on Tuesday. We learn this when Emma’s father refers to reserving the carriage for Tuesday night for Emma’s use. From this, we can work out the timeline forward and backward for the 14 days in question. Frank’s whereabouts on the days leading up to the Cole’s dinner party are given in detail. I’ve included the weekday references for context, but you can see them on the calendar too.
- On Thursday, Mr. Weston says that Frank will arrive tomorrow.
- On Friday, when Emma comes down in the morning, Mr. Weston is visiting with Emma’s father along with his son Frank in the parlor. We learn that Frank arrived half a day earlier than expected. Frank obliquely mentions his acquaintance with Jane Fairfax and Emma’s father encourages him to call at the Bates’ house right away, which Frank sets out to do.
- On Saturday, Frank very suddenly goes to London for a “haircut.” This errand requires the full day, as it is sixteen miles each way. It is while Frank is out of town that the belated invitation for Emma and her Father to the Cole’s dinner party on the very next Tuesday arrives.
- On Sunday, Frank has returned from London.
- On Monday, the day before the Cole’s dinner party, a pianoforte is mysteriously delivered to Jane Fairfax at the home of her aunt and grandmother. We didn’t learn of this when it happened, but from conversations at the Cole’s dinner party the next day instead.
- Tuesday is the evening of the Cole’s dinner party. Frank draws Emma into speculation and gossip about the source of the gift of a pianoforte to Jane Fairfax. At the end of their gossip session, while giving nothing away about his role in the gift, Frank declares, “…and now I can see it in no other light than as an offering of love.” While at the party, Frank says he will have been in Highbury “a week tomorrow – half my time.” This statement confirms the count of days in the timeline up to now.
- On the day after the Cole’s dinner party, Frank calls on Jane at the Bate’s house. Emma is invited by Mrs. Bates to come to their house to see Jane’s new pianoforte. Upon their entrance, Frank appears to be studiously mending some spectacles, but Jane’s back is turned, and she has all the symptoms of being in an emotional state. Mrs. Bates scolds Frank for taking too long with the spectacles, leading the reader to realize that, with grandmama napping in her chair, Jane and Frank were very likely making use of the rare private moment as most couples would. While Emma is there, Frank, referring to the person sending music along with the instrument says, “Nothing hastily done; nothing incomplete. Only true affection could have prompted it.” That Frank is certainly talented at sending coded messages to Jane that nobody but she will catch!
- Over the course of the second week, plans are made for another dinner party sponsored by the Mr. and Mrs. Weston. They want to have dancing after dinner, and Frank presses to have it held at the Crown Inn to accommodate a larger group. To accomplish this, he tries to extend his stay in Highbury by half a week, but in the end, he is called away by his aunt before the date arrives and he leaves at the end of a fortnight after all.
So there you have it. If you can go along with the assumptions made, it does seem that Frank dashed off to London to arrange for the pianoforte to be delivered on Valentine’s Day to his secret fiancé. Does it make up for the humiliation Jane must have felt as Frank openly flirted with Emma and allowed everyone to think that he was interested in her? Is there any excuse for his gossip with Emma about Jane, criticizing her complexion, hair, and reserved nature? Does his grand gesture make up for the torment Jane was subjected to as she was forced to keep the engagement a secret? The court is now in session. Is Frank’s Valentine gift sufficient?