Jane Austen’s Midsummer


Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala (Russian midsummer) by Henryk Hector Siemiradzki

I thought I knew what Jane Austen meant in Emma when she wrote that Jane Fairfax’s visit would last until Midsummer. She meant Jane would be there before the middle of summer, right? No. Midsummer actually falls at the very beginning of summer on June 24, around the time of the summer solstice.

Midsummer had long been celebrated in England. Pagans claimed that evil spirits wreaked havoc at Midsummer, and people partied all night beside protective bonfires. Shakespeare portrayed Midsummer as a Freaky Friday sort of occasion, in which societal mores turned topsy turvy. By Jane Austen’s time, however, things had changed. Christian reformists made over the holiday to celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist. On St. John’s Eve, Christians sometimes still lit bonfires, but they fasted instead of feasting. The feast occurred during the daylight on the following day.

St. John the Baptist by Titian

Midsummer was one of the English quarter days during Regency times. These quarter days marked both significant religious holidays and financial bench marks. Contracts began and ended on quarter days. They were also the days to pay rent and hire servants. Hence, Jane Fairfax planned to stay in Highbury until Midsummer when the Campbells would arrive home from their time in Ireland.

Other than Midsummer, Jane Austen observed three other quarter days.

  • Lady Day, which celebrated the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, fell on March 25.
  • Michaelmas, which celebrated the devil’s defeat by St. Michael, fell on September 29. (If you would like to know more about how Jane Austen celebrated Michaelmas, you can read my blog post, What is Michaelmas?)
  • Christmas, which celebrated the birth of Christ, fell on December 25.

You’ll notice that the quarter days roughly coincide with the Spring equinox, the Summer solstice, the Autumn equinox, and the Winter solstice. Curiously, Jane never mentioned Lady Day in any of her novels. Instead, she used Easter to mark the beginning of Spring.

In modern times, some groups of Europeans still light bonfires to celebrate Midsummer. Have you ever been to a midsummer bonfire?


13 Responses to Jane Austen’s Midsummer

  1. What an interesting post, Rebecca. I did not known about the quarters, though I had seen Michaelmas mentioned plenty of times. I love it when I learn something new that will help me with my writing. Thank you!

  2. I love these type of clarifications. I think that help the U.S. based readers better to understand the little nuances of the Regency period. Thanks for sharing the information.

  3. I find it interesting that so many holidays (or holy days) have been abandoned over the years. I could go for a Midsummer bonfire though. I love a good bonfire but haven’t been to one in years–not since I was a kid in fact. I don’t even know where you could have it anymore. If you could find a location to have it, would you need a permit for a fire that large? Would the entire neighborhood call 911? Would the fire department come and want to douse it if they did? Would the environmentalists be up in arms because of the smoke? Of course, we could just use the fire pit in the back yard and call it a bonfire. The marshmallows would toast all the same…

    • My son went to a bonfire last week, and it was held in one of those little backyard fireplace things you buy at the store. So, I guess even the definition of bonfire has changed. Go figure.

  4. I thought they were to move in by Michaelmas. I had to look up when that was as I had no idea (turns out its 29 September for those who don’t know either!). It’s so odd to think midsummer used to be such a big celebration as in the part of the UK where I live there is no celebration of it whatsoever, though I’d like to think it’s marked elsewhere. Interesting that it was one of the quarter days. You hear those mentioned in novels but I never looked up when they were.

Your thoughts are precious!