An Austen Valentine

An Austen Valentine

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:

Frank Churchill’s Visit to Highbury

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.

  1. On Thursday, Mr. Weston says that Frank will arrive tomorrow.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. On Sunday, Frank has returned from London.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
    Frank and Emma Gossip About Jane’s Pianoforte
  7. 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!
  8. 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?

20 Responses to An Austen Valentine

  1. Diana – you should be a private investigator – and anyone reading your latest chapter of Constant as the Sun on would have to agree. Talk about attention to detail! Enjoyed this immensely.

    • Thank you, K. I would love to be an investigator were it not for one minor (okay, major) issue. I get very worked up over people lying or doing wrong to other people, and would ultimately suffer a stroke or apoplexy and exit the world in an early demise not of my own making. I do love inventing plot twists though. I think I’ll stick to that. Thanks for commenting!

  2. I am impressed with all that study and deduction. Frank was so lucky as is said in the book that everyone forgave him. And he certainly used two women very meanly. I believe Knightly said something about the pianoforte not being appropriate. Thanks for sharing your research.

    • You are right, Knightley did make a comment about it. His comment, although critical, did not assume shame on Jane Fairfax as did Frank’s (and Emma’s) scandlous suggestion that the pianoforte was from Mr. Dixon. He would only assume it was the man who had taken on a fatherly role for Jane. Here is what he said: “”Yes,” he replied, and without the smallest apparent embarrassment.—”But they would have done better had they given her notice of it. Surprizes are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable. I should have expected better judgment in Colonel Campbell.”

      I was caught by the reference to the inconvenience and find that he is right. The transportation of a large furnishing may have been troublesome or not. Since we know that the Bates were poor, it is unlikely that they had a piano sized spot in the living room just waiting for a surprise pianoforte to arrive for the use of a guest in the household. They would have certainly been forced to hastily rearrange furniture while the instrument was being brought upstairs, assembled, and tuned. Knightley’s pointed comment is astute, and leads one to realize that maybe Frank didn’t really think it through.

  3. Diana, thank you for sharing your insight! No, I don’t think Frank’s gifts was enough…. Jane deserved so much more…..

    • This makes four votes against Frank so far. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he has no idea what a jerk he’s being, but really, I can’t. He very obviously knows that he’s throwing Jane into torment. Either he imagines (wrongly) she can’t be jealous because she knows that she’s the one he’s chosen, or he likes causing her mental anguish.Neither of these options speaks well of him, do it?

  4. Trust Frank Churchill to get things all out of proportion! An impulsive, extravagant gift and then a fleet of lies. He would have done better to take a lesson from Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth. A secret letter, sincerely written, trumps any gift he could have given Jane.

    Poor, serious, silent Jane–for surely this will not be the last time Churchill pulls a stunt like this! He’s like the husband who says, “I know finances have been tight, honey, and I’m sorry that you had to take on a second job cleaning houses, but guess what? Guess what’s in the driveway right now? I bought you … a NEW CAR !!! I got such a good deal, and I know you’re going to love it.”

    Great article, Diana. Thank you.

    • My husband will kill me for telling this…but we are among friends. Thank goodness he doesn’t read Austen blogs. For our anniversary he did get a car and [I’m sure as a joke] told me I only had to work 5 years to pay for it. HA! I got revenge by tell EVERYbody that he had gotten ME a car and therefore, he couldn’t drive it because it was MY car and people would ask why he was driving my anniversary gift. It worked…I love MY car and it is paid for thank you very much. I love telling that story. When I read your response…I could not resist.

        • Well… when Laura wrote that… I simply could not pass up the opportunity to tell that story. It was just too good to pass up. She didn’t realize she really hit it on the head. But I love a good story anyway. Glad you liked it. There is more than one way to a situation…just make it work for you. That one back fired on him big time. To this day…I’m still driving my car.

  5. I love it when someone is able to pick up on something quite hidden within the text of a story. How cool and creative. What a sleuth and excellent detective work. Well done. My heart; however, does go out to poor Jane F upon receiving this gift of love. Imagine her heart about to burst with love for her intended and her not able to utter a word.

    • Well, my first reply seems to have disappeared. I’m hoping it will still show up, but in the meantime, I’ll try again. Once you look at the calendar for 1814, it isn’t much of a leap to see that one of the Tuesdays falls on the 15th, but I should mention that at least one other sleuth looked at the data and came up with an entirely different interpretation. The rather twisted alternate that Arnie Perlstein presents here: places Frank in London on Valentine’s Day on a rendezvous with none other than Miss Hawkins – soon to be Mrs. Elton. As entertaining as his theory is, when I looked at his timeline, I found that due to 1812 being a leap year, one would have to go back to 1807 or forward to 1818 to find a year when Saturday – the day Frank goes to London – coincides with Valentine’s Day.

      And I am so with you on poor Jane Fairfax. She is in a terrible situation, and Frank is being very cruel in the torment he’s adding to it.

  6. Oh Diana, that was great, but in my opinion, it does not make up for Frank’s behavior, even if the gift was spectacular. That is unless it was predetermined that Jane would understand his behavior was to give others the impression that he was not interested in her. Even if that was the case, some of what he did was cruel. Thanks for your post. Jen

    • Ah, the first jury vote is in, and Frank is GUILTY! I agree. I admit that I didn’t pay much attention to all of what he was saying before, because I knew it was a ruse, but combing through the details over and over for this post, I realized that by putting it out there that he thought the gift was from Mr. Dixon, he was suggesting that Jane was carrying on with a married man. Her best friend’s husband no less! A gift of that magnitude from a married man would certainly suggest that she was Mr. Dixon’s mistress. I’m sure he figured it would all be explained away when the engagement became known, but that he could suggest such an idea about the woman who will be his wife is diabolical! It truly could ruin her reputation. Even taking part in a secret engagement was considered a serious moral lapse because it denied the public nature of the marital relationship.

  7. Fun post, thank you! I love looking at how Austen has tiny clues that can completely match dates to specific calendar years. I have found them in other books, but have never looked in Emma. I think this was the most fun Valentine’s thing this year!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I had done a ton of research on the Regency Valentine’s era — that was the original topic for this post — but when I stumbled on a reference to someone figuring out a hundred years ago that the pianoforte arrived on Valentine’s Day, my curiosity was piqued in a big way and my research (and topic) took a turn. I would have liked to name the clever person who first noticed it, but I couldn’t locate that tidbit of information in time for the post. In the end, the calendar year and the Coles party being on Tuesday are all it takes to support the theory. For me, though, finding as many clues as I could was half the fun!

  8. What a jewel you have gleaned from Emma, Diana! I had never caught that and I dare say no one else had or we would have read many an article about it. Amazing that you can find if you take the time to research Jane’s writing. I have to agree with you that the pianoforte was a Valentine’s present! I so enjoyed this article! Thank you for sharing it.

    • Well, Brenda, I would love to take the credit for realizing it, but I found a couple references to the idea that the pianoforte was delivered on Valentines’ day, but nobody provided an explanation for this deduction. That’s when I decided to sort it out for myself and see whether or not there was any merit to the idea. As I said above, it really all hinges on which calendar year you’re using, but I think the calendar of the year that she was likely writing her first draft has a pretty good shot at being right.

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