Jane Austen and Midsummer

Tomorrow, June 24, is Midsummer’s Day.

Coming on the heels of the summer solstice, which usually falls between June 20 and 22, Midsummer marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer. It is a time of joy and abundance, of long days and short nights, of picnics, gatherings and outdoor pursuits.

But how is it reflected in Jane Austen’s novels?

The Most Pleasant Weather

In Midsummer, nature is at its best. The fields are bright green, flowers are fragrant, birdsong is everywhere, and everything feels better in the warmth of the sun. The weather is mild, and it is the perfect time to travel. So much so, that it is the only circumstance under which Mr Woodhouse consents to visiting Donwell:  

“Under a bright mid-day sun, at almost Midsummer, Mr Woodhouse was safely conveyed in his carriage, with one window down…”

One window down – imagine how beautiful the weather must have been for Mr Woodhouse, Austen’s most famous hypochondriac, to leave the house and allow for one carriage window to be down!

(Of course, once he reaches his destination, Mr Woodhouse doesn’t step outside the Abbey. Instead, he retreats to one of the most comfortable rooms, where a fire is prepared for him to pass the morning…)  

A Time of Celebrations

Midsummer was and still is a time for gatherings. As well as being peak wedding season, some countries still mark the occasion with bonfires, flowers, singing and other traditions, rooted in the pagan celebration of the summer solstice.  

By the Regency, Midsummer had lost its pagan connotations and was officially the feast of St John the Baptist. Still, it was very much a time to meet with loved ones. We see an example of this keenness to get together with friends and family in Emma, when the Dixons and the Campbells invite Jane Fairfax to join them in Ireland for Midsummer. 

Midsummer Magic

The pagan traditions are reflected in the many beliefs that exist around Midsummer. Midsummer’s Eve is when fairies, ghosts and witches mingle with humans, as shown in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It is also the perfect opportunity to do some magic. According to tradition, on Midsummer’s Eve, unmarried women can see the form of their predestined lovers over their left shoulder. To do so, they need to walk clockwise three times around a church at midnight, scattering hemp seed and saying: “Hemp-seed I sow, hemp-seed I mow, let him that is my true love come after me and show.”  

One of the “Quarter Days”

Although superstitions around Midsummer were still alive and well amongst the popular classes during the Regency, Jane Austen is unlikely to have given them much credence. Instead, for her, Midsummer was one of the four “quarter days” that divided the year. Each was marked by a Christian festival which more or less coincided with the two solstices and the two equinoxes celebrated by pagan tradition. 

Elizabeth Spriggs as Mrs. Jennings, 1995.

School started, rents were paid, and servants were hired on “quarter days”, so they were calendar highlights. In Sense and Sensibility, for example, Mrs Jennings is convinced that Colonel Brandon and Marianne will be married before Midsummer. Jane probably marked the passage of time in a similar fashion.  

These days, whether you celebrate Midsummer or the summer equinox is likely to depend on where you live and any family traditions.

In Edinburgh, there are Midsummer bonfires along the beach, and before the children came along, we used to go every year, marvelling at the still-light skies well past 10:30 pm. I look forward to going back once they are a bit older.

Do you celebrate the summer equinox or Midsummer in any particular way?

 

 

15 Responses to Jane Austen and Midsummer

  1. I had never heard of any of the celebrations. I find them fascinating. Since I had a strict family, I doubt I would be allowed to circle our church with any seed. I wonder if those hemp seeds were the kind you smoke? Just saying. Thanks for the interesting post. Blessings, stay safe and healthy and I hope [when your children are older] you get to take that trip.

    • Very interesting point.

      Historically, people were less interested in smoking hemp and more in growing it to make canvas/cloth and rope. According to MIT’s very interesting People’s History pages, hemp rope was 3 times stronger than cotton and resistant to salt water, so essential for sailing ships.

      The same article also says that “up to the 1920’s 80% of clothing was make from hemp textiles”. (I was quite blown away by this fact!)

      Source: https://www.mit.edu/~thistle/v13/2/history.html

      • LOL! Teresa!!

        Eliza, KY grew hemp back in the day [WWII]. Many farmers grew it for the war effort and had government permits to do so. I bought a purse many years ago that said it was made from hemp. Because I was teaching at the time… I never carried it. I was afraid the drug dogs would come to my room. LOL! I have it somewhere in a drawer. I had visions of ‘Local teacher arrested for possession of a hemp bag on school property.’ NOPE! I couldn’t chance it. And there you have it.

        I Googled the difference between marijuana and hemp and it said … “Because they’re cultivated differently. Marijuana is a horticultural crop grown for its THC content, while hemp is an agricultural crop grown for seed and fiber.”

        • The envisioned newspaper headline made me laugh out loud, Jeanne! Fascinating about KY growing hemp, I had no idea. So many interesting facts out there, so little time to read about them all! Thanks for sharing.

  2. I didn’t know it was Midsummers Eve so no I won’t be celebrating and can’t remember ever doing so.
    Well I might have walked round the church with my hemp seed ……. but I’m still mostly isolating so my shopping is restricted, thus no seed! Also I’m not sure if the church gates will be locked at midnight (obviously I haven’t visited at that time so can’t confirm!) I would also be wary of my true love invading my two metre space! 🙂
    I do like that idea of fires on the beach as I feel the proximity of all the seawater would prevent them getting out of control! but I don’t live near enough to one and recent fires near me HAVE been out of control and caused much damage to moorland.
    Thank you for sharing this information!

  3. Thank you for this informative post. Although, I do not celebrate personally, I did mention midsummer in my debut novel, True Love Comes to Delaford.

    A series about the “quarter days” would be quite interesting to read. 😉

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