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.
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?