People in Jane Austen's time enjoyed the Easter holidays as much as we do.
|Jane Austen’s novels and letters reveal that Easter was a time when journeys were made to see different parts of the country and stay with friends and relatives. It made sense for Easter to be a period of travel, as in spring the drier conditions on the roads made travel easier than in winter. Many road surfaces were poor, and it was not unknown for carriages to become stuck in mud after a downpour or snowfall. After travel had been difficult during winter, Regency people were understandably eager to visit friends and relatives further afield.
Jane mentioned in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, written from the 5th to the 8th of March 1814 that their banker brother Henry planned to visit his brother’s country estate at Godmersham ‘for a few days before Easter.’
Jane’s novels contain many mentions of family visits at Easter time. In Emma, Mr. Woodhouse laments not seeing his daughter Isabella as much after her marriage: ‘it is so long since she was here — not since last Easter’ (Emma, Chapter 8).
In Sense and Sensibility, chaperone Mrs. Jennings and sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood and invited to go with Mrs. Jennings’s daughter and her husband, Mr. Palmer, to their estate at Cleveland in Somersetshire for a springtime stay:
‘The Palmers were to remove to Cleveland, about the end of March, for the Easter holidays; and Mrs. Jennings, and both her friends, received a very warm invitation to go with them’ (Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 38).
A spring visit with a less fortunate end occurs in Mansfield Park (Chapter 16). Newly married Maria is staying with friends during spring when she elopes with Henry Crawford after her marriage:
‘Mrs. Rushworth had gone, for the Easter holidays, to Twickenham, with a family whom she had just grown intimate with — a family of lively, agreeable manners, and probably of morals and discretion to suit — for to their house Mr. Crawford had constant access at all times’ (Mansfield Park, Chapter 16).
Mr. Weston gives an optimistic view of springtime visits as he delights in the agreeable prospect that he shall have his son Frank ‘the whole spring — precisely the season of the year which one should have chosen for it: days almost at the longest; weather genial and pleasant, always inviting one out, and never too hot for exercise’ (Emma, Chapter 18).
However, even in spring, bad weather could make travel difficult. In a letter to Cassandra, written as late in spring as Friday the 17th of May 1799, Jane mentioned that the ‘wet & dirty’ roads made travel unpleasant and her trunk containing her ‘best gown’ was delayed as she travelled to Bath.
Alternatively, a very dry spell could make it unpleasant in Regency cities. In Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe complains of Bath being dusty on hot days in a letter written to Catherine Morland in April.
The volatile weather of springtime was believed to possibly have negative effects on health. This belief is touched on in the advice that Mrs. Weston gives to Miss Fairfax:
‘Liable as you have been to severe colds, indeed you ought to be particularly careful, especially at this time of year. The spring I always think requires more than common care’ (Emma, Chapter 16).
Travelling at Easter became so common that Easter marked the time when the ‘Season’ began for wealthy families to spend time in London. In Sense and Sensibility (Chapter 25), Mrs. Jennings comments that all girls should wish to go to London. A visit to London provided wealthy young women with a chance to socialise, shop, attend balls and the theatre, and also increased their prospects of finding a suitable husband. In Pride and Prejudice (Chapter 55), Jane Bennet goes to London in spring, but sadly she finds that her beloved Mr. Bingley does not know she is there thanks to the scheming of his sister who hopes he will make a more advantageous match to Georgiana Darcy.
Young ladies would often be sent to learn the skills they would need to attract a husband and befit them for fashionable society when families went to London. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is surprised that Mrs. Bennet did not ensure that her five daughters were taken ‘to town every spring for the benefit of masters’ (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 29).
Visits to London for the spring season are also mentioned in Emma. Frank Churchill laments being called away after having organised a ball:
‘if my uncle and aunt go to town this spring — but I am afraid — they did not stir last spring — I am afraid it is a custom gone for ever’ (Emma, Chapter 12).
An amusing sketch of Lady Bertram’s character is made in relation to the London house of the Bertram family in Mansfield Park:
‘Lady Bertram, in consequence of a little ill-health, and a great deal of indolence, gave up the house in town, which she had been used to occupy every spring, and remained wholly in the country, leaving Sir Thomas to attend his duty in Parliament’ (Mansfield Park, Chapter 2).
Bath was a popular destination for spring visits. In Regency times it was booming as a fashionable spa town where people went to drink the warm, mineral-rich spring water as a cure for many ailments, or simply as a general tonic. Jane mentioned accompanying her uncle to take a glass of the famous spring water from the Pump Rooms in a letter to Cassandra written Tuesday the 5th of May 1801.
Domestic staff were given holidays when their employers left their country houses to go to London or Bath for the Season, though this holiday didn’t officially begin until Easter Sunday. This was probably in order to give the servants chance to clean and cover furniture and fittings in the house whilst the family were away — the origin of the idea of the spring clean. In wealthy households, the servants would be given a Simnel cake to take home when visiting their family home on Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent.
Even for privileged Regency people not travelling further afield to visit family or attend the Season in town, spring was often a time for getting out and exploring the surrounding countryside during walks of carriage excursions, especially if guests were staying. This is something that newly married Mrs. Elton is keen on doing when her family come to stay with her in Emma:
“My brother and sister have promised us a visit in the spring or summer at farthest,’ continued Mrs. Elton; “and that will be our time for exploring. While they are with us, we shall explore a great deal, I dare say. They will have their barouche-landau, of course, which holds four perfectly; and therefore, without saying any thing of our carriage, we should be able to explore the different beauties extremely well. They would hardly come in their chaise, I think, at that season of the year. Indeed, when the time draws on, I shall decidedly recommend their bringing the barouche-landau; it will be so very much preferable. When people come into a beautiful country of this sort, you know, Miss Woodhouse, one naturally wishes them to see as much as possible; and Mr. Suckling is extremely fond of exploring’ (Emma, Chapter 14).
The barouche-landau was an expensive open-topped, four-wheeled carriage driven as an elite pastime. This luxurious carriage, drawn by two horses, was fashionable throughout the nineteenth-century. Mrs. Elton’s repeated mentions of the carriage in a way that attempts to make herself sound superior are, not surprisingly, nauseating to her listeners.
Easter was a time when new furnishings for houses were ordered and delivered, as Jane Austen comments on in Mansfield Park:
‘The preparations of new carriages and furniture might wait for London and spring, when her own taste could have fairer play’ (Mansfield Park, Chapter 21).
Renovations and building work were also typically begun in spring. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood considers altering Barton Cottage if she has any money remaining after making up her accounts in spring. As an example of Mr. Willoughby’s character, he disapproves of the idea of renovating the quaint but uncomfortable cottage:
‘on Mrs. Dashwood’s happening to mention her design of improving the cottage in the spring, he warmly opposed every alteration of a place which affection had established as perfect to him’ (Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 14).
In Emma, the two Knightley brothers discuss improvements to Mr. Knightley’s estate and farm due to take place in spring, when the better weather meant these alterations were most feasible in preparation for increasing the harvest later in the year:
‘The plan of a drain, the change of a fence, the felling of a tree, and the destination of every acre for wheat, turnips, or spring corn, was entered into with as much equality of interest by John as his cooler manners rendered possible’ (Emma, Chapter 12).
Just as in modern times, Easter was a time when children had a holiday from school work. Although, of course, in Jane Austen’s time only more privileged children went to school as most school places had to be paid for. In a letter written to Cassandra from Sunday 21st to Tuesday the 23rd of April 1805, Jane commented that schoolboy ‘Bickerton has been at home for the Easter Holidays, & returns tomorrow.’ Jane gives a good account of him and he is fond of both her and Cassandra. His siblings have ‘Masters & Mistresses’ with the girls learning at home, as was common for girls at the time.
Like adults, children enjoyed travelling and visiting relatives at Easter time. In Emma ‘The two eldest little Knightleys were engaged to pay their grandpapa and aunt a visit of some weeks in the spring, and their papa now proposed bringing them’ (Emma, Chapter 16).
The Knightley children must have looked forward not only to meeting their aunt Emma and their grandfather Mr. Woodhouse, but also to seeing kind Mr. Weston, the new husband of Emma’s former governess. He is praised for his benevolence to the children, in particular for ‘flying Henry’s kite for him that very windy day last Easter’ (Emma, Chapter 11).
Unlike little Henry Knightley who plays outside flying his kite with Mr. Weston in Emma, young Fanny Price in Mansfield Park spent her Easter Holidays less happily learning to ride, which terrified her. Fortunately, her kind cousin Edmund teaches Fanny riding with the help of an old grey pony, and she comes to enjoy riding. The exercise of riding is shown as being good for Fanny’s health and she regularly rides out as a young woman.
Doubtless young Catherine Morland, the tom-boy heroine of Northanger Abbey, could be found rolling down hills and playing cricket with her brother on a fine spring day near Easter!
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