Posts Tagged ‘Glimpse of Jane Austen’

Mrs. Digweed returned yesterday through all the afternoon’s rain, and was of course wet through, but in speaking of it she never once said “it was beyond everything,” which I am sure it must have been.

Jane to Anna Austen Lefroy, June 23, 1816

Jane Austen’s last summer before she died was a miserable one in terms of weather. Popularly known as “The Year Without a Summer,” 1816’s unusual weather pattern began half a world away. On April 1815, Mount Tambora erupted on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. There had been a great deal of volcanic activity in the region between 1812 and 1817, but the gigantic eruption that blew the mountain’s top off on April 12th, 1815 spewed an enormous amount of volcanic debris into the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun with tiny particles of dust and affecting global temperatures.
After a major explosion, volcanic gas and dust remain in the upper atmosphere. These particulates are then steadily spread around the globe by winds. A catastrophic volcanic event, even a minor one, is “enough to delay the arrival of spring thaws, enough to project killing frosts into the growing season, and enough to shorten the growing window.” (Wickens)

That year the British experienced the third coldest summer since records were kept in 1659. Crops failed in SW England, and the price of rye and wheat rose, which resulted in food riots. An epidemic of typhus broke out in SE Europe, killing between 10,000-100,000 people, depending on which account one chose to believe.

What was Jane Austen’s reaction to the third worst summer weather in recorded history? She barely seemed to notice, although my observation may be off since many of her letters were destroyed by Cassandra and other members of her family. Jane made no unusual mention of the climate in the surviving letters of that year. Perhaps for an Englishwoman a few more days of wet, miserable, and cold weather were nothing to write home about. Still, it is disheartening to know that during the last full summer of her short life, Jane experienced unusually cool temperatures all through the season. She had already begun the downward spiral in health that would lead to her death. The dreary climate could only have added to her flagging energy and general sense of malaise.

  • Find out more about this event in this article: 1816- The Year Without a Summer: An Overview of the Eruption of Mount Tambora, by Simon Wickens.
  • Illustration: The Squall, James Gillray, 1808, Princeton University Library Collection

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In 1813, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra:

The invitation to the Fair was general; Edwd* positively declined his share of that, & I was very glad to do the same.-It is likely to be a baddish Fair-not much upon the Stall, & neither Mary O. nor Mary P.-it is hoped that the Portfolio may be in Canty* this morng*.Sackree’s sister found it at Croydon and took it to Town with her, but unluckily did not send it down till she had directions. Fanny C’s. screens can be done nothing with, but there are parts of workbags in the parcel, very important in their way.-Three of the Deedes girls are to be at Goodnestone.-We shall not be much settled till this visit is over-settled as to employment I mean;-Fanny and I are to go on with Modern Europe together, but hitherto have advanced only 25 Pages, something or other has always happened to delay or curtail the reading hour.-I ought to have told you before of a purchase of Edward’s in Town, he desired.Language evolves, and words do not have the same meaning for us as they did in 1813. The author of Adventures in Reading posted an interesting article this week about the language Jane Austen uses. The post reviews a book, The Language of Jane Austen: A Study of Some Aspects of her Vocabulary (1991) by Myra Stokes. Ms. Stokes discusses, for example, that “morning calling hours” generally did not occur before noon*, that the words “London” and “Town” were often interchangeable, or that being sent up or down meant in relation to one’s position in London, not whether one was heading south.

I won’t go into much more detail, for the post is worth reading. As we pursue our love for all things Austen, it is good to be reminded how much the meaning of words have changed and that one must pay particular attention reading a Jane Austen novel, or any work of past times, referring frequently to anthologies or one’s dictionary to get the nuances just right.

*Update on the term ‘Morning Calling Hours’: In The Jane Austen Handbook, Margaret C. Sullivan defines the time when visitors may call in the morning: “between eleven in the morning and three in the afternoon, or the time between rising and eating dinner. “

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