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Jane Austen and Time: A Study of her Uses of the Almanac

All calendars, chronologies, and essays about Jane Austen and her novels are copyright © Ellen Moody 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002

Jane Austen
Watercolour by Cassandra (detail)

All those who have studied Austen texts carefully soon realise that she develops her stories through a careful sequencing of time. Scenes, pictorial narratives, meditations are all placed in a rhythm which imitates diurnal time as all people communally experience it. This sequencing is the framework within which she will suddenly slow down a narrative and devote chapters to a single experience which psychological or individual time remembers as having occurred over a long while. To achieve the on-going rhythm of two kinds of verisimilitude she used the almanacs of her day as the structuring underpinnings of her books. There have been numerous articles by Austen scholars arguing that a particular novel is set in a particular year and what we may infer from this. What I have done is read all these and through a close reading of Austen's works drawn a probable calendar out for each.

The visitor to my site is invited to look at each of the calendars in order to discover the ways in which each novel is put together. When you discover this, you can see the different goals Austen had for each novel, and geologize into the early history of the revisions, and the ways in which she uses omniscient, epistolary, and psychological narrative. Or the reader can use these calendars to understand the novel that is in front of them more clearly simply to enrichen reading of the novel, to see what is literally there and the fineness of Austen's art. The calendars are also intended to help people writing about and teaching Austen who want to reach her text in the most fundamental way.

In each of the sections I have included a bibliography for further research for each novel. For general information on almanacs in the period I used Bernard Capp's English Almanacs, 1500-1800: Astrology and the Popular Press (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979); and on the sociology of time, Eviatar Zerubavel, Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1981). For my basic sense that Austen was more or less continually at work on her novels from the initial writing of the first drafts beginning in 1793-94 of Susan (later Northanger Abbey); Elinor and Marianne (later Sense and Sensibility); and First Impressions (later Pride and Prejudice; to the rough first draft gotten down in 1817 of the fragment of a novel Chapman entitled Sanditon (perhaps called by Austen The Brothers); I have been strongly influenced by Q. D. Leavis, "A Critical Theory of Jane Austen's Writings", Scrutiny, 10 (1941-42), pp. 114-142, 272-294; 12 (1944-45), pp. 104-119, Brian Southam's Jane Austen's Literary Manuscripts: A Study of the Novelist's development through the surviving papers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964) and Yasmine Gooneratne's Jane Austen (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1970).

My work on Anne Finch came into this project too: in Heneage Finch's later years (after Anne died), he kept his diary on the back pages of an almanac; he also recorded one of her poems which does not appear in any edition printed yet on the back page of one of these sheets. Having studied his almanac very thoroughly, I had a good understanding of what such books were which Austen kept beside her as she wrote. They include such things as interest in astrology which makes the place of the moon, planets and stars significant. Austen will use the position of the sun in the sky at a given time, on a given day in a specific year as part of her setting.

I present calendars from Austen's epistolary "Lesley Castle" (from Volume the second; from her apparently finished novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Lady Susan); from her one clearly unfinished but detailed and worked out mature fragment (The Watsons) and the late rough draft of a novel, Sanditon. They are listed in the order the extant texts were written.

*The whole of the calendar for Sense and Sensibility may be found as part of an essay demonstrating through it that the novel was originally epistolary; see "A Calendar For Sense and Sensibility", Philological Quarterly, 79 (Fall 2000), pp. 233-266.

Using these calendars and my study of all the primary documents and much secondary literature on Austen of all kinds, I have written a chronology of Austen's writing life.

These calendars also reveal a startling pattern built into the novels by Austen . Excepting only Northanger Abbey, Austen makes sure a certain kind of pivotal event in her longer finished novels occurs on a Tuesday. This pivotal event is a snubbing or humiliation of the heroine or hero (or anti-hero or co-heroine), some sort of mortification or unpleasant awakening which climaxes, or provides important turning points in Austen's narrative. This "bad Tuesday" occurs as early as the Juvenilia (in "A Collection of Letters" in the fourth letter the unhappy Miss Grenville arrived in Essex on Tuesday). For most of these dramatic moments one does not even have to work out that the day is Tuesday. Austen will cite the day as Tuesday at least once, in some cases a couple of times -- apparently determined to make Tuesday a significant day.

On another page the reader will find a partial summary of such Tuesdays. This section is part of an on-going study and I have only included those Tuesdays which I had found by the time I sent my first posting about it to C18-l and Austen-l. I also include some speculations on why Austen chose Tuesday as the day of mortification for the characters in almost all her books. This summary includes some data from the Juvenilia which reinforces this peculiar use of Tuesday. Although we can find a source for this pattern in Richardon's Clarissa and Grandison, I doubt that such a pattern came from Austen's reading. The novels do not use the day as a joke. As A. S. Byatt writes in her novel, Possession: "There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, thought it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been." What does seem clear is this day in Austen's mind became an space in which she could dramatize her heroines and hers as humiliated, shamed, mortified, snubbed, and displaced.

Ellen Moody

"Only in semblance are the outward and inward seasons of a life identical; in verity, wealth of experience is the sole measure of living, and the spirit is timed by another clock than that of the calendar. Under the intoxication of destiny, the mind may traverse lengthy periods in a few days; whereas long years may count for nothing when life is void of momentous spiritual happenings. Just as the historian pays little heed to slow and stagnant epochs, and his interest is focused upon a few and scattered but dramatic and decisive moments--so, for the biographer, who is concerned with the inmost story of a life, only the pulses of passion count. A human being is not fully alive except when his best energies are at work; and when feeling is active, time moves swiftly though the clock-hands circle at the customary pace. Then, as in dreams, one under under stress of powerful affects lives through measureless epochs between two ticks of the pendulum; and with each of us it is with the enchanted man in the folk-tale who fancied that he had spent a thousand years inthe interval between two heart-beats." ---Stephan Zweig, Mary Queen of Scots

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Page Last Updated: 29 August 1998.