Jane Austen and birthdays.
In all the delicate brilliance of the novels, the item that Austen's heroines never celebrate their birthdays does not jump out at the reader, of course. Still, this narrative "never," unlike the conversational "never" discussed by Edmund Bertram with the money-obsessed Mary Crawford, actually means never. Catherine Moreland is seventeen when Northanger Abbey begins and eighteen when she begins "perfect happiness" with Henry Tilney at the end, but we neither know nor see the day when she turns a year older--even though Catherine comes from an affectionate family of ten children. Marianne Dashwood, beautiful younger sister of Elinor, is seventeen when she confides to her mother her romantic hopelessness of finding true love at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility, and nineteen when she settles down to become the wife of a mature man and the "patroness of a village" at the end. But the reader shares no birthday celebration with either Elinor or Marianne, even while Marianne's experiences age her dangerously.
The same is true for all five Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice, even for heroine Elizabeth Bennet, who matures critically, and for her youngest sister Lydia, who passes an age mark to become a wife at sixteen without maturing critically. Fanny Price comes to Mansfield Park as a pitiful child and passes eight years there, but not one birthday is celebrated or even indicated; many gifts from her wealthy adoptive family are retrospectively referred to, but her birthdays are as lost to view as the death of an endearing younger sister revisited only late in the novel. This absence cannot be solely because Fanny is a neglected younger cuckoo in the nest; it has to be more because the turning points in these books, although they always come in Aristotelian chronological order, are psychological. Emma has a magnificent awakening in what Sinclair Lewis considered one of the greatest novels of detection ever written, and both Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, intelligent and self-aware, arrive at a series of discoveries about feelings and characters including their own in Persuasion. But the girls from wealthy families no more celebrate their birthdays with parties than do girls as poor as the Watsons.
The calendar can be lethal; Jane Fairfax faces the possibility of having to become a governess when she approaches twenty-one, and Anne's older sister, the beautiful harridan Elizabeth, approaches thirty still unmarried. But no cake, no gifts, no flowers mark the day of birth. It is almost as though Austen plays a little game of hide-and-seek with her readers about birthdays. Sir Walter Elliot is shown reading and inscribing in the family peerage that contains his daughters' birth dates--pretty much his only reading and writing--but those occasions are not celebrated in the novel, and the Cinderella-elder-stepsister Elizabeth closes the peerage to avoid seeing them. Only Harriet Smith in Emma explicitly mentions and names her own birthday, saying that hers and Robert Martin's are "'just a fortnight and a day's difference! which is very odd!'" (30).
Austen's narrative perspective on birthdays is quintessentially the opposite of, for example, Maria von Trapp's:
There came a time when we hardly got around to reading or singing together because we were so busy, and that was the birthday season. In a large household there are a large number of family holidays which occur yearly; the birthdays and feastdays.... My people had only celebrated the birthdays, whereas we on Nonnberg disregarded those and only celebrated the feastdays. These are celebrated on the feast of the Saint in whose honor you are named. Now we put both customs together and, since there were nine of us, there were eighteen holidays right away. It was a matter of course that the lucky one whose holiday came around could expect a present from everyone in the house.... All great feasts of the Church have a Vigil; they start, so to speak, the evening before. So our family feasts were celebrated on the evening before, too. The birthday cake with the candles was put in the center of a table, which was also covered with all the different presents. While I was going to fetch the lucky hero of the day, the others lined up in a semi-circle, each one holding a flower. The moment we entered the room they started singing "Hoch soll er leben!" the Austrian equivalent of "Happy Birthday to You." The Birthday Child went now from one to the other and was kissed, wished a happy birthday, and presented with a flower.... Now the presents are discovered and admired and the giver is found out, which means renewed kissing and hugging. Then he or she is made master of ceremonies for the next twenty-four hours. That means the menu for three meals and the plans for "what to do tomorrow after school is over." (64-65)
The narrator here, Maria Augusta [von] Trapp, of The Sound of Music "von Trapp Family" fame, wrote a strange, powerful, fascinating autobiography putting the schmaltz Broadway version of her life to shame, for better or worse. Even with judicious cutting, this birthday passage is overwhelming.
Austen worked at least as hard at her writing as did Trapp, but she did not have to work as hard for a sense of belonging. Austen grew up in a settled and contained English-country environment, continuous and stable in spite of family moves and bereavements, almost the youngest in an affectionate family of eight children, her siblings supportive of her and (sometimes inconveniently) proud of her writing. She was particularly close to her sister Cassandra, worked with nieces and nephews on their writing as well as consulting with family members about her own, and had little need to reach far outward for reinforcement or validation.
The gap between Austen and Trapp in this regard is vast. Maria Trapp, more like Jane Eyre than Jane Fairfax (though equally musical), went into a convent, went out as a governess, and moved into someone else's family--which subsequently fled the Old Country for America. The rest, as they say, is history, yet even her history, as rewritten by Rodgers and Hammerstein, left out the children to whom she gave birth. The Broadway version also largely omits Trapp's suffering, her practically superhuman work ethic, and her religion. Religion is a factor that takes her into the convent from which she is hired by von Trapp, and it underscores a subtle 1950s reminder that the Nazis persecuted Catholics. But Catholicism does not play anywhere near the part in the musical that it does in Trapp's book.
Religious denomination was one significant difference, along with their different centuries, between Austen and Trapp. Austen comes from an Anglican/anglo tradition downplaying self-celebration as well as gratuitous expense, and Trapp comes from a German/bauerisch tradition of hearty celebration and more unembarrassed acquisition. Inheritors of both traditions, both family heritages, populate swaths of America across the southeastern states, often separated by a narrow range of mountains or foothills as the British-descended population around Charlottesville is separated from the Germanic-descended population across the mountains around Staunton, Virginia.
It must be noted that celebrations of all kinds among non-royalty were on a smaller scale in Austen's time than in times since. If there is still a residual contest today in American public discourse, the hearty-celebration movement seems to have won, largely because of retailing linked to birthdays, proms, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, and all anniversaries. Naturally enough, people who favor relative quietness, like Jehovah's Witnesses, tend to be quiet, while on the other side mass the combined forces of retailing, advertising, consumer spending as economic stimulus, and what John Kenneth Galbraith mildly termed emulation. As musical satirist Tom Lehrer put it, "haul out the Dickens / Even though the prospect sickens," and the openhanded message touted by A Christmas Carol wins every year over the quiet esthetic limiting the number of lace veils at Emma's wedding.
Advertising and retailing, in short, operate not surprisingly on a level of discourse less like that of Emma than that of Harriet Smith, who is too ignorant not to search out signs of magic resonance from the spheres in a world she has little hope of understanding. Austen and Trapp might have had similar views of her, though Trapp would probably have tried more aggressively to make Harriet shape up. Austen kindly gives her a haven and refuge at the end, without making her work very hard for it.
This is not to oversimplify Trapp's outlook or to reduce it unfairly. Trapp relied on her religion to give her standards by which to operate--standards achieved more subtly and with more difficulty in Austen's narratives. Thus some of Trapp's words about birthdays seem to have fallen out of the basket:
and of course, one didn't just go to a store and buy with cold money something turned out by a factory with no relationship at all to the young sister or brother.... If people would only understand that you cannot buy feasts with money. They must come out of your heart, out of that love which makes one inventive.... The foundation has always to be this mutual fondness without which there can be no festive spirit. (65)
Austen makes a similar point, in similar language, in virtually every one of her six complete novels, in at least one unfinished novel, and even in juvenilia. Probably it is too much to hope that Maria von Trapp found time to read Jane Austen, but their similar habits of industry and observation, as Austen would put it, brought them to some similar views.
That taste and judgment--two of Austen's favorite concepts--are socially constructed does not mean that they are nonexistent. All of Austen's novels are partly about the possibility of keeping some individual integrity in an overcrowded market, and in a constricted realm of social constraints and female dowry, it would have been awkward to show Elizabeth and Lydia Bennet receiving Christmas or birthday gifts without overstating some values that the narrative has already more than clarified. Naming the dates or celebrating the days, any emphasis on birthdays for young women who are genuinely trying to learn something in life besides materialism--as all of Austen's heroines do--would interfere.
Austen, Jane. The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
Trapp, Maria Augusta. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957.
Dr. Margie Burns is a freelance journalist and teaches English as an adjunct at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Publication:||Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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