Lest We Forget

On this Anzac Day in Australia, many of us remember the battles of various wars and those who lost their lives. The day is particularly attached to World War 1 and terrible tragedy on the shores of Turkey.

Australian war graves at Tyne Cot in France

Australian war graves at Tyne Cot in France

Last year I accompanied my friend to the sites of the WW1 battles in France and Belgium where Australian soldiers fought alongside the Allied troops.  It was an enriching, inspiring tour as our knowledgeable guide Joe not only took us to all the sites but gave us extra stories every day about events there.  We found the two headstones of my friend's forebears who died in these fields. A third name was listed on the Menin Gate as his body was never found.  We were there for the sunset ceremony that draws hundreds every night of the year.

Jane Austen's life paralleled the years of the war against the French, from 1793 to 1815.  She had particular knowledge about the Navy through her two brothers, Frank and Charles, both Captains at the time. But she chose not to write explicitly about these events writing: "Let others dwell on guilt and misery.  I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can."  While this comment was ironic as we know, at the same time there are many details about the wars subtly hidden away in the text of her novels.  For her contemporary readers the war was still fresh in their minds.  In her novels details were sparing, but they were sufficient for them to recognize all the clues that were in the text.  She paints an accurate picture of a young boy's entry into the navy, and the patronage needed.  We have clues to the broad strategy of the war.  we see the effects of prize-money, or the lack of it.  We see the social revolution begun by the successful, like Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft, with the Louisa Musgrove's of the day waiting for the marriageable officers like Captain Benwick.  We see the plight of disabled men in Mr Price and Captain Harville, one whose idleness and dissipation results in a life of poverty and chaos for his family, while the other, with his hard work and economy, create a charming, cheerful home for his family and friends.  We see the navy on dry land in two novels, one with a sailor on leave, the other with sailors returning home in the peace.

Most of all we see the stories of young women solitary at home while their loved ones brave the war at sea.  Their stories reflect all the sisters, wives and mothers during the war. There were 100,00 seamen who did not return to their families, the loss of all these brothers, husbands and fathers another factor in the social revolution caused by these long years of war.  Through her brothers Jane Austen was well aware of the world beyond her immediate circle.  By keeping her novels reflecting her lifestyle of visiting friends and family, and the naval aspects interwoven into the narrative flow, she remained true to her principle of restricting herself to areas with which she was familiar.

Thoughts of Easter and Jane Austen

On the eve of the Easter holiday weekend, the shops are full of chocolate Easter eggs, all sorts of chocolate bunnies and our Australian bilbies, and dozens of other confections for everyone.  Among all this variety of sweet treats I can’t help thinking of how different Jane Austen’s Easter must have been.

As the daughter of a clergyman Jane would have attended every church service when she was growing up and I’m sure she continued this for the rest of her life. In her detailed article Laura Boyle says that in Jane’s day, the Easter season (and the 40 days following) were a time of travelling and visiting family. She also writes that every mention of Easter in Jane’s letters and novels involves travel, including her most notorious use in Pride and Prejudice when Mr Darcy arrives at Rosings Park to visit his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. We know that Jane visited friends on the way to her brother’s houses.

During Lent (before Easter) it was customary to give up rich foods like sugar, eggs, meat and dairy products. It was common practice to hard boil any eggs not used to make them last, then dye them red using red onion skins to symbolise the blood of Christ.   Buns were made ready for Good Friday.  Jane would have observed Lent and broken the ‘fast’ on Easter with a special dinner with her family.  A new bonnet for Easter Sunday church service was part of her world as was a traditional dinner of Lamb or Ham. As it was spring the first new lambs were available and the hams would be the last of the cured meats set aside over winter.

The little we know of how the Austen’s celebrated the season is drawn from Jane’s letters and what was usual for the time. One tradition of the time that has survived is the eating of hot cross buns. We don't know how much the recipe differed at that time. Maybe she dyed eggs but we do not know.  One thing for sure is that she was not eating chocolate eggs or bunnies!