Jane Austen knew of Valentine’s Day.
The day was celebrated in her time, a celebration of romantic love on which lovers gave flowers and sweets.
But was Valentine’s Day ever mentioned in her novels?
Indeed, it has long been speculated that a reference to Valentine’s Day is made in Emma, but the evidence requires us to believe that Jane Austen is playing a little game with her readers.
It’s likely that Jane is playing a little game.
She delighted in games, as shown by the alphabet game in Emma’s chapter forty-one, and in her many examples of wordplay, including the name of the book’s heroine, Emma Woodhouse, “a ma who would house” herself to a rich gentleman.
So, the reader is right to be suspicious when reading Emma and learning that the accomplished, but impoverished and orphaned Jane Fairfax, receives the anonymous gift of a pianoforte on a Monday in February.
Why Monday? And why February?
Emma was written in 1814, and February 14th fell on a Monday that year.
For some, this is evidence enough.
But the evidence becomes convincing when the giver of the pianoforte is revealed to be Frank Churchill, the flighty flirt who is secretly engaged to the poor orphan.
“Frank was here in February for a fortnight.”
This line, alliterative on f’, is another clue.
A fortnight, of course, is fourteen days.
And Frank Churchill refers to the anonymous gift as “an offering of love.”
But would the spontaneous Frank Churchill give an outrageously expensive gift on a day that, because of its yearly celebration, lacks the spontaneity of true romance?
It might seem implausible.
But Frank Churchill has been pretending to be someone he isn’t. He has been pretending to be a man who “loves without feeling.” He even runs off to London to obtain a frivolous haircut, as if to prove that he is exactly as he seems.
By the end of the novel, however, Frank Churchill becomes what his name implies: an honest (frank) man who goes up the church hill to marry Jane Fairfax.
The man is ironically honest by seeming to be dishonest; and his gift of a pianoforte on Valentine’s Day is evidence not of scheduled love, but of a true heart.
* Orlando Bartro is the author of Toward Two Words, a comical novel about a man who finds yet another woman he never knew, available at Amazon. He is currently writing two new novels and a play.