Happy Easter Monday! I think today is a perfect day to talk about Easter in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. Since Jane was the daughter of a rector, we can infer certain things from her use of Easter in the plot, a context that was obvious to her contemporary English readers, since she lived in a time and place where religious observances drove the spiritual, social, and cultural calendar.
Easter, in conjunction with the season of spring, is a time of contrast, both literal and figurative. The end of winter is seen in the manifestation of new life. Spring is a turning point in the seasons, and from a religious point of view, Easter is a turning point for all mankind in salvation from sin and victory over the grave. The symbolism is powerful and multi-layered.
The forty days preceding Easter Holy Week are known as Lent and are representative of Jesus Christ’s forty days of wandering and fasting in the desert wilderness. Religious observance of Lent includes the practice of depriving oneself of meat and rich or decadent foods, often including outright fasting. This covers only one aspect of the forty days, during which Jesus was tempted not just by food, but also with the prospect of worldly power and material wealth. He ultimately overcame the temptations that would feed his body, pride, and ego with an act of love fulfilled in his impending sacrificial atonement. Religious observance of Lent includes more than just abstaining from meat and sweet, fatty treats, it is a time of somber austerity, introspection, repentance, and spiritual preparation for the coming Easter holiday.
Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, when Christ arrived in Jerusalem and represents the time starting from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, through the Last Supper, betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, trial and unjust conviction, scourging, crucifixion, and the Resurrection, which culminates in a special worship service on Sunday morning, followed by an Easter Sunday feast where both ham, to mark the end of winter, and lamb, to signify the coming of spring is consumed. Hot cross buns are another traditional food that serves as an acknowledgment of both the mode of Christ’s death and his triumph over it. The celebration of Easter continues for another forty days afterward, so when Austen says an event occurred “at Easter”, it could happen at any point from the onset of Lent through the forty days after Easter Sunday.
In Austen’s day, Easter was traditionally a time for traveling to visit friends and relatives. Several of her letters mention this activity in her own life. This tradition also makes the seeming coincidence of Elizabeth, Sir William, and Maria Lucas visiting Charlotte at the Hunsford parsonage at the same time as Darcy’s visit with his cousin to their aunt, Lady Catherine at Rosings Park, plausible. Easter has successfully placed them in adjacent houses in Kent, though neither Elizabeth nor Darcy live there.
The much-anticipated arrival of Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam at Rosings occurs less than one week before Easter, but we are told that while there are visitors at the house, the presence of the Collins’ was not necessary. This implies that there were other Easter visitors who had dropped in at Rosings during that week. On Easter Sunday, after church services, the Collins’ household with their guests are finally invited to Rosings, not for the feast of Easter dinner, but for the evening only, and only because Lady Catherine couldn’t get anybody of a higher station to come.
Austen borrowed heavily from the symbolism of the season, which she mirrors in the timeline in Pride and Prejudice. She would have been careful not to align it too closely, lest it be interpreted as a blasphemy, but the high points are all there. Darcy has been absent from Hertfordshire for several months and has been deprived of interaction with Elizabeth. He is figuratively wandering in the desert. Based on his agitation upon seeing her again and the wording of his proposal, we can speculate that his thoughts have frequently turned to her in that time, and all of the reasons she would not be suitable as a bride have been weighed. The three temptations are mirrored, and he describes his torment as suffering. His physical and emotional attraction to Elizabeth is offset by her lack of social connections (power) and the absence of a sufficient dowry (material wealth) are obstacles he must overcome for love to triumph.
Upon his arrival at Rosings, he was welcomed with great anticipation by his aunt, and his attraction to Elizabeth is renewed. He is then unwittingly betrayed by his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, whose disclosures to Elizabeth set him up for the rejection of his proposal.
Elizabeth, who does not have all the facts, scorns his poorly worded offer of marriage and verbally scourges him. He does not, in the opportune moment, defend himself. His hopes for marital bliss with his heart’s desire are rendered dead.
But Easter is about the promise of overcoming death. It is a time of renewal and change. This is the symbolic turn for Darcy, who moves forward with becoming a man worthy of the woman who refused him. By placing these critical elements of the plot at Easter, we see that Pride and Prejudice adds the dimension of redemption from pride and prejudice to the religious meaning.
If you have made it this far, I thank you for your attention and wish you health and happiness in the upcoming thirty-nine days of the Easter season.