While we may be overwhelmed with chocolate hearts, flowers, and romantic dinners, Valentine’s Day is not a modern holiday. The origins of the holiday stretch back nearly two millennia beginning with the Romans and the feast of Lupercalia, held from February 13 – 15, an often bloodied affair that included, debauchery, lawlessness, and women standing in line to get beaten since it was thought to produce fertility,
In the third century CE, it is believed Emperor Claudius II executed two men, a year apart, both named Valentine, on February 14. These men were later martyred by the Catholic church and February 14 was declared St. Valentine’s Day. Apparently, Pope Gelasius I decided to mix Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia, to get rid of the pagan influence, and the day became less about martyred saints and drunken lawlessness but of feasting, love, and fertility.
To muddle things up some, during the same period the Norman’s were celebrating their own feasts of love and fertility, Galentine’s Day. It is often thought what we know as modern Valentine’s Day stems from the juxtaposition of those two holidays.
Handmade Valentine’s Day cards were all the rage in the middle ages and even Chaucer mentions the holiday in his work. Fast forward hundreds of years and the time of Shakespeare, the giving and receiving of Valentine’s Day cards and token were in full effect and the holiday is made mention in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
By the time we get to the Georgian era, Valentine’s Day, in addition to the celebration of love, fertility, and matchmaking, also became a popular day for weddings. Baked goods and herbal tinctures were also produced to invoke love. Cards were also mass produced and given. According to a The Ipswich Journal article dated February 23, 1805:
On Valentine’s Day the General Two-penny Post Office received 80,000 letters – an increase from last year of 20,000. The amount of 80,000 letters is 686£ 13s 4d.
So what about Valentine’s Day and Jane Austen herself?
That’s the interesting thing. After much research, I could not find any quotes from any of her books directly mentioning the holiday nor any stories or tidbits how she celebrated the holiday, if at all. I would assume she and Cassandra, along with her brothers, probably participated in the sending and receiving cards. We know Jane had a long list of admirers and it would seem likely one of them sent her a card.
To be sure while there doesn’t seem to be hard evidence Jane participated in the holiday we do know she celebrated love and romance heavily through her books. Some of the quotes attributed to Jane on modern Valentine’s Day cards are taken such as
- “I have loved none but you.” Persuasion
- “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” Pride and Prejudice
- “My heart is, and always will be, yours.” Sense and Sensibility
- “There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.” Emma
- “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.” Persausion
- “We are all fools in love.” Pride and Prejudice
I could go on but I’m too busy swooning.
Fast forward a few decades later, and while Jane may seem a bit demure on the holiday, the Brontës most certainly was not.
“Give me my flesh and blood lover, and I’ll leave all the Sir Herberts and Valentines to you — if you can find them.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
A lovely story goes the Brontë sisters, in 1840, were all given valentines by William Weightman, a local clergyman, sending the cards anonymously, who gave the cards with individual poems not out of love but out of kindness and good nature. The sisters worked out who the card bearer was and wrote a collective poem back to Weightman. The exchange was repeated again in 1841 but there does not seem to be evidence of the sending and receiving of the cards after that. However, considering the sisters’ fiery nature, I would not be surprised if more cards were exchanged with other suitors.
While compared to Austen’s work, the work of the Brontës seems damn near pornographic. And like Austen’s work, they have produced some of the best quotes on love in the English language.
- “I am strangely glad to get back again to you: and wherever you are is my home—my only home.” Jane Eyre
- “All my heart is yours, sir: it belongs to you; and with you it would remain, were fate to exile the rest of me from your presence forever.” Jane Eyre
- “Increase of love brings increase of happiness, when it is mutual, and pure as that will be.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
- “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Wuthering Heights
- “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Wuthering Heights
- “Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I can not live without my life! I can not live without my soul!” Wuthering Heights
- “The ties that bind us to life are tougher than you imagine, or than any one can who has not felt how roughly they may be pulled without breaking.” Anges Grey
Happy Valentine’s Day and here’s to finding someone worth swooning over.