(by Victoria Grossack)
Are you at a loss, this holiday season, at what to give your loved ones? Why not take a look at the gifts in Jane Austen’s novels and see if they inspire you? And beware of the pitfalls, as not all gifts are welcome from all givers.
One of the most frequently bestowed gifts in Jane Austen is money. The amount may be small, such as the single pound note given by Mrs. Norris to William Price in Mansfield Park (this amount is not given explicitly in the text, but Jane Austen herself told her family that was the amount she meant). Or the sum may be enormous, as when Darcy bribes Wickham to marry Lydia Bennet in Pride & Prejudice. Today some people turn their noses up at money, but in Jane Austen’s novels, recipients are almost always appreciative.
Assuming you want to be more personal, let’s consider other significant gifts in Austen’s novels.
The pianoforte. In Emma (spoiler alert), Frank Churchill ‘anonymously’ gives Jane Fairfax a pianoforte to use during her stay in Highbury. Of course, Miss Fairfax knows who the donor is, but as she cannot say, the gift makes her vulnerable to unkind rumors. On the other hand, it is a pretty instrument, a generous gift, and she enjoys playing it tremendously. What can one learn from this? It’s always good to remember the tastes of your recipients, and to give them what they lack in certain situations. Still, do your best not to cause mischief and inconvenience.
The cross, necklace and chain. In Mansfield Park, Fanny has a cross given to her by her favorite brother, William Price (this was a tribute to the crosses given by Jane Austen’s real brothers to her). William, however, was too poor to provide a suitable chain, so Fanny had to wear the cross with a ribbon or piece of string, diminishing its appearance. She receives a chain from her cousin Edmund, ideal for its purpose, and a necklace from Mary Crawford, who is acting as an agent for her brother Henry Crawford. Fanny is in love with Edmund and mistrusts Mary Crawford, and furthermore, the chain from Edmund suits her purpose far better than the necklace from Mary. What can we learn? Jewelry is always welcome, but not from everyone, and taste matters.
Food. In Emma, food is frequently given by those who have much to those who have less. Emma sends broth to a poor family suffering from illness. She also sends food (part of a porker), as does Mr. Knightley (his best baking apples), to the Bates family. The gifts are generally welcome – Miss Bates is most effusive in her gratitude – with the exception at the end when Emma tries to send some arrowroot to the ailing Jane Fairfax. (Arrowroot, popular at the time Emma was written, is a source of starch but contains few vitamins and has since fallen out of favor.) Miss Fairfax, jealous of Emma, sends back the gift.
Poetry. In Emma, Mr. Elton gives Emma a riddle in the form of a poem, signaling his affection. Emma does not accept the affection – and if she had realized that he was wooing her at the time she might have turned up her nose at the poem. But something clever while not too personal – you have to consider your relationship with the recipient – is generally appreciated.
Portraits and locks of hair are also frequently exchanged, as we see in Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion. Today we mostly do digital photographs and no locks of hair – the latter would be appreciated by few – but the idea is the same.
Favors and convenience. Frequently a gift is not so much a thing as it is taking the trouble to assist another. Edmund arranges for his cousin Fanny to have a horse to ride; Mr. Elton takes Emma’s portrait of Harriet up to London to get it framed; Mr. Knightley offers to run errands for Miss Bates in Kingston; Lady Catherine offers lifts to the Collinses in (one of) her carriages. The recipients are all grateful, as these are not things they can manage themselves.
Calls and letters. Making calls on people was a way of honoring them with gifts of attention and time. There were many rules to calling on others, usually scrupulously observed. Letter-writing too, was very important, in a time without emails and phones or even trains.
Bestowing a gift on another infuses the giver with increased status. This may make no difference to those who are in a position to give easily, such as Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Darcy.; they already have plenty of status. But when Fanny in Mansfield Park buys a knife for her youngest sister Betsy, to stop her constantly taking the silver knife of another sister, Susan, Fanny feels much more like an adult. It improves her confidence, and reminds us that it is better to give than to receive.
So far we have seen that the actual gifts made in Jane Austen’s novels are generally quite ordinary: music, food, jewelry, poetry, pictures, favors, calls and especially cash (what my father called the “universal gift certificate”). Sometimes she mentions presents without even telling us what they are, as when the Gardiners visit the Bennets for Christmas in Pride & Prejudice. After all, she writes about the most everyday events and makes them special by imbuing them with love, laughter and insight. So if you were looking for something unusual, you probably won’t find it in her novels (unless you think your loved ones would appreciate locks of hair). The gifts are made special by the circumstances.
You may notice a friend or a loved one’s need and be able to find exactly what suits, because you have special insight into circumstances or access to what you know they need. But if the most perfect gift does not occur to you, that’s no reason to feel dismayed. The old standbys will serve, as long as you give your gifts with genuine grace and good will. So if you are stressed by the holiday shopping, relax.
Victoria Grossack is the author of The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen’s Emma, The Meryton Murders: A Mystery Set in the Town of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, and a whole bunch of other stuff.