Posted on

No Time to be Lost

Katherine Schlesinger and Peter Firth

“I read this week’s chapters of Northanger Abbey with
calendar in hand, looking for time references, and was shocked at how
many times day, moment, minutes,-time words and references are made. I
want to look at another Austen book to see if this is usual and I’m just
noticing it for the first time. Did you notice the passage-and there
were other references to clocks and watches,at the end of Chapter V
‘..when taking out his watch, he stopped short to pronounce it with
surprise within twenty minutes of five. ……the strictest punctuality
to the family hours would be expected at Northanger.'”
Chapman, p 162
Judy Warner

Go directly to the Northanger Abbey Calendar

Katherine Schlesinger and Peter Firth

Minute time keeping is found in all Austen’s novels. It is particularly consistent throughout S&S, P&P, and most of NA. Since we have no reason to disbelieve Cassandra’s clear statement that full complete drafts of the above three novels were written one after another between 1796 and 1799, I would say that this keeping of time was one way Austen used to slow time down to allow for an even slower version of time to emerge in her texts: psychological time. She didn’t need to read Stephan Zweig’s oft-quoted statement about the biographer’s and novelist’s art which I quote here as it is so beautifully said and lucidly differentiates between psychological and diurnal time. To capture both is essential to the modern mature novelist’s art:

“Only in semblance are the outward and inward seasons of a life identical; in verity, wealth of experience is the sole measure of living, and the spirit is timed by another clock than that of the calendar. Under the intoxication of destiny, the mind may traverse lengthy periods in a few days; whereas long years may count for nothing when life is void of momentous spiritual happenings. Just as the historian pays little heed to slow and stagnant epochs, and his interest is focused upon a few and scattered but dramatic and decisive moments–so, for the biographer, who is concerned with the inmost story of a life, only the pulses of passion count. A human being is not fully alive except when his best energies are at work; and when feeling is active, time moves swiftly though the clock-hands circle at the customary pace”
Stephen Zweig, Preface to his
biography of Mary, Queen of Scots.

As we read further chapters of Northanger Abbey we will see Austen moving between the two kinds of time. She spends whole chapters tracing the movements of Catherine’s mind in the brief spaces of time in which she first sees some mysterious object (a chest, a drawer, a funeral monument or picture), considers it, dreams over it, and then reacts like the Gothic heroine she is. This imitates our real experience of time which slows down as our minds become enthralled or excited or gripped or absorbed by something.

Katherine Schlesinge
Austen will writes and interweaves passages into those written in the psychological which make her novels move or feel like they are moving according to calendar time. This she does to achieve verisimilitude. Before her, an author would say in one paragraph well here I jump ten years because nothing much happened (Fielding’s procedure in Tom Jones) or tell a hectic series of events which must have taken years in three swift paragraphs and then slow down again (the cruder novelists like Eliza Haywood do this). Both are jarring and make us remember we are reading a book; they interrupt the reverie in which we believe we are really “in” the book and experiencing people talking, thinking, acting on a screen within our minds.

I think Austen learned to do this by writing slow paragraphs which give us little daily things that happen during a day and then nailing these to a calendar. One of the chapters of NA opens thus:

“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday have now passed in review before
the reader; the events of each day, its hopes and fears, mortifications and pleasures,have been separately stated, and the pangs of Sunday only now remain to be described, and close the week.”
(1995 Penguin, Butler ed, Ch 13)

When I said time becomes indeterminate at the Abbey, I only meant relatively because there are a number of passages like those at the close of Chapter V (p 162 in Chapman); one of the most striking occurs on the day Chapman makes out to be the 19th of March (Vol 2, Ch 9, p 193 in Chapman), with which date I agree. As Catherine slips away from the Tilney family to explore Mrs Tilney’s bedroom on her own we are told:

“there was no time to be lost,
The day was bright, her courage high; at four o’clock,
the sun was now two hours above the horizon, and it
would be only her retiring to dress half an hour earlier
than usual.
(Penguin, Ch 24, p168)

Chapman says: “If we look at the calendar for 1798 (or more accurately, an almanac) we will find that in that year ‘on March 19 sunset at Greenwich is at 6 hours 9 minutes.’ It would be like our author to get this right” (Chapman NA, Appendix, p 299). Austen also uses time to garner yet more beauty which is realistic for her text. A few paragraphs before the above, sometime after church (“It was Sunday,” Penguin Ch 24, p 166), Austen remarks on how Catherine’s “courage was not equal to” her “wish” of exploring the wife’s apartments “after dinner, either by the fading light of the sky between six and seven o’clock, or by the yet more stronger illumination of a treacherous lamp” (Penguin, Ch 24, p 166).

Where did she “learn” to do this–or where had she seen it done before? Radcliffe had begun to write omniscient narratives which observed psychological time.These were not convincing, though, when you think about how all the events relate to one another, and, at times feel ludicrous even while reading. The source for this kind of calendar time is epistolary narrative. Richardson nailed days down and used psychological time. One argument then for thinking that both P&P and S&S were originally epistolary is their mutual consistent use of this kind of determine time together with psychological time.

The later three novels also use the calendar, though more fluidly; Austen seems to be able to pick up where we are in the calendar at will, but not have the need in the text to tell us. That she knows where we are has been shown by the calendars various critics have constructed for
Emma, MP, and Persuasion.

The piano arrives at the Bates’s residence on Valentine’s day if we realize Austen is using an 1813-1814 almanac; Emma does differ from the above two novels in the playfulness with which Austen plants “clues” by using her almanac. MP differs during that section when the novel begins to veer towards becoming an epistolary narrative. It begins to show the kind of careful use of ironic juxtaposition of events we find in S&S and other epistolary novels of the period. Finally, the opening of Persuasion is indeterminate, while the later section at Bath resembles the opening section at Bath in NA. Whether this suggests the novel is in an unfinished state, I leave to others to think about.

Go to the Northanger Abbey Calendar


Ellen Moody, a Lecturer in English at George Mason University, has compiled the most accurate calendars for Jane Austen’s work, to date. Drawn from a variety of sources, including the original Chapman calendars and period Almanacs, her work has been recognized as the most thorough and certainly inclusive of all Austen Calendars. She has created timelines for each of the six novels and the three unfinished novel fragments; one of the calendars has been published as “A Calendar For Sense and Sensibility” in the Fall 2000 edition of the Philological Quarterly. To see more of her work on Austen visit her website to find

Essays on _Mansfield Park

A copy of a published essay-review on the film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, And More!

For information on how Ellen created her calendars, click here

Enjoyed this article? Visit our giftshop and escape into the world of Jane Austen.


Want to read the full article?

Sign up for free Jane Austen Membership or if you are an existing user please login

Existing Users Log In
   
Sign up here to become a Jane Austen member
*Required field