July 15th is St Swithin’s Day and legend has it that if it rains today it will rain every day for 40 continuous days…as it is raining as I write it is goodbye to summer,then.
St Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain na mair
St Swithun was a 9th century Bishop of Winchester (his name is more often spelt “Swithin” today,as Jane Austen did). He died on 2 July 862 and tradition has it that he asked to be buried in a humble manner , outside the cathedral in the surrounding precincts. His original grave was situated just outside the west door of the Old Saxon minster, a place where people would inevitably walk over it on their way into the cathedral.
However, on 15 July 971, Swithin’s remains were dug up and moved to a shrine in the cathedral on the orders of Bishop Ethelwold. This became the saint’s day because miracles were attributed to the saint on this day. However, the removal of Swithun’s remains into the cathedral was also accompanied by ferocious and violent rain storms that lasted 40 days and 40 nights . People (rightly or wrongly) attributed this to the fact that the saint was obviously angry at being moved. This is probably the origin of the legend that if it rains on Saint Swithin’s feast day, the rain will continue for 40 more days.
Which brings us to Jane Austen’s poem about this day. She wrote it on the morning of Tuesday 15th July 1817, two days before she died on 18th July. Here it is:
When Winchester races
When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.–
But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.
‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, ten farther he said
These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command o’er July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers–‘.
Winchester( the Roman name for the city was “Venta“, note) had its racecourse on Worthy Down, four miles from the town. There was an oval course with a stand at the western end and booths to the south. As we learnt from our Stamford Assembly Rooms post, the provincial Races Weeks of the 18th and early 19th centuries were considerable events. Much socialising- concerts assemblies and of course the races,when the genteel and aristocratic-who usually were great patrons of the sport- dressed in their finery came together in great numbers to see the races, spend and gamble money etc. So in her poem Jane Austen was playfully admonishing the many who flocked to the Winchester Races -held on St Swithin’s Day-and imagines the saint cursing them, promising that henceforth, all their race meetings will be accompanied by rain. As someone who has experienced downpours at Ascot, Newmarket and Warwick race courses,I can say that it did mar the fun considerably;-)
This poem was of curse quietly glossed over by Jane Austen’s early biographers, most notably James Edward Austen Leigh’s “Memoir” : probably because they thought the subject matter was too disreputable -horse racing with all its connotations-especially bearing in mind the image of the pious, devoted, domestically minded spinster aunt, that they were studiously creating and promoting. At a time when she was near to death it is obvious that they were disquieted that she should write an amusing poem and probably thought she ought to have been contemplating more serious subjects. Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, in his Biographical Notice published with the first editions of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey referred to her composing
Stanzas replete with fancy and vigour
the day before her death, but failed to mention the subject matter.
It was first published in the first edition of Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by J H and E C Hubback in 1906.
I don’t find it irreligious at all:she is after all portraying St Swithin as being outraged that the races take place on his saint’s day, and punishes the racegoers accordingly….
What is disturbing is that it occurs to me that as Jane Austen was dying at the time of the Winchester races, this surely means that she was dying in a very busy noisy town: not much peace to be had even in the small house, 8 College Street where she died . That’s not a pleasant thought to contemplate.
However, I find it remarkable that her sense of humour and mischievousness were still with her almost to the end, and thought you might like to read the poem on this St Swithin’s Day.