Apple Blossoms in June? Austen’s Literary Mystery

Image of Jane Austen commanding the apples to bloom

It was a sweet view — sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive…It might be safely viewed with all its appendages of prosperity and beauty, its rich pastures, spreading flocks, orchard in blossom, and light column of smoke ascending. Emma, Chapter 42 

An orchard in bloom in June? Did Jane Austen get her seasonal timing wrong? Most fruit trees bloom in May, as my apple-trees in the Pacific Northwest will confirm. This anomaly is unusual, since Austen is so correct with other facts throughout her novels according to scholar R. W. Chapman. Many have questioned this slip-up, including Jane Austen’s brother Edward, who pointed out the discrepancy to her, ‘Jane, I wish you would tell me where you get those apple-trees of yours that come into bloom in July?‘ Well, Edward, it was June but we’re splitting hairs here. 

Image of the cover of Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet, by John SutherlandThere are two possible explanations; one by a scholar and the other by a meteorologist. In the book Is Heathcliff a Murderer: Great Puzzles in Nineteenth-Century Fiction  (new edition 2002), author John Sutherland questions Austen’s timing in chapter two, Apple blossoms in June?  His creative theory prompted a few polite objections from leading authorities; Dr. Claire Lamont and Deirdre le Faye, which are included in the next volume in the series, Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?: Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction (1999). They pretty much shoot holes in his theory. You can read the discussion here and draw your own conclusions, but honestly, I was so relieved to discover that a meteorologist Euan Nisbet of the Royal Holloway College in London was a Janeite, and has closely studied Jane Austen’s astute observance of accurate weather in her novels and wrote this enlightening article 

Dr. Nisbet solved the mystery, to my satisfaction, by comparing Austen’s mention of dates and weather in Emma and scientifically comparing it to a book The Climate in London  written by Luke Howard in 1833, one of the founding texts on meteorology. Here is a passage from Nisbet’s article of particular merit. 

Is it presumptuous to attempt to match the weather to the novel? Possibly – an author has the right of imagination. But Austen is accurate. If she says the orchard was in bloom, then it surely was in bloom. Her meteorological sense is acute, accurately recording the passage of fronts. The perfection of the book comes from the quality of the observation; the science makes the art. Each graduate student should be set to read an Austen novel before starting a thesis. 

This may all sound like severe minutiae; – and attempting to find fault with Austen’s writing is an arduous business, but it is satisfying to my sensibilities that so many people fuss over her.

Image of the cover of So You Think You Know Jane Austen, by John Sutherland & Deirdre le FayeTIP: Even though author John Sutherland and scholar Deirdre le Faye were on opposite sides of the fence on the Austen blooming orchard debate, they joined forces to create the engaging, diverting and informative So You Think You Know Jane Austen?: A Literary Quizbook . Test your knowledge and be surprised by new facts. It’s good to know that there is always more to learn!!!

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