The way we were: Leap years

Extracts from diaries and writings on 29th February, chosen by Ian Irvine
February 22, 2012
Even in classical times it was known that the solar year was around six hours longer than the 365-day calendar year. On his astronomers’ advice Julius Caesar decreed that 24th February would be counted twice every four years. February 29th came to be regarded as the leap day when the Roman system was replaced by sequential numbering in the late Middle Ages.

On his fourth voyage to the new world, Christopher Columbus was stranded in Jamaica. Though initially friendly, the people of the island had turned against his crew. From an almanac Columbus noticed a lunar eclipse would occur on 29th February 1504. According to The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by His Son Ferdinand, he told the natives’ leader that: …his Christian god was angry with his people for no longer supplying Columbus and his men with food. Therefore, he was about to provide a clear sign of his displeasure: three nights hence, he would all but obliterate the rising full moon, making it appear “inflamed with wrath,” which would signify the evils that would soon be inflicted upon all of them… [When the eclipse occurred] with great howling and lamentation they came running from every direction to the ships, laden with provisions, praying the Admiral to intercede by all means with God on their behalf; that he might not visit his wrath upon them.

Traditionally, a woman can ask a man to marry her on a leap year. From the book Courtship, Love and Matrimony (1606): Albeit, it is now become a part of the Common Law, in regard to the social relations of life, that as often as every bissectile year doth return, the Ladies have the sole privilege, during the time it continueth, of making love unto the men, which they may do either by words or looks, as unto them it seemeth proper; and moreover, no man will be entitled to the benefit of Clergy who doth refuse to accept the offers of a lady, or who doth in any wise treat her proposal with slight or contumely.

Queen Victoria records the day’s events in her journal, 29th February 1872: At half past four drove in open landau and four with Arthur, Leopold, and Jane C., the Equerries riding. We drove round Hyde and Regent’s Parks, returning by Constitution Hill, and when at the Garden Entrance a dreadful thing happened… The Equerries had dismounted, Brown had got down to let down the steps, and Jane C. was just getting out, when suddenly someone appeared at my side, whom I at first imagined was a footman, going to lift off the wrapper. Then I perceived that it was someone unknown, peering above the carriage door, with an uplifted hand and a strange voice, at the same time the boys calling out and moving forward. Involuntarily, in a terrible fright, I threw myself over Jane C., calling out, “Save me,” and heard a scuffle and voices! I soon recovered myself sufficiently to stand up and turn round, when I saw Brown holding a young man tightly, who was struggling. They laid the man on the ground and Brown kept hold of him till several of the police came in. All turned and asked if I was hurt, and I said, “Not at all.” Then Lord Charles, General Hardinge, and Arthur came up, saying they thought the man had dropped something. We looked, but could find nothing, when Cannon, the postillion, called out, “There it is,” and looking down I then did see shining on the ground a small pistol! This filled us with horror. All were as white as sheets, Jane C. almost crying, and Leopold looked as if he were going to faint. It is to good Brown and to his wonderful presence of mind that I greatly owe my safety, for he alone saw the boy rush round and followed him!

Katherine Mansfield writes in her diary, 29th February 1920: Oh, to be a writer, a real writer given up to it and to it alone! Oh, I failed to-day; I turned back, looked over my shoulder, and immediately it happened, I felt as though I too were struck down. The day turned cold and dark on the instant. It seemed to belong to summer twilight in London, to the clang of the gates as they close the garden, to the deep light painting the high houses, to the smell of leaves and dust, to the lamp-light, to that stirring of the senses, to the langour of twilight, the breath of it on one’s cheek, to all those things which (I feel to-day) are gone from me for ever… I feel to-day that I shall die soon and suddenly: but not of my lungs.

French author André Gide writes in his journal, 29th February 1928: Very much worn down, these last few days, by an absurd grippe that my petty daily occupations have not given me time to treat as I should have, by two days in bed… Despite this stultifying cold, I am not much aware of getting older, and have even rarely felt my mind more fit, my whole being more full of aspirations and desires. But I am constantly computing my age and telling myself that the ground may suddenly give way under my feet. I manage to get myself not to feel too melancholy over this.