Friday, December 18, 2009

Jane Austen at Christmas

"I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings ..." - Pride & Prejudice

Austen tells us very little about Christmas. The celebration did not reach its modern popularity until the Victorians got their hands on it, but we know from her letters that Christmas at Steventon was a rather festive occasion, complete with elaborate theatrics. Yet the only glimpses we get of Christmas in her novels are vague. Emma goes off to a dinner party at Randell's, just like any other dinner party except for Mr. Woodhouse's company and the unfortunate attention she suffers from Mr. Elton. Anne gets a glimpse of the Christmas chaos at Uppercross but, as usual, she is rather more an observer than a participant in the children's bustle. There is also a slight hint from Mrs. Norris, Scrooge herself, that the ball held at Mansfield coincides with the holiday season (it is also when Edmund takes orders). Too, we learn that Tom Bertram was frequently called upon to recite My Name is Norval one Christmas holiday, not exactly light or festive material. In Austen, Christmas, along with Michaelmas, mostly serves as a way of referencing the time: a marking of the quarter days. It is a convenient time for visits to either begin or end, or perhaps for an entertainment or two to take place, but from such common occurrences we derive little Christmas cheer. This Christmas void, by our modern standards, has been amply filled by Austen's fans, who have imagined a multitude of Christmases for her characters to enjoy, especially Elizabeth and Darcy. Here are four excerpts from works of Pride and Prejudice fan fiction that give us visions of what Christmas as a Darcy might have been like.

Note: I have been careful to avoid any significant spoilers so that you may read the following without anxiety.

This first scene comes from Illusions and Ignorance: Mary Bennet's Story by Eucharista Ward (now A Match for Mary Bennet). Theatrics, including pantomime, charades, and pageantry have long been part of the Christmas celebrations in England. Many great homes had extensive collections of costuming available for use on such occasions.

Georgiana enthusiastically spoke of old costumes used for Christmas pageants when she came home from school as a child. "We had theatricals then-and do you know, even Miss Anne de Bourgh took part once! I am sure my brother remembers." Georgiana led them to an upper room full of trunks and old furniture, where she extracted from one very large trunk many relics of old Christmas pageants. She held up a long white gown. "Won't this even be long enough for Miss Langley?" She pulled out yet another. "This is about right for Dorothea Dixon, do you not agree?" Mary nodded her agreement as Georgiana held it against herself. "I wore this one when I was ten."

By the time their candles burned to stubs and the hems of their gowns had swept up trails of dust from the floor of the little-used room, they had assembled simple costumes for several shepherds and as many angels, and they folded each again carefully and put it into a box for servants to bring down later for brushing and airing.

This amusing anecdote comes from Duty and Desire: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman by Pamela Aiden. Being from Philadelphia, I have more experience with the notion of Mummers than most Americans, though ours are a far cry from those with which Austen would have been familiar.

The sounds of feminine laughter and a masculine chuckle broke through his thoughts, and bidding fancy away for a moment, Darcy rounded the corner of the door and joined his relatives. D'Arcy was whispering something in Georgiana's ear that sent her into renewed giggles, while Lady Matlock looked on in approbation.

"No! You cannot be telling the absolute truth, Alex!"

"Ask my father if you doubt me, Cousin," D'Arcy replied with a knowing smile, "for your brother will never admit to it."

"Admit to what, Alex?" Darcy poured himself a glass of wine.

"To running off one Christmas Eve to join the Derbyshire Mummers just before their performance in Lambton." Darcy winced. "You were ten, I believe, and we were all at St. Lawrence's for the service when you turned up missing."

"Brother, it cannot be true!" Georgiana looked at him in wonder.

Darcy nodded slowly as the wine gently awoke his palate. "It is true, but I was only ten; and you may believe that our father impressed upon me the indecorum of such an adventure."

"But our uncle...?"

"Oh, your father was forced to call upon mine to help extricate your brother from an altercation with some of the younger mummers in which he was rather outnumbered," D'Arcy supplied happily.

"Alex!" Darcy frowned at his cousin. "This is hardly fit conversation..."

"But it
is very interesting!" came Fitzwilliam's voice from the doorway. "I can remember the occasion quite well and cheering you on from the carriage window. Oh, it was a lovely brawl, sir, a lovely brawl!" He raised his glass to Darcy, D'Arcy and His Lordship following suit. "Never let it be said you were not pluck to the bone, Fitz! One against three, wasn't it?"

Darcy inclined his head. "It was four-and I admit it only for the sake of accuracy." He turned to Georgiana. "It was an exceedingly foolish thing to do, and I was proud of it only for a very few minutes before Father caused me to see reason."

"Caused his backside to see reason!" crowed Fitzwilliam. "I distinctly remember you standing for Christmas dinner that year and being devoutly thankful I wasn't you."

In Mr. Darcy Presents His Bride: A Sequel to Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice , Helen Halstead takes the Darcys into the world of the haut ton. Here is how she imagines a Twelfth Night celebration amongst London's elite:

As supper ended, the Twelfth Night entertainments began. To the sound of flute and drum the "attendants" of the court ran in and assembled on the platform at the end of the room. The "Twelfth Cake" was carried in. The sides of this massive concoction were sculptured like desert dunes, and on the top rode a miniature procession of figures representing the three Magi and their camels. A drumming brought silence and a boy unrolled a scroll and read aloud:

"Now the revelry comes.
For in this cake of plums
Is the coin for the King.
For his Queen the ring.
They'll reign over us here,
Both commoner and peer."

The cake was carried around in procession, before returning to the dais to be cut.

"Have you ever been King?" Elizabeth asked Darcy.

"Fortunately not. Rumor has it that aspiring kings bribe Lord Misrule for a chance at the coin."

"Who plays his part?"

"Except for the King and Queen, they are all actors."

The herald went on:

"So that justice may be,
Let Lord Misrule oversee!"

Through the door by the dais, leapt Lord Misrule. From his noisy welcome, it was clear that not much was expected in the way of justice. A team of footmen served cake first to the ladies, then replenished their trays to serve the gentlemen. Elizabeth noted how many eyes at the table watched the gentlemen pick through their sweet, in hope, or fear, of finding the coin.

This last picture of Regency Christmas comes from the first volume ofThe Pemberley Chronicles: A Companion Volume to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice by Rebecca Ann Collins (the seventh volume is on my desk now, waiting to be read). It depicts Elizabeth's first Christmas at Pemberley and she has already made her mark on the celebration. The most satisfying thing about this epic series is following the growth of these traditions through the generations.

Christmas Eve dawned cold and bright.

After breakfast, everyone who wanted to got rugged up and went into the woods to collect boughs of fir, pine cones, and holly for decorating the rooms and the stage. The younger members of the family enjoyed this part of the preparations most and spent all afternoon making garlands to hang across the windows.

Shortly before lunch, a carriage arrived, bringing Dr Grantley, who apologized for being late but assured everyone he was willing and ready to help, "I'll do anything," he offered, and Lizzy, seeing poor Jane and Georgiana working so very hard in the music room, sent him along to help them. With everyone pressed into service, the house hummed. Bingley and Darcy wandered in and out of the rooms, amazed at the activity. Darcy swore he could not recall an occasion when there was so much going on at Pemberley.

By late afternoon, everything was in readiness. The children had all been fetched and costumed like little choristers. The fires burned brightly and burnished all the dark oak and copper as well as the glowing red berried garlands around the walls and over the windows.

By six o'clock, the room had filled with guests and neighbours, and when the children walked in carrying their candles, there were gasps of surprise. Their glowing faces and sparkling eyes told of their excitement.

Jane, Elizabeth, and Georgiana shepherded them into place, and then, Dr Grantley read the story of Christmas from the Bible. It was the perfect touch, suggested by Georgiana and gladly carried out by Dr Grantley. When the singers began, a little nervously at first, but stronger and sweeter by the minute, the tears in the eyes and the smiles on the faces of the audience told the story. The parents of the children of the estate ranged from yeoman farmers to grooms, maids, and gardeners. Never before had they seen their children afforded such an opportunity as this to participate in the festivities at Pemberley. When it was known, mainly through Jenny and Mrs Reynolds, that it was all Mrs Darcy's doing, her popularity among them soared. When they broke for an intermission, to allow the little voices some rest, Elizabeth came over to Darcy who was sitting with the Gardiners. She had wanted reassurance that it was proceeding well; what she got was adulation from everyone around her. Elizabeth glowed, and Mr Darcy could barely contain his joy. If Mrs Gardiner needed any proof of the success of this match, for which she and her husband felt partly responsible, she had it there in front of her as Darcy reached across and too Elizabeth's hand and said, "I cannot honestly remember a happier Christmas, since I was a boy."

Doesn't that just sound lovely? I will be attending a Christmas concert this year, to hear my mother-in-law perform, but this will be the extent of the theatrics I shall enjoy. Usually we at least go to the theater but as tickets are dear we shall not indulge ourselves so much this year. Perhaps, if I am really persuasive, I can convince my family to put on a small entertainment of our own. I'll be the first to admit that it seems highly unlikely.


  1. What a very interesting post!! I love how you including excerpts from many Pride and Pejudice sequels!

    We are not much for the theatre here at Christmas time (we try to see a musical every now and then) but at Christmas we are all about board games!

  2. Thanks Meredith! Board games are very wholesome. We are more into puzzles and cards on this end - all count as good, traditional family bonding activities, really far more interactive than going to the theater. I'm just a sucker for almost anything performed on a stage.

  3. Oh, puzzles are great fun! I love working on them.

    What would you like to see next at the theatre, is there a play or musical you have in mind?

    PS-you won a blog award at my blog!

  4. I did? Thank you! I've never gotten any of these blog awards before - how do they work?

    It's hard to say what production I want to see next as I'm always happy to see whatever comes my way. King Lear is being performed nearby and as I've never seen it performed would very much like to get there. I also really wanted to see Waiting for Godot in NYC last summer - with John Goodman and Nathan Lane - but never got to. In The Heights is the last musical I saw that really blew me away, so much so I had to go back and see it again.