Yesterday we saw that Christmas did exist in Jane Austen’s time and that many elements of it are still recognisable in today’s English celebrations.
At the time she was writing Persuasion, she described what for her was an old -fashioned Christmas as enjoyed by the Musgroves at Uppercross:
The Musgroves came back to receive their happy boys and girls from school, bringing with them Mrs. Harville’s little children, to improve the noise of Uppercross, and lessen that of Lyme. Henrietta remained with Louisa, but all the rest of the family were again in their usual quarters…Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to he heard in spite of all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course, during their visit; and Mr. Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on her knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family-piece.
(Persuasion, Chapter 14)
Jane Austen famously and quite deliberately portrayed Mr and Mrs Musgrove as old fashioned- people:
To the Great House accordingly they went, to sit the full half hour in the old-fashioned square parlour, with a small carpet and shining floor, to which the present daughters of the house were gradually giving the proper air of confusion by a grand piano forte and a harp, flower-stands and little tables placed in every direction. Oh! could the originals of the portraits against the wainscot, could the gentlemen in brown velvet and the ladies in blue satin have seen what was going on, have been conscious of such an overthrow of all order and neatness! The portraits themselves seemed to be staring in astonishment.
The Musgroves, like their houses, were in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement. The father and mother were in the old English style, and the young people in the new. Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated, and not at all elegant. Their children had more modern minds and manners…
(Persuasion, Chapter 5)
it is no wonder then that they hold open house at Christmas in quite the old style that William Wynstanly recommended, complete with groaning tables of food( on which more later in the week)laid out for all to enjoy.
That such country hospitality was not in fact in danger of declining but was vibrant in the early parts of the 19th century,was a sentiment shared by an American visitor to England in the Regency-the author ,Washington Irving.
He was a frequent visitor to Birmingham in Warwickshire during the first twenty years of the nineteenth century, living for two years in its vicinity, staying with his sister Sarah and her husband, Henry van Wart,the founder of the Birmingham stock exchange.
He made many visits to Aston Hall, a Jacobean Mansion which at that time was no longer in the possession of the Holte family who built it but was then leased to James Watt Junior , son of James Watt one of the prime movers of the Industrial Revolution.
Aston Hall seems to have cast a spell on Irving,as it did on the writer Maria Edgeworth, another of James Watts junior’s guests, who wrote as follows of the old mansion in 1820:
..we were engaged to breakfast at Mr James Watt’s at Aston Hall. You remember the fine old brick palace? Mr Watt has fitted up half of it so as to make it superbly comfortable ; fine hall, breakfast room,Flemish pictures, Boulton and Watt at either end. After breakfast we went all over the house; the banqueting room, with a most costly frightful ceiling and a chimney piece carved up to the cornice with monsters one with a nose covered with scales one with a human face on a tarantula’s body. Varieties of little staircases and a garret gallery called Dick’s haunted gallery ;a blocked up rooms called the king’s room then a modern dressing room with fine tables of Bullocks making – one of wood from Brazil-Zebra Wood no more of it to be had for love or money.
But come on to the great gallery, longer than that at Sudbury-about one hundred and thirty six feet long and at the farthest end we come to a sort of oriel separated from the gallery only by an arch and there the white marble bust of the great Mr Watt struck me almost breathless…as I looked down the closing lines of this superb gallery…..
I know how they feel as I volunteered there some years ago and cherish the time I spent there.
Irving was dismayed to think that the old ways of celebrating Christmas in England that he experienced were going to disappear( a theme common with most writers on Christmas I find: it’s a festival for looking back ,standing still and not looking forward , it seems to me).He wrote about his discovery of how an English country Christmas could be celebrated in the early part of the 19th century in six chapters of his book the Sketch Book of Geoffrey Canon Gentleman first published in 1819.
The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall- a place clearly based on Aston Hall, was later published ( in England by John Murray) . From the evidence of this book, the Christmas season as celebrated in the countryside was a vibrant and living custom and not one that was in decline,and that it had an historical basis. Note that the name of Bracebridge was a name associated with the builders of the hall, the Holte family and that James Watt junior leased the hall from one of them, Adam Bracebridge :
Nothing in England exercises a more delightful spell over my imagination than the lingerings of the holiday customs and rural games of former times. They recall the pictures my fancy used to draw in the May morning of life when as yet I only knew the world through books and believed it tobe all that poets has painted it: and they bring with them the flavour of those honest days of yore, in which perhaps, with equal fallacy I am apt to think the world was more homebred.socail, joyous than at present.I regret to say they are daily growing more and more faint being gradually worm away by time …
The English from the great prevalence of rural habit throughout every class of society, have always been fond of these festivals and holidays which agreeably interrupt the stillness of country life;and they were in former days particularly observant of the religious and social rites of Christmas….Shorn however as it is of its ancient and festive honour,Christmas is still a period of delightful excitement in England. It is gratifying to see that home feeling completely aroused which holds so powerful a place in every English bosom.
He went on to describe a Regency country Christmas full of the elements we discussed yesterday : evergreen decoration, mistletoe, great feasts, dances, blazing fires, merriment, quoting copiously from 17th century writings to illustrate the historical antecedents of the festivities he found.
He also added this interesting footnote, which confirms that in the countryside-which was where most people gathered to celebrate christmas if they could-Christmas was indeed a vibrant celebration:
At the time of the first publication of this paper the picture of an old-fashioned Christmas in the country was pronounced by some as out of date. The author had afterwards an opportunituy of witnessing almost all of the customs above described existing in unexpected vigour in the skirts of Derbyshire and Yorkshire where he passed the Christmas holidays. The reader will find some notice of them in the author’s account of his sojourn at Newstead Abbey.
He in his turn inspired Charles Dickens,who cheerfully acknowledged his debt to the writings of Washington Irving, and that they inspired his book of A Christmas Carol and the descriptions of the Christmas Festivities in Dingley Dell, the haunt of Mr Pickwick as follows:
“I say, gentlemen, I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm upstairs to bed with me”
Dickens recognised that the type of Christmas Irving recorded was in decline in the industrial towns of mid 19th century England. No one was allowed to celebrate for 12 days( gatherings were by the pressure of commercial and industrial life, reduced) and in towns and cities festive food such as poultry etc was scarce and expensive. Thus it was really the pressure of life in towns of the mid 19th century, subject to industrial and commercial concerns, and that industrial urban society such pressures produced which was in danger of losing sight of the old country Christmas customs , not the country society Jane Austen inhabited.
Tomorrow we shall look at the sort of decorations you might find in a well to of home of the period-Pemberley House for example. Do join me won’t you…