Seeking refuge from the Christmas storm? So did Jane Austen

The onslaught of family and merriment during the festive season could be too much for even the English gentry at times, observes Jocelyn Harris

December 22, 2018

If even with the highest of spirits, you find maintaining Christmas cheer a challenge, especially when in the eye of a domestic hurricane of family and food, you’re not alone. Jane Austen records the pleasures and torments of this time of year in her observations on the English gentry.

In Persuasion, published in 1814, Austen offers a lively but sardonic take on Christmas. “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 was “completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard in spite of all the noise of the others”.

Anne Elliot “would have deemed such a domestic hurricane a bad restorative of the nerves which Louisa Musgrove’s illness had shaken”, but Mrs Musgrave observes, “with a happy glance round the room, that after all she had been through, nothing was so likely to do her good, as a little quiet cheerfulness at home”.

Domestic hurricanes had their pleasures, however. Austen wrote little plays to be performed at Christmas, with zany stage directions such as “Scene changes to the moon” and “Enter Chloe with a chorus of ploughboys”. She was also said to join in all the Christmas games with great spirit, including perhaps Bullet Pudding.

As Austen’s niece Fanny explains it, to play you fill a large pewter dish with flour piled up. You lay “a bullet at the top and everybody cuts a slice of it, and the person who is cutting it when it falls must poke about with their noses and chins till they find it”. They then “take it out with their mouths which makes them strange figures all covered with flour, but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose and mouth and choking you”.

As to presents, no Black Friday frenzy or Cyber Monday madness for Jane Austen. In 1798, she spent her little money on the poor, giving worsted stockings to Mrs Hutchins, Dame Kew, Macy Stevens and Dame Staples, a shift to Hannah Staples, and a shawl to Betty Dawkins, amounting in all to half a guinea.

Christmas meant cooking and an unwelcome influx of visitors. As Jane complained to Cassandra from Southampton on 7 January 1807, “Our acquaintance increase too fast.” Admiral Bertie and his daughter Catherine, for instance, about whom she said merely, “There is nothing to like or dislike in either.”

That Christmas, she was staying with the Frank Austens. Mary was pregnant, feeling ill, likely to faint after a hearty dinner, and therefore incapable of doing much. In came James and Mary Austen, whose daughter Caroline must have joined her infant cry to that of Mary-Jane, Frank’s toddler. No surprise that James went “walking about the House & banging the Doors, or ringing the Bell for a Glass of Water”.

As Austen concluded in obvious relief, “When you receive this our guests will be gone or going.” At last, she would be left “to the comfortable disposal of my time, to ease of mind from the torments of rice puddings and apple dumplings, and probably to regret that I did not take more pains to please them all.”

As an academic on holiday break, your illusions of slipping away to work on your next paper or making a dent in your holiday reading could quickly be dashed with the ringing of the doorbell and the arrival of yet more guests. Like you, Jane Austen needed time and ease of mind. In 1797, she had started on “Elinor & Marianne”, but given her family commitments, she could turn it into Sense and Sensibility only after she escaped to Chawton in July 1809. Like Lady Russell in Persuasion, she must often have hoped to remember “not to call on Uppercross in the Christmas holidays”.

Jocelyn Harris is emeritus professor at the University of Otago in Dunedin. Her most recent publication Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen is published by Bucknell University Press.

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