Dear friends and readers,
Four years ago now I gathered together all — exclusive of juvenilia, the three unfinished fragments and Lady Susan — the passages in Austen’s novels which include references to Christmas. There are more there than we realize because most of them mention Christmas only as a way of marking seasonal time in phrases whose ironies refer to something else. Only Emma has a sequence of scenes occurring Christmas time (it is the novel which marks time by folk seasons).
On top or threaded into these passages I included scenes from those film adaptations that picture Christmas (all the faithful Emmas naturally), and there too there is no shaping pattern. with the two Bridget Jones movies using Christmas ironically, Stillman’s Metropolitan seriously (the one film in the whole oeuvre to make a comment on Christmas as an experience in itself):
and Lake House taking the opportunity for a dazzling ice-skating moment.
I admit my compilation doesn’t make much sense.
Austen belongs to an older tendency in the UK in the 18th century with regard to Christmas: a time of festivity but not revolving around any depth of emotion except for those who seeing it from a religious perspective and then the place for that was church. Emma does not even go to church Christmas morning as there is too much snow, and her sole thought is she is glad to be snowed in as now she need not see Harriet and tell Harriet that Mr Elton proposed to her, Emma, and had never been interested in Harriet at all.
But another tendency was gradually spreading, one familiar to us today, of dreaming of Christmas a time peculiarly suited to loving happiness, especially with friends and family. The Christmas poem I’d like to share tonight, one Austen may well have known since she read Southey as he came out, poems as well as prose, shows how quickly this dream-hope morphs into nostalgia for a scene that is not occurring (“I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams”)
Written on Christmas Day (1795)
How many hearts are happy at this hour
In England! Brightly o’er the cheerful hall
Flares the heaped hearth, and friends and kindred meet,
And the glad mother round her festive board
Beholds her children, separated long
Amid the wide world’s ways, assembled now,
A sight at which affection lightens up
With smiles the eye that age has long bedimm’d.
I do remember when I was a child
How my young heart, a stranger then to care,
With transport leap’d upon this holy-day,
As o’er the house, all gay with evergreens,
From friend to friend with joyful speed I ran,
Bidding a merry Christmas to them all.
Those years are past; their pleasures and their pains
Are now like yonder covent-crested hill
That bounds the distant prospect, indistinct,
Yet pictured upon memory’s mystic glass
In faint fair hues. A weary traveller now
I journey o’er the desert mountain tracks
Of Leon, wilds all drear and comfortless,
Where the grey lizards in the noontide sun
Sport on the rocks, and where the goatherd starts,
Roused from his sleep at midnight when he hears
The prowling wolf, and falters as he calls
On Saints to save. Here of the friends I think
Who now, I ween, remember me, and fill
The glass of votive friendship. At the name,
Will not thy cheek, Beloved, change its hue,
And in those gentle eyes uncall’d for heart
Tremble? I will not wish for thee to weep;
Such tears are free from bitterness, and they
Who know not what it is sometimes to wake
And weep at midnight, are but instruments
Of Nature’s common work. Yes think of me,
My Edith, think that, travelling far away,
Thus I beguile the solitary hours
With many a day-dream, picturing scenes as fair
Of peace, and comfort, and domestic bliss
As ever to the youthful poet’s eye
Creative Fancy fashion’d. Think of me,
Though absent, thine; and if a sigh will rise,
And tears, unbidden, at the thought steal down,
Sure hope will cheer thee, and the happy hour
Of meeting soon all sorrow overpay.
While we cannot know what landscape Southey saw or what the weather was that year, perhaps Henri’s painting of Spanish landscape can give us some idea of what was all around Southey as he wrote.
I wish everyone who comes to this blog a really experienced not just dreamed-of happy Christmas day.