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Nell Blaine, November in Snow (1987)

Friends and readers,

Each year I have commemorated “the birthday” (to echo PL Travers’s way of talking of Mary Poppins’s birthday in the MP books) — sometimes by poetry Austen wrote on her birthday, in 1808 her good friend, Mrs Lefroy lost her life; one by showing how Austen regarded Tudor queens in her History of England; once on how she loved to dance, complete with videos of characters and people dancing 18th century pattern dancing; another on a new opera adapted from Mansfield Park. Many such days since I opened this blog.

This year I am departing to contextualize her birthday: she was born the 16th of December 1775, a snowy day, and the baby was not to be taken out until March, to protect her from the cold (see Tomalin, JA: A life, pp 3-5).

The Winter Solstice with all its rituals and pleasures.

At the Folger consort last night: they refreshed the soul with a program of carols and winter songs from the 12th though 20th centuries. This is not the first time I’ve experienced the this and it’s not just the place as quietly decorated with an intelligent exhibition, but the experience on stage as a oasis, a halycon moment of good will, beauty, and cheer. Izzy had tears in her eyes towards the end when they did a couple of more familiar carols (from the 19th century) and a song where the main instrument was the recorder, a Ralph Vaughan Williams “fantasia on Christmas Carols.” So rare to escape the commercialism, faux ostentation, and fouling of all our minds that occurs so many places and across so much of our culture nowadays.

So I too will anticipate the 12 day ritual celebration by this year offering up a poem by Anne Finch which projects the nature of the Christmas celebrations at the opening of the 18th century: still a twelve night group celebration centered on a group of religious and pagan myths.


A contemporary Twelfth Night Cake


An eighteenth century one

On January 12, 1715/16 at Lewston, Dorsetshire (the home of Mrs Grace Stode Thynne, widow to Henry Thynne, Heneage’s nephew), Heneage and Anne Finch, Earl and Countess of Winchilsea; [Mrs] Thynne (mother to “the Gentle Hertford,” Francis Thynne Seymour), [Mrs] Higgons (Mrs Thynne’s elderly companion-servant); and Maria [Mary] Thynne (Mrs Thynne’s daughter, married later that year to William Greville, 7th Lord Brooke) drew charms from a twelfth night’s cake which would have been large and festive cake, and was usually frosted or heavily ornamented. This cake would have “charms” in it — silver ones. Then slices from the cake were handed about. If in your slice of cake, you found a silver bean, you were king; if you found a silver pea, you were queen; if you found a silver clove, you were the knave; a silver twig made you the fool and a silver rag, the slut. (Slut does not mean tramp; it means kitchen maid.) The person who got the King was then King for the rest of the festive evening, the person who got the Queen, became Queen.

This merry ritual was recorded in an apparently spontaneous not-so-merry or slightly saturnine poem by Anne Finch.

To the Hon ble Mrs Thynne after twelfth Day 1715 by Lady Winchilsea

“How plain dear Madam was the Want of Sight
On Fortune Charged seen at your House last Night
Where all our Lots were govern’d by Mistake
And nothing well proportioned but the Cake

First for the Crown on which the rest depend
On Higgins shou’d that glorious wreath descend
Were she to govern in a Kingly sort
‘Twould quite reverse the Nature of a Court

Her generous Heart the Treasury wou’d drain
And none by her shou’d live or die in pain
Good Humour, Wit and pleasure she’d promote
And leave the merry Land not worth a Groat

Were I a Queen as Fortune has design’d
‘Twould suite as ill with my retiring mind
Who after all aspiring Iffs & Ands
Shou’d leave the Cliffs and sink into the Sands

If Winchillsea’s a Knave where’s his Estate?
His larger House? his Equipage? his plate?
His Mastery in Law & over Delay
Which sweeps his patience & his pence away?

A Knave without all these is poorly made
And wou’d Disgrace the beneficial Trade
But farther She has err’d beyond all Rule
In Giving Thynne what I’ll not name the —

In all her List of patents and Decrees
Where some grow vain on Names and some on fees
She cou’d have found no Title so unfit
Or such a Foil to her establish’d wit

To fair Maria in her blunder’d scene
She gave the Slut tho’ Ermin’s not so clean
O’er all her Charms a youthfull Lustre spreads
Which on her Dress reflected Brightness Sheds

As phoebus gilds whatever’s in his sight
And makes (like her) all cheerful by his Light.
This Simile I hope you’ll think is fine
For verse where neither Sun or Stars do Shine

Is blind as Fortune that has wrong’d us all
Whose Gifts on real Fools and Knaves will fall.”

And at the close, in the 1790s when we find the solstice has retreated into the local experience of families, secularized into memories all shared, and a longing for home. Robert Southey was travelling in Spain (see Southey’s Letters from England) while his wife, Edith (sister to Coleridge’s wife) was in the Lake District (see Kathleen Jones’s A Passionate Sisterhood). 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.


Robert Henry(1865-1929), Street Scene in Snow (mid-19th century)

Come Christmas I will re-post all the passages in Austen’s novels that characterize and swirl around Christmas and how they are treated in modern films, and then what we can find in her letters; for now this poem in her honor:

Re-reading Jane”

To women in contemporary voice and dislocation
she is closely invisible, almost an annoyance.
Why do we turn to her sampler squares for solace?
Nothing she saw was free of snobbery or class.
Yet the needlework of those needle eyes . . .
We are pricked to tears by the justice of her violence:
Emma on Box Hill, rude to poor Miss Bates,
by Mr Knightley’s were she your equal in situation —
but consider how far this is from being the case

shamed into compassion, and in shame, a grace.

Or wicked Wickham and selfish pretty Willoughby,
their vice, pure avarice which, displacing love,
defiled the honour marriages should be made of.
She punished them with very silly wives.
Novels of manners! Hymeneal theology!
Six little circles of hell, with attendant humours.
For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours
And laugh at them in our turn?
The philosophy
paused at the door of Mr Bennet’s century;
The Garden of Eden’s still there in the grounds of Pemberley.

The amazing epitaph’s ‘benevolence of heart’
precedes ‘the extraordinary endowments of her mind’
and would have pleased her, who was not unkind.
Dear votary of order, sense, clear art
and irresistible fun, please pitch our lives
outside self-pity we have wrapped them in,
and show us how absurd we’d look to you.
You knew the mischief poetry could do.
Yet when Anne Elliot spoke of its misfortune
to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who
enjoyed it completely
, she spoke for you.

—– Anne Stevenson

I close with In the Bleak Mid-Winter, Gerald Hoist, sung by a boys choir, Cambridge, UK:

I am sure we all who come to this blog have derived much wisdom, strength, comfort, comedy, enjoyment from Austen’s novels and some of the movies made from these as well as many brilliant books of criticism re-creating, explicating, conveying the experience. This year my Christmas eve movie will be Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan


Aubrey Rouget (Fanny character, played by Carolyn Farina) fares better. She and her mother (apparently a long-time widow) go to St Patrick’s cathedral, a huge church in Manhattan where they join in the service and carols. They stand amid a huge crowd, people like them, some in pairs or groups, but many alone …

Ellen

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