A group of young people, passing the rainy weeks of autumn together in “a dull country house,” decide to entertain themselves by staging a play. So what’s so wrong about that, as the critic Lionel Trilling asks rhetorically in his 1954 essay?
The characters in Jane Austen’s great novel, Mansfield Park, devote a great deal of time to debating the question. The play chosen, Lovers’ Vows, is a real play, and Austen could have relied on the fact that her contemporary readers would be familiar with this play. A greater understanding of the play, and of the social milieu of Mansfield Park, will help modern readers understand why the novel’s hero and heroine — Edmund Bertram and his meek cousin Fanny Price — thought that yes, there was plenty wrong about that.
Lovers’ Vows has two storylines – one melodramatic and one comic. Frederick, a young soldier returning home, encounters his mother starving by the roadside. He also learns to his horror that he is illegitimate, and his father is the long-absent Baron Wildenhaim. A kindly local peasant, or Cottager, and his wife take his mother under their roof. Frederick accosts his father and is thrown in prison but matters are eventually sorted out and the remorseful Baron marries Agatha. Meanwhile, the Baron’s legitimate daughter, Amelia, is the lead in the comic storyline. She flirtatiously woos her tutor, the preacher Anhalt, while fending off a marriage proposal from Count Cassel. The entire action is commented on, in rhyming verse, by the Butler, another comic character.
In other words, the themes of Lovers’ Vows (in the original German, the play was called The Love Child) are extra-marital sex and seduction, albeit where sinners repent and Virtue triumphs in the end. Fanny thinks the two female leads, Agatha and Amelia, are “totally improper for home representation—the situation of one, and the language of the other, [are] unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty.”
Though Jane Austen’s life of forty-one years was lamentably short, her time on earth, 1775 to 1817, was nonetheless one of great and momentous change. England was still largely rural in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the rhythm of its country life was tied to the seasonal needs of agriculture. The population of Britain at the dawn of the nineteenth century was nine million, with four-fifths of this total living in the country. Fully one-third of the population of England was employed in agriculture.
Like farmers in all times and places, the rural folk of Jane’s English countryside were at the mercy of the weather, which was especially fickle in the late eighteenth century. The winters were often very cold, and the springs very wet and late in arriving. Summers could be either very dry or cold and wet. Crops and livestock could be devastated by too much cold or not enough rain. Poor weather also encouraged the spread of blights and rots. When the wheat harvest was bad, the price of bread shot up, making it hard for the poor to feed themselves, and riots over food would sometimes erupt among the rural hungry.
Life in the country had other hardships. There were highwaymen on the roads ready to waylay travelers, groups of gypsies robbed countryfolk as well, and thieves stole horses and other valuables. On some occasions there were even murders, particularly when it was thought that a vulnerable mark might have some money on him.
Gas and electrical lighting still lay in the future. Illumination was provided by candles, with the finest being made from beeswax, which burned with minimal smoke. Ordinary candles were of tallow, made from animal fat. Though cheaper, they were not as bright and their smell was less than ideal. For the heating of homes, coal was increasing in use thanks to Britain’s developing network of canals, which made transporting the fuel much easier.
Wood was of course still in widespread use, especially where it could be had more cheaply than coal. Though collecting firewood was a time-consuming activity, particularly for the poor, working in the mines digging coal out was even less appealing work. The hazard of lethal explosions deep underground was constant. Many other miners lost their lives when the roofs of their tunnels caved in or to other mishaps.
Yet country living was not without its charms and pleasures. The boring toil of agricultural work was broken by seasonal festivals such as May Day. Towns had markets which provided a venue in which country people could sell their food, including such edibles as poultry, eggs, and vegetables. If these markets outgrew their original surroundings, then fairs were held outside the towns in nearby fields.
The fairs became ever larger when merchants selling tools, cheese, clothing, earthenware, and leather goods arrived. With so many people present, other vendors began to sell food and drink to the visitors. Sports and other games were also part of the festivities, with the fair becoming something far greater than its original purpose of being a place to sell farm produce.
Dancing was also included in a fair’s usual list of activities, and was a popular form of entertainment everywhere. For a young middle-class woman such as Jane, residing in the country, dancing was a premier delight. It was on the dance floor where she could meet people and make friends.
The countryside was not disconnected from the wider world. When word reached the inhabitants of great victories won against England’s enemies, celebrations would erupt, which included parades, music, and fireworks. Jane’s own brothers, Francis and James, were serving with the Royal Navy during the long wars with France, and each would rise to the rank of admiral. Jane, along with her family, would spend the years 1806-1809 in Southampton to be close to the great navy base of Portsmouth where her brothers served.
War Abroad, Taxes at Home
Britain was to be at war for most of Jane’s life, first with her rebellious colonies in America, and then with France from 1793 to 1815 during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This produced enormous demand for food which could only be met in the country, which was intensively farmed. Not a single bit of arable land was allowed to go to waste. The pressing need for money to pay for Britain’s army and navy also saw the levying of many unpopular taxes, including the introduction in 1799 of the much detested “Income Tax” of up to two shillings per pound (there were twenty shillings in a pound sterling). This imposition was only repealed in 1815, when the era of the great wars came to a close.
Money was sometimes a problem in another way. “Real” money in Jane’s day was still of gold or silver, and paper bank notes were often refused as tender when metal money was in short supply. When there was not enough metallic currency to go around ordinary life and business could not be conducted. This caused great anxiety when people found themselves short of coins and were left wondering how they were going to pay for anything.
Britain underwent important political and cultural changes during Jane’s lifetime. She would know only one king, George III, who would reign for nearly sixty years. However, the king was beset by bouts of severe mental illness, with the last and most serious one arriving in 1810. He was found to be incapable of carrying on his duties as monarch, and Parliament passed the Regency Bill in 1811, which made his son, the roguish and high-living Prince of Wales, regent of the kingdom until the king died in 1820. It was said of the frivolous prince that he “was addicted to lying, tippling and low company.” The Prince Regent also had an insatiable hunger for women and a startling propensity to land himself deep in debt. He would nevertheless eventually ascend the throne upon his father’s death and become George IV.
These years came to be known as the Regency, an era deemed one of high achievement in art, architecture, music, and literature, but also of deep moral laxity. The loose-living of the Regency was in many ways a reaction to the strait-laced and dull propriety of George III’s reign. Not everyone shared the enthusiasms of England’s “Prince of Pleasure.” At the forefront of these were the Evangelicals, who looked askance at many of the common amusements of the day such as dancing, prize-fighting, and card games, believing them dangerous to one’s soul.
Despite its often dour and puritanical outlook, Evangelical Christianity was a growing force for moral improvement around Britain, gaining strength from the need to correct the perceived immorality of the period and remedy the general harshness of life for the common people. In contrast to the bad examples set by too many aristocrats, the Evangelicals preached discipline and personal responsibility. This humanitarian spirit also sought to turn the Christian religion into a force for social good, with one of the movement’s leading lights being the abolitionist William Wilberforce, who founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1797. Wilberforce’s Practical Christianity was one of Evangelicalism’s principal guides to a more moral way of life, and overall the movement was not without success. The legal abolishment of the slave trade in 1807 is largely attributable to the efforts of the Evangelicals.
Toward a Middle Class Industrial Nation
Snobbery toward the prosperous middle class, growing in size and influence, was still very strong in Jane’s England. “[W]e are not absolutely a nation of shopkeepers,” one gentlemen’s magazine sniffed, but “[w]e are much afraid that nine-tenths of the middling . . . sort of people among ourselves belong to this reprobated class of traders and dealers, and have much the same manners with their brethren in America.”
But the future would ultimately belong to the middle class. Tectonic changes were coming to England’s economy far from the bucolic countryside that Jane knew, with merchants, factory owners, and inventors of the middle rank leading the way. Cities were swelling as they drew ever more people to them for the opportunity to find work.
These were the years when Britain’s Industrial Revolution accelerated, with its multiplying factories consuming vast amounts of coal and producing ever-increasing amounts of iron and finished textiles made from cotton. Industrial production shot skyward, doubling in just the twenty years between 1780 and 1800. The demand for labor and raw materials for the factories would only increase, and Britain was well on its way to becoming the world first industrialized nation.
The increasing mechanization of work in the factories produced a backlash from disaffected workers known as Luddites. They would smash the new mechanical looms not, as is commonly thought, because they wanted to stop technological progress, but because the machines they attacked were turning out inferior stockings that flooded the marker and depressed prices even for better quality items. The basic dispute was not over technology but disgust that some employers were taking a shortcut to quick profits by knocking out substandard goods. Nonetheless, English justice was extremely harsh and unforgiving toward the Luddites. After one 1813 trial in York, a dozen machine-smashers were hanged.
The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 marked the end of the long wars with France. The Royal Navy was the unchallenged mistress of the seas, a preeminent position that it would hold for the rest of the nineteenth century. The Britain that Jane left behind when she passed away in 1817 was now the most powerful and economically advanced nation in the world, sitting at the hub of a large and expanding overseas empire.
Marc DeSantis is a historian and author in want of a wife. He lives in New York.
I hope that this journal of my time in Bath should prove to be helpful to you. In reading it may you be spared the numerous faux pas and embarrassments that I was not. I truly feel that if this work should prevent even one other young lady from public ridicule in the Assembly Rooms of Bath then it will have been wholly worthwhile.
I am incredibly pleased to report that the sedan chair bearers did not drop me on the way to the Assembly Rooms as I had feared they might. As it turned out, I rather enjoyed my short ride; it was a smoother journey than I had thought, and certainly a very grand journey. My Uncle went ahead of us on foot, as gentlemen in Bath are wont to do, and was there to greet us as the doors of my Aunt’s and my own respective boxes were held open for us. I succeeded in stepping out from the small compartment with what I hope was some degree of grace, and found myself in front of the entrance, which consists of a grand pediment held up by four pale stone columns. There was little time to take in the grandeur of the outside, however, as my Aunt linked her arm through mine and guided me inside. Once admitted, we proceeded to tour the Rooms.
The assembly rooms near home, to which I have been to dance before, are nothing compared to the Bath Assembly Rooms. After we had deposited our cloaks in the cloakroom to the right on leaving the entrance vestibule, we turned and entered the ball room through the opposite doors on the left. The room was vast; it was at least one hundred feet in length and forty wide, and its ceiling was of triple height. Halfway up the duck-egg wall was a series of tall windows, flanked on either side by a painted Roman column set into the wall which were letting in the last light of the day. Around the room, below and above these windows, were intricate moulded plasterwork borders. And, in the centre of the room, there hung five great chandeliers which, as my Aunt whispered in my ear (though loudly enough to be heard above the noise) each held forty candles! Just think! What with this and the windows, the room was all light and beauty. Thankfully the four grand fireplaces, two set into each of the longer walls, which would also have raised the light levels in the room, were empty, but even so, given the sheer number of people in residence and coupled with the balmy June night, the heat in the room was a very great one indeed.
The number of people I have just mentioned fell into two categories; those seated on and standing by the three tiers of seats placed around the edge of the ballroom, and those who were up and dancing a country dance which I did not immediately recognize, but which might have been Lady Moncrieff’s Reel. The minuets had taken place already, beginning at six, and had then given way to the country dances at eight. Later the music would stop so that the tea, coffee and light refreshments might be served at nine in the large tea room on the other side of the Assembly Rooms. After that, the country dances would resume. By nine o’clock I was certain that the dancers who had arrived at six would be most glad of some refreshment, however light, not to mention the musicians who had been playing all evening.
But then I must mention the musicians! In the balls which I have attended before (the larger ones are those I am referring to rather than the dances among friends which are struck up in the joy of the moment after a dinner) only four musicians have been engaged, as is the custom, and they have played the usual piano, cornet, violin, and violoncello. However, the number of dancers in attendance here is of such a great number; my aunt tells me that there are upwards of five hundred people here on a regular basis, and that there are a dozen musicians playing from the minstrel’s gallery.
“I do not envy them their role,” said my Aunt, turning to me as we watched the couples dance. “Not only do they play here but they are also employed each morning in playing at the Pump Rooms, and then in the evenings they take their turn playing here or at private concerts. Even their afternoons are not their own, for they might then be occupied in playing for a private party at a gentleman’s lodgings, or at one of the large inns. Imagine! I am sure I do not know how they do it!”
“Surely, there are other bands in Bath who might take some of their custom from them and therefore allow them a respite from constant playing?” I said.
“None such as they. They were fully employed to act exclusively as the Bath Orchestra. For that reason, despite their heavy workload, they are not so badly done by; at least they can live safe in the knowledge that they shall be paid and able to pay their rent.”
“I suppose you are right,” I said, and let my attention stray once more to the dancers.
It was as in London, and as my Aunt had said, that the most fashionable dress material was white muslin, and derivations thereof. Lady upon lady clad in white, cream, and ivory whirled about the room, escorted by gentleman in fine silk waistcoats and jet-black tailcoats. White was not the only colour worn by the ladies (there was one peacock blue dress in particular that I had trouble drawing my eyes away from), but it was by far the most popular.
As for the gentlemen, some of the gentlemen I saw had adopted another of the London fashions and sported finely starched cravats that were tied in such complicated styles which travelled so far up their necks that I was surprised that they were able to move their heads. Beau Brummel may be considered the arbiter of men’s fashion, but in my most-humble opinion I do think that he might also be the arbiter of much of their discomfort.
My Aunt and I left the ballroom, vowing to return by and by once we had seen the remainder of the Rooms. Not that they were a revelation to my Aunt, but she is such a kind and considerate woman that she said she could not dream of settling herself until I had been acquainted with the Rooms in their entirety.
The next chamber we entered upon leaving the ballroom was the octagonal card room. Decorated in a deep rich yellow, its centre was taken up with table upon table of gentlemen and ladies, but mainly gentlemen, all playing various card games. I spotted Speculation, Brag and Whist among the games in progress, and also after a short time I spotted my Uncle, happily ensconced at a table in the far right, next to another unlit fireplace (the card room, like the ball room, also had four). He was laughing and talking with many other fine gentlemen, for, prejudiced as I am, there really is no other way to describe my Uncle, whom I did not first recognise.
“I knew we should find him here,” my Aunt said to me with a fond smile in her voice. “It never takes him long to find himself a table. I fear we may have now lost him for the evening. Now my dear, where should you like to see next? I am afraid that we cannot enter the tea room at present, but we might peruse the octagon ante-chamber if you should wish?”
“Is there much to see in the ante-chamber?”
“As much as you might see in any other ante-chamber.”
“In which case,” I said. “If you don’t mind, I should very much like to go and watch some more of the dancing.”
“But of course.”
We wove our way back through the know of people surrounding the card room doors and into the ball room. The reel was still in progress so my Aunt and I scanned the tiers of seats and spotted two seats together in the second row; the front row being already full near to where we were, and navigating to another part of the room while the dance was in motion was not a wise idea. However, before we had moved more than two steps towards our intended destination, we found our way barred by Mr Dawson, the Master of Ceremonies.
“Mrs Denison, Miss Helm, allow me to introduce Mr Thomas Palmer…”
The journal of Eveline Helm’s time in Bath has made its way online thanks to Jenni Waugh, one of our tour guides at the Jane Austen Centre.
She writes: “I couldn’t resist sharing Eveline’s exploits. I hope everyone else finds them as interesting and entertaining as I did!”
Jane Austen loved to play the pianoforte. She used to copy out music from her friends into books that remain in the Chawton House library to this day. Many of these pieces- classics by Bach, Mozart, Handel and others – are readily available for today’s musicians. If you want to try your hand yourself, A Carriage Ride In Queen’s Square, a wonderful compendium of original ‘easy to play piano pieces for Jane Austen’s Bath’ with a playalong CD included, is currently available from the Jane Austen Gift Shop.
But what if you want to play music from the movie soundtracks?
Surely these evoke the spirit of Jane Austen at least as much as the period pieces. Fortunately, many of these- from the original dances used in the movies- to sheet music of the film scores are easily obtained.
Perhaps the most comprehensive collection of works is Jane Austen’s World published by Faber music. It includes:
Emma by Rachel Portman-
Frank Churchill Arrives
Emma (End Titles)
Sense and Sensibility by Patrick Doyle-
My Father’s Favourite
All The Better For Her
Pride and Prejudice by Carl Davis
Pride & Prejudice Theme
Persuasion by Jeremy Sams
Persuasion Main Theme
Another book, Jane Austen, the Music includes a greater range of pieces from both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.
Its contents are:
Sense and Sensibility Weep You No More, Sad Fountains
A Particular Sum
My Father’s Favourite
All the Delights of the Season
There is Nothing Lost
Pride and Prejudice
Opening Title Music
Farewell to the Regiment
Thinking About Lizzy
During the Regency, weddings were often held first thing in the morning with the bridal couple and their guests returning home to celebrate with a wedding breakfast, a precursor to the modern wedding reception, before departing to their new home, or perhaps on their honeymoon.
Jane Austen’s niece Caroline (daughter of James) gave a wonderful description of her sister Anna’s wedding to family friend Benjamin Lefroy on November 8, 1814:
“My sister’s wedding was certainly in the extreme of quietness… The season of the year, the unfrequented road to the church, the grey light within… no stove to give warmth, no flowers to give colour and brightness, no friends, high or low, to offer their good wishes, and so to claim some interest in the great event of the day – all these circumstances and deficiencies must, I think, have given a gloomy air to the wedding…Weddings were then usually very quiet. The old fashion of festivity and publicity had quite gone by, and was universally condemned as showing the bad taste of all former generations…. This was the order of the day. The bridegroom came from Ashe, where he had hitherto lived with his brother (the Rector), and with him came Mr. and Mrs. Lefroy, and his other brother, Mr. Edward Lefroy…. My brother came from Winchester that morning, but was to stay only a few hours. We in the house had a slight early breakfast upstairs, and between nine and ten the bride, my mother, Mrs. Lefroy, Anne, and myself were taken to church in our carriage. All the gentlemen walked.”
She continues: “Mr. Lefroy read the service, and my father gave his daughter away. No one was in the church but ourselves, and no one was asked to the breakfast, to which we sat down as soon as we got back…The breakfast was such as best breakfasts then were. Some variety of bread, hot rolls, buttered toast, tongue, ham and eggs. The addition of chocolate at one end of the table and the wedding-cake in the middle marked the speciality of the day...soon after the breakfast the bride and bridegroom departed. They had a long day’s journey before them to Hendon…. In the evening the servants had cake and wine.”
It should be noted, however, that Caroline was writing in later years. There is some disagreement in how early the term actually came to be applied to what was, in earlier times, thought of as a “wedding feast”. Although it is not specifically mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels, based on Caroline’s descriptions, I personally think it was an accepted term in her day. The first recorded mention of a wedding breakfast in print is in the London Times on January 15, 1838, when a book reviewer quotes from The Veteran, by John Harley, ‘C— and his bride returned to the coffee house, where they were received with great kindness the master and mistress who, notwithstanding the short notice, had a comfortable wedding-breakfast prepared for them’. The implication here is, of course, that by 1838, it was a recognized habit of weddings. In Party-giving on Every Scale (London, 1880) the term is given the respect of tradition,
The orthodox “Wedding Breakfast” might more properly be termed a “Wedding Luncheon,” as it assumes the character of that meal to a great extent; in any case it bears little relation to the breakfast of that day, although the title of breakfast is still applied to it, out of compliment to tradition. As recently as fifty years ago luncheon was not a recognized meal, even in the wealthiest families, and the marriage feast was modernized into the wedding breakfast, which appellation this entertainment still bears.
The important pieces, a gathering of family to celebrate the bridal couple, and cake, remain to this day. In addition to sharing this cake with members of the wedding party, families often sent pieces to friends as a gesture of good will and celebration. Jane mentions this sending about of cake in her letters to Cassandra. In the following note, Jane is referring to Catherine Bigg, sister to Harris Bigg-Wither, who was once an accepted suitor of Jane’s. Catherine, at 33, had just married Rev. Herbert Hill, aged nearly 60, a match Jane seems not to have favored (calling her “poor Catherine” in her letters). The mentioned Martha is, no doubt, Jane’s dear friend Martha Lloyd.
“Do you recollect whether the Manydown family sent about their wedding cake? Mrs. Dundas has set her heart upon having a piece from her friend Catherine, and Martha, who knows what importance she attaches to this sort of thing, is anxious for the sake of both that there should not be a disappointment.” Jane Austen to Cassandra
October 13, 1808
Early wedding cakes were similar to Christmas fruit cakes– heavy, dense with dried fruit, and able to be stored for months and even years to come.
The modern practice of saving the top tier of the wedding cake to be eaten on the couple’s first anniversary is taken from the historic practice of saving some cake to be served at the christening of the couple’s first child (an event which often followed in the first year of marriage). Elizabeth Raffald’s 1794 Experienced English Housekeeper was the first cookery book to publish a recipe for cakes specifically for weddings.
Laura Boyle is fascinated by all aspects of Jane Austen’s life. She is the proprietor of Austenation: Regency Accessories, creating custom hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe. Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends is her first book. Her greatest joy is the time she is able to spend in her home with her family (1 amazing husband, 4 adorable children and a very strange dog.)
The modern idea of Santa Claus in his red suit, delivering gifts via reindeer pulled sleigh was crafted by Clement C. Moore in his 1823 poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas. This Santa was based on the Dutch Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and does not, until the mid 1800’s cross paths (and merge) with the “olde” English, Father Christmas.
Father Christmas, in fact is the embodiment of the festive holiday season, with no specific religious attachment, though perhaps some slight druid leanings. He does, in fact quite resemble Charles Dickens’ Spirit of Christmas Present, also the embodiment of all the good of the season, albeit with a Victorian slant. This spirit, one of four to visit Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, is presented to the reader in Stave 3. The Ghost here begins the night quite young and robust and ages throughout the day– after all, over eighteen hundred of his brothers have walked before him, and this spirit’s life lasts but one day:
“The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrifaction of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see:, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.
“Come in!” exclaimed the Ghost. “Come in, and know me better, man.”
Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit. He was not the dogged Scrooge he had been; and though the Spirit’s eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me.”
Scrooge reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.”
In fact, many ancient symbols of the Christmas season can be found in this passage, including the monstrous fire (Germanic Yule Log), holly and ivy decorations (actually Roman traditions) and mistletoe (Druid influence) along with a veritable mountain of food, all of which would have been known and enjoyed during Jane Austen’s life time. After all, we think of Dickens as being a Victorian and how the Victorian influence added to our celebration of the season, but the young queen had only reigned for four years when this story was written.
But where, you might ask, did this idea of the Spirit of Christmas in the form of man come from, if not from Saint Nicholas?
According to researchers, “In England the earliest known personification of Christmas does not describe him as old, nor refer to him as ‘father’. A carol attributed to Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree from 1435 to 1477, takes the form of a sung dialogue between a choir and a figure representing Christmas, variously addressed as “Nowell”, “Sir Christemas” and “my lord Christemas”. He does not distribute presents to children but is associated with adult celebrations. Giving news of Christ’s birth, Christmas encourages everyone to drink: “Buvez bien par toute la campagnie,/Make good cheer and be right merry.” However, the specific depiction of Christmas as a merry old man emerged in the early 17th century. The rise of puritanism had led to increasing condemnation of the traditions handed down from pre-Reformation times, especially communal feasting and drinking. As debate intensified, those writing in support of the traditional celebrations often personified Christmas as a venerable, kindly old gentleman, given to good cheer but not excess. They referred to this personification as “Christmas”, “Old Christmas” or “Father Christmas”. At this point the character still belongs to literature and not folk-lore.
Ben Jonson in Christmas his Masque, dating from December 1616, notes the rising tendency to disparage the traditional forms of celebration. His character ‘Christmas’ therefore appears in outdated fashions, “attir’d in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse”, and announces “Why Gentlemen, doe you know what you doe? ha! would you ha’kept me out? Christmas, old Christmas?” Later, in a masque by Thomas Nabbes, The Springs Glorie produced in 1638, “Christmas” appears as “an old reverend gentleman in furred gown and cap”.
During the mid-17th century, the debate about the celebration of Christmas became politically charged, with Royalists adopting a pro-Christmas stance and radical puritans striving to ban the festival entirely. Early in 1646 an anonymous satirical author wrote The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Christmas, in which a Royalist lady is frantically searching for Father Christmas: this was followed months later by the Royalist poet John Taylor’s The Complaint of Christmas, in which Father Christmas mournfully visits puritan towns but sees “…no sign or token of any Holy Day”. A book dating from the time of the Commonwealth, The Vindication of CHRISTMAS or, His Twelve Yeares’ Observations upon the Times (London, 1652), involved “Old Christmas” advocating a merry, alcoholic Christmas and casting aspersions on the charitable motives of the ruling Puritans. In a similar vein, a humorous pamphlet of 1686 by Josiah King presents Father Christmas as the personification of festive traditions pre-dating the puritan commonwealth. He is described as an elderly gentleman of cheerful appearance, “who when he came look’t so smug and pleasant, his cherry cheeks appeared through his thin milk white locks, like (b)lushing Roses vail’d with snow white Tiffany”. His character is associated with feasting, hospitality and generosity to the poor rather than the giving of gifts.
This tradition continued into the following centuries, with “Old Father Christmas” being evoked in 1734 in the pamphlet Round About Our Coal Fire, as “Shewing what Hospitality was in former Times, and how little of it there remains at present”, a rebuke to “stingy” gentry. A writer in “Time’s Telescope” (1822) states that in Yorkshire at eight o’clock on Christmas Eve the bells greet “Old Father Christmas” with a merry peal, the children parade the streets with drums, trumpets, bells, (or in their absence, with the poker and shovel, taken from their humble cottage fire), the yule candle is lighted, and; “High on the cheerful fire. Is blazing seen th’ enormous Christmas brand.” A letter to The Times in 1825, warning against poultry-dealers dishonestly selling off sub-standard geese at Christmas time, is jokingly signed “Father Christmas”.
In these early references, Father Christmas, although invariably an old and cheerful man, is mainly associated with adult feasting and drinking rather than the giving of presents to children. By the 1840s however this had begun to change, and Father Christmas gradually began to merge with the pre-modern gift-giver St Nicholas (Dutch Sinterklaas, hence Santa Claus) and associated folklore. ‘Old Father Christmas’ appears as a character in two mumming plays recorded in Worcestershire and Hampshire in 1856 and 1860 respectively: he has no specific or consistent dress, but carries holly (Worcestershire) or, in the Hampshire example, a “begging-box” while going on crutches, indicating he is still a reminder of the traditional duty to support the poor at Christmas rather than being himself a bringer of gifts.”
Would Jane have been familiar with the idea of Father Christmas? Absolutely. The Austens were a well read, historically acute family. Would they have celebrated any portion of Christmas with a nod towards this character? Personally, I think it unlikely– Father Christmas did not have an integral part of the holiday as Santa Claus does today– for the Austens, Christmas (and the following 12 days) would have been first and foremost a religious holiday– a wonderful time to gather with friends and family, to exchange small tokens of affection, to indulge in dancing, perhaps (never forget that Jane Austen met Tom Lefroy during the Christmas holidays of 1795.) For Regency families, however, Twelfth Night remained, as it had for hundreds of years, the celebration of hilarity and fun, of feasting and dancing, play acting and romancing. It would be another generation or two before it became recognizable as the holiday we would recognize today, complete with tree, stockings, Santa and mountains of gifts.
Laura Boyle runs Austentation: Regency Accessories. Visit her website or her Etsy shop for over a dozen styles of hats and bonnets, as well as numerous other Regency accessories. Follow Austentation on Facebook and be notified of new products as they are added to the inventory.
Historical information on the origins of Father Christmas and images from Wikipedia.com.
The Beefsteak Club is the name or nickname of several 18th and 19th-century male dining clubs that celebrated the beefsteak as a symbol of patriotic and often Whig (liberal) concepts of liberty and prosperity.
The first beefsteak club was founded about 1705 in London by the actor Richard Estcourt and others in the arts and politics. This club flourished for less than a decade. The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks was established in 1735 by another performer, John Rich, at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, where he was then manager, and George Lambert, his scenic artist, with two dozen members of the theatre and arts community (Samuel Johnson joined in 1780). The society became much celebrated, and new members included royalty, statesmen and great soldiers: in 1785, the Prince of Wales joined.
At the weekly meetings, the members wore a blue coat and buff waistcoat with brass buttons bearing a gridiron motif and the words “Beef and liberty”. The steaks and baked potatoes were accompanied by port or porter. After dinner, the evening was given up to noisy revelry. The club met almost continuously until 1867. Sir Henry Irving continued its tradition in the late nineteenth century.
The first known beefsteak club (the Beef-Stake Club, Beef-Steak Clubb or Honourable Beef-Steak Club) seems to have been that founded in about 1705 in London. It was started by some seceders from the Whiggish Kit-Cat Club, “desirous of proving substantial beef was as prolific a food for an English wit as pies and custards for a Kit-cat beau.” The actor Richard Estcourt was its “providore” or president and its most popular member. William Chetwood in A General History of the Stage is the much quoted source that the “chief Wits and great men of the nation” were members of this club. This was the first beefsteak club known to have used a gridiron as its badge. In 1708, Dr. William King dedicated his poem “Art of Cookery” to “the Honourable Beef Steak Club”. His poem includes the couplet:
He that of Honour, Wit and Mirth partakes,
May be a fit Companion o’er Beef-steaks.
The club originally met at the Imperial Phiz public house in Old Jewry in the City of London, but finding that venue not private enough, it ceased to meet there, and by 1709 it was not known “whether they have healed the breach and returned into the Kit-Cat community [or] … remove from place to place to prevent discovery.” Joseph Addison referred to the club in The Spectator in 1711 as still functioning. The historian Colin J. Horne suggests that the club may have come to an end with the death of Estcourt in 1712. There was also a “Rump-Steak or Liberty Club” (also called “The Patriots Club”) of London, which was in existence in 1733–34, whose members were “eager in opposition to Sir Robert Walpole”.
The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks was established in 1735 by John Rich at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, of which he was then manager. One version of its origin has it that the Earl of Peterborough, supping one night with Rich in his private room, was so delighted with the steak Rich grilled him that he suggested a repetition of the meal the next week. Another version is that George Lambert, the scene-painter at the theatre, was often too busy to leave the theatre and “contented himself with a beefsteak broiled upon the fire in the painting-room.” His visitors so enjoyed sharing this dish that they set up the Sublime Society. William and Robert Chambers, writing in 1869, favour the second version, noting that Peterborough was not one of the original members. A third version, favoured by the historian of the society, Walter Arnold, is that the society was formed out of the regular dinners shared at the theatre by Rich and Lambert, consisting of hot steak dressed by Rich, accompanied by “a bottle of old port from the tavern hard by.” Whatever the details of its genesis, Rich and Lambert are listed as the first two of the society’s twenty-four founding members. Women were not admitted. From the outset, the society strove to avoid the term “club”, but the shorter “Beefsteak Club” was soon used by many as an informal alternative.
The early core of the society was made up of actors, artists, writers and musicians, among them William Hogarth (a founder-member), David Garrick (possibly), John Wilkes (elected 1754), Samuel Johnson (1780), and John Philip Kemble (1805). The society soon became much celebrated and these men of the arts were joined by noblemen, royalty, statesmen and great soldiers: in 1785, the Prince of Wales joined, and later his brothers the Dukes of Clarence and Sussex became members.
Meetings were held every Saturday between November and June. All members were required to wear the society’s uniform – a blue coat and buff waistcoat with brass buttons. The buttons bore a gridiron motif and the words “Beef and liberty”. The steaks were served on hot pewter plates, with onions and baked potatoes, and were accompanied by port or porter. The only second course offered was toasted cheese. After dinner, the tablecloth was removed, the cook collected the money, and the rest of the evening was given up to noisy revelry.
The society met at Covent Garden until the fire of 1808, when it moved first to the Bedford Coffee House, and thence the following year to the Old Lyceum Theatre. On the burning of the Lyceum in 1830, “The Steaks” met again in the Bedford Coffee House until 1838, when the Lyceum reopened, and a large room there was allotted to the club. These meetings were held till the society ceased to exist in 1867. Its decline in its last twenty or so years was due to changing fashion: many of its members were no longer free on Saturdays, being either engaged in events in London’s social season or else away from London at weekends, something much encouraged by the opening of railways. The customary time for dinner had also changed. The society moved its dinner time from 4.00 p.m. in 1808, to 6.00 p.m. in 1833 and to 7.00 p.m. in 1861, and finally to 8.00 p.m. in 1866, but the change inconvenienced the members who preferred the old timing and did not attract new members. Moreover, in Victorian England, its Georgian heartiness and ritual, and old-fashioned uniform, no longer appealed. By 1867 the society had only eighteen members, and the average attendance at dinners had dwindled to two. The club was wound up in 1867, and its assets were auctioned at Christie’s, raising a little over £600.
Thomas Sheridan founded a “Beefsteak Club” in Dublin at the Theatre Royal in 1749, and of this Peg Woffington was president. According to William and Robert Chambers, writing in 1869, “it could hardly be called a club at all, seeing all expenses were defrayed by Manager Sheridan, who likewise invited the guests – generally peers and members of parliament. … Such weekly meetings were common to all theatres, it being a custom for the principal performers to dine together every Saturday and invite ‘authors and other geniuses’ to partake of their hospitality.”
The Liberty Beef Steak Club sought to show solidarity with the radical John Wilkes MP and met at Appleby’s Tavern in Parliament Street, London for an unknown duration after Wilkes’s return from exile in France in 1768.
The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks was re-formed in 1966 and has met continually since then. Several nineteenth century members have lineal descendants among today’s membership, who wear the original blue and buff uniform (of a Regency character) and buttons and adhere to the 1735 constitution whenever practicable. This revival started to meet at the Irish Club, Eaton Square, in 1966, then at the Beefsteak Club, Irving Street, and today meets in a private room at the Boisdale Club and Restaurant in Belgravia/Victoria and, annually, at White’s Club in St James’s, where it is able to dine at the early society’s nineteenth century table and where it also keeps the early society’s original “President’s Chair”, which Queen Elizabeth II gave to the current society in 1969. Although other of the society’s relics (such as the original Grid Iron, Sword of State, Halberts and early members’ chairs, rings, glasses, documents, etc.) have passed down to members of the current society from ancestors in the original society, the current society “leaves such items in safety, keeping less fragile replicas and proxy items for its normal meetings in Central London”. Other early customs of the original society, such as the singing and composition of songs, are also encouraged by the current society.
The Beefsteak Club that today has premises at 9 Irving Street, London, was established in 1876. When it was founded as a successor to the Sublime Society, its members hoped to rent the society’s dining room at the Lyceum. As that room was not available, the club held its first meeting, on 11 March 1876, in rooms above the Folly Theatre in King William IV Street. Two features of the club were, and are, that all members and guests sit together at a single long table, and that by tradition the club steward and the waiters are all addressed as “Charles”.
The Swiss Family Robinson: “One of the most popular novels of all time”
Johann David Wyss (28 May 1743 – 11 January 1818) is best remembered for his book The Swiss Family Robinson (Der schweizerische Robinson). It is said that he was inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, but wanted to write a story from which his own children would learn, as the father in the story taught important lessons to his children.
As a pastor, Wyss hoped to teach his sons family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance. Wyss’ attitude toward education is in line with the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and many of the episodes have to do with Christian-oriented moral lessons such as frugality, husbandry, acceptance, cooperation, etc. The adventures are presented as a series of lessons in natural history and the physical sciences, and resemble other, similar educational books for children in this period, such as Charlotte Turner Smith’s Rural Walks: in Dialogues intended for the use of Young Persons (1795), Rambles Further: A continuation of Rural Walks (1796), A Natural History of Birds, intended chiefly for young persons (1807). But the novel differs in that it is modeled on Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, a genuine adventure story, and presents a geographically impossible array of mammals, birds, reptiles, and plants (including the bamboos, cassavas, cinnamon trees, coconut palm trees, fir trees, flax, Myrica cerifera, rice, rubber plant potatoes, sago palms, and an entirely fictitious kind of sugarcane) that probably could never have existed together on a single island for the children’s edification, nourishment, clothing and convenience.
Over the years there have been many versions of the story with episodes added, changed, or deleted. Perhaps the best-known English version is by William H. G. Kingston, first published in 1879. It is based on Isabelle de Montolieu’s 1813 French adaptation and 1824 continuation (from chapter 37) Le Robinson suisse, ou, Journal d’un père de famille, naufragé avec ses enfants in which were added further adventures of Fritz, Franz, Ernest, and Jack. Other English editions that claim to include the whole of the Wyss-Montolieu narrative are by W. H. Davenport Adams (1869–1910) and Mrs H. B. Paull (1879). As Carpenter and Prichard write in The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (Oxford, 1995), “with all the expansions and contractions over the past two centuries (this includes a long history of abridgments, condensations, Christianizing, and Disney products), Wyss’s original narrative has long since been obscured.” The closest English translation to the original is William Godwin’s 1816 translation, reprinted by Penguin Classics.
Although movie and TV adaptations typically name the family “Robinson”, it is not a Swiss name; the “Robinson” of the title refers to Robinson Crusoe. The German name translates as the Swiss Robinson, and identifies the novel as belonging to the Robinsonade genre, rather than as a story about a family named Robinson.
The novel opens with the family in the hold of a sailing ship, weathering a great storm. Only the family is saved when the vessel breaks apart on a reef and the crew and other passengers jump into lifeboats without waiting for the little family to join them. As the ship tosses about, the father prays that God will spare them. There is plenty of food on board, and after they eat, the boys go to sleep, leaving the father and the mother to guard them.
The ship survives the night, and the family finds themselves within sight of a tropical island. The next morning, they decide to get to the island they can see beyond the reef. With much effort, they construct a vessel out of tubs. After they fill the tubs with food and ammunition and all other articles of value they can safely carry, they row toward the island. Two dogs from the ship swim beside them, and the boys are glad they will have pets when they reach their new home. The ship’s cargo of livestock, dogs, guns & powder, carpentry tools, books, a disassembled pinnace, and provisions have survived.
Their first task on reaching the island is to erect a tent of sailcloth they brought from the ship. They gather moss and dry it so that they will have some protection from the ground when they sleep. They are able to find a lobster and to shoot some game, thus to add fresh food to their supplies. Since they have no utensils for eating, they use shells for spoons, all dipping out of the iron kettle that they brought from the ship. They released some geese and pigeons while they were still on the ship and brought two hens and two cocks with them. The father knows that they must prepare for a long time on the island, and his thoughts are as much on provisions for the future as for their immediate wants.
The father and Fritz, the oldest son, spend the next day exploring the island.
The family spends the next few days securing themselves against hunger. The father and Fritz make several trips to the ship in their efforts to bring ashore everything that they can possibly use. The domesticated animals on the ship are towed back to the island. There is also a great store of firearms and ammunition, hammocks for sleeping, carpenter’s tools, lumber, cooking utensils, silverware, and dishes.
While the father and Fritz are salvaging these supplies, the mother and the younger boys are working on the shore, sowing seeds, examining the contents of the kegs that floated to shore, and in every way possible making the tent a more livable home. The mother and boys also explore the island to find a spot for a more permanent home. When the father and Fritz can join them, the whole family helps to construct a tree house.
The book covers two years. The father and older boys explore various environments about the island. At the end, the father wonders if they will ever again see the rest of humanity. A few years later, an European ship is driven onto their island. The captain is given the journal containing the story of their life on the island. The captain is unable to return to the island because of a storm. He returns to Europe, where the story is published. The family continue to live tranquilly on their island.
The Swiss Family Robinson was first published in 1812 and translated into English two years later. It has since become one of the most popular books of all time. It was originally illustrated by his son, Johann Emmanuel Wyss.
The book was edited by another son, Johann Rudolph Wyss (4 March 1782 – 21 March 1830), an author, writer, and folklorist. In 1805 he became Professor of Philosophy at Bern’s academy, and later chief librarian of its city library; in 1811, he wrote the words to the former Swiss national anthem Rufst Du, mein Vaterland . He died in Bern, in 1830, at the young age of 48.
Unlike this son, Johann David Wyss lived up to the age of 74, dying in 1818, six years after publishing The Swiss Family Robinson.
Wyss has been described as an author whose style was “firmly Christian and moral in tone”. Jules Verne declared that The Swiss Family Robinson was one of his favorite books. He liked it so much, that he decided to write a sequel entitled The Castaways of the Flag, many years after Wyss’s death.