It is ironic that an American author describes the sights and sounds of Regency Britain as well as any native diarist of the time. In a previous post, this blog examined Washington Irving’s (1783-1859) remarkable talent for charming the jaded ton. Today’s post takes a look at his first great success, the 1819-1820 serial Sketch Book.*
The chapters on Christmas are written in a visual way that is unusually striking. They have since been printed in a separate volume many times–
A coffee-table book of late-Georgian Yuletide.
Colorful, accessible to everyone’s understanding, Irving’s style might be considered unduly sentimental. Regency-era readers in particular, steeped as they were in the Romantic movement’s faraway, exotic locales, were bound to find a Yankee’s observations of everyday British life provincial and dull.
On the contrary,
“…(the Christmas sketches) are written to engage the finer feelings of the heart, they operate upon the imagination like the polished weapons of modern surgery; they make a deep, but a delicate wound.”
The chapters begin with a journey to Squire’s estate via public coach. As an aside, I consider this snippet as good as any primary resource on Regency-era holiday travel.
There is the coachman “with a large bunch of Christmas greens stuck in the button-hole of his coat.” The English inn kitchen is detailed down to the last pot.
Young students returning home from school for the holiday are among the passengers in the coach. They seem perfectly ordinary to the naked eye. After Irving gets through with them, these schoolboys are impossible to forget. When the coach finally rolls to a stop before an ornate country estate gate, they eagerly look to see who has been sent up from the house to wait for them. It is Old John, the family footman. He has brought with him their childhood pony Bantam, an intrepid steed who will clear any hedge. The beloved dog that greets them “wriggles his whole body with joy.”
“..(the boys) held John’s hands, both talking at once, overpowering him with by questions about home, and with school anecdotes.”
Arriving at his own destination, Irving joins a large company of extended family and friends hosted by Squire at Christmas. No creature escapes his keen attention. Squire sings a stanza of an ancient carol, “his eye glistening, his voice rambling out of all the bounds of time and tune,” and the parson scolds the sexton for decorating the church with pagan mistletoe amongst the greens.
Squire’s cousin, Master Simon, acts as master of ceremony.
“..a tight, brisk little man, with the air of an arrant old bachelor…an eye of great quickness and vivacity, with a drollery and lurking waggery of expression that was irresistible.”
The Christmas Eve meal displays Squire’s singular character. He is a man who loves nothing more than researching the old customs so he can recreate them on important occasions. The sideboard is laden with generous amounts of rich, elaborate dishes, but Squire forsakes them to eat the simple, traditional meal of frumenty — ‘England’s oldest national dish.’
For his part, Irving was glad to see the familiar minced pie.
Christmas Day dinner is full of ceremony. The wassail bowl, the boar’s head and meat pie decorated with peacock feathers all warrant extensive explanatory footnotes at the end of the Christmas chapters. It seems Irving was compelled to prove to his astonished London audience that ‘the grave and learned manner of old custom’ was still being carried on in many parts of the country.
Of course there are games and dancing afterward the main meal. Squire’s sons, an army officer and an ‘Oxonian,’ step out with their maiden aunts. Most amusing is the boisterous schoolgirl trying Master Simon’s patience when he partners her in a stately rigadoon. There are masques and mummeries, enacted in costume fashioned from old clothes brought down from the attic, and an ancient hoodening rite whereby the young parade a hobby horse covered in cloth, demanding tribute from the adults.
Squire worries the Christmas spirit will disappear without the pastoral traditions to sustain it. He may not have been aware that his American guest was about to revive the Yuletide holiday’s former glow. Certainly he did not know that another great storyteller would follow Irving, one who would rekindle the Christmas spirit into a roaring blaze.
*Quotes (unless otherwise noted) are taken from Old Christmas by Washington Irving. This extract is from volume II of the original Sketch Book published in serial form in 1821. The clever illustrations by Randolph Caldecott appear in the 1886 printing.