A Merry Regency Christmas

The poet Robert Southey, in the guise of a Spaniard travelling to England, remarked upon the great number of large sugared plum cakes to be had at Christmas in London. However, he concluded sourly that not much else was celebrated during the holiday.

“This is the only way in which these festivals are celebrated, and if the children had not an interest in keeping them up, even this would be disused.”

— Letters from England by don Manual Alvarez Espriella, Volume 3, By Robert Southey 1803

Twelfth cake-- historicfood.com

Twelfth cake– historicfood.com

The great festival of Christmas had been on the wane in Protestant England for some time, in danger of falling by the wayside like many other religious festivals of the old faith. Still, plenty of merriment went on during the holiday.

Take the battlefield, where a plan to march soldiers to another location to prevent excessive drinking was scarcely successful, for it was only a:

“.. change of scene and not of situation, for they got so drunk Christmas night that the grenadiers set fire to one of their tents…”
–Royal Military Panorama, Or, Officers’ Companion, Volume 3, 1813
 And who could forget the merriment in the Loveden household when a lady’s maid could recall, under oath, the circumstances of her mistress’ improper behavior:
A: “I had reason to know Mr. Barker paid particular attention to Mrs. Loveden, and she always made a Point of Dressing more upon those Occasions when he visited at the House.”
Q: “By Attentions, do you mean improper Attentions, that you thought their Attentions to each other were of an Improper nature?
–Journals of the House of Lords, Volume 48
via the Royal Collection Trust

          via the Royal Collection Trust

Southey could not know that Christmas would soon regain new prominence in the Victorian era when it would take on a many-mantled cloak of new traditions. In the meantime, he and other Regency romantics had to remain content with what Christmas offered then: a moment of reflection, by which the entirety of the year could still be measured:

“From you the play’rs enjoy it and feel it here,
the Merry Christmas and the Happy Year,
There is a good old saying–pray attend it:
As you begin the year, surely you’ll end it.”
–from the Prologue of Cymon, A Dramatic Romance by David Garrick
The London Theatre: A Collection of the Most Celebrated Dramatic (Vol III) by Thomas Dibdin (1815)

Regency Critics: Thanksgiving, Part II

In January 1817, the Prince Regent survived an attack on his carriage as he was being driven to the opening of Parliament.

War had ended the year before, but transitioning to a peacetime economy had vexed the Government and there was much suffering. The Prince Regent was blamed in part for the situation. Nevertheless, a special Thanksgiving prayer was ordered to be said in chapels throughout the Church of England:

The Prince Regent, by Lawrence. Someone once said he looks like Ted Koppel.

The Prince Regent, by Lawrence. The observation has been made that His Royal Highness resembles Ted Koppel.

Merciful God, who, in compassion to a sinful Nation, hast defeated the designs of desperate Men, and hast protected from the base and barbarous assaults of a lawless multitude, the Regent of this United Kingdom, accept our praise and thanksgiving. Continue, we implore Thee, Thy protection of his Royal Person. Shield him from the arrow that flieth by day, and from the pestilence that walketh in darkness; from the secret designs of treason, and from the madness of the People.

A sinful Nation. The madness of the People.

Who are the People, it was demanded, and why should they, slandered for being mad and treasonous, give thanks that Prinny survived?

These sentiments were masterfully uttered by William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830) a man of many talents, including art and literary criticism. He had been a contributor to Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review and his published commentaries on English literature made him a favorite of Leigh Hunt.

Blackwood’s was quite in charity with him as well:

“When Mr. Hazlitt’s taste and judgment are left to themselves, we think him among the very best, if not the very best, living critic on our national literature.”

Then came his remarkable Political Essays, with Sketches of Public Characters in 1819, criticizing, among others, the poet Southey and his lust for muzzling the press, but the Prince Regent as well, for being such an unworthy object of the people’s thanks:

“What have hereditary Monarchs..ever done for the people?”

“For one regicide committed by the People, there have been thousands committed by Kings themselves.”

Oh! Ungrateful wretch.

In less than a month, Blackwood’s threw Hazlitt under the bus, labelling him an “unprincipled blunderer.” One month more and the Leopard himself (under the pseudonym ‘old friend with a new face’) produced a scathing so-called cross-examination of “pimpled” Hazlitt. Unperturbed, Hazlitt responded to this article with his own letter refuting much of the allegations made against him, notably,

“And I am NOT pimpled, but remarkably pale and sallow.”

A self-portrait of young Hazlitt, sans pimples

A self-portrait of young Hazlitt, sans pimples

Something to be thankful for.


Robert Southey: General Tilney

“.. Though I don’t suppose he could be as villainous as Count Ugolino. No one could be.”

“Oh, no, he isn’t villainous at all–at least, I shouldn’t think he would be, but I’m not even acquainted with him! I only chose him for Ugolino because of the way his eyebrows slant, which makes him look just like a villain. And also, of course, because of his crested air–which made me long to give him a setdown!”

Sylvester, or, The Wicked Uncle by Georgette Heyer

Robert Hardy as General Tilney--this actor was a marvelous Leicester in Elizabeth R--image from Jane Austen Today

Robert Hardy as General Tilney–this actor was a marvelous Leicester in Elizabeth R–image from Jane Austen Today

In Northanger Abbey, the heroine, fresh from reading Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, didn’t immediately perceive General Tilney to be a “bad man.” Jane Austen had made him a handsome, vigorous man “of commanding aspect.”

Catherine’s opinion changed dramatically once she stayed at Northanger Abbey. Henry Tilney’s father became stern and menacing, scrupulously avoiding all mention of his dead wife. Catherine disliked him every bit as much as darling Phoebe did the Duke of Salford.

Moreover, the general was a busy man:

‘I have many pamphlets to finish,’ said he to Catherine, ‘before I can close my eyes, and perhaps may be poring over the affairs of the nation for hours after you are asleep. Can either of us be more meetly employed? My eyes will be blinding for the good of others, and yours preparing by rest for future mischief.’ — Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

You and your “stupid” pamphlets.

Stupid or not, General Tilney’s reading was probably an obsessive affair:

“…we should also assume that the General is actually worried about how his country was doing in its war against France, at a time when Napoleon was emerging as the seemingly invincible military genius of the day.” Parents against children: General Tilney as Gothic Monster, John Dussinger, PhD for JASNA.ORG

Staying up all night, reading and watching for spies in the neighborhood, can make a fellow downright surly. And when one has seen war, it’s not impossible to imagine how its re-emergence might throw a character’s personality in disorder:

Where some wrecked army from the Conquerors might

Robert Southey -- the butt of Byron's jokes

Robert Southey — his critics detested his reversal in politics, that he would woo Liberty as his mistress and marry the disreputable Legitimacy

Speed their disastrous flight,

With thee fierce Genius! let me trace their way,

And hear at times the deep-heart groan

Of some poor sufferer left to die alone,

His sore wounds smarting with the winds of night;

And we will pause, where, on the wild,

The Mother to her frozen breast

On the heap’d snows reclining clasps her child

And with him sleeps, chill’d to eternal rest!

To Horror by Robert Southey