P&P200: Lizzy and Darcy on Twelfth Night
The answer is yes and no. Little do we know it, but our New Year’s Eve celebration with its fireworks and revelling is descended from another tradition, that of Twelfth Night, the last and twelfth day of Christmas, celebrated traditionally in England on the 5th or 6th of January, though in some areas it coincided with the turning of the new year. The celebration was traditionally deliberately boisterous. This was because the intention was drive away evil spirits from the land so the trees could grow. Bonfires, shooting, loud banging and hitting the trees with sticks were all part and parcel of the event.
In Jane Austen’s day in Kent, Twelfth Night would have been very much alive, particularly since Kent was known for its apple orchards, and the focus of the wassailing was the apple tree and the agricultural community’s hopes for a new year of fertility and plenty. Jane Austen would certainly have been wassailed by the local population and asked for a cup of wassail ale or mulled hard cider, though perhaps given that her father was a clergyman, it was unlikely JA would have participated in what were clearly pagan rituals.
For P&P200 I thought it might be fun to have an excerpt in which Lizzy and Darcy take part in a Wassail/Twelfth Night celebration.
Lizzy felt like a child who’d been dressed in a grown-up’s gown. She’d never imagined it would be so difficult to look dignified and descend the stairs at the same time. Her sympathy went out to the medieval ladies who were obliged to do so on a daily basis. The train of her long velvet gown cascaded down the stairs behind her, too long by far, and she had to hold onto the banister to make sure she didn’t get tangled in the heavy cloth and tumble down to the bottom.
She was so busy keeping herself from tripping that she didn’t even notice that Darcy was waiting for her at the bottom.
“You look beautiful, my dear,” said Darcy.
She paused to look at him, and bit back a laugh. Even now, after being married, she was never sure if he would be offended if she laughed at him, but he looked so ridiculous she really couldn’t help it. In his scarlet velvet doublet and hose, and that absurd turban trimmed with holly and mistletoe, he looked like a caricature of Henry IV. The laugh escaped her lips.
“So do you, my dear,” she said.
Darcy’s lips twitched. “I’ll have you know that every one of my forefathers has worn a costume like this for Twelfth Night for the last three hundred years, except in the days of the Puritans, when the revels were forbidden. You are mocking an ancient and venerable tradition.”
Lizzy rearranged her expression into one that resembled Lady Catherine’s haughtiest.
“I beg your pardon, but as you are perhaps aware, my purpose in marrying you was to pollute the shades of Pemberley and rid it of all dignity.”
“I am only too well aware of that,” said Darcy, “particularly since at the moment you are standing on the train of your gown and any movement you make will tear it.”
Lizzy exclaimed under her breath and focussed her attention on setting up the train so that it did not get in her way.
The sounds of out of tune singing, the whacking of metal and cheering drew closer, followed by a loud banging on the door.
“Ready?” said Darcy, regarding her quizzingly and offering his arm.
Lizzy took his arm and lifted some of her train with her free hand. She felt expectant. She had always enjoyed the revels waissail at Meryton, but she had never participated in a procession. It was a new experience to attend as the mistress of a large estate.
“Wassail to ye both,” said a young woman dressed in garlanded ribbons.
“And to you too,” said Darcy.
The revellers began to sing in unsteady drunken voices.
As you sit beside the fire, Pray think of us poor children Who wander in the mire.
There were a hundred voices at least. Lizzy was surprised there were so many people on the estate, but she supposed that on such a large estate there was a great deal of work to be done. The maids, however, made short work of it, and before she knew it all the revellers had received their ale. Darcy give a sign to the butler, who uncovered the large silver wassail bowl. The maids came forward and began ladling the hot spicy ale cups and handing them out.
“To bless the wassail tree,” he said.
A silence descended on the crowd as Darcy took up the ladle and filled it with steaming cider from a different container. Darcy then took a loaf of bread and gave it to the woman with the ribbons.
“If you’d care to lead the way, Mr. Darcy and Mrs. Darcy,” said the man with the wooden bowl.
As Lizzy and Darcy stepped out into the night, the voices picked up the wassail song and the clanging of metal – spoons against milk-pans — began again. Steam rose up from the bowl of cider into the cold night. Two footmen walked ahead with lanterns to light the path to the orchard and to the wassail tree.
Darcy walked by her side, looking wonderfully serene and dignified despite his clothing. Lizzy felt a surge of pride at this new husband of hers. It would have been enough to simply serve the wassail at the door, without having to join in the procession. But there was something special about being part of it all, part of the land and the people that worked on it.
As if knowing what she was thinking, he turned and smiled at her, a private kind of smile that squeezed at her heart and set it racing.
Monica Fairview is author of The Other Mr. Darcy, The Darcy Cousins and An Improper Suitor.
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