BEFORE I share my thoughts in a most difficult of forays, I must
explain that I have always tried to use this opportunity in the
Church Times Christmas issue to show you some visual image
apt to the feast.
In my previous Jane Austen Christmas piece, I turned to her
contemporary William Blake, whose work was in many ways the
antithesis of her own. His was generally in a sweeping and lofty
vein (though sometimes touched with heartbreaking compassion),
while her work, she herself suggested, was akin to the miniature -
a miniaturist in a country that has seen many of the most beautiful
miniatures ever conceived, both in manuscripts and in portraits.
There was no kind of a match between those two giants of the human
This time it was no good seeking out paintings of the nativity
that Jane herself had seen. Of formal pictures at all she must have
seen very few, besides family portraits and occasional landscapes.
She twice encountered the work of Benjamin West, however, who
through all her adult life presided over the Royal Academy.
In 1811, she saw West's Christ Healing the Sick at the
British Gallery in Pall Mall, and in early September 1814 she
interrupted her work on Emma to pay a visit to her briefly
prosperous brother Henry in London. While there, she saw West's
Christ Rejected at 125 Pall Mall. "I prefer it," she told
her friend Martha Lloyd, "to anything of the kind I ever saw before
. . . indeed it is the first representation of our Saviour which
ever at all contented me."
It is unlikely she ever saw West's treatment of the nativity,
which had been occasioned by George II's commission of a sequence
of stained-glass windows for St George's Chapel, Windsor, in the
1790s. West's east window of the nativity and aisle windows of the
adoration of the shepherds were short-lived. They were promptly
ousted, first by Willement, and then by Clayton & Bell. Some of
West's ideas for the commission are in Greenville, South Carolina
(Bob Jones University), and one sketch for the angels announcing
the birth to the shepherds in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is
illustrated here. The design has fire, not always Austen's favoured
quality, but here it is, a sketch made in her formative years, by
an artist whose later work she admired.
A few years ago, I offered, at this holy time of year, a general
inquiry into the place of Christmas in the life of Austen. Hers was
a period of very low-key celebration of the Church's great feasts
among the gentry, other than around the dining table and in the
ballroom. The maintenance of ancient customs of celebration had
fallen to the unsophisticated, and thank goodness they honoured
them, or we might know less of our ancient ways of keeping
There could be nothing under this heading written by Jane in her
letters to her sister that Cassandra could have felt obliged to
censure when more tight-lipped mores ushered in the reign of
Victoria; so we must assume that nothing significant has been
ONE lack I have always found particularly painful: in
Emma, having taken us, in some detail, to the brink of
Christmas Day itself, Austen passed over 25 December and the rest
of the holiday in a silence broken only by a remark that the
weather, hesitating between snow and slush, conveniently kept the
heroine indoors. In the end, I have fallen into the temptation that
has beset better writers, and attempted to fill in the gap
Towards the end of Chapter 16, Jane Austen wrote: The
weather was most favourable for her; though Christmas-day, she
could not go to church. Mr Woodhouse would have been miserable had
his daughter attempted it, and she was therefore safe from either
exciting or receiving unpleasant and most unsuitable ideas. .
A little snow, however, was no obstacle to the Knightley
brothers, and they set off in great spirit, the older boys Henry
and John perched one on each shoulder. With her old toys and
trinkets, Emma amused little George, only three, with his older
sister Bella and her own namesake, baby Emma. The party, with the
addition of the undaunted Westons, rejoined them for an early
dinner, so arranged to allow the united staff of the three houses
to have their party in the afternoon. The Knightleys gave a happy
account of the church ceremony, giving high praise to the embowered
musicians' gallery and the vigorous offering of voice and fiddle
coming from it, above all, a treble solo from the Donwell
Mr Elton had made a poor shift of his sermon: he had brought in
his appeal for a steeple: perhaps he had Mr John Knightley's purse
in mind. It was in poor taste, and he was suffering from a heavy
cold. Mr Woodhouse was alarmed: had Emma caught it in the coach the
night before? They distracted him with plans for snowballing and
maybe a snowman. The resourceful Mr Weston was furnished with an
old hat and pipe against that possibility. While the men took the
excited older children on to the lawn, Mr Woodhouse and Isabel
settled by the fire with Taylor's Sermons.
"Come, Emma," said Mrs Weston. "Let us repair to the nursery and
give Jennie and Betty a chance to join the others in the servants'
hall." In his elegant rebuilding of Hartfield, Mr Woodhouse's
father had not reached the back quarters; so there was still a
generous hearth for the yule log, hospitable beams for mistletoe,
and a stout table where stood a great bowl for the apple-bobbing.
As Jenny and Betty clattered eagerly down the back stairs, Emma had
a moment's regret that decorous modern ways precluded her from such
moments of merriment.
Drawing up to the well-guarded nursery fire, which Mrs Weston
had mended to a more cheerful flame, Emma threw spillikins for the
toddlers, while Mrs Weston nursed Baby George. "Tell me," she said
softly after a long pause. "Why did my mother die?" Mrs Weston
answered gently, "Your mother was not very strong, and Mr Perry was
against their attempting another. But your father did so want a
son. . ."
Emma did not speak for a while. Her father's oft repeated
phrases came to her mind: of his daughter, blissfully unaware of
her husband's irritations, "Poor Isabella." Well, Isabella had been
married seven years, and there were already five children. How many
more to come? And of the now happily married Miss Taylor: "Poor Mrs
Suddenly she looked at her friend. Mrs Weston must be in her
mid-thirties and it would be a first. . . . Her friend smiled
bravely "We are hoping," she said softly, "but it is too soon to
talk about it." The fire crackled and little Emma was asleep.
"Come," said Mrs Weston briskly, "we must call the girls."
She stretched for the speaking tube. "The men are coming in from
the garden. Mr Weston is hoping for charades. What think you of
'Inspiring'? Mr Elton put him in mind of it this morning, with his
hint about a steeple. Mr Weston thought he could suggest the spire
with that children's game. You know: 'This is the church. . .' The
'Inn' would be seasonable, and to suggest the bull ring he could
borrow an old red curtain from Mrs Thornby's linen cupboard. Mr
Woodhouse had insisted on keeping them against the pox."
Emma smiled. Mrs Weston knew the contents of the cupboards at
Hartfield better than she did. And for the whole word? He thought a
gallant gesture. . .
In the hall they met with a little commotion of boots and rosy
cheeks. Before joining the company round her father's gentle
fireside, Emma lingered a moment in the porch, enjoying the sharp
tingle of a new frost as the bells drew Highbury to Christmas
evensong. . . The ground covered with snow, and the atmosphere
in that unsettled state between frost and thaw, which is of all
others the most unfriendly for exercise, every morning beginning in
rain or snow, and every evening setting in to freeze, she was for
many days a most honourable prisoner.
A happy Christmas!
With acknowledgement to the archivists of St George's