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Christmas at Hartfield revisited

by
19 December 2014

Pamela Tudor-Craig fills in the gaps for Jane Austen's heroine Emma, and an artist whose work her creator appreciated

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift in memory of John Hubbard Sturgis by his daughters, Miss Frances C. Sturgis, Miss Mabel R. Sturgis, Mrs William Haynes-Smith (Alice Maud Sturgis), and Miss Evelyn r. Sturgis, 42.599. photograph © 19 December 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

For a Windsor window: Angels Announcing the Birth of Our Saviour, c.1790, by Benjamin West (1738-1820), pen, brush, and brown ink, transparent and opaque oil paint on paper (34.6 × 12.6 cm)

For a Windsor window: Angels Announcing the Birth of Our Saviour, c.1790, by Benjamin West (1738-1820), pen, brush, and brown ink, transparent and o...

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 imagination.

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 festival.

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 lost.

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 myself.

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 shepherd's boy.

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 Weston."

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 Chapel, Windsor.

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