In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen leaves us to wonder what happened in Hertfordshire over Christmastide whilst the militia was stationed in Meryton. Take a behind-the-scenes peek with me at what might have happened.
December 25, 1811 Christmas morning
Christmas morning dawned cool and clear. The Gardiner children dashed down the stairs, followed by the rest of the family. Mama ushered them all into the crowded morning room festooned with evergreen boughs and holly. Small bundles wrapped in paper or pretty fabric lay at every place around the very crowded table.
“Jane, take your cousins to their seats. Kitty, help her. Sister, your place is there by the window, and brother opposite her.” Mama pointed each to their seat.
She had not looked so happy since the whole affair with Mr. Collins began. Nothing made her so happy as to play generous hostess to family and friends.
Papa shuffled in and sat in his customary place. “I believe we are all assembled as you requested, Mrs. Bennet.”
“Indeed we are.” Mama waved toward the door and Hill and the maid entered bearing trays with tea, coffee and chocolate.
“Oh, oh, chocolate!” Kitty squealed. “May we all have some, Mama?”
“Indeed you may, you children too, if you wish.”
Aunt Gardiner nodded at her children. They clapped and bounced in their chairs.
“Hill, you may serve the chocolate. Go on now and open your gifts.” Mama waved at the children.
This was Elizabeth’s favorite part of the Gardiners’ Christmas visit. The children’s faces as they unwrapped their treasures never grew tiresome. What could match a little boy’s eyes lighting up over a box of tin soldiers or his sister’s squeals of delight at miniature furniture for her baby house? Though Elizabeth appreciated the delicate lace fichu Mama selected for her, it was still nothing to the pleasure of seeing the children.
The children were disappointed to have to put their treasures away when it was time for the family to walk to the church. But Jane, with a little help from Kitty and Lydia, soon had returned them to their general good cheer.
After service Papa and Uncle Gardiner took the children with them to the baker to pick up the Christmas goose. Mama led the ladies home, assigning tasks as they went. With the officers joining them for Christmas dinner, there was ever so much to be done to prepare. It did not seem to ease Mama’s mind that the dining room and drawing room had been thoroughly readied for the event the day before.
Since Papa did not see fit to hire more servants, they would have to inspect the plate and make sure it was properly polished and that the table was properly set, the maid was, after all, often lax in her duties. And the greenery! The children had helped the day before, arranging it throughout the house, but, bless the little ones, they did not know how to place it properly and it all must be rearranged before guests arrived.
Aunt Gardiner glanced at Lizzy. She was such a patient woman, choosing not to take umbrage at Mama’s nervous flutterings. Instead she offered to manage the placement of the holiday greenery herself so that Mama could attend to matters of the kitchen.
December 25, 1811 Christmas Dinner at Longbourn
Later that night Elizabeth paced the very clean drawing room, waiting for their guests to arrive. Every surface was dusted and polished to reflect the light from an extra measure of candles. Fresh evergreen and holly filled the room with the season’s fragrances, tied with cheery red bows. It should have been a very pleasing scene, but the tension in the room threatened to suffocate her.
“Why do you not take a seat, Lizzy?” Aunt Gardiner patted the seat beside her.
“I should surely run mad if I did.”
It was quite possible that she might do so even if she wore a track in the carpets.
“It seems like they are so long in arriving tonight. I cannot wait for the officers to get here.” Lydia peered out the window, wrapping the gold wool curtain around her shoulders.
“They are such agreeable company, so gallant and always in search of a spot of fun.” Kitty bounced in her seat.
“Do sit still. It is unbecoming to twitch about like a hound waiting to be fed.” Mary folded her hands in her lap and adjusted her posture to something entirely stiff and proper. “And unwind yourself from the curtains before you tear them off the wall entirely.”
“You need not be so disagreeable. It is not as if you are anticipating anyone special to arrive.” Lydia sniffed and rolled her eyes.
“Lydia!” Aunt Gardiner slapped the sofa cushion.
“Well, it is true. None of the officers like her for she is so very dull.”
Mary’s checks colored. Her lips pressed tight into something not quite a frown, but certainly nothing less.
“Your opinions are not helpful, nor are they kind.”
“But they are true,” Lydia whispered.
“Lydia!” Jane’s eyes bulged the way they usually did when someone said something distasteful.
Lydia huffed and tossed her head.
The front door creaked and voices drifted upstairs.
“Oh, oh, someone is here! I think I recognize Sanderson’s voice.” Kitty clapped softly.
Lydia and Kitty pinched their cheeks and checked their bodices. Mary moved to the pianoforte.
“Would you favor us with a light welcoming piece?” Aunt Gardiner asked, but it was more of a directive than a question.
At least Mary did not seem too disgruntled by it. If anything, she looked pleased to have her accomplishments recognized. Perhaps she would have some pleasure this evening after all.
Mama swept in with several officers in her wake.
“Sister, may I introduce Lieutenants Wickham, Denny and Sanderson.”
Aunt Gardiner rose and curtsied. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, I am sure.”
“Thank you for admitting us to your acquaintance, madam.” Wickham bowed, his eyes shining.
He always seemed to know the right thing to say.
Lydia and Kitty drew Denny and Sanderson away as Hill ushered Aunt and Uncle Philips in. Jane excused herself to attend them.
Aunt Gardiner cocked her head and lifted her eyebrow at Elizabeth. “My niece tells me you are from Derbyshire, sir.”
“Indeed, I am madam. Are you familiar with the county?” He stepped a little closer.
“I spend my girlhood there, in the area of Lambton.”
Wickham’s eyes brightened and his face softened with a smile so compelling even a French officer would have been drawn in. “I lived on an estate very near there, Pemberley if you know it.”
“I do indeed. One of the loveliest places I have ever seen. We were by no means in such a way to keep company with the family there, but we heard much of their good name whilst we lived there.” Aunt Gardiner’s eyes always shone when she spoke of her girlhood home.
“I was privileged to live on Pemberley, my father was steward there.”
“Then you were well-favored indeed. Have you been there recently?”
“Very little since the death of old Mr. Darcy. While old Darcy was a very good and kind man, and very well disposed toward myself, I am afraid his son did not inherit his father’s noble traits.” He glanced at Elizabeth, such suffering in his eyes, her own misted.
She nodded for him to continue. Surely Aunt Gardiner would be interested to hear his account in all its fullness.
“I have no desire to burden you with such tales as would dampen your spirits on this very fine occasion. Let us talk of acquaintances we may share in common. Did you know the old apothecary there, Mr. Burris I believe his name.”
“He was a great favorite of my father.”
“Of mine as well.” Though Wickham had been little there since five years before, it was yet in his power to give her fresher intelligence of her former friends than she had been in the way of procuring.
It did not take too long for their recollection of shared society to turn to a discussion of old Mr. Darcy’s character, whom both liberally praised. The conversation then moved on to the current Mr. Darcy and his treatment of Wickham.
“I grant you, that I recall the younger Mr. Darcy spoken of as a very proud, ill-natured boy, but the charges you lay at his feet are quite alarming sir. I am surprised you have not been able to bring some kind of influence to bear against him.” Something in Aunt’s expression suggested she was weighing his words carefully, the way she did when her sons brought her an intriguing tale.
“Would that were possible, madam, I would probably be the better for it. In truth, though, I still hold his father in far too high a regard to be able to take action against his son. The thought of bringing old Mr. Darcy pain is far too disturbing to brook.”
“But surely you must consider how his own son’s behavior would distress him. He might have been very pleased to see its improvement. I know that to be the case if it were one of my own children charged with such heartlessness.” Aunt chewed her lower lip.
“You might be very right, but surely you can see I am not the one suited by station or inclination to bring correction to such a man. So I shall continue on as I have been, grateful to such friends as I still have around me. I am truly blessed to have some very staunch supporters.”
“I imagine so.” Aunt’s eyebrows raised into an elegant arch. “You demonstrate very great forbearance, quite the model of a gentleman.”
There was something the faintest bit sharp in Aunt’s tone. Elizabeth tried to catch her eye, but she looked over Elizabeth’s shoulder.
Elizabeth glanced back. Jane and Aunt Philips approached.
“How are your enjoying your visit, sister? Is not the company tonight delightful?” Aunt Philips extended her hands toward Aunt Gardiner, but glowered at Elizabeth.
Aunt Gardiner took Aunt Philips’s hands and kissed her cheeks. “Indeed it is. But we always appreciate the hospitality at Longbourn, I should hardly expect anything else.”
“Mr. Wickham, it is especially nice to see you and the other officers here tonight as well. We have missed your company of late.”
“I regret any discomfiture I might have caused, but I am honored my absence might have been noticed.” Wickham bowed from his shoulders.
“Of course, it was, of course it was. I am very pleased to see you, Miss Lizzy, are not above keeping such very plain company with us tonight.” Aunt Phillips’s lip curled just the way Mama’s did when she was angry.
Elizabeth had been seeing a great deal of that expression lately.
“Whatever do you mean?” Aunt Gardiner’s honeyed tone had been known to placate tired children and churlish adults alike. “Elizabeth is always a sparkling companion.”
“In company she deigns to keep, of course she is. It is just possible her opinion of herself has grown a mite higher than it should.” Aunt Phillips’s eyes narrowed in a glare far too much like Mama’s.
Elizabeth’s face grew cold, but her cheeks burned.
Mama burst into the room. “Shall we all to dinner?”
“Might I escort you, Miss Elizabeth?” Mr. Wickham offered his arm.
Elizabeth muttered something, curtsied to her aunts and took Mr. Wickham’s arm. He led her through the crowded hall toward the dining room.
“Thank you.” The words barely slipped past her tight throat. “Pray excuse my Aunt’s indelicate choice of conversation.”
“What indelicate choice, Miss Elizabeth? You do not think her conversation reflected in any way upon you, do you? I have found when people resort to dialogue which some may consider disagreeable, it is most often attributable to indigestion.”
Elizabeth snickered under her breath.
“Perhaps it would be wise to suggest she have a few words with her cook. A change in diet might be the very thing to relieve her discomfort and improve her general disposition. See there how her husband is red in the face and his hand is pressed so obviously to his belly? I would venture to say he too may be suffering from indigestion, and it is his cook and no one else to blame.”
It would seem Mr. Wickham did not or chose not to see Mama at Uncle Philips’s side, speaking with great animation and casting sidelong glances toward Elizabeth.
“I shall suggest that to her.” The words came easier now. She forced her lips up into something resembling a smile.
“Ah, that is a far better expression for you, Miss Elizabeth. Unhappiness does not suit you at all.”
“It appears it is difficult to be unhappy in your presence sir. Do you make it your business to drive away such specters wherever they might appear?”
“I certainly do, what better occupation in life than to bring happiness wherever I wander?”
How very true, and how very different than Mr. Darcy. To maintain such a disposition despite the very great unfairness and trials he had faced. Mr. Wickham was truly too kind.
For all Mama’s fussing and fluttering, she did set one of the finest tables in the county. Candlelight sparkled off mirrors and crystal, filling every corner of the dining room with glistening warmth. The table and sideboards groaned under the weight of the dishes heaped with fragrant offerings. A huge goose lay near Papa’s place, waiting for him to carve it. Elizabeth’s mouth watered. Nothing tasted like a Christmas goose, its skin brown and crispy, the meat juicy and succulent
Wickham held the chair for her and sat beside her, politely ignoring Lydia’s cross look. What did she have to be cross about though? With Denny on one side and Sanderson on the other, it was not as if she would be in want of company and conversation herself.
Mama sat up very straight and rang a little silver bell. The door swung open and Hill appeared, holding a platter of roasted boar’s head high. Her arms quivered under the massive offering.
Denny and Sanderson jumped to their feet, nearly knocking their chairs to the floor, and rushed to her aid. Together they made a lovely show of bringing the final dish to the table. Though Mama glared at Hill, she seemed very pleased at the officers’ efforts and settled into her comfortable role, presiding over the table.
Wickham leaned toward her. “It has been quite some time since I have enjoyed such a Christmas feast.”
“I hope you take every opportunity to enjoy this one.”
He served her from the platter of roast potatoes nearby. “I will certainly do just that and lock it into my memory to treasure against times which may be far less agreeable.”
“I am sure it is difficult to spend Christmastide away from one’s home and family. The militia requires a great deal from you.”
“I find that it gives back as much as it demands. It is not at all disagreeable for one in my state. The hardships do not at all compare to those I suffered the first Christmastide of my banishment from Pemberley.”
“Perhaps that is too strong a word, you are right. It does not serve to be so melodramatic.” He bowed his head. “You must forgive me, for it is the subject of some trying remembrances. Christmastide at Pemberley was a most wondrous season, filled with warmth and generosity. My family was invited to dine at Christmas dinner with the Master. A complete roast boar would be carried in by two footmen, goose, venison, and roast beef besides. I am sure it was a month’s worth of food for my little family at least, all brought to the table at once.” He closed his eyes and licked his lips.
“I can imagine one might miss such extravagance.”
“Pray, do not think I intended to belittle the wonderful hospitality Longbourn offers. Not at all. It has reminded me of much happier days and I am most grateful for the reminder.”
Mama’s silver bell rang again and Hill, the maid, and two maids employed for just this evening hurried in to clear the first course. Platters and used dishes disappeared along with the table cloth. The second course dishes filled the empty table and fresh china appeared before them. Amidst the staff’s efforts, Aunt Gardiner caught her eye, tipped her head toward Wickham and raised her eyebrows.
Elizabeth allowed a hint of a smile and shrugged. He was very pleasant company. What did she expect?
Mama announced the dishes, but the platter of minced pies needed no introduction.
Wickham placed a small pie on her plate, along with black butter and spiced apples. The first minced pie of Christmastide was always agreeable, but somehow it would be nothing to the ones that would later be made from the leavings of the Christmas feast.
Mama’s bell rang again, and she slipped out of the dining room. Hill circled the room, snuffing candles until only one in each corner remained.
Although Mama repeated this ritual every year, somehow the flaming pudding entering on the silver platter, held high in Mama’s arms never lost its thrill. Blue brandy flames, glinting and multiplying in the mirrors and crystal, cast dancing shadows along the wall turning the dining room, for those brief moments, into a magical fairyland.
Too soon, the flames died down. The maid scurried about relighting candles, and the normal world reappeared with Mama standing over a great cannon ball of plum pudding. She broke into it and served generous slices.
“Mind the charms!” Mama’s smile looked forced as she openly avoided looking at Elizabeth.
What better way to remind Mama of Elizabeth’s transgressions than the pudding stirred up whilst she still had hopes of Mr. Collins? Pray let her not discover the ring, or better still, any charm in her pudding. Further notice from Mama could not be a good thing.
Elizabeth held her breath as the company partook in the pudding. Heavy, sweet, spicy and saturated with brandy, this was the taste of Christmas and family.
Uncle Gardiner laughed heartily. “What ho, what shall I do with this?” He held aloft a tiny thimble.
“Consider it for thrift, my dear.” Aunt Gardiner winked at him.
Thank Providence that Mary was spared that omen!
Lydia squealed. “I have the coin! I shall come into a fortune.”
Papa muttered something, but Elizabeth could not make it out. Probably best that way.
Wickham neatly pulled his slice apart with knife and fork. He dug in with his knife and lifted it to reveal a shining ring hanging on the blade.
“Now you’ve done it, Wickham!” Sanderson pointed at him, laughing.
“I would not go about showing that off, if I were you.” Denny leaned back and held up open hands. “But whatever you do, keep it well away from me.”
“So you shall be married this year, Mr. Wickham.” Mama looked far too pleased.
Had there been any way to have achieved that end intentionally, Elizabeth would have though Mama manufactured this result. But such a thing was not possible. Still, the smug way she settled into her seat and dug into her own pudding begged the question.
“You may threaten all you like.” Wickham slid the ring off the knife and held it up in the candlelight. “But I have no fear of this innocent little ring.”
Did he just wink? At her?
Heat crept over the crest of her cheeks, but Aunt Gardiner’s brows drew a little lower over her eyes and her forehead creased.
Wondering what Darcy is up to at this point? Check out Darcy & Elizabeth: Christmas 1811
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