We are gathered with the merry band of holidayers for Christmas Eve at Randalls, with Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Mr. (George) Knightley, Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Emma Woodhouse, Mr. and Mrs, John Knightley, and Mr. Elton. Well, it’s mostly a merry band. The unsociable John Knightley never really wanted to attend the party at all, and his hypochondriac father-in-law grows agitated as the evening advances and the snow begins to accumulate. But more on that anon. First the festivities.
One of the most charming scenes in all of Jane Austen’s works is this holiday party at the home of the Westons, in her novel, Emma. While the guests are assembled for the holiday repast, the host, Mr. Weston, remarks that the party would be perfect if only there were two more. He is thinking of his son (Frank Churchill) who was unable to make the trip, and one of the young female guests (Harriet Smith) who had caught an unfortunate cold. Frank and Harriet are missing out, and too bad for them.
But we are there.
Although Harriet’s absence disappointed Emma – for Emma had meant to use the occasion to advance a match between Harriet and Mr. Elton – Emma soon recovers her wonted cheerful presence. After all, the thymotic heroine of Emma was not one to dwell on life’s little misfortunes. Vibrant, beautiful and spirited, not to mention handsome, clever and rich, Emma Woodhouse had lived nearly 21 years in this world “with very little to distress or vex her.”
Trials would come, though, due to Emma’s propensity to substitute her imagination for reality. But for all the trouble it got her in, Austen tells us, Emma’s imagination was “that very dear part” of her.
For her own match, Emma had for some time imagined that it might be Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill, whom she had heard so much about, though never actually met. Somehow, Frank had failed to ever visit his natural father (he had been adopted by a rich Aunt as an infant upon the loss of his mother). He had not even shown Miss Taylor the modicum of respect of coming upon her marriage to his father. But Frank certainly wanted to come, he often intended to come, or so we are told, by the good-natured Mr. Weston.
Christmas at Randalls is the quintessential holiday gathering. Reading this scene in Emma , our heads are filled with good things to remember, thoughts that dance in our holiday imaginations.
The merry party of eight warmed themselves contentedly by the sitting room fire. They dined in elegance and conversed as only old and dear friends are able to do. The evening was indeed almost perfect.
Almost. Until Mr. Woodhouse overheard someone say that it was snowing outside. Snowing!!! Surely, the road home would be unnavigable, filled with overturned carriages and dreadful dangers. Would they even be able to get back to Hartfield that night, the only place Mr. Woodhouse ever really felt calm and secure? Poor Mr. Woodhouse. What was to be done in such utterly frightful conditions?
Despite this turn of events, Christmas at Randalls is the quintessential holiday gathering. Reading this scene in Emma, our heads are filled with good things to remember, thoughts that dance in our holiday imaginations.
We can smell the Christmas dinner baking in the old oven. The roast goose, onion and sage stuffing, sweet potatoes, and plum pudding; the cinnamon, cloves and the apple dumplings. We can see the mahogany table glowing and the silver service sparkling in the evening candlelight. Everyone scrubbed and coiffed, their best manners at the ready, the little party primed to enjoy the lively conversation, genial company and savory feast.
We envisage the snow falling, filling the lane where the two carriages and four horses stood. We faintly hear James and the other footmen exchanging gossip with the Weston servants in the cheerfully busy kitchen. We watch Mr. Knightley step out on the stoop in the white night, the snow falling fast, swirled by a drifting wind, as if a child had just shaken a snow globe.
Despite the hoary cold, it was a perfect moonlit Christmas Eve in the picturesque village of Highbury, County Surrey. For “[a]t Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather.” All was right with the world.
I am sure you have imagined and anticipated such a holiday with family and friends. In the autumn months we look forward to coming home in December to be with loved ones, to share with them the joy and spirit of the season. We anticipate a family gathering filled with all good things, the tree with the silver star on top, Perry Como on the radio, and everyone happy and getting along. We imagine that it will all be perfect … like a Randalls Christmas.
But in truth the holidays are the toughest time of year for so many folk. It’s when loneliness is at an all-time high. What is it about these special gathering days that seem somehow to disappoint so many people?
Maybe it’s partly because we have such high hopes and grand expectations for the holidays. We like to imagine it as a season for putting down anger and resentment. As a time to let things go, probably things we should have let go of long ago. And we hope others will do the same.
We want it to be an occasion like the scenes in Jane Austen novels, created, as Leo Strauss once suggested, by her particular art and predisposition to remember the good things rather than the bad.
Perhaps a Randalls Christmas is a picture too perfect, that it can only exist in our imaginations.
But that is all right. That is part of the lesson of Christmas: To know that it is all right for your imagination to outstrip reality, on occasion. This is one of the messages of this magical season, as it is of Austen’s charming and magical art.
Colleen A. Sheehan is professor of politics and director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center at Villanova University, currently Scholar in Residence at the Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at University of Colorado, Boulder.
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