A Wren-like Note, but I very much like Maxwell Gray's atmospheric description of a New Year party in an Isle of Wight village in the 1860s. Best wishes for the New Year to JSBlog readers.
This is Maxwell Gray's pleasant description of an Isle of Wight village New Year's Eve party in The Silence of Dean Maitland. It's set in the 1860s in "Malbourne", a fictionalised but highly recognisable Calbourne. "Northover" is Westover House, and the Sun Inn at the crossroads is real, and still exists. MG has got the position descriptions slightly askew; after descending Sun Hill to the crossroads, you need to turn 90 degrees clockwise to see the inn on the left.
The wheelwright's house stood just on the crest of the steep little hill which carries the pilgrim down into the village of Malbourne with a rapid acceleration of pace, and which ends where the four roads meet The Sun Inn stands at one corner, facing the incoming pilgrim cheerfully on its left; and opposite this tidy hostelry stands a sign-post apparently waving four gaunt arms distractedly, and seeming to bid the wayfarer pause beneath the thatched roof of the little inn, whether his journey's end lie onwards over the high-road, or oblige him to turn aside through the village by church and Rectory.
On the traveller's right, facing him, is a cottage, and facing that is the wheelwright's yard, full of timber and waggons half built or broken. The wheelwright's dwelling, standing above the grassy yard, commands a fine view of the village nestled under the down and the sweeping parklands of Northover on one side, and on the other looks over an undulating landscape to the sea. It is a cheery little house, pleasantly shaded by a couple of shapely lindens in front, and close to the high-road, upon which its front windows and deep-timbered porch give.
On New Year's Eve the wheelwright's windows were all lighted up, and there was even a lantern at the little front wicket, which gazed out like a friendly eye, as if to bid people enter and make merry within, and threw a yellow fan-shaped radiance on the steep road without The porch door was open, and disclosed a passage lighted by a candle in a tin sconce adorned with holly. On one side, an open door revealed the chill dignities of the best parlour, which not even a blazing fire and abundance of holly-berries could quite warm.
On a haircloth sofa in this state apartment sat Mrs. Hale, of Malbourne Mill, and Mrs. Wax, the schoolmaster's wife, both exceedingly upright, and both holding a handkerchief of Gargantuan dimensions over the hands they crossed in their laps. Opposite, in a horsehair arm-chair, sat an elderly lady in a plum-coloured silk gown, gold chain, and a splendid cap, also very upright, and also holding a Gargantuan handkerchief. This was Mrs. Cave, the wife of a small farmer in the neighbourhood.
Each lady's face wore a resigned expression, mingled with the calm exultation natural to people who know themselves to be the most aristocratic persons in a social gathering. Each realized that Würde hat Bürde 1, and felt herself equal to the occasion; each paused, before making or replying to an observation, to consider the most genteel subjects of conversation and the most genteel language in which to clothe them.
"Remorkably fine weather for the time of year, ladies," observed Mrs. Hale, soothing her soul by the pleasant rustle her shot-silk gown made when she smoothed it, and regretting that her gold chain was not so new-fashioned as Mrs. Cave's; while, on the other hand, she experienced a delicious comfort in meditating on the superiority of her brooch, which was a large flat pebble in a gold frame.
"Indeed, mem, it is most seasonable, though trying for delicate chestes," returned Mrs. Cave, with her finest company smile, after which a pause of three minutes ensued.
"Some say the frost is on the breek," continued Mrs. Hale, wondering if it would be genteel to ask Mrs. Cave how much her cap cost. She had an agonized suspicion that it would not.
After five minutes, Mrs. Wax, whose comparative youth and lower rank occasioned her some diffidence, took up her parable in the following genteel manner:—" Her ladyship was observing his marning— "
But what her ladyship was observing was never revealed to man, since at that moment, Widow Hale, the host's mother, came bursting in, stout, healthy, and red-faced, her cap slightly awry, and called out in her hearty, wholesome voice —
"Well, now, my dears, and how are you getting on? I'm that harled up with so many about, I ain't had a minute to ast after ye all. Mary Ann, my dear, give me a kiss do, and a hearty welcome to you all, and a kiss all round, and do make yourselves at home. Now, is the tea to your liking ? This best teapot ain't much at drawing. I ain't much of a one for best things myself; well enough for looking at, and just to say you've got them, but give me work-a-day things for comfort. There ain't above half the company come yet, and Mary Ann upset about the pies for supper. Do just as you would at home, and you will please me. If there ain't dear old Granfer coming in, bless his heart ! Come in, Granfer, and kindly welcome."
And so saying, the kind soul bustled out, and relieved Granfer of his hat, while her daughter-in-law, the actual hostess, came to do the honours of the best parlour, bringing in three more female guests of distinction, who were much awed by the appalling gentility of the three already assembled, and a little inclined to regret their own social importance.
Granfer and the widow, in the mean time, entered the great kitchen, a long, low, white-washed room, with heavy beams across the ceiling, a stone floor, and a wide hearth with a wood fire burning between dogs upon it. The ceiling and walls wore their everyday decoration of hams, guns, a spit, various cooking utensils, a tiny bookshelf, and a large dresser, well garnished with crockery and pewters, together with their festal Christmas adorning of holly, fir, and mistletoe, and a round dozen of tin sconces bearing tallow candles. There was an oaken settle on one side the chimney corner, into the cosiest nook of which Granfer deposited his bent form with a sigh of content, and gazed round upon the assembled guests with benevolence.
On a long table on trestles at one end of the room was spread a solid meal, consisting of a huge ham, own brother to those depending in rich brown abundance from the ceiling; a south-country, skim-milk cheese, finely marbled with greenish blue veins, and resembling Stilton in reduced circumstances; a great yellow and brown mass of roast beef; a huge pie; several big brown blocks of plum-cake; and some vast loaves of white home-baked bread and pats of fresh butter. The forks were of steel, and black-handled like the knives; and the spoons, of which there was a dearth, were pewter. A deficiency of tea-cups suggested to Corporal Tom Hale the agreeable expedient of sharing one between a lady and a gentleman, which was hailed with applause by his naval brother, and immediately acted upon.
For those guests who looked upon tea as an enervating beverage, there was ample provision in the shape of various brown and yellow jugs filled with ale from the cask Tom and Jim had procured for the occasion; and it was generally understood that liquor of a still more comforting nature was held in reserve to stimulate conviviality at a later hour. The blacksmith, Straun, the clerk, Stevens, with their wives and families, were there; also Baines, the discontented tailor, and the husbands of the best- parlour ladies.
The wheelwright's wife, a comely woman of thirty, and his sister, a blooming damsel some ten years younger, ran to and fro with flushed faces among the guests, while the widow made herself ubiquitous.
The uniforms of Tom and Jim, with those of three or four artillerymen from the neighbouring forts, and the red coats of a couple of linesmen, together with the bright ribbons of the women, lent colour and variety to the monotony of black coats and smock-frocks, and upon the whole the wheelwright's kitchen presented as cheery and animated a sight as one would wish to see on a New Year's Eve. Nor was a town element wanting in the rustic gathering; for just as tea was in full swing, and little Dickie Stevens — whose tea lay in the future, after the serving of his elders — was supplying the place of a band by playing hymn-tunes on his concertina, a taxed-cart drove up, and deposited two chilled mortals from Oldport, Mr. and Mrs. Wells, greengrocers, and related, by some inextricable family complications known only in that remote south-country district, more or less to nearly all the company.
Tea being finished, pipes were produced, also ale, and there was wild work in a dimly lighted quarter of the kitchen, where the Hale brothers had cunningly arranged unexpected mistletoe, and whence smothered shrieks of laughter and sounds as of ears being vigorously boxed issued every now and then.
The odd part about the mistletoe business was the extreme gullibility of the ladies, who were by far too guileless to profit by the experience of others in that dangerous region, and suffered themselves to be decoyed thither on the flimsiest pretexts, and betrayed the utmost surprise and indignation at the kissing which invariably ensued. As for Tom and Jim, they went to work with a business-like determination to kiss every girl in the room, and several respectable matrons into the bargain. It was about this time that the artillery sergeant and the wheelwright's pretty sister Patty vanished, and were subsequently discovered at the front door, enjoying the soft December breeze and studying astronomy, a study which produced the happiest subsequent results, and set the Malboume bells chiming in the spring of the coming year.
So large and successful a party had not been held in Malbourne for many a year, the predominance of the military element greatly contributing to its success; for the sons of Mars excelled not only in the art of pleasing the fairer sex, which has in all ages been considered their special function, but possessed many other accomplishments of social value. A very pretty bit of fencing was exhibited between a red and a blue coat, and Corporal Tom snuffed candles with a pistol, amid shrieks of terrified delight from the women. One soldier sang a comic, another a sentimental, song; and when little Dick Stevens was perched on a table, and warbled out, "Rosalie, the Prairie Flower," and ''Wait for the Waggon," 2 to the accompaniment of Wax's clarionet and Baines's violin, the kitchen ceiling trembled and threatened to drop its quivering hams and hollies at the powerful chorus furnished by these stalwart warriors, and the gentility of the best parlour was finally melted by it to such a deliquescence as to mingle freely with the vulgar currents circulating in the kitchen.
Indeed, village talent was quite in the shade during the first part of the evening, and the discreet Corporal Tom observed such depreciation on the faces of the village geniuses that he resolved to put off asking for the recitation with which he knew a certain warrior to be primed until a later hour, and created a diversion proposing a game of Turn the Trencher 3, which absorbed the children and younger people at one end of the room, and left the circle of elders round the chimney free to converse or visit the best parlour, where fruit and sherry wine were laid out, as they pleased.
1 “Dignity has burden”.
2 Both popular American-written parlour songs of the 1850s: see Rosalie, the Prairie Flower and Wait for the Wagon.
3 A game in which one player spun a saucer or trencher, and another nominated player had to catch it before it stopped spinning, or pay a forfeit: see pages 312-313, The traditional games of England, Scotland and Ireland (1894, Internet Archive ID traditionalgames02gommuoft).
If this party scene seems overly idyllic, it's for a reason; the author is setting the scene for a shock, when the festivities are interrupted by the news of the violent death of the coachman Ben Lee.
Maybe Isle of Wight cracknels were on the menu.