This evening we went to see Pitch Perfect 3, the final installment of the college-a capella (“aca-stravaganza”) trilogy/franchise with which my wife is so obsessed that at one point I started having dreams about its star Anna Kendrick. This film is magnificent. The writers have freed themselves from the tyranny of plot, and someone has attacked post-production so savagely that 80% of the promotional trailer isn’t actually in the final film. There is a musical number approximately twice a minute, and it’s glorious. The key elements of close harmony, choreography, syncopated hysteria, and strongly-implied lesbianism survive from the first two films, plus this time Rebel Wilson has learned how to act. I laughed aloud at so many lines, not normally but in my trademark Cinema Laugh, where I emit an involuntary whoop and then laugh again at the same line, from memory, five to eight seconds later. The Sun tells us that Pitch Perfect 3 is a “bad, bad film”, so I expect you to buy tickets forthwith. This film isn’t forThe Sun. It’s for people who really like a capella and neurosis. Happy Pitchmas.
That aside, one actress who didn’t make it into the Pitch Perfect franchise is Emma Stone, key member of my ongoing list of “size zero Hollywood heroines who turn are revealed as having been incredibly under-used by absolutely slaying on Saturday Night Live” (the top two spots go to Gwyneth Paltrow and Lindsay Lohan). Tomorrow is the penultimate shopping day before Christmas, a.k.a. Panic Friday, and here is Emma Stone with Kate McKinnon with some essential advice on how to deal with last-minute Christmas shopping and That Person Who Just Gave You An Unexpected Present.
Every year, the University of Oxford releases a short, charming video to wish the sort of people who look this stuff up on YouTube Season’s Greetings (even though the University celebrates what’s unequivocally Christmas, with a small side of Hanukkah, full-time for five weeks each year). For 2017, it’s a sweet video about the friendship between a bird and a Magdalen gargoyle. The video’s pathos suggests the Westgate John Lewis had spread its marketing influence right down the High Street.
For your feminist Victorianist polemical needs, today behind the door of the Blog Advent Window is a BBC documentary presented by Sue Perkins, about the Christmases in the life of Catherine Hogarth (1815-1879), better known as the wife of Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens is responsible, via novels like A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers, for some of the most widely-cherished (and widely-exported) notions of a classic British Christmas. Appropriately for an author whose name-made-adjective gives us two totally contrasting images – lamplit Dickensian rosy-cheeked wassail vs. Dickensian workhouses, poverty, and injustice – Dickens energetically perpetuated a brand based on festive family togetherness while being an adulterous, sister-fetishising bastard. This documentary has it all: Victorian theatrical sex scandals; dashing Magdalen colleague dressing Sue Perkins in drag; striking and revealing insights into the dynamics of the Perkins family household.
True, it inexplicably omits my Favourite Awful Dickens Fact, which is that after her husband cruelly forced Catherine out of the family home, Catherine gave her sister Georgina a ring. Sounds like a Normal Time, perhaps even a sisterly gesture, but Georgina Hogarth had taken her brother-in-law’s side in a separation ultimately caused by his adultery with actress Ellen Ternan.
The ring which Catherine gave her sister was in the shape of a serpent.
All this and more can be found at the Dickens Museum on London’s Doughty Street, where much of the documentary was shot. Perkins is scathing on Dickens’s narcissism, and reads brilliantly from his works. The documentary is below – enjoy! And if you want to know more about another Victorian Christmas, try this post.
Christmas horror and Christmas ghost stories were once integral to Christmas in Britain and Ireland. Luckily for us, we can partly blame the Victorians (our great Ur-parents, from whom society inherited a mass need for therapy). From the 1855 cessation on paper tax onwards, Britain saw an explosion of periodical magazines, with the mass marketing of ghost and vampire stories. These stories were generic, sensational, and exploited both Victorian fears of the past, in all its disquieting, revenant, primitive messiness, and anxieties about the future: Dracula (1897) imagines a terrifying Eastern European immigrant who wants to suck the life force out of the rising generation of imperialists. Spirit photography supposedly captured ghosts, while homes became the sites of seances. Stories literally domesticated the Gothic, bringing the ghost story into fireside and domestic reading. Christmas, with its profusion of annuals, gift books, reading-aloud, and superstition, is the ideal vehicle for a bit of horror. European mythology has much to answer for – I’ve already blogged about the Icelandic Yule Lads. But if you want to get into a thoroughly spooky Christmas spirit, here are the five things you need. Why not listen to my Spooky Christmas Playlist while you browse?
We’ve met Spoon Licker and the child-catching Yule Cat, but many other countries have mythical and malevolent winter monsters. Check out the malicious Karakoncolos who, in Serbia, disguises his voice as that of your loved one, lures you out into the snow and jumps on your back. Then there’s the Greek Kallikantzaroi, a group of demons who steal any babies born between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night. Fancy some winter sun?
2. Spine-tingling short stories
‘A Strange Christmas Game’ (1865) by J. H. Riddell is a charming story of fun, games, counting thirteen people when only twelve are present – and of a girl with a broken neck. Christmas games can seriously damage your health, so be warned: don’t end up like the heroine of this 1884 poem, the bride in Thomas Bayly’s ‘The Mistletoe Bough’. Or there’s Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Old Kit-Bag’ (1908), a heart-warming seasonal tale of suicide and severed heads. Feliz Navidad. Bringing us nearly up to date, there’s Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Dark Christmas’ from 2013, where awkward festive plans (‘We had borrowed the house from a friend none of us seemed to know’) turn into an Edwardian horror story. M.R. James has, perhaps undeservedly, become king of the Christmas ghost story even though his tales are rarely set at Christmas – the BBC is broadcasting a dramatisation of one story on Christmas Eve, starring Greg Wise.
3. Frightful films
‘Holiday horror’ is a genuine subgenre. Whether you want to see Joan Collins bury a fire iron in her husband’s head before being stalked by a psychotic Santa (Tales from the Crypt, 1972) or watch a snow-covered New York reunion turn fatal as the kiddiwinks start murdering their parents (The Children, 2008), there is a Christmas horror film for you. A clip of Tales from the Crypt is on YouTube: warnings for bright red poster paint.
4. Chilling culture
Not everything was the Victorians’ fault. The plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe tell us that supernatural fictions also kept the Early Moderns warm on winter nights. In Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), Barabas recalls a tradition of seasonal scares: ‘Now I remember those old women’s words/Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales/And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.’ Poor little Mamilius in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610-11) has clearly had similar experiences, confidently telling his mother and her attendants ‘A sad tale’s best for winter’. There are also cheerier Christmas superstitions in Shakespeare’s plays: at the end of the first scene of Hamlet, Marcellus gets one of the play’s simplest and most beautiful speeches:
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
The rest of English Literature tends not to share Marcellus’s view: spirits, witches, and fairies abound in our Christmas heritage. Sorry, Marcellus.
‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ is my favourite piece by one of my favourite writers, Saki (real name Hector Hugh Munro). Saki was a novelist, parodist, author of short stories, journalist, and an wit in the tradition of Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and Dorothy Parker. Like the first two of that triumvirate, he was also gay. He died during the Battle of Ancre (1916) in World War 1. Reginald is Saki’s most exquisite hero, a natural successor to Algernon Montcrieff, and the precursor to Waugh’s Anthony Blanche and Nancy Mitford’s Cedric Hampton. The piece below comes from Christmas 1904, and was originally published in the Westminster Gazette. I’ve illustrated it with some images of Edwardian Christmas, building on yesterday’s Victorian Christmas extravaganza.
My copy of the Complete Saki was given to me by my wonderful late grandfather. In full disclosure, ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ is almost the first piece in the book. As a teenager, those first two sentences hooked me, and they always delight me with their instant immersion in Saki’s era. In 2017, I suggest we all follow Reginald’s guidance when it comes to last-minute Christmas shopping: I, for one, am always willing to receive ‘something quite sweet in the way of jewellery’.
Reginald on Christmas Presents by Saki (1904)
I wish it to be distinctly understood (said Reginald) that I don’t want a “George, Prince of Wales” Prayer-book as a Christmas present. The fact cannot be too widely known.
There ought (he continued) to be technical education classes on the science of present-giving. No one seems to have the faintest notion of what anyone else wants, and the prevalent ideas on the subject are not creditable to a civilised community.
There is, for instance, the female relative in the country who “knows a tie is always useful,” and sends you some spotted horror that you could only wear in secret or in Tottenham Court Road. It might have been useful had she kept it to tie up currant bushes with, when it would have served the double purpose of supporting the branches and frightening away the birds–for it is an admitted fact that the ordinary tomtit of commerce has a sounder aesthetic taste than the average female relative in the country.
Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.
There is my Aunt Agatha, par exemple, who sent me a pair of gloves last Christmas, and even got so far as to choose a kind that was being worn and had the correct number of buttons. But–they were nines! I sent them to a boy whom I hated intimately: he didn’t wear them, of course, but he could have–that was where the bitterness of death came in. It was nearly as consoling as sending white flowers to his funeral. Of course I wrote and told my aunt that they were the one thing that had been wanting to make existence blossom like a rose; I am afraid she thought me frivolous–she comes from the North, where they live in the fear of Heaven and the Earl of Durham. (Reginald affects an exhaustive knowledge of things political, which furnishes an excellent excuse for not discussing them.) Aunts with a dash of foreign extraction in them are the most satisfactory in the way of understanding these things; but if you can’t choose your aunt, it is wisest in the long-run to choose the present and send her the bill.
Even friends of one’s own set, who might be expected to know better, have curious delusions on the subject. I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyam. I gave the last four that I received to the lift-boy, and I like to think of him reading them, with FitzGerald’s notes, to his aged mother. Lift-boys always have aged mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.
Personally, I can’t see where the difficulty in choosing suitable presents lies. No boy who had brought himself up properly could fail to appreciate one of those decorative bottles of liqueurs that are so reverently staged in Morel’s window–and it wouldn’t in the least matter if one did get duplicates. And there would always be the supreme moment of dreadful uncertainty whether it was creme de menthe or Chartreuse–like the expectant thrill on seeing your partner’s hand turned up at bridge. People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.
And then, of course, there are liqueur glasses, and crystallised fruits, and tapestry curtains, and heaps of other necessaries of life that make really sensible presents- -not to speak of luxuries, such as having one’s bills paid, or getting something quite sweet in the way of jewellery. Unlike the alleged Good Woman of the Bible, I’m not above rubies. When found, by the way, she must have been rather a problem at Christmas-time; nothing short of a blank cheque would have fitted the situation. Perhaps it’s as well that she’s died out.
The great charm about me (concluded Reginald) is that I am so easily pleased.
But I draw the line at a “Prince of Wales” Prayer-book.
ME: [Emotional] Because 1888 is my favourite Victorian year.
1888 is the best my favourite Victorian year because it combines Ellen Terry’s Lady Macbeth, the stage version of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the Whitechapel killings. You are probably wondering why this is Christmassy. Macbeth opened on 29 December 1888, with coverage boosted by the traditionally slow news week between Christmas and New Year, and the feverish public interest – amounting to hysteria – in yet another murder story. Mr Hyde had given London its first fictional psychopath, and medical theories of the Ripper as a gentleman-by-day, murderer-by-night, seemed to have offered a real-life version of Hyde. Now the stars of London’s theatre, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, were starring as the ascendant, murderous Macbeths, pushing the orthodoxy of the Victorian power couple to its limits. As the Pall Mall Gazette put it, it was ‘Horrible murder without. Horrible murder within’.
AGAIN, this might not seem EXCEPTIONALLY FESTIVE. And yet, researching this foggy, mysterious Christmas for my first book (if you want more, try Chapter 2) developed my obsession with Victorian periodicals. I hope you love them too – in any case, welcome to Advent 1888.
Christmas Books (Pall Mall Gazette, 1 December): aspirational parents were recommended such ‘books for Boys’ as Joseph Hatton’s Captured By Cannibals: ‘Though the book is a work of imagination, “there is not a single incident” – so Mr. Hatton tells us on the authority of actual travellers – “which might not have happened”‘. Captured by Cannibals included some ‘very spirited drawings’. Also praised was Tom’s Nugget by Professor J.F. Hodgetts of the Sunday School Union, in which the hero ‘meets some very rough customers in the bush, and passes through several thrilling adventures, which the author graphically describes. A fine moral tone pervades the book’. A book on Juvenile Literature As It Is surveyed Victorian children, revealing that ‘It is notable that the girls should read the Boy’s Own, while not a boy admitted preferring the Girl’s Own‘ (Pall Mall Gazette, 15 December).
Madame Mariette D’Auban was advertising for ‘Ladies of the Ballet, for Good Christmas Engagements, London and Provinces’ via her academy in White Hart Street, according to the Era (1 December). By 10 December, a festive-feeling Pall Mall Gazette was acclaiming the fashionable Christmas cracker as the ‘one glittering article, light almost as air, and uniting in it more colours than the rainbow, which pushes its way every year more and more to the front among the charming trifles without which no merry Christmas is complete’. Praising the factory of ‘Mr. Tom Smith […] in Wilson-street, E.C.‘, the Gazette singled out ‘the “Palmistry cracker,” […] each cracker containing a diagram of a hand on which the various lines which are fraught with meaning are clearly traced and explained in rhyme’.
The Guernsey Star, meanwhile, waxed pragmatic over the Christmas card: ‘The Christmas card so thoroughly suits an age which, though very busy, has very definite notions on taste, that we need not wonder at its popularity. From being a fashion, it has become something like a national custom […] On the whole, the Christmas card industry is a decidedly creditable offshoot of the artistic movement which is doing so much to disseminate sound views on colour, design and workmanship among all classes of our population’ (Star, 11 December). Meanwhile, ‘the annual Christmas sale of fat stock, the property of the Queen’ saw cross-bred lambs fetch 125 shillings per head at Windsor (Morning Post, 13 December).
Charitable appeals were everywhere. On a single morning – 15 December – the front page of the Morning Post gratefully acknowledged subscriptions for the Royal Albert Orphan Asylum, the British Home For Incurables (slogan: ‘HELPLESS! HOPELESS! HOMELESS!’), the ‘Midnight Meeting Movement’, and Chelsea Hospital for Women (this was in amongst the usual amazing mix of Victorian adverts, including for ‘a thoroughly good Select Finishing School and kind Home near the Crystal Palace, where [an Officer’s] delicate daughter has recently been’).
But above all, the public wanted to know what celebrities would receive for Christmas. The Duchess of Connaught had received ‘an umbrella with a solid silver and enamelled handle set with a valuable gold watch’, while the lucky Princess of Wales was due to get a writing table ‘of mahogany and marquetry’, which cost £86.
Then as now, ‘Dolls could be had up to any price’, with the very best dolls’ house, ‘a decent detached villa for a ladylike doll’ costing £12, including kitchen fires ‘lighted by small spirit lamps’.
Celebrity tastes in perfume were also key, and it gives me great joy to end with two of my favourite Victorian ladies: Lillie Langtry and the Lyceum Lady Macbeth herself, Ellen Terry: ‘Ellen Terry and Mrs. Langtry both like opoponax, the scent sold by Piesse and Lubin in New Bond-street, who supply Mrs. Gladstone with her fumigating ribbon and the Queen with frangipanni’. Oponomax was a type of sweet myrrh popular with Victorian perfumers, and ‘Bouquet Opoponax’ (recently reconstructed in New Jersey) had become a bestseller for Piesse and Lubin. A similar scented candle is available from Diptyque!
Poor Mrs Gladstone. Fumigating ribbon doesn’t sound as nice as opoponax, or frangipanni. Let’s hope Mr Gladstone took some time off from rescuing prostitutes and ballet dancers (no, really) to buy her some perfume of her own.
Imagine that I blogged yesterday. Imagine that this was not derailed by encouraging Own Godson – five months, two chins, rolls of chub where lesser mortals have wrists and knees – to consume 50 precious ml. of milk before snoring, and then by attending the Magdalen Christmas Entertainment. Both were extremely festive.
Godson admired our Christmas tree, kicked his legs, and practiced a range of noises ranging from the dulcet coo to the tropical-bird-cum-opera-singer shriek. My mum has been visiting, so he appreciated the triumvirate of adoring women dedicated to passing him toys and acclaiming his cleverness.
Unsurprisingly, Christmas focuses on the newborn Jesus, and aside from two of the Gospels describing how he ‘kept increasing in wisdom and stature’, he next turns up as an (I imagine) infuriatingly precocious twelve-year-old. Being very fond of babies, I have a great deal of sympathy for the writers and (even if saccharine) artists who’ve wallowed in a longer narrative of Jesus’s babyhood. I always liked the line of Once In Royal David’s City about the child Jesus: ‘tears us and smiles like us he knew’ (much better than the the verse detailing Jesus’ invariable obedience to Mary). It’s cheering to imagine Jesus at five months, testing his lungs and kicking his legs – even if he didn’t have a cuddly octopus to attack with the same gusto with which our godson wrangles his. I’m also grateful not to be looking after said godson in a stable, or anywhere full of sand.
Then college, where the tiny choristers were significantly less sleepy than last year, inc. the very smallest and blondest who looked about to burst with excitement during The Twelve Days of Christmas (as, in all honesty, did the countertenor who sang a Mariah Carey-esque solo during Jingle Bells). The pudding was ignited. The Academical Clerks (big choristers) sang more Mariah Carey over mulled wine. The tree’s lights sparkled and the cloisters weren’t any damper than last year. Today, we made a festive pilgrimage to the Broad Street market (and, er, John Lewis). I bought a winter hat that wasn’t designed for a man with an XL skull – an epoch.
Jumping back to Thursday evening (in an oscillation entirely unsuited to the relentless onwards push of an Advent Calendar), three small choristers read from Molesworth’s How To Be Topp (1958) by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. It was so funny that I decided to repost it here – and nobody really minds opening two windows at once on an Advent Calendar, in order to enjoy two lots of chocolate a double dose of seasonal cheer:
Another thing about xmas eve is that your pater always reads the xmas carol by c. dickens. You canot stop this aktualy although he pretend to ask you whether you would like it. He sa: Would you like me to read the xmas carol as it is xmas eve, boys?
We are listening to the space serial on the wireless, daddy.
But you canot prefer that nonsense to the classick c. dickens?
Be quiet. He is out of control and heading for jupiter.
But — He’s had it the treen space ships are ataking him ur-ur-ur-whoosh. Out of control limping in the space vacuum for evermore unless they can get the gastric fuel compressor tampons open.
I — Why don’t they try Earth on the intercom? They will never open those tampons with only a z-ray griper. They will — Father thwarted strike both boys heavily with loaded xmas stoking and tie their hands behind their backs. He cart them senseless into the sitting room and prop both on his knees. Then he begin: THE XMAS CAROL by C. DICKENS (published by grabber and grabber) Then he rub hands together and sa You will enjoy this boys it is all about ghosts and goodwill. It is tip-top stuff and there is an old man called scrooge who hates xmas and canot understand why everyone is so mery. To this you sa nothing except that scrooge is your favourite character in fiction next to tarzan of the apes. But you can sa anything chiz. Nothing in the world in space is ever going to stop those fatal words: Marley was dead Personaly i do not care a d. whether Marley was dead or not it is just that there is something about the xmas Carol which makes paters and grown-ups read with grate )(PRESTON, and this is very embarassing for all. It is all right for the first part they just roll the r’s a lot but wate till they come to scrooge’s nephew. When he sa Mery Christmas uncle it is like an H-bomb xplosion and so it go on until you get to Tiny Tim chiz chiz chiz he is a weed. When Tiny Tim sa God bless us every one your pater is so overcome he burst out blubbing. By this time boys hay bitten through their ropes and make good their escape so 9000000000 boos to bob cratchit.
Xmas Nite At last the tiny felows are tucked up snug in their beds with 3 pilow slips awaiting santa claus. As the lite go off a horid doubt assale the mind e.g. suposing there is a santa claus. Zoom about and lay a few traps for him (see picture) Determin to lie awake and get him but go to slepe in the end cruz and dream of space ships. While thus employed something do seem to be hapning among the earthmen.
Be quiet you will wake them up. Hav you got the mecano his is the one with 3 oranges if you drop that pedal car agane i shall scream where are the spangles can you not tie a knot for heavens sake ect. ect.
It would seem that the earthmen are up to something but you are far to busy with the treens who are defending the space palace with germ guns. So snore on, fair child, snore on with thy inocent dreams and do not get the blud all over you.
The Day Xmas day always start badly becos molesworth 2 blub he has not got the reel roolsroyce he asked for. We then hay argument that each has more presents than the other. A Mery Xmas everybode sa scrooge in the end but we just call each other clot-faced wets so are you you you you pointing with our horny fingers it is very joly i must sa. In the end i wear molesworth 2’s cowboy suit and he pla with my air gun so all is quiet.
Then comes DINNER.
This is super as there are turkey crackers nuts cream plum puding jely and everything. We wash it down with a litle ginger ale but grown ups all drink wine ugh and this make all the old lades and grans very sprightly i must sa. They sa how sweet we are they must be dotty until pater raps the table and look v. solemn. He holds up his glass and sa in a low voice The QUEEN. Cheers cheers cheers for the queen we all drink and hurra for england.
Then pater sa in much lower voice ABSENT FRIENDS and everyone else sa absent friends absent friends absent friends ect. and begin blubbing. In fact it do not seme that you can go far at xmas time without blubbing of some sort and when they listen to the wireless in the afternoon all about the lonely shepherd and the lighthousemen they are in floods of tears.
Still xmas is a good time with all those presents and good food and i hope it will never die out or at any rate not until i am grown up and have to pay for it all. So ho skip and away the next thing we shall be taken to peter pan for a treat so brace up brace up.