In the bleak midwinter article 1 header

In this Christmastime selection of readings, Helen gives us an extract from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens in which Mr Pickwick is setting off for Christmas at Dingley Dell; extracts from December with the Ladies of Llangollen; an extract from Christmas with the Savages; and two extracts from Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

This extract describes Mr Pickwick and his loyal club members, plus his faithful valet, Sam Weller, making the journey by stage coach to spend Christmas with friends at Dingley Dell. Many of us will be making similar journeys and encounter similar trials, trying to find room in the already stuffed car for expensive, perishable contributions that we are taking to Christmas meals, and discovering that there is simply nowhere to stow them safely. But:

We are keeping Mr Pickwick and his friends waiting in the cold, on the outside of the Muggleton coach, which they have just attained, well wrapped up, in great coats, shawls and comforters. The Portmanteau and the carpet bags have been well stowed away and Mr Weller and the guard are endeavouring to insinuate in to the fore-boot a huge cod-fish several sizes too large for it, which is snugly packed up, in a long brown basket, with a layer of straw over the top, and which has been left to the last, in order that he may repose in safety on the half dozen barrels of native oysters , all the property of Mr Pickwick, which have been arranged in regular order, on the bottom of that receptacle. The interest displayed on Mr Pickwick’s countenance is most intense, as Mr Weller and the guard try to squeeze the cod fish into the boot, first head first, and then tail first, and then top upwards, and then bottom upwards, and then sideways, and then lengthways, all of which artifices the implacable cod-fish resists, until the guard accidentally hits him in the very middle of the basket, whereupon he suddenly disappears into the boot, and with him, the head and shoulders of the guard himself, who, not calculating upon so sudden a cessation of the passive resistance of the cod-fish, experiences a very unexpected shock, to the unsmotherable delight of all the porters and by-standers. Upon this, Mr Pickwick smiles with great good humour, and drawing a shilling from his waistcoat pocket, begs the guard, as he picks himself out of the boot, to drink his health in a hot brandy and water, at which, the guard smiles too, and Messers Snodgrass, Winkle and Tupman all smile in company. The guard and Mr Weller disappear for five minutes, most probably to get the hot water and brandy, for they smell very strongly of it when they return, the coachman mounts the box, Mr Weller jumps up behind, the Pickwickians pull their coats round their legs, and their shawls over their noses; the helpers pull the horse-cloths off, the coachman shouts out a cheery “All right”, and away they go.

December with the Ladies of Llangollen by Elizabeth Mavor

These are two great heroines of mine. In 1778 two high born Irish women, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby eloped together from Ireland to Llangollen, where they rented a house, Plas Newydd and transformed it into a paradise, filling it with books, art and antiques and landscaping and cultivating the gardens. Llangollen was on the tourist route to Snowdonia and on to the Lake District and the Highlands, and during the Napoleonic Wars, when European travel was restricted, and as their fame spread, famous and well connected people begged to visit them.

They were utterly devoted to each other and unsurprisingly they have been claimed as early gay pioneers. I think this is the least remarkable thing about them. They guarded their privacy jealously and were outraged by any open speculation about their relationship. This was also a period when upper class women were frequently expected to marry for reasons of class and property and consequently passionate, emotional relationships between women were not uncommon. I think by far the most fascinating thing about them was their lifestyle, driven by their determination to live, as they put it “with elegant curiosity”.

Fortunately Lady Eleanor kept a journal, from which I have taken most of these extracts, covering the month of December from 1784 to 1819. They all come from A Year With The Ladies of Llangollen compiled by Elizabeth Mavor.

N.B. Christmas as we know it, with such a great importance placed on food and present giving, is largely a Victorian construct, so the references, even in detailed accounts of domestic and social life prior to the mid 19th century, are infrequent.

The ladies kept hens and cows and became extremely fond of some of them. In December their favourite hen went missing and they made earnest efforts to find her.


December 11th. "My Beloved and I went the Farm Circuit. Lovely day, rather cold. Somebody, I suspect that vile woman of Penycoed, has stolen our poor faithful hen, whom we have fed and cherished so long, for whom we were going to erect a wall in order to enclose her precincts and secure her from annoyance of Dogs and Fowl. But she is gone. My Beloved and I went to feed her with oats when we missed her. Sent to search every field, dingle, the banks of every stream, the Penycoed mountains… Our poor hen is certainly gone. We fear destroyed by a fitchet (ferret) at an hour when we were not near to protect her. I daresay she thought of, perhaps, calling on us, but we Alas! heard her not.

December 12th. “The bird is dead that we made so much on. Robert the Weaver (our old neighbour) found her headless body under an old wall by the brookside where a fitchet had brought and destroyed her- Poor Thing. This fitchet is an old offender, the hatred and terror of all the cottagers possessed of fowls, it inhabits an impenetrable fastness beside the Cyflymen. Reading. Drawing. Splendid heavenly glittering day. The Poor woman from whom we got our Hen, hearing of her dismal end came (with a kindness, a degree of feeling and sentiment which belongs to this country) with the present of a Hen which she hoped would be acceptable as we were so fond of the old Hen. This was a daughter of hers, rear’d from an egg of her own Hatching. We were grateful for the intention, sent the Hen to the fowlyard, but did not nor ever shall behold her as the successor of one who has left no Equal.”

A good layer (as well a sturdy cook) was clearly needed to make this:

Recipe for Mrs Worralls Pound cake: “Take two pound of Good fresh Butter, work it with your hand to a Cream, then put two pound of good Lump Sugar in, well beat, dry’d and sifted, then work it well together for half an hour, then put in two pounds of fine Flour, then add Sixteen Eggs, that have been well beat in a vessel by themselves with a whisk for an hour, then add a little Brandy, some sweet Almonds, a little pounded Citron and preserved Orange shred – and two pounds of Currants well cleaned- the Sugar and Flour must be sifted and put before the fire to dry for some time before you begin to make your Cake, and the other things got ready, and never take your hand out till you put it in the pan you bake it in, but keep beating it all the time for a full hour, take care your Oven is not very hot, it will take three hours and half baking in a moderate Oven.”

Recipe for Partridge with Cabbage: Cut a large Cabbage into Quarters, scald it first then put it to boil or rather to stew with about a pound of Pickled Pork Broth a paquet of sweet Herbs – Pepper, a little salt and two or three Cloves – when almost done put in the Partridges, if they have been done before – let them stew some time, when done drain the Partridges and the Cabbage, put the Birds into a Deep Dish, the Cabbage round or between, and the Pickled Pork upon them.


25th December. A tall thin old man came to the Door and Sung a Christmas Carol in a Melodious, solemn Voice. Listened to it with pleasure. Three dinner. Roast Beef, mince pies.


25th December. Dinner Roast Beef, Plum Pudding. Soft mild evening. My Beloved and I got a lantern visited our Dear Margaret (their favourite cow) in her stable.


7th December (from a letter Miss Ponsonby wrote to a friend). “… a present of the most beautiful, the most amiable, the most valuable little cow I believe in the world. It appeared quite unexpectedly at our door, having travelled all the way from Bristol, some verses hanging by a riband to its horn and enclosed in an envelope to us… The pretty little thing was terribly footsore after her long journey but is now quite well, gives abundance of milk like cream, is in calf, gentle as a lamb, tame as a lapdog.”

Christmas with The Savages by Mary Clive

Mary Clive wrote this in 1955, but it is an account, partly autobiographical, of an Edwardian Christmas spent in a grand country house, seen through the eyes of Mary, a small girl. The adults and children lead entirely separate lives for the most part. Mary finds herself catapulted into a large and riotous group of children, including one family, the Savages. On Christmas day they open their presents:

… the only one I can remember is a life size dachshund on wheels. Great Uncle Algy gave it to Tommy, who at once broke into such howls of terror that it was quickly handed on to me who happened to be standing near. I had got past the age when people usually give you stuffed animals, so I was very pleased to get this. He was christened Great Agrippa and went to bed with me for years.

At one moment we all surged down into the dining room where the uncles and aunts were having their breakfast… The grown-ups were eating at a big table in the middle but there were wide open spaces all round them and other tables near the walls. With a whoop the Savages dashed towards a large polished table which stood in the corner and began playing ships on it and under it. I took in the situation at a glance and decided to follow up an idea of my own and to get to the grown-up table where the people breakfasting would be at my mercy. I spotted an uncle who I had not seen before and who I thought would find me irresistible, and I felt contempt for the Savages who were so childish that they chose to play ships under the sideboard at a time when they might have been fascinating for the house table.

Unfortunately for my plans, on my way towards my victim, I had to pass near a table on which was a boars' head. The boar had rolling eyes and great tusks and I suppose it was really only an ordinary pig, but it looked like something out of history. Round it was mashed jelly of a beautiful golden colour, and as no one was looking at me I stuck two fingers in and took a great mouthful.

Then I was in a fix indeed. The jelly was perfectly horrible and I couldn’t possibly bring myself to swallow it, but I didn’t dare to spit it out. Instead of going to fascinate the grown ups I had to slink into the corner after the other children.

“Come up on deck Evelyn,” said Rosamund, stretching out a hand.

But I ducked down into the cabin, where I found Harry and Peter.

“Which will you be?” said Peter. “Stoker or stewardess?” The Savages sometimes went to Ireland and so they knew about ships.

I nodded, still unable to open my mouth.

“What does that senseless sort of nod mean?” asked Harry “Does it mean you want to be a stoker and shovel coal 'til the perspiration pours off you in rivers. Or does it mean that you want to be a stewardess and hand round basins?”

It really meant that I wished someone would hand me a basin but at that moment the captain’s head appeared upside down as he bent over the deck, and while Harry and Peter were exchanging remarks with it, I managed to get rid of the jelly under the corner of the carpet which was fortunately not nailed down.

“I think I’ll just be a passenger”, I said, “with lots of luggage and a Pomeranian.”

Boxing Day.

I have often noticed that one feels rather flat on Boxing Day. The weather is generally grey and dull, and children are apt to be tired and bored.

“I can’t think why it is” said Rosamund, “I don’t really like these sweets at all now, and yet I just can’t stop eating them.”

“My mouth feels all sugary inside,” I said, "I wonder if one of those lumps of nougat would take the tasre away.

I took one but it was horrid, and when I tried to throw it into the fire it hit the fender. It became very runny and stuck in the wire meshes, and the more we tried to poke it through with a pencil the more sticky everything became.

“You’d better not have any more sweets Harry”. said Rosamund, “Not after what happened at dinner.” Harry appeared to be pondering great thoughts. At last he spoke.

“Sick can be very surprising, sometimes”

“Well, we were certainly more surprised then pleased,” said Rosamund, “Why did you say that you were too hungry to eat?”

“Because I thought I was.” said Harry humbly.

We were interrupted by Lady Tamerlane coming in to suggest that the nursery maids should take us down to the back lodge to watch the marathon race.

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm is one of my ‘desert island’ books, so I was delighted to find this short story. The plot predates the arrival of Flora Post and the radical reforms she will make of the Starkadders.

By the way, there is a pitch perfect film of the book, starring Kate Beckinsale, Ian Mc Kellan, Rufus Sewell, Eileen Atkins, Joanna Lumley, Steven Fry and Miriam Margolyes.

Extract 1

Here we have Adam Lambsbreath making Cold Comfort Farm’s version of a Christmas pudding and sorting out the pudding charms, which consist of the following objects:

• A small coffin nail
• A menthol cone
• Three bad sixpences
• A doll’s cracked looking glass
• A small roll of sticking plaster

Adam collected these objects and ranged them by the pudding basin.

“Ay, them’s all there” he muttered. “Him as gets the sticking plaster’ll break a limb; the menthol cone means as you’ll be blind wi' headache; the bad coins means as you’ll lose all yer money; and him as gets the coffin nail will die afore the New Year. The mirror’s seven years' bad luck for someone. Aie! In ye go, curse ye!” and he tossed the objects into the pudding, where they were not easily long distinguishable from the main mass.

“Want a stir, missus? Come, Elfine, my popelot, stir long, stir firm, your meat to earn”, and he handed her the butt of an old rifle, once used by Fig Starkadder in the Gordon riots.

Judith turned from the pudding, with what is commonly described as a gesture of loathing, but Elfine took the rifle butt and stirred the mixture once or twice.

“Ay, now tes all mixed,” said the old man, nodding with satisfaction. “To-morrer we’ll boil un for a good hour, and un’ll be done.”

“Will an hour be enough?”, said Elfine." Mrs HawksMonitor up at Hautcouture Hall boils hers for eight hours and another four on Christmas Day."

“How do ee know?” demanded Adam. “Have ee been runnin’wi' that young goosepick Mus' Richard again?”

“You shut up. He’s awfully decent.”

“Tisn’t decent to run wi' a young popelot all over the Downs in all weather.”

“Well, it ain’t any of your business, so shut up.”

After an offended pause, Adam said:

“Well, niver fret about puddens. None of 'em here has iver tasted any puddens but mine, and they won’t know no different.”

Extract 2

For Christmas Dinner the whole family plus the farm hands and their wives gather around the kitchen table, all waiting for Ada Doom, the rarely seen matriarch of the family to make her appearance.

She takes her place at the head of the table.

“Well, well. What are we waiting for? Are you all mishooden?” she demanded impatiently as she seated herself. “Are you all here? All? Answer me!” banging her stick.

“Ay, Grummer”, rose the low, dreary tone from all sides of the table. “We be all here.”

“Where’s Seth?” demanded the old woman, peering sharply on either side of the long row.

“Gone out” said Harkaway briefly, shifting a straw in his mouth.

“What for?” demanded Mrs Doom.

There was an ominous silence.

“He said he was going to fetch something Grandmother,” at last said Elfine.

“Ay. Well, well no matter, so long as he comes soon. Amos, carve the bird. Ay, would it 'twere a vulture. 'twould be more fitting. Reuben, fling these dogs the fare my bounty provides. Sausages – pah! Mince pies… what a black bitter mockery it all is! Every almond, every raisin, is wrung from the dry, dying soil and paid for with sparse greasy notes grudged alike by bank and buyer. Come Ezra, pass the ginger wine! Be gay, spawn! Laugh, stuff yourselves, gorge and forget, you rat-heaps! Rot you all!” and she fell back in her chair, gasping and keeping one eye on the British Port-type that was now coming up the table.

“Tes one of her bad days” said Judith tonelessly. “Amos, will you pull a cracker wi' me? We were lovers….once.”

" Hush, woman." He shrunk from the proffered treat. “Tempt me not wi' motters and paper caps. Hell is paved wi' such,” Judith smiled bitterly and fell silent.

Reuben, meanwhile had seen to it that Elfine got the best bit off the turkey (which is not saying much ) and filled her glass with Port–type wine and well-water.

The turkey gave out before it got to Letty. Prue, Susan, Phoebe, Jane and Rennett, who were huddled together at the foot of the table, were making do with brussels sprouts as hard as bullets drenched with weak gravy and home brewed braket.

When everyone had finished, the women cleared away and poured the pudding into a large dusty dish which they bore to the table and set before Judith.

“Amos? Pudding?” she asked listlessly. “In a glass, or on a plate?”

“On plate, on plate woman,” he said feverishly bending forward with a fierce glitter in his eye. “'Tes easier to see the New Year’s Luck so.”

A stir of excitement now went through the company, for everyone looked forward to everyone else drawing ill luck from the symbols concealed in the pudding. A fierce attentive silence fell. It was broken by a wail from Reuben…

“The coin – the coin!” Wala wa! " and he broke into deep heavy sobs. He was saving up to buy a tractor and the coin meant, of course, that he would lose all his money during the year.

“Never mind, Reuben dear,” whispered Elfine, slipping an arm round his neck. “You can have the penny father gave me.”

Shrieks from Letty and Prue now announced that they had received the menthol cone and the sticking plaster, and a low mutter of approval greeted the discovery by Amos of the broken mirror.

Now there was only the coffin nail and a ghoulish silence feel on everybody as they dripped pudding from their spoons in a feverish hunt for it. Ezra was straining his though a tea strainer.

But no one seemed to have got it. “Who has the coffin nail? Speak, you draf-saks!” at last demendad Mrs Doom.

“Nor I”, “Nay”, “Niver sight nor snitch of it” chorused everybody.

“Adam!” Mrs Doom turned to the old man. “Did you put the coffin nail into the pudding?”

“Ay, mistress, that I did – didn’t I Miss Judith, didn’t I Elfine, my liddle lovesight?”

“He speaks truth for once, mother.”

“yes he did, Grandmother. I saw him.”

“Then where is it?” Mrs Doom’s voice was low and terrible and her gaze moved slowly down the table, first on one side and then the other, in search of signs of guilt, while everyone cowered over their plates.

Everyone that is, except Mrs Beetle, who continued to eat a sandwich that she had taken out of a cellophane wrapper, with every appearance of enjoyment.

“Carrie Beetle!” shouted Mrs Doom.

“I’m 'ere” said Mrs Beetle.

“Did you take the coffin nail out of the pudding?”

“Yes, I did” Mrs Beetle leisurely finished the last crumb of the sandwich and wiped her mouth with a clean handkerchief. “And will again, if I’m spared till next year.”

“You… you… you…” choked Mrs Doom, rising in her chair and beating the air with her clenched fists, “For two hundred years… Starkadders…. coffin nails… in puddings… and now… you… dare…”

“Well, I ‘ad enough of it las’ year,” retorted Mrs Beetle. “That pore old soul Ernest Dolour got it, as well you may remember…”

“That’s right, Cousin Earnest,” nodded Mark Dolour. “Got a job workin' on the oil field down Henfield way. Good Money too.”

“Where is it?” whispered Mrs Doom terribly. “Where is this year’s nail, woman?”

“Down the …” Mrs Beetle checked herself, and coughed, “down the well,” concluded Mrs Beetle firmly.

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