Tag Archives: Christmas

A ‘Christmas Dainty’: fragments of festive frolics with the Edgeworths

Since our last post, the days have got shorter, colder, and wetter. Winter has arrived in Oxford, and as frosts begin to form, thoughts turn to Christmas. When we last encountered the Edgeworths in our November Blog, Maria was busy devouring an eclectic assortment of literature with her newly-rested eyes. Little seems to have changed when she writes to her beloved sister Fanny on 22nd December 1819 (MS. Eng. lett. c.706, fols.17-18).

Letter from Maria Edgeworth to Fanny Edgeworth, 22nd December 1819 (MS. Eng. lett. c.706, fols.17-18).

Transcription of MS. Eng. lett. c. 706, fols.16-18

Here, she recounts the ‘curious facts’ and inventions she had gleaned from the latest issue of William T. Brande’s periodical publication, Journal of Science and Arts. Much like her hero Lewis in the moral tale A Sequel to Frank (1822), Maria Edgeworth appears to have spent the long winter evenings leading up to Christmas reading and talking to her family about books.

As for many of us today, Christmas was for the Edgeworths a time for family. Writing to Henry and Sneyd Edgeworth on Christmas Day 1807, Maria lamented the absence of her two brothers from the festivities of ‘the most agreeable family […] I ever was in’. That family would have ensured their ‘merry Christmas’ had they been present (1).

We don’t know how the Edgeworths spent Christmas Day in 1819. Unlike in 1807, there are no letters known to survive from Christmas Day 1819. Perhaps, like the titular character of Maria’s earlier novel Ormond (1817), it was spent feasting on a ‘festive dainty’ of goose and turkey. But the letters in the Bodleian do give us a tantalising insight into the Edgeworths’ activities in the weeks leading up to the big day.

As we discussed in our June blog post, the Edgeworth Papers are full of literary and epistolary fragments. Despite their incomplete status, these fragmentary forms provide touching, and at times comedic, insights into the everyday lives of the extended Edgeworth family. This is particularly evident in the letter fragment by Maria to her sister Fanny dated 19th December 1819 (MS. Eng. lett. c. 706 fol.16).

Letter fragment by Maria Edgeworth to her sister Fanny, 19th December 1819 (MS. Eng. lett. c. 706 fol.16)

Here, Maria slips once more into the voice of the aspirant playwright heard in her plays Whim for Whim (1795) and Comic Dramas (1817), dramatizing one particularly unfortunate incident involving her seven-year-old half-brother Michael Pakenham and an unwelcome visitor to Edgeworthstown House:

Enter Pakenham ^one corner of^ handkerchief at eye
– & in great rage – those impertinent
Sheep! – What do you think Maria – Just
now I went to drive them away from
Honora’s plot & bed & the moment I
had driven ‘em off when I turned my back
one came up & set his great head against
My behind & knocked me down
I never saw such a sheep in
my life – and he ran after
me to the steps

Among the Edgeworth papers, there is an attractive line drawing of Pakenham in April 1818 attentively listening to his older brother Francis read by his sister Honora, who gave the drawing to Maria in 1836 (MS. Eng. misc. c. 901, fol.32)

The Edgeworths’ walled kitchen garden at their home in County Longford is now carefully maintained by the Edgeworth Society. Back in 1819, the young Pakenham appears to have taken it on himself to defend the honour of the flowerbed tended by his sister Honora from the attentions of one of County Longford’s more rowdy woollen residents. Despite his valiant efforts, Pakenham’s heroic quest ended in tears, a bruised ego, and a sore behind. Maria is famed for her emphasis on a moral point to her tales. Here, perhaps, the take away is simply, ‘pick on someone your own size’.

The walled garden at Edgeworthstown House. Image courtesy of Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull.

Entertainments were commonly written and performed by large households like the Edgeworths during the festive period. Here in Oxford, we’ve been honouring this tradition of domestic entertainments by bringing one of Maria’s dramatic fragments to life. MS. Eng. misc. c. 897, fols.3-8 was written in c.1811, and is made up of a series of fragmentary scenes of downstairs and upstairs life as a group of young women prepare to visit the seaside resort of Brighton. Here is the first page of the manuscript and our transcription in which the conniving maid Miss Lapell plans to sweet talk the housekeeper Mrs Wright into putting in a word for her to take employment with young Lady Flora so as to ensure she joins the jaunt to Brighton.

A fragmentary draft of an unidentified play, c.1811 (MS. Eng. misc. c. 897 fol.3r).

Transcription of MS. Eng. misc. c. 897 fol.3r

Thanks to the inspired dramatic treatment of director Ellen Brewster, and a wonderful cast of student actors (Jemima Hubberstey, Olivia Krauze and Eugenie Nevin), Maria’s untitled and incomplete scenes were performed under the title Brighton Ambitious for a group of Edgeworth scholars from around the world as part of a workshop held at the University of Oxford this month. Maria had little success as a professional dramatist, and never realised her ambition of having a play staged professionally. But the vibrancy of her wit can been seen in this short fragment, of which we only wish we had more. The performance was filmed, and we hope to share this sparkling example of Maria’s dramatic talent online with you soon.

Almost as exciting as the run up to Christmas for our project team has been the preparation and recent opening of our exhibition in the Proscholium of the Old Bodleian Library. ‘Meet the Edgeworths’ focuses on the family’s lives at home and abroad, as well as Maria’s literary fame. Entry is free, and the exhibition is open 9am-5pm daily until 26th January 2020.

This will be followed on Wednesday February 5th 2020 by the Marilyn Butler Memorial Lecture at the Weston Lecture Theatre, Bodleian Library, Oxford. This year, Dr Clíona Ó Gallchoir (Faculty of English, Cork University) will open up the topic of Maria Edgeworth’s engagement with the dramatic and the theatre. Her lecture is entitled ‘Trap doors in private houses: Drama and Theatricality in the Work of Maria Edgeworth’. The event is free and open to the public. Do please join us for the lecture and drinks thereafter in the Rector’s Drawing Room of Exeter College, Oxford, where the distinguished Edgeworth scholar, Professor Marilyn Butler, herself served as Rector from 1993 to 2004.

As we begin to look forward to the next stages of our project, we wish you all a Merry Christmas, and look forward to sharing more stories from the Edgeworth Papers with you in the New Year.

– Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull


Footnotes

1. Frances Beaufort Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth: With a Selection from Her Letters (London, 1867), 3 volumes, volume I, p.205.

Gingerbread from the Radolphus Ayres “Cook Oxford” Recipe Book, 29th August 1721 – Reference MS. Don. e. 89

As someone who has always enjoyed baking and has a love of all things historical, finding old recipe books is one of the most exciting things about working in archives. I love when cooking shows explore what people of the past would have eaten, and the different ingredients they would have used to create what we now consider modern classics. Working on the retro-conversion of the Bodleian Libraries New Summary Catalogue since September (you can read about our project here) has allowed me to discover a fair few recipe books, with some of the treats far more enticing than others… After some deliberation, I chose this 18th century recipe for gingerbread – a tried and tested festive favourite. I wanted my colleagues to actually taste it and thought it might be slightly more appetising than the vast range of pickles, a 14th century recipe for the plague, or mince pies that were made with veal hearts and tongues (that one I vetoed pretty quickly myself). Gingerbread seemed like a safe option, and I also thought dried ginger might perhaps be easier to source than “dragon warter” – weirdly Tesco didn’t have any in stock when I asked.

So here’s what I had to work with:

Before attempting this slightly vague bake (and figuring out how/if I was going to dip the cake in a mixture of “boyling watter and ale”), I decided to do a bit of research into the history of gingerbread. When did this delicious treat make its way into our lives? The important stuff.

So, ginger root was first cultivated in China, where they used it for “medicinal and magical” purposes. Ginger is still used today in medicine to help things like travel sickness – something anticipated by John Baret in his Alvearie or triple dictionaire of 1573-80, and Henry VIII even thought it might help build up resistance to the plague in the 16th century. In Roman times, the spice was known as “zingiber” from the Sanskrit “sringavera” and was used for cooking and medicinal purposes as it travelled in from the Silk Road from the 2nd century AD. Caravans came from China full of silk, ginger and cinnamon to a meeting point in central Asia where the Romans would be able to barter for these luxury items. They loved ginger so much that a pound of the spice was worth the same as a sheep!

Ginger supplies dried up after the fall of the Roman Empire when trade routes crumbled but the spice was then reintroduced freely across Western Europe. This was supposedly with returning crusaders, or through the Venetian explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century – there is quite a bit of ambiguity here. The Germans, Austrians and Hungarians were the first to develop honey and spice flour based doughs, adding candied fruits and nuts, and in France they used a simple spice recipe called “Pain d’espice”. In Medieval England, gingerbread simply meant “preserved ginger”, with the spice being used to cover up the taste of preserved meats in the winter. By Elizabeth I’s reign, between 1533 and 1603, gingerbread was eaten by wealthy aristocrats. The queen is even credited with inventing gingerbread men by asking for the biscuits to be decorated as important members of her court for a celebration.  By the 17th century, gingerbread was being sold at fairs and for special occasions in England but it was nothing like the gingerbread we love now. Valerie Barrett explains how it was “made from stale bread, honey, pepper, aniseed, with saffron or liquorice for colouring, and ginger… mashed together, moulded or shaped and dried until hard and brittle”. Doesn’t exactly sound appetising! Treacle was introduced later in the 17th century and the recipes began to change into the biscuits and cake we know today.

Gingerbread recipes travelled to America with the first English settlers, where they swapped the sugar for golden syrup. There are many variations of gingerbread, from the decorated gingerbread men and houses (popularised after Hansel and Gretal was published in 1812), to Yorkshire Parkin or American Hot gingerbread. If you want to explore the multitude of recipes I would definitely recommend The Complete Book of Gingerbread by Valerie Barrett, The Gingerbread Book by Steven Stellingwerf and The Book of Gingerbread by Carla Capalbo (all available to read at the Bodleian Libraries, references below). Although gingerbread is now made mostly at home or bought in supermarkets, it remains a part of the European Christmas tradition.

Now that I have explored gingerbread and its roots (however ambiguous), I can unveil my 18th century creation:

Although most of the ingredients were easy to acquire, I had to settle for candied mixed peel instead of simply orange peel after checking 4 different supermarkets. I also didn’t complete the last step. Unfortunately dipping the cake in ale and water made the bake soggy and un-transportable… not ideal when I needed opinions from my colleagues! The recipe itself was questionable, with the mixture not actually coming together at all until I added some warm water, though I put this down to the ingredients probably being slightly different and also the recipe being quite vague.* Either way, it got into the oven and made the house smell like caraway and coriander seeds for quite a few days!

My colleagues all agreed this was “interesting”, something I definitely agreed with. Many thought it was almost savoury in flavour and was quite dry and dense, though most enjoyed it enough to eat a whole piece and some even went back for seconds! My favourite reviews have to be “first time I’ve been unable to finish a baked good, 1/10” and “pleasingly festive, surprisingly spicy, 6/10”.

Overall rating: 6.3/10

If you want to explore the original Radolphus Ayres cookbook, you can find and request it here on the new Bodleian Archives and Manuscripts website. Look out for some more interesting things found in the Summary Catalogue conversion project in the New Year, and Merry Christmas to all who celebrate!

References

The Complete Book of Gingerbread by Valerie Barrett (The Apple Press, London, 1992)

The Gingerbread Book by Steven Stellingwerf (Charles Letts and Co ltd, London, 1991)

The Book of Gingerbread by Carla Capalbo (Ebury Press, London, 1984)

John Mariani’s American Classics: Gingerbread” in Restaurant hospitality, October 1998, 82:10, pg. 86

PBS Food “The History of Gingerbread” by Tori Avery, 20 Dec 2013, URL: https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-gingerbread/

The Guardian “A Brief History of the Gingerbread House” by Antonia Wilson, 22 Dec 2018, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2018/dec/22/a-brief-history-of-the-gingerbread-house

* I found out at a later date that the recipe book was published in 2006, Ralph Ayres Cookery Book edited by Jane Jakeman (Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2006), and this would’ve made the recipe conversion a lot easier!

Happy holidays from the Conservative Party Archive

Happy holidays! We hope you have a relaxing holiday season, wherever you may be, and look forward to seeing you in the New Year. The Archive is closed until 2 January; until then, we thought we’d leave you with a little sketch from our collections:
 
Christmas at Chequers, 1924. Pictured: Stanley Baldwin, surrounded by his ‘noble thoughts’.
From The Man in the Street, Dec. 1924 (PUB 210/1)