New Year’s, Bigfoot, and Lucy Maud Montgomery

I guess I’ve always had a thing for sleuthing. When I was nine, my best friend and I formed a Mystery Club. We were convinced that Bigfoot prowled around our neighborhood at night. With notebooks in hand, we inspected the fields and tree rows near our houses and wrote down anything that looked suspicious. Once, we found a stepladder leaned up against a tree and footprints nearby. That confirmed for us that we were very close to finding him.

Many years later (not to tell my age, but Trixie Belden was my hero), I still love mysteries. While I no longer prowl around looking for physical clues, I still enjoy finding “clues” in books. Finding an author in her work or discovering what life was like in the past through the everyday experiences of characters is like finding a treasure.

New Year’s Day was last week, but was no holiday for my students at the facility where I teach. While trying to get back into a routine again after my Christmas vacation, scanning my lesson plans, loading videos that I wanted to show, and assigning books to students for the new semester, I began to think about how New Year’s was celebrated long ago. Perhaps, I thought, it was more than a ball dropping, a countdown, and a toast.

A poem for children from 1881 titled “A New Year’s Dialogue” by Marion Douglas reveals small children making resolutions on New Year’s Eve in a simple poem. Nothing about weight loss or organizing their rooms or career goals is mentioned. Rather, these are moral resolutions to be more cheerful, kinder, and more disciplined:

TheNursery“The past is past; the year is new:
We will be patient, brave, and true;
When we are bidden, quick to mind;
Unselfish, courteous, and kind;
And try in every place to see
What good, good children we can be.”

We see this reiterated in L. M. Montgomery’s The Golden Road (the sequel to The Story Girl), published in 1913, when the Prince Edward Island children decide to make New Year’s Resolutions. The narrator, a boy of around 14 years old, suggests that resolutions should be “giving up wrong things or doing right things” after his brother Felix proclaims he going to stop eating apples as his resolution for the year (62).

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Cousin Cecily worries incessantly that they are not being kind enough to one another on the last day of the year, and hired boy Peter promises, “I will try…to say my prayers every night regular and not twice one night because I don’t expect to have time the next…” (68).

In Elizabeth and Her German Garden (Elizabeth von Arnim), published in 1898, the very British Elizabeth, who is living in Germany with her husband, describes New Year’s Eve as having a “funeral sort of feeling in the air” as they attend a church service where the parishioners are reminded of their sins and encouraged to repent:

“The church was as cold as a tomb; some of the candles guttered and went out; the parson in his black robe spoke of death and judgment; I thought I heard a child’s voice screaming, and could hardly believe it was only the wind, and felt uneasy and full of forebodings; all my faith and philosophy deserted me, and I had a horrid feeling that I should probably be well punished, though for what I had no precise idea (157).”

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It is also on New Year’s Eve that fictional Nat realizes the error of his ways and repents of spending too much money, idling away his time in superficiality, and not being focused on his music (Louisa May Alcott Jo’s Boys).

Like Elizabeth, he is in Germany at the time, and on New Year’s Day, his German landlady brings him a tray “on which st[ands] a bottle of wine and an astonishing cake bedecked with sugar-plums of every hue, and crowned with candles.” She and a neighbor both wish him not just a happy New Year’s Day, but wishes for a good year all-around (Alcott 235).

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Bavarian Cream from Lowney’s Cookbook, published 1908

By incorporating seasons in her books, Alcott often gives us glimpses of our favorite characters in summer, fall, winter, spring, and various holidays. She again shows one of her characters repenting on New Year’s in Rose in Bloom, published in 1876. Charlie has gotten drunk after making “New Year’s calls,” which, it is implied, involved going to various friends’ houses to drink toasts.

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Eight Cousins (Alcott, published 1874)

This hearkens back to the English tradition of wassailing:

“It was an ancient Saxon custom to begin the year by sending presents to each other. On New Year’s Eve the wassail bowl of spiced ale was carried round from house to house by the village maidens, who sang songs and wished everyone “A Happy New Year” (Old English Sports by P. H. Ditchfield).

According to the book referenced above and published in 1891, the gifts may have included oranges “stuck with cloves,” custards, or tarts (basically treats). By the 1800’s, this expanded to jewelry and other presents we might expect to receive at Christmas.

In fact, the word Yule translates to “second Christmas.”

This likely explains why the college students in L. M. Montgomery’s story “Ida’s New Year Cake” are commiserating at the beginning of the story “because none of them was able to go home for New Year’s” (Lucy Maud Montgomery Short Stories 1905 to 1906):

“This will be the first New Year’s I have ever spent away from home,” sighed Sara, nibbling chocolate fudge. “It does make me so blue to think of it. And not even a holiday—I’ll have to go to work just the same” (51).

The plot revolves around Ida Mitchell, who has invited everyone over for a celebration, but finds that her fruitcake has been delivered (accidentally) to another Ida Mitchell. In trying to retrieve her lost cake, she discovers that the recipient is a lonely, poor girl whose life has been brightened by the home-baked gift. The main character hasn’t the heart to tell her namesake the truth.

Jc rankin at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Dalhousie College in 1905:  JC Rankin at the English language Wikipedia (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)
In real life, Lucy Maud Montgomery did, in fact, attend a university for a time during the school year of 1895-1896 at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In her journals, she indicates that she was unable to go home for the holidays due to the weather and her grandfather’s being unwilling to meet her or return her to the station (The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery Volume I:  1889-1910: 151).

She also returned to Halifax to work for the newspaper in town as a proofreader in 1901-1902.

While the short story may not be autobiographical, LMM cleverly inserts another character, a “Miss Monroe,” who lives in the same boarding house as the college girls and is invited to attend the party. Miss Monroe is described as “a clever journalist, who worked on a paper, and was reputed to be writing a book” (52).

The author that gave us both Anne and Emily was able to show us the feelings of the introvert and the extrovert. She herself had been the popular college student, the lonely schoolteacher, the proud working girl, and the freelance writer (and all this before writing the books for which she is best known).
I end with an excerpt, recorded on New Year’s Eve, from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals back in 1891 when she was 17 years old:

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Public Domain, from the British Library
Title – Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People. Edited by Mrs. Sale Barker (1885)

“Thursday, Dec 31, 1891

The old year did not slip away in a green twilight and a pinky-yellow sunset. Instead, it is going out in a wild white bluster and blow. It doesn’t seem possible that another year has gone…I am cosily tucked up in bed now, sitting up to write this. It is a wild night out–one of the nights when the storm spirit hustles over the bare frozen meadows and black hollows and the wind moans around the house like a lost soul and the snow drives sharply against the shaking panes–and people like to cuddle down and count their mercies” (The Selected Journals…Volume I: 1889-1910:  71).

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year 2018!

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RING OUT, WILD BELLS

by Alfred Tennyson (1850)

“Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

Black and white illustration of large bells ringing across a wild winter landscape
Illustration by Frederic B. Schell 1885

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,

For those we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.”

 

100 Years Ago this Month…December 1917

 

As a British woman mixes her Christmas pudding, her husband arrives with packages from other nations (including America) during World War I
“Christmas Pudding” (John Fergus O’Hea [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
A Christmas menu from 1917 promises: Cream of Celery Soup; Currant Jelly; Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing; Mashed Potatoes; Scalloped Onions; Tomato and Lettuce Salad with Mayonnaise; Plum Pudding; Cake; Mints; and Coffee. Christmas Pudding, whether in America, Canada, or Great Britain, completed the meal (with its raisins, real cream, and brandy).

Still, war constrained many in their feasting as sugar became a real luxury. Homemakers substituted fruit salads for cakes and sweet breads, and “Meatless Tuesday” and “Wheatless Wednesday” were encouraged. Home cooks made their pumpkin pies with molasses instead of sugar, and eggless recipes were shared in magazines and recipe booklets.

A Christmas card in 1917 may have looked something like this:

Santa Claus and two soldiers wish "Peace" to the nation as the stars and stripes provide a backdrop
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Archives_and_Records_Administration#National_Archives_at_College_Park

The Red Cross suggested Christmas “packets” be made and sent to our American soldiers overseas. Items recommended:  writing paper, playing cards, mechanical puzzles, tobacco, chewing gum, figs, dates, hard candy, and other small items all wrapped in a khaki handkerchief that the soldier could then use. This patriotic pamphlet also suggested an “electric torch,” a fancy name for a flashlight (“The American Red Cross Woman’s Bureau”).

World War I ship wooden block puzzle
Puzzle of World War I warship (by Alf van Beem [Own work] [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)
Gifts on the homefront were practical:  toiletries, clothing, or hosiery.

According to Style: A Dry Goods Review catalog of 1917, popular toys that year included kiddie cars and tin toys such as mini warships. French, American, and Japanese dolls took the place of “banned” German dolls. No matter the gifts, Americans were encouraged to use Red Cross seals to send their Christmas cards:

1917_US_Christmas_Seal
By Denune (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Although the United States had entered the Great War that year, Great Britain, France,  and Canada had been fighting since 1914. One of my favorite fictional characters, Rilla (Rilla of Ingleside), writes from the homefront in Canada:

“31 December 1917: Our fourth war Christmas is over. We are trying to gather up some courage wherewith to face another year of it” (L. M. Montgomery Rilla of Ingleside).

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As for books, best sellers of 1917 included Mr. Britling Sees it Through by H. G. Wells and The Worn Doorstep by Margaret Sherwood. Both convey the experiences of World War I from the homefront in England, the latter reading as if it is nonfiction, a bit reminiscent of Elizabeth von Arnim.

H. G. Wells describes the Christmas of 1914 (through the eyes of the fictional Mr. Direck, a visiting American) as a time focused on the War, patriotism, and a general feeling of anxiety:

“Always before, Christmas had been a time of much gaiety and dressing up and prancing and two-stepping at the Dower House, but this year everything was too uncertain to allow of any gathering of guests…the Christmas tree was banned as too German, and it was discovered that Santa Claus had suddenly become Old Father Christmas again…” (Mr. Britling 280).

H. G. Wells from the book "Six Major Prophets" by Edwin Slosson
H. G. Wells from the book “Six Major Prophets” by Edwin Slosson

It seems that the American point-of-view gave Wells a chance to satirize both himself (or at least his type) and his own country. Similarly, Sherwood’s narrator views the British through the eyes of an American. Describing the lengthening days, she embraces the weather and the birds that bring her company:

“Winter is gentler here than at home, bringing at times enfolding grey mist and hours of rain; yet we have had many days of clear and sunny cold, and snow has fallen on the roof of the little red house…The English robin stays with us evidently throughout the winter; the rooks have not deserted; and we are visited daily by silver-winged gulls which come all the way from the sea for the food we put out” (The Worn Doorstep 141).

On a personal note, my family played a “game” at Christmas wherein we each were asked a personal question;  then, everyone in the room shared what they thought we would say, and we revealed our own answer at the end. After we had all done, we all told where we would live if we could live anywhere in the world.

Orange bricks, towers, and spires of "Hammerton College," Cambridge University (pixabay)
“Hammerton College,” Cambridge University (pixabay)

My mom spoke about old England and how the scholarly and Bible-focused universities had a feeling of home, a drawing she could not quite articulate. I think Margaret Sherwood expresses this so well in her search for a home in England, almost as though she had been in the room with us the other night:

“Everywhere, indoors and out, I am aware of forgotten chords of sympathy…In some way, by memory, by prophecy, all seems mine; the worn paths; the hollowed door-stones; the ruddy faces moving up and down the walled streets, and the quiet under the grass in the churchyard” (The Worn Doorstep 4).

So, another year closes.

Popular Baby Names in Classic Literature

According to the most recent data from the Social Security Administration, new parents are choosing names once prominent from the 18th through the early 20th centuries. Here are some well-known female characters and writers from literature and their name rankings from the current decade (2010-2019 so far):

Emma (ranked #2) -This name is popular in the fictional world, as well as the real one. Think Emma Swan (Once Upon a Time) and Emma Frost (X-Men).  Now over 200 years old, matchmaker Emma Woodhouse shows us that it’s attractive to be confident. In a time when it was unusual to do so, Jane Austen’s famous protagonist insists she will never marry, and, though she does in fact accept a proposal, she stays true to herself by holding out for true love.

 

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Emma, 1896 edition, ill. Hugh Thomson

Isabella (ranked #3) – Jane Austen assigned this name more than once (including to Emma’s older married sister). Yet, it is Isabella Thorpe from Northanger Abbey who leaves the stronger impression. Flirtatious and beautiful, Isabella is the friend no other girl wants too close to her man. If alive today, she might go by Isabel or Bella.

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Northanger Abbey, 1907 edition, ill. C. E. Brock

 

Emily (ranked #5) – Fiercely independent Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights, gave us one of the most haunting, but strangest, love affairs in history. Baffling to researchers and readers alike, this talented writer never married and in all probability never even had a love affair. She could have fooled us!

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Emily Bronte
https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-cf0a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Lily (ranked #22) – Trapped between a high social standing and financial destitution, Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) seems to always be one step behind the security she seeks. Still, she lives up to the class and dignity of her name by choosing honor over reputation. Edith Wharton well understood the world of high-society New York as shown here around 1880:

Edith_Wharton_c._1880
Edith Wharton

 

Grace (ranked #20) – Even a secondary character, especially when she is mentally-disturbed Grace Poole from Jane Eyre, intrigues me enough to place her on this list. However, author Grace Livingston Hill deserves first place for creating an entirely new genre of writing known as the Christian romance and for writing well over 100 novels in the early- to mid-1900’s. She understood well the meaning of grace.

Barbour Publishing, 2000

Elizabeth (ranked #10) – “Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Bess…” This children’s rhyme displays the versatility of this classic name. Memorable Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice lives on as a model of the strong, sassy female protagonist. In contrast, Elizabeth (Beth) March (Little Women) lives on as the girl whose sweet nature influences all those around her. [Note the illustration drawn by the real Amy (May Alcott).]

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Little Women, 1896 edition, ill. May Alcott

I like to think that at least some of the many names that remain popular decades and even centuries later can be attributed to the writers and characters of our favorite books. Perhaps Anne Shirley said it best:  “I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage” (L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables).

 

 

Laura, Catherine, Louisa, and Me

Recently, a poll on Twitter asked which book first inspired in you a love for reading. I thought immediately of Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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This and other childhood books were my friends, their words my teachers, and their settings my travels. Even today, I see the connections between these books and my own life.

Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have come to live in the Missouri Ozarks. We often vacationed here, and though I was born and raised in Iowa, I longed to live here. Now I realize the pull I had to the cool, green hills, the fingered lakes, and the giving spirit of the residents was a pull to home. Driving away after vacation with my family, I never wanted to leave here. Now, it is my home, and I have taken my husband (actually dragged him) to the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Mansfield more than once where I am in my element.

When I was thirteen, a friend’s mom placed the book Christy in my hands (long before the movie or the TV show came along). This book so influenced me that I purposely majored in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in college, hoping to become a missionary.

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Instead, God had a unique plan for me that comes much closer to Catherine Marshall’s book. I work as a teacher, like Christy, at a residential treatment facility, where at times I have taught many grades in one room, dealt with literacy issues, and have experienced the stench of boys who have been doing chores in the pig barn (and haven’t cleaned up afterward). Even though I never had to make the trek up that mountain in Tennessee, I have experienced the isolation of only seeing my family one or two times per year for the past twelve years due to the distance between us and the intensity of the job.

Although I wished for more fiction by Catherine Marshall (as you probably know, she only completed two fictional novels), I am still trying to finish all of Louisa May Alcott’s stories. Jo’s Boys remains one of my favorites from childhood. I was intrigued by the unique life Jo led, marrying an intellectual, having a home for boys, and writing in her spare time.

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This past year, my eighth grade class read Little Men. Each one in the class identified with a different character, and all identified with life in a group home. I am amazed at Alcott’s ability to describe in detail our lives here and now, many generations later and many states away (and yes, I married a very intelligent guy, live at a home for boys, and write in my spare time!).

I leave off with these words from Little Men:

“‘It is the best joke of the family, this school of yours and its success. So unlike the future we planned for you, and yet so suited to you, after all…’ said Laurie.” (Louisa May Alcott)

Writers and the Month of July

This week, I heard several different people moaning about the end of summer, even though it is just now July 21. I wanted to proclaim, “There are nearly two months left of summer! Don’t wish them away!”  Then, today, because our patio umbrella was ruined in a storm, we were trying to find a replacement. The manager of the outdoor department at our local Wal-Mart told me they didn’t have any and wouldn’t be getting anymore in stock because it is “nearing the end of the season.”

I got my chance, and I vented in frustration because we had already been to seven different stores by then. Perhaps first-days-of-school being pushed further back (our public school begins on August 12 this year) drives stores to think about school shopping and fall schedules, which in turn affects everyone’s belief that summer is over when it really isn’t.

I began to wonder about the month of July in years past. Did our grandparents think of July as the end of summer? Here are some quotes written in and about the month of July, dating as far back as 1827.

Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

“July 15th –Have finished “Little Women,” and sent it off, —402 pages. May is designing some pictures for it. Hope it will go, for I shall probably get nothing for “Morning Glories.” Very tired, head full of pain from overwork, and heart heavy about Marmee, who is growing feeble.” –Louisa May Alcott (from The Portable Louisa May Alcott, edited by Elizabeth Lennox Keyser).

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“Summer! Glowing summer! This is the month of heat and sunshine, of clear, fervid skies, dusty roads, and shrinking streams; when doors and windows are thrown open, a cool gale is the most welcome of all visitors, and every drop of rain is ‘worth its weight in gold.'” [written concerning England in July 1825] –William Howitt

inthemountains

“July 27th. If only I don’t think—if only I don’t think and remember—how can I not get well again here in the beauty and the gentleness? There’s all next month, and September, and perhaps October too may be warm and golden. After that I must go back, because the weather in this high place while it is changing from the calms of autumn to the calms of the exquisite alpine winter is a disagreeable, daunting thing. But I have two whole months; perhaps three.” –Elizabeth von Arnim (from In the Mountains)

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“There is a hotel on Broadway that has escaped discovery by the summer-resort promoters. A few have found out this oasis in the July desert of Manhattan. During that month you will see the hotel’s reduced array of guests scattered luxuriously about in the cool twilight of its lofty dining-room, gazing at one another across the snowy waste of unoccupied tables, silently congratulatory.” –O. Henry (from “Transients in Arcadia”)

I concur with Elizabeth von Arnim (whose Elizabeth and her German Garden is one of my very favorite works) when she states that the whole month of August and September and possibly even October are still warm months to be enjoyed.

My great-grandparents (my paternal grandmother’s parents) were hard-working, honest farmers. I inherited the letters my great-grandmother wrote to her daughter and found that July was an important month on the small farms of America in the 1900s.  Grandma Lottie canned everything from tomatoes to pickles, Grand-Dad overexerted himself with haying, and both of them struggled with the heat and few modern conveniences, but I found this excerpt most interesting.

It was July, 1968, and their oldest grandson David had just received his letter from the draft board. They dreaded that letter, probably envisioning the worst. Grandma Lottie expressed her worry by cooking:   “…David got to Fort Leonard Wood midnight the 25th. He told Stevie [his brother] Tuesday night to tell the family he didn’t want anyone but his daddy to go to the bus with him. So I had them for dinner Wednesday. I knew pork chops was his favorite meal.”

Well, that will put a lousy old (or new) umbrella into perspective for you. I found examples of wars, battles, deaths (Jane Austin and Percy Shelley), and births (Emily Bronte and Beatrix Potter) in my search. July was signing of the Declaration of Independence. July was the French revolution. It was July when Neil Armstrong took those first steps on the moon.

July may be a lot of things, but I refuse to admit it is the end of summer!