(Author's Note: Short story in honour of Stir-Up Sunday, November 25, 2018. This is the day when the traditional Christmas pudding was made, giving it five weeks for the flavours to combine. On that day, everyone in the family takes a turn to stir the pudding and make a secret wish.)
Jane Austen Quote: "If there had not been a Netherfield ball to prepare for and talk of, the younger Miss Bennets would have been in a pitiable state at this time; for from the day of the invitation to the day of the ball, there was such a succession of rain as prevented their walking to Meryton once. No aunt, no officers, no news could be sought after - the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy. Even Elizabeth might have found some trial of her patience in weather which totally suspended the improvement of her acquaintance with Mr. Wickham; and nothing less than a dance on Tuesday could have made such a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday endurable to Kitty and Lydia." (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 17)
Pride and Pudding
November 24, 1811
The holiday season had finally come! Despite the relentless rain on Sunday morning, the residents of Meryton listened with rapt attention as the vicar recited the special prayer during Sunday services:
"Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." [i]
This simple prayer, while noble in its own right, encouraging the people to do good works, was taken quite literally. On Stir-Up Sunday, the preparation of the Christmas pudding would begin throughout the kingdom. In the minds of many of the worshipers, the 'fruit' referred to the sweet fruits that would be mixed into the dessert. The 'rewards' would be the granting of their wishes, made while stirring the ingredients. For the children in attendance, the promise of a sweet treat induced happy memories. Of course, the youngsters were not alone in their anticipation of the annual dessert.
Most of Mr. Bennet's daughters could hardly be considered children; all five had come out to society. The Bennets had observed the tradition at Longbourn every year since his own childhood and this Sunday would be no exception. He had personally instructed his girls on the significance of each aspect of this annual tradition. Once his family had arrived home from church, Mr. Bennet assembled them all in the kitchen to begin the holiday ritual.
Mrs. Hill, his loyal housekeeper, opened a box containing the small trinkets to be baked into the pudding. [ii] Finding a prize in one's pudding would foretell the fortunes for the year ahead. She dropped them into the mixture one at a time, explaining each symbol.
"Whoever finds this silver coin will enjoy wealth in the New Year. A wishbone brings good fortune. A ring predicts marriage. A thimble for spinsterhood. An anchor for safe harbour. A bachelor finding a silver button will remain unmarried for another year."
As he did each year, Mr. Bennet posed the first of three questions to his youngest offspring. "Lydia, my love, can you tell me why we use a special wooden spoon to stir the Christmas pudding?" he inquired with no small amount of pride.
Lydia, a high-spirited girl of fifteen, clapped her hands and bounced eagerly on her toes. "Yes, Papa, the spoon represents the manger that Baby Jesus slept in."
The next question went to the second youngest child, who was now seventeen years of age. "And how, my dearest Kitty, do we stir the Christmas pudding?"
Kitty giggled with delight. "We stir from west to east in honour of the three wise men who visited Baby Jesus."
Finally, he posed the last question to his middle daughter. Mary, a studious girl, was nothing like her sisters. She was neither high-spirited nor prone to fits of temper; she was just Mary. "My sweet Mary, how many ingredients are in the pudding?"
"There are thirteen ingredients, to represent Jesus and his twelve disciples," she said in a clear, steady voice.
Pleased with his daughter's responses, Mr. Bennet took the first turn at stirring the pudding. He closed his eyes and made a silent wish for the health and happiness of all the souls under his care.
Mrs. Bennet then took her turn. "Now remember, my dear girls, you must stir in a clock-wise direction," she said, instructing them on the proper form. No mistakes would be tolerated.
With five daughters of marriageable age, her wish was no secret. However, it would surely come true this year, with two eligible prospects in the neighbourhood. Mr. Bingley would marry Jane and Mr. Collins would marry Lizzy. These fortuitous matches would put her younger girls in the path of other wealthy men. Adding to her good fortune, the militia was stationed nearby, with several handsome officers in their midst. She fully intended to invite them to dine at her table on Christmas day. However, rather than tempting fate, she left nothing to chance. "I wish for rich husbands for each of my daughters."
Jane Bennet, the eldest sister, took the spoon from her mama. She knew perfectly well that her mother had wished for her to marry Mr. Bingley; she had expressed that expectation as soon as she learned of his existence — before she had even met him. Jane had only known him for one month and had only been in his company on a few occasions. However, she could not deny that he was everything she could ever desire in a husband; gentle and kind, with excellent manners. As she stirred the pudding, she thought only the upcoming ball at Netherfield. "I wish to dance with Mr. Bingley." As her mother often said, 'to be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love'.
Elizabeth, the second-born sister, stepped forward, relieved to put some distance between her and her over-bearing cousin. Mr. Collins had been hovering near her, paying far too much attention for her comfort. Being that close to him made her skin prickle. Since he had arrived at Longbourn, her mother had made numerous hints about his excellent living and how agreeable their possible match would be to her. However, nothing would compel Elizabeth to consider that absurd creature.
Spoon in hand, she savoured the sweet aromas rising from the pudding mixture, conjuring up memories of girlish wishes in her past years. However, this last week, her mind had been full of a new acquaintance. Mr. Wickham had shared a compelling story of loss and fortitude. While she had nothing but contempt for the man who had mistreated her new friend, she closed her eyes and wished to further her acquaintance with the charming Mr. Wickham.
Proud to have a moment with all eyes on her, Mary grasped the spoon, then turned to face her family. "Thank you, Mama and Papa, for hosting this wonderful tradition for me and my sisters once again. I have fond memories of past Stir-Up Sundays and I am certain this one shall be just as memorable."
Lydia huffed impatiently. "Oh, for Heaven's sake, Mary. Enough of your jibber-jabber! I shall never have my turn if you go on and on!"
Kitty nodded her agreement. "Yes, Mary. Do hurry and make your wish."
Mary truly loved her younger sisters, but sometimes they could be so irksome. Did they not know how difficult it was being the middle sister? To be a plain girl in a family of beauties? To have no witty rejoinders to impertinent criticism? Not wishing to provoke further scorn from Lydia, Mary squeezed her eyes shut, stirred three times, and wished for someone to notice her.
Kitty accepted the spoon and stepped up for her turn, entirely out of patience with her prosy sister. If Mary had been allowed to ramble on endlessly about one tiresome thing or another, she would have ruined everyone else's fun. But just like the steam rising from the simmering pudding, Kitty's poor spirits vanished in an instant. How could one be anything but joyous with so much to look forward to? In just two days, she would don her finest gown, adorned with pale pink ribbons, and attend the Netherfield Ball. Her most fervent wish was to dance and flirt with handsome officers.
Lydia held her head high. "Save the best for last," she said, sneering at her sisters. While she may be the youngest, in no way did she consider herself in last place. She rather thought of herself as the best Bennet sister. Not one of her sisters could hold a candle to her. Now that she was out to society, she would prove it to everyone. She stirred the pudding from west to east and repeated her exact same wish from last year. "I wish to be married before all my other sisters."
Mr. William Collins, a guest in the house he would one day inherit, had come to Longbourn to select a wife from his cousin's daughters and bring her home to his parsonage in Hunsford. This past week, he had made every effort to make himself agreeable to Cousin Elizabeth, the Bennet sister he had chosen to wed. Well versed at paying elegant compliments to the fairer sex, he hoped his attentions had not gone unnoticed. The moment to address her had not yet presented itself, but he suffered no doubt that the time would soon come. A devout young man, presently serving as a parson in Kent, he saw no harm in participating in the fanciful tradition he had observed many times in his childhood home. Turning his thoughts to the future, he stirred the pudding. "I wish for the patience to endure Lady Catherine's employ until my cousin's unhappy demise."
Considering herself a member of refined society, Caroline Bingley refused to take part in the old-fashioned Christmas tradition. Only rustics observed the outdated ritual or even served the inelegant dish. "Such a silly past-time," she said at the breakfast table that morning. "We gave it up years ago," she said to her distinguished guest, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Her sister, Louisa Hurst nodded her head in agreement. Her brother Charles and brother-in-law Henry Hurst pouted, no doubt disappointed that the horrid pudding would not have a place on their Christmas dinner table.
To Caroline, that mattered not in the least. By no means would she allow Mr. Darcy to perceive her as some countrified mushroom clinging to outmoded customs. No, she was a modern woman, well able to entertain the most illustrious guests. A man of Mr. Darcy's standing would require nothing less. She would play hostess to a ball at Netherfield in two days, at which time Mr. Darcy would observe how well she had prepared herself to be the mistress of a prosperous estate. Making full use of her feminine wiles these past two years, she had been subtly guiding him in her direction and fully expected to receive his address by the end of the week.
Charles Bingley, however, had his own plans. After his sisters had removed to their chambers and his brother-in-law had fallen asleep on the sitting parlour sofa, he and his friend descended the back stairs, following the heavenly scents rising from the kitchen. Having no intention of missing out on the time-honoured tradition, he had previously instructed his housekeeper to prepare the holiday pudding. Mrs. Nicholls had already assembled the ingredients, which were simmering over the fire. Using the special spoon, he closed his eyes and stirred. "I wish for an angel to love."
There was no doubt in his mind of this particular angel; although he had just recently met Miss Jane Bennet of Longbourn, she already held a special place in his heart. Fair of face, with a pleasing form, her gentle nature suited him to perfection. He had planned a ball for Tuesday night, just so that he would have the pleasure of leading her in the dance.
Missing his younger sister, Fitzwilliam Darcy stepped forward to stir the fragrant mixture. Under normal circumstances, he and Georgiana would observe this tradition together. However, his friend Charles had needed his advice on his new estate and Darcy had been honour-bound to oblige. However, while he stirred the pudding, he thought only of his beloved sister. Although they were apart, she would be with him on Christmas. Today, his wish was for her benefit. "I wish for Georgiana's happiness from this day forward."
Now that he thought about it, he would rather see Georgiana sooner than later. Getting away from Hertfordshire, and a certain bewitching lady who lived nearby, seemed his only recourse. If he stayed much longer, he might lose his senses and his heart to the lady. Long pursued by heiresses and beauties of the Ton, Darcy had managed to evade their attempts to ensnare him. This alluring maiden, however, had captured his imagination like none other. Never flirtatious or coy, she had challenged him, questioned him and even mocked him. Intelligent, outspoken and impertinent, she almost behaved as though she had no interest in securing him. Fitzwilliam knew better, of course. He was, after all, one of the biggest prizes on the marriage market.
Rather than allowing her that victory, he thought it best to remove to London at the earliest opportunity. While lovely in every respect, the lady had no fortune, her family lacked propriety and her connections were highly undesirable. Any thoughts of an alliance with her must be abandoned. Of course, there could be no harm in enjoying a dance or two with the enchanting lady at the Ball this coming Tuesday. He would have one final chance to gaze into her exquisite eyes, hold her hands, and guide her around the ballroom floor. Then, once he was back in Town, he would consign those splendid memories to the past and continue his search for the perfect wife.
Meryton Militia Encampment
Although the holiday tradition was not observed in the camp, George Wickham needed a bit of enchantment to make his dreams come true. The son of a loyal but unambitious estate steward, George's life had not progressed towards the grand style he hoped to achieve. His late godfather had not left a sizable endowment for him, as he had dearly hoped. One thousand pound plus a living in the parish church could hardly have carried him into his declining years in the style to which he deserved. After heated negotiations with his childhood nemesis, George walked away with a tidy sum; four thousand pounds. He was certain he would have no trouble whatsoever parlaying that windfall into a handsome fortune.
However, Lady Luck was a fickle mistress; four years later, his inheritance was spent. His foiled attempt to marry a woman of substance left him with no other alternative than to seek employment. Now a lieutenant in His Majesty's Royal Militia, he suffered no fear that his luck would come about. He closed his eyes, just as he had done in his childhood, imagined that he was stirring the pudding, and wished for a beautiful heiress to come into his life. That, without question, would be the answer to his every misfortune.
Some years ago, Sir William Lucas had been bestowed with the honour of knighthood by His Majesty, King George III. Having made his fortune in trade, he now enjoyed a comfortable living and a bit of notoriety in his small community. His position of elder afforded him all the consequence he could possibly desire. This morning, he assembled his family in the kitchen to observe the honourable stir-up tradition. While he had lived a good number of years, he still enjoyed the best of health and wished the same for his family.
His wife, Lady Lucas fervently wished for her oldest daughter to find a husband.
At the age of seven and twenty, Charlotte Lucas was keenly aware of the burden her continued presence placed on her family. She had come out to society ten summers ago and had as yet failed to attract a husband. Unfortunately, eligible bachelors in this part of the world were few and far between. However, one could never be without hope. She stirred the pudding in a clockwise direction and pinched her eyes shut. "I wish for a husband by Christmas."
Maria Lucas, younger sister to Charlotte, wished to go on a grand adventure.
Georgiana Darcy attempted to keep her spirits up. Her beloved brother Fitzwilliam was staying with friends in Hertfordshire while she and her companion kept each other company in London. She had long since recovered from disappointed hopes. Last August, she had foolishly given her heart to someone wholly undeserving of her love. She had learned a hard lesson; men did not always mean what they said. Sometimes, all they wanted was your fortune. Thankfully, Fitzwilliam had come to her rescue and had consoled her for weeks afterwards, never once reproaching her for considering something so scandalous as a border marriage. He was the best brother in the world.
Now, as she stood before the simmering pudding, she vowed to never give another thought to the man who had wilfully deceived her. Knowing Fitzwilliam's poor opinion of the blackguard, she dared not even speak his name within his hearing.
The housekeeper dropped a thimble, a button and a coin into the pudding mixture and handed Georgiana the wooden spoon. This year, she would not mind getting the thimble. She had plenty of time to think about finding a husband. Her only wish was to be with Fitzwilliam on Christmas Day.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh never failed to observe the tradition of stirring the pudding. Her long-held memories harkened back many years to her grandfather, who learned the story at his grandfather's knee. Lady Catherine descended from a noble line and had every reason to expect her due from those of lesser standing. Normally, she did not indulge in such childish whims as wish-making; however, extraordinary circumstances prompted her to make an exception.
Many years ago when her daughter was born, she decided that dear little Anne would marry her older cousin, Fitzwilliam Darcy, heir to the largest estate in Derbyshire. She put forth the idea to everyone within her hearing but, despite her frequent reminders, her nephew had yet to address Anne. Now at eight and twenty years of age and master of Pemberley these past four years, Darcy was still unmarried. This intolerable situation could not be permitted to continue. As she stirred the pudding, Lady Catherine wished that Darcy would finally come up to scratch so she could announce Anne's betrothal to her friends.
Anne de Bourgh, accepted the spoon from her mother and dutifully stirred the pudding. Earlier, her mama had suggested that if she wished for her betrothal to cousin Darcy, it might very well come true. How tedious to repeatedly listen to the same tired story of her betrothal in the cradle; she had lost track of how many times she had heard it during her life. It was past all bearing. Mama insisted that she was destined to marry Darcy, but should Anne not be permitted to decide who she would marry? Her destiny need not lie with someone who was more like a brother than a suitor. "I wish to choose my own husband." It was a secret wish, after all, and Mama need never know.
CBL © 2018
[i] Book of Common Prayer (1662)
[ii] Boiled Plum Pudding Recipe: Take a pound of suet cut in little pieces, not too fine, a pound of currants, and a pound of raisins stoned, eight eggs, half the whites, half a nutmeg grated, and a tea-spoonful of beaten ginger, a pound of flour, a pint of milk; beat the eggs first, then half the milk, beat them together, and by degrees stir in the flour, then the suet, spice, and fruit, and as much milk as will mix it well together very thick. Boil it five hours. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse (1747)