An Author’s Confessional
I am building a collection of seasonal stories for the first time in my writing career.
About seven months ago, my good friend Cristy Huelsz approached the Austenesque writing community for willing volunteers to contribute to her annual Christmas collection, Antologia Celebraciones de Navidad. Having finished The Sailor’s Rest and needing a change of pace, I raised my hand.
I now ask you, dear reader, to bear with me as I rifle through my life’s album in search of an explanation for my fascination with Christmas and the Twelfth Night in my Austenesque stories. By my count, I have used a half-dozen seasonal events to move various books closer to their conclusions. I am convinced my frequent turning to Christmas and Twelfth Night rise from inner truths that inform my stories. I hope that what serves as therapy for me will give context to the new collection of stories and scenes.
Reaching into those memories, something the Season commemorates and creates, I saw how often I used Christmas and Twelfth Night in my books. This was not unexpected, I suppose. I am the son of a middle school teacher and a bank teller. Festivities were few and far between. For instance, my birthday is in July, seven months deep in the year, so a school birthday party with classmates was impossible. Cake and one or two friends were about it.
As such, Christmas became the high point toward which my compass pointed all year, something upon which every babe of 1953 could agree. The classic Christmas film, A Christmas Story, filled with anticipation for children and celebration for adults, was my story as a post-World War II Baby Boomer. However, my dad never won a major prize!
My parents were of a different age, shaped by the Great Depression. They husbanded resources. Stories of their childhood (often food-related as nutrition insecurity was a problem) became morality tales in the plentiful Fifties. My mother and father had relatives who lived on the land (Mom’s grandparents on her father’s side farmed in Central Vermont, and Dad’s relatives fought the thin soil and bedrock of Western Massachusetts’s Berkshires). Those folks’ cyclical lives formed William and Shirley Jacobson. The first three months of the year were dark and cold. Then came planting and tending the fields. Nervousness in advance of harvest drove autumnal activities until Halloween (All Saint’s Eve) signaled the end of that stress.
Then and only then was the community able to breathe and take account of the previous months. First came Thanksgiving (in the USA). Then, in the Swedish tradition—passed to my father from his parents Gottfried and Svea (Nelson)—celebration and preparation filled the several weeks leading up to Christmas Eve. Pepparkaker and limpa filled the house with spicy sweetness. Given the number of Swedes in our town, there was a distinct chance of a molasses shortage!Church events jostled against Christmas parties thrown by the Western Mass Model A Restorers Club and family friends. The only fête my parents ever threw was their annual Christmas Eve celebration. That meant a massive smorgasbord was the centerpiece of December 24. Bounty figuratively piled to the rafters of my childhood home.[i]
Our house had an unheated rear entry, a traditional annex to farmhouses—although the farmland around my house was non-existent—sometimes called a mudroom. One of my earliest memories was going to the kosher deli to buy several pounds of schmaltz herring, which my father would later pickle in a crock using his mother’s recipe to make the Swedish staple sill—straight white vinegar. None of that cream or mustard stuff for the Jacobsons! The back hall became our walk-through refrigerator as Dad’s pickled herringaged and several gallons of apple cider hardened while chilling to somewhere in the mid-thirties. More dishes were pre-cooked and stacked in the entry as Christmas Eve approached. Severe penalties awaited children who decided to race through that aisle lest an unfortunate elbow take out Mom’s mac and cheese for thirty!
Another childhood trek was to Johnson’s Bakery in Springfield, Massachusetts, for all the old-country goods—cheeses, potatis korv, fiskeboller, knackebrod, lingonberry, brown beans—to create the groaning board. Finally, we ate and then, like all good Swedes, nodded through the Christmas Eve midnight service at St. Paul’s Lutheran, an Augustana Synod church.
(A recollection that just bubbled up.) When I was little, retired ministers, one was Pastor Malmstrom, I think, would come in once a month to conduct an old Swedish-language service for the elderly Lundgrens, Nelsons, Andersons, Johnsons, and Petersons.
Returning home around one in the morning led to the pleadings of myself and my brother Peter to allow the grand opening. Not until I went into junior high school did I understand that my father’s dash into the house to turn on lights while my mother fussed over Pete and me to make sure to snap our hats and button our jackets to our noses—all the while keeping us warm in the car’s backseat—was his way of helping Santa enter a house that did not have a fireplace.[ii]
As I launched into the writing of my entry into Cristy’s anthology—The Gamekeeper’s Cabin—I found myself drifting back six decades to that childhood. The sense of wonder that has so frequently escaped me recently returned as the underlying truths of what Christmas meant to me again became apparent. Soon enough, those sentiments found their way into the story. I was writing not as an Austenesque author but rather as someone engaged by young children discovering that, even though they were the children of a gamekeeper and his wife, old Father Christmas knew where they lived.
The joy of the Tomkins children was a present unwrapped for me. As Elizabeth and William learned, innocence cannot be simulated. However, the generosity of spirit that their parents must have shown each day informed their childish wonder.
Whether Zen or Shaker, when life’s pretensions vanish, such simple gifts resonate through most philosophies that guide human behavior.
So, too, were the scales of a life chasing security at the expense of the soul. Now, Christmas has once again found its place in my life. As the Season approached, the brightness of my family’s spirit filled the story. I saw that the color of the Season was the pigments my family added to the canvas, one daub at a time.
Heart whole, I looked back at my earlier work to see how Christmas and Twelfth Night shaped my Regency vision. Beginning with my very first Austenesque Story—Miss Bennet’s First Christmas—year-end fêtes gave a platform to the cast of players. Soon, I uncovered several telling examples of Christmas and Twelfth Night in my catalog.
As the guides counseled Lydia and Wickham in Madras House Twelfth Night, joy comes in the discovery. The handful of stories in my anthology helped me understand a facet of my being long ignored. I am much reduced without the vital balm, the precious ointment of family. I hope you and yours all find joy in this holiday season.
Holiday Visions, weighing about 40,000 words, will be released on November 24 and will be available for pre-order.
Please enjoy this excerpt from Madras House Twelfth Night, ©2018 by Donald P. Jacobson.
Multiple sets formed across the expanse of the ballroom. As the music began and the dancers moved through the forms, Lydia saw the countess, a vision in alabaster and diamond, immediately to her left with a lady in a stunning sea-foam green gown one place further down the line. The three men opposite in the set were the King, then a slight man who assayed a pronounced limp and dressed in an Ottoman style that included a black jubba over şalvar, and finally, a veritable giant in a midnight full dress, if mock, Grenadier Guard uniform.[iii]
Mrs. Wickham played the favorite game of any masked ball: ‘Now, who is that?’
I cannot say who the King may be. However, ’tis simple to pick out Miss J and Sergeant Wilson. Yet, from what Miss J has told me of Wilson, I imagine he would sooner face an entire French column single-handed than join the gentry in one of their dance forms. Kitty must’ve ordered him to stand up with Laura, for she saw what I saw! I hope my sister has honed her matchmaking skills to a finer point than Mama. Our mother storms through a ballroom like a farrier getting ready to shoe one of Papa’s draft horses, all hammer and muscle.
While Mrs. Wickham was much younger than Miss Jenkinson, the two women had begun to explore a bond beyond that of lady and companion. Lydia would readily agree that Miss J’s potent wit and discerning eye made her more like Lizzy than the young Kitty who had served as Lydia’s follower these past several years. For her part, Laura had learned to respect the younger one’s powerful sense of loyalty—and resultant trustworthiness. She had begun to see Lydia as the little sister she had never possessed. After yesterday’s events, she needed to unburden her soul of the unfamiliar emotions she had experienced.
Thus, last evening, the pair had bundled under down quilts in front of a fire in the sitting room between their Oakham bedchambers. Then they chattered late into the evening as young women were wont to do, each clad in her night rail with hair packed away beneath a mobcap. Ultimately, Lydia supplied the intelligence about her unequal marriage that convinced Laura that love transcended class distinctions. All that remained was for Miss J to convince a great hulking man that a dead parson’s sister, forced into employment, was attainable, just barely outside his sphere.
Lydia continued ruminating as she turned her gaze to her sister’s partner.
<Snort> Leave it to George Gordon to mock the affectations of the masked ball where all are supposedly equal behind the domino! Only Lord Byron would arrange himself in a costume that would instantly call out his identity, already obvious, although society “politely” ignores his deformity. But such is his conceit that he needs to be the immediate center of attention.
As that thought declared itself, Lydia shuddered, for she had just disdainfully described Byron as many would have done of her as recently as a few days ago! The contours of Lydia’s mind had begun to subtly change since her discovery that the countess was inexplicably her sister. The more she pondered the incredible nature of the woman’s existence, the more she became convinced of the wisdom of Kitty’s parting injunction made just before she had summoned Mr. Hunters to escort them from the building.
“Never forget, Lydia, that you are a Bennet. We may be “just women,” but in my lifetime…and I dare say you will find in yours…women will shape the most powerful governments, bend the forces of the universe with their minds, and reorganize society on more humane principles than men have ever done chasing their greedy grasping ways. Bennet women will be there at the barricades until, at long last, all women can lift their heads from their male-dictated roles. You cannot fail your daughters down the generations. You must reform yourself and, in so doing, reform your husband.”
And to think that Lydia had believed Mary to be the bluestocking of the family!
As for the man who was her King: he unsettled her. She had no idea of his nature except that he seemed uncommonly attentive as they moved through the set. His leg was certainly most elegant, and he had proven himself, thus far, to be a superior dancer. But Lydia could not pierce the veil of secrecy that his bauta had necessarily lowered.
In the normal course of an ordinary dance, one could talk about the decorations, and her partner could comment on the size of the room or the number of couples. However, this was a silent ball, so no conversation could establish rapport, let alone peel back the layers of a man’s character. And then there was that contemptible mask. The King could be disapproving and glowering like Lizzy’s Mr. Darcy or pleasant, witty, and engaging like her dear Wickham, or even easy-going and unfailingly sunny like Jane’s Bingley.
And so, she spun down the set, handing herself to other dance partners without knowing more except that odd shiver felt each time her hand met the King’s.
[i] Pepparkakor are Swedish spice/ginger cookies, especially toothsome with Swedish kaffe. Limpa is Swedish rye bread. Molasses abounds in both recipes.
[ii] Sill is Swedish pickled herring. Potatis korv is a Swedish sausage made from potatoes and meat. Fiskeboller is the one thing my son Mike comes this close to refusing to make in his smorgasbords. Fish balls, dear friends, fish balls. Oh, and knackebrod is often referred to by Swedish-impaired by its brand name: Rye-crisp, not the real deal, but close enough.
[iii] Traditional Ottoman Turkish wear. The şalvar are baggy pants. The jubba is a loose coat. A portrait of Lord Byron has him in Ottoman garb. Phillips’s famous portrait of Byron has him wearing Albanian clothing. Albania was under Ottoman control until after World War I. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_salvar accessed 12/21/17.