After an immensely busy semester with very few posts, I thought I’d ring in the new year by recycling last year’s rummage through the January letters and diaries of eminent Victorian (and ever-so-slightly pre-Victorian) writers to see how the great and the good of the period spent their New Years.
What I discovered is that the Victorians were up to almost exactly the same things as we are at this time of year, with very similar attitudes towards the whole thing: scribbling belated Christmas thank-you notes, partying like its 1899, panicking about not being invited to the coolest party around, nursing hangovers or trying desperately to get away from it all in search of sunnier climates.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all this is that Jane Austen appears to have been a far heartier partier than Byron. Lorks!
Louisa May Alcott is nursing some New Year regrets:
January, 1845, Friday.
Did my lessons, and in the P. M. mother read “Kenilworth” to us while we sewed. It is splendid ! I got angry and called Anna mean. Father told me to look out the word in the dictionary, and it meant “base,” “contemptible.” I was so ashamed to have called my dear sister that, and I cried over my bad tongue and temper.
Honestly, I blame the parents. If we let children from the same family get away with calling each other ‘mean’ then the next thing we know there’ll be a civil war or something!
George Eliot has an alarming travelling companion:
Letter to Clara, January 1852
I had a comfortable journey all alone, except from Weedon to Ellsworth. When I saw a coated animal getting into my carriage, I thought of all horrible stories of madmen in railways ; but his white neckcloth and thin mincing voice soon convinced me that he was one of those exceedingly tame animals, the clergy.
Meanwhile, in Russia, Eeyore, I mean Tolstoy, is feeling deflated…
January 23rd 1896
Just a month that I made no entries. During this time I wrote a letter about patriotism and a letter to Crosby and here now for two weeks I have been writing the drama. I wrote three acts abominably. I thought to make an outline so as to form the charpente. I have little hope of success.
Lord Byron – poet, dandy, bear-owner and infamous haver-of-sex with things/people/relatives – has two surprisingly domestic New Year’s eves on the trot:
January 10th, 1815.
I was married this day week. The parson has pronounced it – Perry has announced it – and the Morning Post, also, under the head of ‘Lord Byron’s Marriage’ – as if it were a fabrication, or the puff-direct of a new stay-maker.
January 5th, 1816.
I hope Mrs. M. is quite re-established. The little girl was born on the 10th of December last ; her name is Augusta Ada (the second a very antique family name, – I believe not used since the reign of King John). She was, and is, very flourishing and fat, and reckoned very large for her days – squalls and sucks incessantly. Her mother is doing very well, and up again.
The ‘Ada’ he mentions here is in fact Ada Lovelace, who, in addition to sharing her father’s love of flamboyant dressing, went on to help Charles Babbage invent the computer…and then forget about having invented the computer. Sometimes ideas take a while to stick.
Jane Austen, by contrast, appears to have partied herself blind at the New Year ball:
My dear Cassandra,
I will endeavor to make this letter more worthy your acceptance than my last, which was so shabby a one that I think Mr. Marshall could never charge you with the postage. My eyes have been very indifferent since it was written, but are now getting better once more; keeping them so many hours open on Thursday night, as well as the dust of the ballroom, injured them a good deal. I use them as little as I can, but you know, and Elizabeth knows, and everybody who ever had weak eyes knows, how delightful it is to hurt them by employment, against the advice and entreaty of all one’s friends.
Meanwhile, in Russia…
Tolstoy, 5th January 1897, Moscow.
There is still nothing good to write about myself. I feel no need of working and the devil does not leave me. Have been ill for about 6 days.
Charles Dickens is keen to escape abroad, although a little underwhelmed by his surroundings on the Cunard line to America:
[To Mr. Thomas Mitton.] Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, Monday, 3rd January, 1842.
My dear Mitton,
We came down in great comfort. Our luggage is now aboard. Anything so utterly and monstrously absurd as the size of our cabin, no “gentleman of England who lives at home at ease” can for a moment imagine. Neither of the portmanteaus would go into it. There ! These Cunard packets are not very big you know actually, but the quantity of sleeping-berths makes them much smaller, so that the saloon is not nearly as large as in one of the Ramsgate boats. The ladies’ cabin is so close to ours that I could knock the door without getting off something they call my bed, but which I believe to be a muffin beaten flat.
That’s one star on Trip Advisor, then, Charles?
Thomas Carlyle, however, is horrified by the thought of anyone leaving Britain, ever.
Edinburgh, 7th January 1819.
My dear Johnstone I am grieved to see your embryo resolution of going to America. It is always a mournful thing to leave our country ; to a man of sensibility and reflection it is dreadful. I speak not of that feeling which must freeze the soul of an emigrant, when landing on the quay of Boston or New York, he reflects that the wide Atlantic is roaring between him and every heart that cares for his fate. But to snap asunder, for ever, the associations that bind us to our native soil.
But, really, what does he know – his own mother even seems to be ghosting him:
Edinburgh, 26th January 1820.
My dear Mother
Though you have not favoured me with a line this great while, yet, as I have still a few minutes left, I take the opportunity thus afforded me of sending you some small account of my proceedings…
Still, things could always be worse: meanwhile, in Russia…
Leo Tolstoy, Jan 1st 1898.
I meet the new year very sad, depressed, unwell. I cannot work and my stomach aches all the time.