From Jane Austen's Christmas
By Maria Hubert
Published by Sutton Publishers 1996
In 1895 there appeared an anonymous and private booklet of the charades: and theatrical conundrums written by the Austen family for their own entertainment.
This offers yet another glimpse of the delightful Christmases the Austens enjoyed in their home particularly at Steventon. Charades remained popular right into the 1960's when they suddenly disappeared from the family Christmas entertainment Possibly because of the lack of numbers present. They are simply three act plays, each one describing the syllable of a word.
The game was played one of two ways. First, it could be a relaxed parlour game, whereby everyone could stay seated. Each player in turn would recite their conundrum, and the rest had to guess at the word.
Alternatively, the party would divide into two or more groups, and having decided on their word, they would create short one minute acts to describe the syllables, the last describing the whole word. The word had to be said in the act. Here is a short discourse about the Austen charades from the book.
It is not as a celebrated writer that she appears in these pages, but as one of a family group gathered round the fireside at Steventon Rectory, Chawton Manor House or Godmersham Park to enliven the long evenings of a hundred years ago by merry verse and happy, careless inventions of the moment, such as flowed without difficulty- from the lively minds and ready pens of those among whom she lived.
Three of these charades are by Jane herself, and even if her name did not appear beneath them their authorship might possibly have been apparent to those already acquainted with the playful exaggerations and sparkling nonsense in which she sometimes loved to indulge when writing with perfect unrestraint to her sister and other relations. In all works intended for that public eye these had to be kept within due bounds; we find nothing but the soberest decorum in the charade laid long ago upon the table at Hartfield and transcribed by- Emma into that thin quarto of hot pressed paper which Harriet was making, `her only mental provision for the evening of life'.
The habit of writing charades seems to have been general in the Austen family. Only one by her father survives, and to that the answer is unknown but there are several by her mother, Cassandra Leigh by birth, who was well gifted with - to use a term of her own - `sprack wit'. Cassandra's brother James Leigh, who inherited the estate of North Leigh in Oxfordshire from the Perrots, and added their name to his own, was noted in the family as a good writer of charades, and four of his lead the way in this little collection they may have been composed by him in his young days in Bath, in which gay and fashionable resort he and his wife were often to be found, or at his country home, Scarlets, in Berkshire, where as an older man he passed most of his time.
All the other charades come from the pens of three generations of Austens, and are inserted according to the ages of the writers . . . from her parents to a nephew, who being nearly nineteen at the time of her death in 1817, and well able to use his pen by that time, can claim a place among the Steventon writers.
Here are the three charades by Jane herself, preceded by two by James Leigh Perrot, reproduced for the first time since 1895! The answers are to be found at the end, so no cheating!
In confinement I'm chained every day
Yet my enemies need not be crowing
To my chain I have always a key,
And no prison can keep me from going.
Small and weak are my hands I'll allow,
Yet for striking my character's great,
Though ruined by one fatal blow
My strokes, if hard pressed, I repeat.
I have neither mouth, eye nor ear
Yet I always keep time as I sing,
Change of season I never need fear ,
Though my being depends on the spring.
Would you wish, If these hints are too few ,
One glimpse of my figure to catch?
Look round! I shall soon be in view
If you have but your eyes on the watch.
Though low is my station
The Chief of the Nation
On me for support oft depend;
Young and old, strong and weak,
My assistance all seek,
Yet all turn their backs on their friend.
At the first rout in town
Every Duchess will own,
My company not a disgrace;
Yet at each rout you'll find
I am still left behind,
And to everyone forced to give place
Without bribe or treat,
I have always a seat
In the Chapel so famed, of St Stephen;
There I lean to no side,
With no party divide, But keep myself steady and even.
Each debate I attend,
From beginning to end,
Yet I seem neither weary nor weaker;
In the house every day Not a word do I say,
Yet in me you behold a good Speaker.
When my first is a task to a young girl of spirit,
And my second confines her to finish the piece,
How hard is her fate! But how great is her merit,
If by taking my all she effects her release!
Divided, I'm a gentleman public deeds and powers;
United I'm a monster, who
That gentleman devours.
You may lie on my first by the side of a stream,
And my second compose to the nymph you adore,
But if, when you've none of my whole, her esteem
And affection diminish - think of her no more!