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Charades for Christmas


In 1895 there appeared an anonymous 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 1960s 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 a 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. An example of these charade plays appears later in this book. Here is the 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 the 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 19 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:

No. XVIII 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!

No. XIX Divided, I’m a gentleman In public deeds and powers; United I’m a monster, who That gentleman devours.

No. XX 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!

Extracted from Jane Austen's Christmas, compiled by Maria Hubert

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