• Deborah Yaffe

In lieu of a pear tree

It’s a tough year for traditional Christmas celebrations. The eight maids are a-milking in masks. The ten lords are a-leaping six feet apart. All those swans, partridges, and turtledoves seem like a recipe for deafening background noise during Zoom meetings. And piping pipers? Probably a bad idea, in light of that super-spreader choir rehearsal back in March. Luckily, Jane Austen’s House in Hampshire, England, has come up with an alternative to the customary twelve days of Christmas: an online, Austen-themed journey through Regency holiday traditions, from Yule logs to family theatricals. It’s the latest example of online Austen programming in a year that has seen a lot of it – festivals, plays, trivia quizzes, and more. The latest program, The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Jane Austen Special for 2020, features brief excerpts from Austen’s novels and letters, read by Emma Thompson, the British national treasure whom Janeites remember fondly as the Oscar-winning screenwriter and Oscar-nominated star of the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. With the UK’s latest coronavirus lockdown just concluded, the lucky few who can pay a non-virtual visit to this most hallowed of Janeite shrines -- the place where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels -- will get to listen to Thompson’s audio as they stroll through the house. The rest of us will have to make do with clicking through the museum’s presentation, where you can listen to a pianist’s rendition of a Christmas carol from the Austen family music collection, view a sampling of illustrations from various Austen novels, watch a video of a country dance, and hear Thompson read Martha Lloyd’s recipe for lemon mince pies. If you feel a bout of culinary inspiration coming on, you can also create an Austen-themed gingerbread cookie and contribute a photo of it to an online gallery. Like so much this year, it’s a compromise: For most of us, the 2020 holiday season is unlikely to be the cheeriest we’ve known. Take a couple of Emma Thompsons and call me on January 2.

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