A major turning point in my latest Austen-inspired vagary, A Dance with Mr. Darcy, comes when Lydia convinces Elizabeth to join in the St Agnes Eve festivities.
But who was St Agnes? And why would we still celebrate her? Meredith Ringel in a 2004 piece says, “The Theme of ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ in the Pre-Raphaelite Movement,” explains, “On the twenty-first of January in what is customarily believed to be the year 304 A.D., a thirteen-year-old Christian girl, Agnes of Rome, was martyred when she refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods and lose her virginity by rape. She was tortured, and though several men offered themselves to her in marriage, either in lust or in pity, she still refused to surrender her virginity, claiming that Christ was her only husband. She was either beheaded and burned or stabbed (sources vary), and buried beside the Via Nomentata in Rome. She became the patron saint of virgins, betrothed couples, and chastity in general, and iconographers almost always represent her with a lamb, which signifies her virginity. The eve of her feast day, January 20th, became in European folklore a day when girls could practice certain divinatory rituals before they went to bed in order to see their future husbands in their dreams. Fifteen hundred years after her death, St. Agnes’ Eve would translate itself into one of the richest and most vivid literary and artistic themes in historys.
“Of all the works, artistic or literary, that use the subject of St. Agnes’ Eve as its basis, John Keats’s narrative poem ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ written in 1819 is undoubtedly the most famous. There appears to be only one other poem that also uses this theme, which is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s much shorter ‘St. Agnes’ Eve,’ first published in 1837. Within the realm of painting however, six well-known Victorian artists chose to depict scenes from the poems, and five illustrated versions of Keats’s poem have been published using the drawings of five different illustrators, who, again, lived in the Victorian era or the early twentieth century. Of the paintings, two were painted by members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, from William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, and one by a Pre-Raphaelite Associate, Arthur Hughes.”
The Catholic version of the St Agnes’s tale varies somewhat. “When she was 12 or 13, the beautiful Agnes of Rome became the object of a rich young man’s devotions. His parents — his father being the prefect of Rome — offered her riches if she would make a match with their son, but Agnes had already decided to consecrate herself to Jesus. The Golden Legend, written in A.D. 1275 by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, attributes to her these beautiful words:
“Go from me thou fardel of sin, nourishing of evils and morsel of death, and depart, and know thou that I am prevented and am loved of another Lover, Which hath given to me many better jewels, Which hath fianced me by His faith, and is much more noble of lineage than thou art, and of estate. He hath clad me with precious stones and with jewels of gold, He hath set in my visage a sign that I receive none other espouse but Him, and hath showed me over-great treasures which He must give me if I abide with Him.
“I will have none other spouse but Him, I will seek none other. In no manner may I leave Him, with Him am I firm and fastened in love, which is more noble, more puissant and fairer than any other, Whose love is much sweet and gracious, of Whom the chamber is now for to receive me where the virgins sing merrily. I am now embraced of Him of Whom the mother is a virgin, and His father knew never woman, to Whom the angels serve. The sun and the moon marvel them of His beauty, Whose works never fail, Whose riches never minish, by Whose odour dead men rise again to life, by Whose touching the sick men be comforted, Whose love is chastity.
“To Him I have given my faith, to Him I have commanded my heart; when I love Him then am I chaste, and when I touch Him then am I pure and clean, and when I take Him then am I a virgin. This is the love of my God.
“She was threatened to be exposed as a Christian, but still refused, whereupon she was, indeed exposed and ordered to choose between sacrificing to pagan gods or being thrown into a brothel. She refused to be taken to a Roman temple to Minerva (Athena), so was stripped naked and thrown into the brothel, where the men who visited were stricken in their hearts and couldn’t bear to look upon her. All, it is said, but one man — the prefect’s son. He mocked the more sensitive men, pushed his way into the brothel, and was struck blind when he tried to look at her. In any case, her modesty was kept intact by her long hair (legendary accounts have it that an angel came to bring her a white robe to cover herself).
“The Golden Legend says that the prefect heard what happened to his son and ran to the brothel, accusing Agnes of cruelty and enchantment, whereupon she raised the young man from the dead. He then wanted to let Agnes go, but fearing being banished, put a lieutenant in his place who first tried to kill Agnes by a fire which didn’t harm her, and then ended up killing her with a sword.
“No matter the exact circumstances of her death, her remains were laid in a tomb on the Via Nomentana, and Constantine built a basilica there at the insistence of his daughter, Constantina, who was buried next to her in a separate mausoleum in A.D. 354 (Pope Honorius — A.D. 625-638 — later remodelled the shrine). It is said in the Golden Legend that when her parents and friends were visiting her tomb one night,
“They saw a great multitude of virgins clad in vestments of gold and silver, and a great light shone tofore them, and on the right side was a lamb more white than snow, and saw also St. Agnes among the virgins which said to her parents: Take heed and see that ye bewail me no more as dead, but be ye joyful with me, for with all these virgins Jesu Christ hath given me most brightest habitation and dwelling, and am with him joined in heaven whom in earth I loved with all my thought. And this was the eighth day after her passion.
It is surprising that the medieval Catholic fast on the eve of her feast, and prayers seeking her intercession, should survive, even in a mangled form, into Protestant England. But in Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Durham, little rites, such as the herbs in shoes continued to be acted out, well into the late 19th century.
Now that you know more of St Agnes, enjoy this scene from A Dance with Mr. Darcy: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary.
A Dance with Mr. Darcy: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary will be released on March 25, 2017. It will be available in both eBook and print formats from Amazon, Kobo, and Nook.
The reason fairy tales end with a wedding is no one wishes to view what happens next.
Five years earlier, Darcy had raced to Hertfordshire to soothe Elizabeth Bennet’s qualms after Lady Catherine’s venomous attack, but a devastating carriage accident left him near death for months and cost him his chance at happiness with the lady. Now, they meet again upon the Scottish side of the border, but can they forgive all that has transpired in those years? They are widow and widower; however, that does not mean they can take up where they left off. They are damaged people, and healing is not an easy path. To know happiness they must fall in love with the same person all over again.
“I cannot believe you convinced me that this is wise,” Elizabeth grumbled as Lydia tugged her along the dark path. “I should be in my bed. Resting. Tomorrow will be another busy day.”
“I think it is exciting,” Lydia professed, as she half skipped along the path like some school girl. “Why did we never participate in something this adventurous when we were in Hertfordshire?”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes in amusement. “Likely because Vicar Williamson would first have an apoplexy and then have shown up to drive us to our homes with a switch in one hand and a silver cross in the other.”
“Mr. Williamson might not have approved, but I imagine Mama would have,” Lydia countered.
Elizabeth laughed, the first time she had done so since Mr. Darcy’s withdrawal. “I hold no doubt Mrs. Bennet would have turned this ritual into a grand affair.”
The path widened, and she was surprised to find more than a dozen girls waiting along the edge of a roughly turned field. “My goodness,” she whispered to Lydia. “I did not expect so many would participate.”
Clara clung close to Elizabeth’s side. “Not be enough men in the area, ma’am, that not be spoken for. We’s got to do what we kin.”
“I suppose,” Elizabeth allowed. Looking about her, she recognized many women she encountered on a regular basis: the daughters of shopkeepers and farmers, widows, and spinsters.
“It is almost midnight,” Mrs. Schiff called. “If you did not bring grain with you, Mr. Keener left a sack sitting by the elm tree. Claim what you need and join me at the field’s edge. Hurry, ladies.”
Despite her earlier feeling of acting the role of fool, Elizabeth could not help but to be caught up in the enthusiasm. It felt wonderful to be away from the responsibilities of the inn for a few minutes. Mr. Darcy had purchased Mr. Charles’s services for a month, and so she knew the inn would not suffer in her absences. As Mr. Darcy had provided the man a half year’s wages, Mr. Charles made the effort to please.
She scrambled to claim two fistfuls of grain to wrap in a handkerchief she carried specifically for that particular purpose. Laughing, she jostled with two of the village girls before the bag. With her share wrapped tightly in the cloth, she joined the other women.
Mrs. Schiff instructed, “Line up at arm’s length apart. Leave your lanterns here to guide your return.”
Elizabeth took up a position beside the Widow Schiff, who was likely fifty in years. When Lydia had insisted that Elizabeth attend tonight, she had assumed she would be the eldest in the group, but there was a mix of young girls just coming into their womanhood and women in full bloom. The others women followed Mrs. Schiff’s orders. Elizabeth noted that Lydia was further along the line, as were Clara and the other two girls employed by the inn.
Mrs. Schiff’s voice silenced the chatter. “Do not permit the grain to fall too quickly from your fingers. We are planting the roots of love. One handful of the seeds to cross the field and the one handful on our return to these spots. Everyone knows the chant?”
Elizabeth did not, but she was a quick learner. With giddy anticipation, she gathered a handful of the grain. Mr. Keener’s field would receive an early planting.
“Drop the seed before you step upon it to drive it into the loose dirt,” Mrs. Schiff instructed. “We must plant the seeds on St. Agnes Eve, which means by midnight. Only then can the blessed saint send us the men we deserve. That being said, we should begin.” The Widow Schiff squared her shoulders and stepped forward.
Elizabeth followed, concentrating on dropping the seeds. Around her a chorus of voices took up the required chant:
Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,
hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
the lad who is to marry me.
Elizabeth smiled at the chant’s simplicity, but soon she too was saying the lines as she dropped the seeds and firmly stepped on each. Reaching the other side of the field, she turned to match her steps to those of Mrs. Schiff and girl upon her left. She could hear Lydia giggling, but Elizabeth ignored the urge to join her sister’s merriment; instead, she embraced the idea that a young Christian girl from 4th century Rome could be the answer to her prayers. She knew she would absolutely dream of Mr. Darcy, as she had done every night since she realized he was the man who would most suit her in temperament. With each step, she became more convinced that this girlish ritual was God’s way of telling her what she already knew: Happiness is not finding the right person, but being the right person. Her life had not ended with her marriage to Forde McCaffney, but rather she had found completeness. She had fulfilled her purpose, which was to save her family. Although she did not require Mr. Darcy to complete her, she desired the man above all others. In Genesis the scriptures said, Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. But the halves did not equal the whole, which is what Mr. Darcy meant in his speech regarding his half life. If a person enters a marriage as a “half,” then the marriage will be doomed.
Upon their return to the inn after the planting of “seeds of love,” Clara reminded their group, “Do not forget to add a sprig of rosemary to yer shoes and place them on either side of the head of yer bed.”
Lydia still danced along the road ahead of them. “I left rosemary on the kitchen table for each of us,” she announced with glee.
Elizabeth caught her sister’s hand and tugged Lydia closer. “So long as you did not also leave dumb cake upon the table for us to consume, I will be happy to claim my warm bed marked by rosemary-filled shoes,” she teased.
Lydia shivered in disgust. “Even to know my true love, I would not eat dumb cake.”
Elizabeth slid her arm around her sister’s shoulders. “It is excellent that Mrs. Bennet knew nothing of dumb cake, or she would have fed it to us yearly.” Her words were laced with amusement.
“Oooh!” Lydia pretended to gag. “We should send her the receipt. Perhaps Kitty requires a bit of St. Agnes’s kindness to know a gentleman’s regard.”
“If you tell Mama to bake a cake of equal parts flour, salt, and Kitty’s bodily waste, our sister will walk from Hertfordshire to Scotland, if need be, to exact her revenge.”
Lydia sobered in reflection. “It might be worth the trouble just to see Kitty again. I sorely miss her and Jane and Papa and Mama, and even Mary.”
Elizabeth understood perfectly. “It is a shame we have yet to view Jane’s children or to take the acquaintance of Mary’s young man. There was a time I thought never to leave Longbourn, and now we have been gone some five years. It would be wonderful to return to those innocent days when the worst to happen to us was a spat with another sister over a ribbon.”
Lydia slid her arm about Elizabeth’s waist so they could more easily match their strides. “I would like to be aware of my choices if we could return to the past. I cannot help but think that if I had waited, God would have crossed my path with that of Sir Robert. The gentleman is not so handsome as was Mr. Wickham, but he is ten times the man my husband proved to be.”
Although Elizabeth did not speak the words aloud, she wondered if either of them would ever know happiness. Only a quarter hour earlier, she had thought the planting of seeds symbolic of the blossoming of a great love, but now she was not so certain. More than likely, both she and Lydia would again know disappointment.
The Victorian Web
If you wish to read all of John Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” you may do so HERE.
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