A major turning point in my latest Austen-inspired vagary, A Dance with Mr. Darcy, comes when Elizabeth permits Lydia to convince her to join in the St Agnes Eve festivities.
But who was St Agnes? And why do we celebrate her?
On St Agnes Eve, traditionally girls and unmarried women wishing to know more of their future husbands perform a variety of sometimes “bizarre” acts to see who the man might be. Some of these rituals include walking backwards upstairs to bed while not looking behind you, pulling out a row of pins from a sleeve and saying a Pater for each, eat a yolkless boiled egg with salt filling the cavity where the yolk once was, fasting all day, or eating a dumb cake with friends. All these are to ensure that the the woman’s future husband will bring her water to drink in the her dream. That way her “dream man” will be known to her. Some women put a sprig of rosemary and one of thyme and sprinkle them with water and put one in each of their shoes and place the shoes on either side of the bed-head. Then they are to recite “St. Agnes, that’s to lovers kind/ Come ease the trouble of my mind. Afterwards, they are supposed to dream of their future husbands.
And speaking of that Dumb Cake, you may not wish to eat it, for it is made with equal parts flour, salt, and water (but the water is the makers’ own urine). The cake must be baked with other maidens in attendance and no one may say a word. (I imagine gagging is permissible, however!)
In Scotland, girls would meet in a field of crops at midnight, throw grain on to the soil and pray:
‘Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
The lad who is to marry me.’
An old book called “Mother Brunch’s Closet Newly Broke Open” speaks of this St. Agnes Eve custom:
“There is, in January, a day called Saint Agnes’s Day. It is always the one and twentieth of that month. This Saint Agnes had a great favour for young men and maids, and will bring unto their bedside, at night, their sweethearts, if they follow this rule as I shall declare unto thee. Upon this day thou must be sure to keep a true fast, for thou must not eat or drink all that day, nor at night; neither let any man, woman, or child kiss thee that day; and thou must be sure, at night, when thou goest to bed, to put on a clean shift, and the best thou hast the better thou mayst speed; and thou must have clean cloaths on thy head, for St. Agnes does love to see clean cloaths when she comes; and when thou liest down on thy back as straight as thou canst, and both thy hands are laid underneath thy head, then say
Now good St. Agnes, play thy part,
And sent to me my own sweetheart,
And shew me such a happy bliss,
This night of him to have a kiss.
“And then be sure to fall asleep as soon as thou canst, and before thou awakest out of thy first sleep thou shalt see him come and stand before thee, and thou shalt perceive by his habit what trademan he is; but be sure thou declarest not thy dream to anybody in ten days, and by that time thou mayst come to see thy dream come to pass.”
The John Keats’ poem, “The Eve of Saint Agnes,” immortalized the girl upon which the legend is based. It was one of his last works.
So who was St Agnes? She was a Christian girl in Rome in the early part of the 4th Century. Deciding to devote herself to religious purity, she supposedly refused a Roman prefect who wished to marry her. The man denounced her to Roman authorities as a Christian. For her punishment, she was thrown into a public brothel. However, she remained unscathed. One legend says all the men who attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind or paralyzed. Another claims that God protected her with a firestorm of thunder and lightning.
As the first punishment did not work, she was sentence to be burnt at the stake as a witch. However, the wood surrounding her would not burn. A guard then beheaded her with his sword. When her parents visited her tomb on the 8th day, they were met by a chorus of angels, including their daughter Agnes, with a white lamb at her side. The lamb’s color is a symbol of purity, and St Agnes is often depicted with a white lamb nearby. She reportedly died on 21 January 304. In the Catholic church, she is the patron saint of chastity, girls, engaged couples, rape victims, and virgins.
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 release on March 25, 2017, from Regency Solutions. 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.
“This one be fer you,” Mr. Simpson said as he handed her the letter. “No sense in your goin’ into the village to claim it.” Such was the man’s statement every time she received a letter from her family. Simpson always separated out her mail from those he carried before he continued on his route.
“Thank you, Mr. Simpson. You are very kind.”
“Easy to be kind to a fine lady like yerself,” he replied with a lift of his eyebrow, which Elizabeth smartly ignored. Although Simpson always attempted to engage her in extended conversation, she acted with caution when any man became too friendly. Such was the life of an unmarried woman who dared to cross into a man’s world.
“I wonder from whom this came,” she said as she examined the handwriting and pretended not to notice Simpson’s overtures.
“Appears to be from a female,” Simpson suggested. “The lines be well put together.”
Elizabeth pocketed the letter. “Likely one of my sisters or from Mrs. Collins,” she said, although she knew the script was not one she recognized. “Now if there is nothing more, Mr. Simpson, I have rooms to clean.”
A frown crossed the man’s expression as she stepped away from the entranceway. “I’ll be seein’ ye on me return route,” he called.
Elizabeth waved him off with a small smile. Climbing the steps, she passed Lydia on her way to the laundry area. “Simpson still lingering after your skirt tails?”
Elizabeth glanced to where the coachman exited the inn. “He appears more daring in his tone,” she said with a heavy sigh. “I fear news of my permitting Mr. Darcy into my quarters has emboldened Simpson. He thinks my resolve has lessened.”
“How can Simpson think you would accept his attentions, if you would not accept someone of Mr. Darcy’s exalted position?”
“For all the gossips know, Mr. Darcy rejected me,” Elizabeth countered.
“Ridiculous!” her sister snorted. “I never cared for the man, but he is obviously besotted with you. I cannot fault him in his taste in Bennet sisters.”
Elizabeth squeezed her sister’s hand. “Thank you, Lyddie. I need your kind words more than you know.”
Lydia’s expression brightened. “I have a brilliant idea. As I cannot claim Sir Robert and you must deny Mr. Darcy, we require something adventurous to amuse us. I promised Clara and the other girls that I would join them on St. Agnes’s Eve. You must come with us.”
Elizabeth shook off the idea. “I do not require some very feminine romantic ceremony to identify my one true love. He resides in Derbyshire.”
Lydia snuggled closer to whisper, “What if Mr. Darcy is not your one true love? And what if Sir Robert is not mine.” Her sister lowered her voice further. “Although we do not expect to discover the men of our dreams, joining the other women in this ritual will announce to the neighborhood that Mr. Darcy and Sir Robert are not our choices and that we still seek our true love elsewhere. Such would go a long way in calming any gossip that surrounds us. Think upon it, Lizzy.”
If you wish to read all of John Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” you may do so HERE.
Now for the GIVEAWAY. I have two eBook copies of A Dance with Mr. Darcy available. Leave a comment below to be part of the mix. The giveaway will end at midnight EDST on Friday, March 31.