Guardian Books Blog: Twelfth Night in Literature



Entertainment round the fire for 12th Night





Today’s entry appeared on the Guardian books pages: it’s about celebrations of Twelfth Night in literature. It starts by explaining the strange fact that there’s no general agreement on whether 12th night is 5th or 6th January – a fitting enigma for a mysterious and secretive feast. 

This is part of the article:



In James Joyce’s short story The Dead, from his collection Dubliners (1914), Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta go every year to an important party held by the Misses Morkan. There is dinner, dancing and singing, but alongside the festivities we see darkness and contemplation: snow falls over Ireland, and Gabriel looks through it as he thinks about his own shortcomings and about the wife whom he thought he knew. The idea of a character having a metaphorical epiphany, a moment of revelation or realisation, comes directly from Joyce, and each story in Dubliners features one. So although the event is not specified as being on Twelfth Night, it is in the early days of January and is always assumed to be an Epiphany party – an idea is made overt in John Huston’s 1987 film of The Dead. 

Gretta listens....
....in the full glory of some passion...


In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld there are Twelfth Night customs, involving a man who 
“finds a special bean in his tucker, oho, everyone says ‘you’re king mate’ and he thinks ‘this is a bit of all right’ only next thing he’s legging it over the snow with a dozen other buggers chasing him with holy sickles so’s the earth’ll come to life again and all this snow will go away.”
This description (from The Folklore of Discworld, which Pratchett wrote in 2008 with Jacqueline Simpson) is gently satirising the imaginative Victorian social anthropologist James Frazer, who describes similar customs in his not-wholly-reliable study of mythology and religion, The Golden Bough.

… and there are more examples from Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens, Angela Carter, Margaret Drabble, and Antonia Forest.

READ ON HERE AT THE GUARDIAN BOOKS PAGES



Since writing the piece, I have come across another reference, in the intro to WM Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring. He says that while visiting Rome: 
if you wanted to give a child's party, you could not even get a magic-lantern or buy Twelfth-Night characters—those funny painted pictures of the King, the Queen, the Lover, the Lady, the Dandy, the Captain, and so on—with which our young ones are wont to recreate themselves at this festive time. 
--and he invented a story to amuse some children in the absence of the party: that's the illustration at the top. 

So authors have used Twelfth Night celebrations as the setting for fun, mischief, malice, epiphanies, the taking of power, and life-altering events – I’m surprised there aren’t more of them in fiction.

And also, Twelfth Night parties are a great tradition, and we should all have more of them.

Comments

  1. Great article in the Guardian Moira! It's interesting how celebrations like that don't get the 'press' that some others do. I do know you don't find a lot of mention of Twelfth Night in US fiction; it's just not an American celebration, I don't think. I'm going to have to think about whether and to what extent it shows up in crime fiction. Honestly, I can't think of a lot of instances. Hmmmm.....

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    1. Well if YOU can't no-one can! I'm hoping to maybe inspire some crime writer - surely lots of opportunities here....?

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  2. Nothing constructive (conversely nothing destructive or irreverent) to add I'm afraid. I'm not baa humbug but I'm not much of a "Christmassy-New Year" reader, if you didn't know.
    I did read a short story post-Christmas - A GITMO NATION CHRISTMAS CAROL in order to embrace and cherish the moment!

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    1. I think I'd guessed that you were a reading Grinch. Great title for the short story, it sounds like just the job for you.

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  3. Moira, I associated Twelfth Night only with Shakespeare's comedy, which I haven't read, but now thanks to your post, I actually know about this festival. Sometimes you assume you know something and take it for granted.

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    1. I liked to empahsize that it is a slightly mysterious festival - lots of people know nothing about it....

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  4. An interesting article at The Guardian. I also would think that Twelfth Night (which is very hard to spell) would show up more in fiction...and in mysteries.

    Coincidentally I was just trying to figure out which day was Twelfth Night, and came up with the 5th, but thought I had heard it was the 6th. So now I know why the confusion.

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    1. Thanks Tracy - and the more I looked, the more interesting and mysterious it became. And since filing the article, I keep coming across more references to it (I suppose that's hardly surprising!) - ones that I wished I'd seen in time to include.

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    2. and, btw, yes it is hard to spell! I've had to type it a lot of times over the past 2 weeks, and the keystrokes were still defeating me at the end - I know how to spell it, but twelfth just doesn't make sense to my fingers.

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