Michaelmas and Hallowe’en? October 19, 2017

Autumn comes in a blaze of scarlet, gold and the purple of Michaelmas daisies. What would Regency England do to mark the change of the seasons?

Old Michaelmas Day, October 10th on the Gregorian calendar, was one of the quarter days of the English year. It marked the last day of harvest and the end of the productive season. It was a time when debts came due, servants were hired and land changed hands. Michaelmas was also known as Goose Day. To this day Goose Fairs are held in Nottingham.

But what about turkey – you may well ask. Not in this time period. Goose was the bird for feasting. Eating goose at Michaelmas guaranteed luck and prosperity in the coming year. If a tenant farmer hoped to get an extension on his rent, the gift of a fat goose might do the trick.

Hallowe’en had its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain which, like Michaelmas, was linked to summer’s end and the start of winter. Blazing bonfires, feasting, drinking and dancing were part of the celebrations. In an attempt to convert the Celts to Christianity several Catholic popes decided to merge Celtic celebrations with existing Christian holidays. Thus November 1st became the Christian Feast of All Saints and All Hallows’ Eve was born. By the sixteenth century the word Hallowe’en was in common usage especially in Scotland.

It was a time when the living honored and prayed for the dead but pagan beliefs and superstitions were added. In rural areas the darkness of Hallowe’en was considered a very dangerous time because it was believed evil spirits as well as the dead, with unfinished business, could walk again. Lighted Jack o’lanterns were carried to scare away supernatural beings but they were carved from turnips or mangelwurzels, a type of beet. The name Jack o’lantern came from the Irish legend of Shifty Jack, who was so evil that even hell wouldn’t take him and he was doomed to eternal wandering.

Then on November the 5th, 1605 Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the English house of parliament by filling the basement with gunpowder. His plot was foiled but it became the custom to commemorate Guy Fawkes Day by lighting bonfires in every town and village – very much like the bonfires of Celtic Samhain except that now they were a Protestant celebration. I cannot fathom why they named the day after him. After all he was the culprit.

Hallowe’en was pretty well ignored in Regency England but in the Celtic areas of Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Ireland it would be a night of bonfires and fortune-telling, mostly focused on courting games. One of the most common was the nut-crack. The heroine tossed several nuts into the fire with the names of her suitors scratched on them. The one which burned the longest and brightest would be the most true to her. A different version would have a couple each toss one nut into the fire and see if they burned together or jumped away from each other.

Another popular game was bobbing for apples. A blind-folded player would try to bite an apple floating in a tub of water. The initials carved into the apple would indicate a future spouse. Reading apple parings was another divining method. A woman would peel an apple keeping the paring in one long coil, then she would toss it over her left shoulder. When it landed on the ground she would inspected to see what initial it made – giving a clue to the name of her sweetheart.

An autumn dinner party in the Regency would likely include a roast goose and a variety of ginger desserts which were considered Michaelmas treats. And then on Hallowe’en, if you lived near the Scottish border or other traditionally Celtic areas, the courting games would begin by the fireside.


Blackberry Ratafia – August 29th 2017


In Regency England ratafia was considered a ladies’ drink. Men preferred claret, burgundy and port. So what is ratafia? Georgette Heyer describes it as a liqueur flavoured with the kernels of apricots, peaches or cherries. While Cooley’s Cyclopedia of Practical Receipts, 6th edition 1864, defines ratafia as a ‘generic name in France of liqueurs compounded of spirits, sugar and … the juices of fruits or kernels [thereof].”
This brings me to my home-made version of Blackberry Ratafia. It’s been a good year for blackberries. I pop a sun-warmed berry into my mouth and wait for the burst of flavours – sweet, tart, juicy – with a crunch added by the seeds. I pick as many as I can before my scratched arms and legs rebel. The vines are incredibly tenacious. They put down roots wherever they touch the ground and will trip you when you’re not expecting it.SDC13989
Now about my blackberries. I freeze most of them for pies, muffins etc. But I put aside a goodly portion for my ratafia. Then I assemble the ingredients: sugar, vodka and a jar with a sealing lid. My recipe is flexible. If the summer has been hot, the berries will be sweeter so I use less sugar, sometimes up to half a cup less. Here is my basic recipe:

7 cups of berries – 2 & 1/2 cups sugar – 4 cups of vodka

When assembled I let the mixture sit on my kitchen counter for at least two months, stirring the contents of the jar, occasionally with a sterilized spoon. As we approach the Christmas season I decant my brew. I use a sieve lined with cheesecloth but you can also use a coffee filter. The result is a clear purple liqueur with an earthy blackberry flavour. It makes a lovely gift in a small decanter but I usually keep most of it for my own family. I have even been known to smuggle a bottle onto an airplane in my suitcase. I think the Regency ladies would have enjoyed sipping this luscious potion and likely they did.

glass of red wine


The Jane Austen Festival of Port Alberni 2017 – an Epilogue

Two little girls in long gowns and ruffled bonnets danced with their grandmother to the music of the Old Time Fiddlers of Port Alberni. They squealed with delight and tried to follow the puzzling steps, big smiles on their faces. They had come to the family dance, the first event of the Jane Austen Festival. Rosemary, a talented instructor guided us all through the English country dances. With her generous praise and clear instructions everyone felt they could do it.

Helena & Edwin

The next morning, at the Glenwood Centre, the Guinness World Record count was held to determine how many people were dressed in Regency attire. The record is held by Bath, England, at 409. Sadly our numbers stopped at 286 but people-watching was fascinating. This year more men in top hats, vests and knee high boots made the count. The ladies, whose empire waist gowns and bonnets, are easier to assemble, always outnumber the men.

Hannele and Michael

The highlight of the festival was the candlelit Masquerade Ball on Saturday evening. It began with the Grand March so that everyone could admire the exquisite costumes. Satins, lace, long white gloves, fans and jewelled masks abounded. A live orchestra of dedicated musicians performed period music for the dancing. Rosemary again cued the evening, the movements a little more complex than the night before, but never beyond anyone’s abilities. One piece dated from the early 1800’s and we were assured that Jane Austen herself had danced it.

Masked ball

To put up your hair, wear a long gown and curtsey to your partner as he bows gracefully before you, is a magical moment which carries you back in time and is priceless for an author who writes historical romances…

The Jane Austen Festival 2017

Today I’m going to travel two hundred years forward in time to the 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen’s death July 17th 2017.There will be celebrations in many parts of England but the little town of Port Alberni, B.C. situated in the middle of Vancouver Island, Canada, is having its own. Each Tuesday I drive forty minutes past a lake nestled in pristine forests and over the hairpin curves of a mountain highway to attend their English country dance classes.


The Centennial Belles of Port Alberni are not just putting on a festival. They want to break the Guinness Book of World Records set for the most people dressed in Regency costume at one gathering. Bath, England, holds that record with a count of 409. Last year Port Alberni, managed a head count of 265. Everyone is expected to return this year – and bring a friend. The dress code is quite specific but coming up with the perfect costume is a lot of fun.

Last year a good friend of mine sewed my costume, an empire waist gown which I wore with long gloves, shawl and carried a fan. I let my hair grow out for the event and suffered the back-combing and stabbing of at least six hundred hair pins needed to put up my hair. I felt like a true Regency lady with an elegant chignon – but this year I’m going to use a hair piece.

The citizens of Port Alberni are very warm and friendly. They try to make it easy for you to acquire a costume. There are hat-making workshops, thrift shop adjustments, children’s and gentlemen’s easy-fix solutions. The Festival includes readings by authors, myself included, and scenes performed from Jane Austen’s Emma and Persuasion. There are also afternoon teas, Jane Austen style murder mysteries, a family dance, a Masquerade Ball and a picnic – in full costume.


I encourage you to come out, enjoy the beautiful scenery and take part in Port Alberni’s Jane Austen Festival. When you do, come to my table at the readings. I’d love to meet you and you could buy a paperback copy of ‘an Orchid for Penelope’. If you do not live in this area I would encourage you to hunt up a branch of JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America and see what they have planned for this July. I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised.

Regency Gardens of Humphry Repton


I look out of my window at my less than perfect lawn and overgrown flower beds and compare them to the manicured gardens created in England’s history. Capability Brown, 1716-1783, focused on the big picture. He transformed the English countryside by creating sweeping vistas of lawns and parkland stretching as far as the eye could see, out of the existing formal gardens and agricultural land.


Humphry Repton, 1752-1818, his successor, often fine-tuned the earlier work of Brown. He was skilled with water colours and used this in his unique marketing technique. He produced ‘Red Books’ so named for their red covers. In these he explained in text and a series of water colour overlays, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ views of his proposed garden designs. Another technique unique to Repton was his use of borrowed items, such as church towers. He would cut vistas through existing trees to make the towers appear to be part of his design.


One criticism of Brown’s work was the lack of a formal setting for the country mansion. Repton reintroduced the use of trellis work, balustrades, flower gardens, ornate garden seats and formal terraces around the house itself. At Woburn Abbey he turned open gardens into themed ‘rooms’ such as a Chinese garden, an arboretum and an American garden through the use of shrubs, thickets and herbaceous borders.

I would dearly love to invite Repton to assess my garden and have him present me with a water colour painting of his proposal. Perhaps he could suggest a unique garden seat or a trellis for the new rose bush I received on Mother’s Day.