Death Comes to Pemberley

There’s something about Jane Austen, and her novels, which inspire other writers to take them and their characters on and write a sequel. Or even, to tell the story from the hero’s point of view. Usually in diary form.

PD James, though, took Pride & Prejudice and gave us a murder. When I heard that the BBC was going to adapt it for Christmas this year, and I found myself in a charity-shop holding a copy of the novel, enjoying the first few pages, I thought, “why not?”.

So I settled myself in with tea and cake and an afternoon of quiet. And hoped against hope that Colonel Fitzwilliam would prove to be the murderer. He was being awfully shady. I must admit, I quite like the versions where he ends up with Anne de Bourgh. I didn’t like him chasing after Georgiana Darcy.

Anyway. I liked the writing style. I thought it captured Austen’s own style quite wonderfully, incorporating her own phraseology, and lines from the original. Having watched the BBC’s adaptation, I’m pleased that they were kept, even if I was a little confused by the stealing of a line from Oscar Wilde, however much the similarities abound between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Lady Bracknell. And there was a nice reference to Emma, and the village of Highbury.

The casting of the BBC production, I thought, was superb. I don’t think one jumps out as having being badly cast. Which is quite impressive, given that usually at least one character isn’t quite right. All in all, it was a wonderful mini-series, in the style of the 1995 version of Pride & Prejudice. What could be better?

So if you haven’t been avidly watching over the past few days, there’s still time. And go and find the book. Changes, naturally, were made, but fortunately only minor ones. At least, I don’t recall anything major having been changed. If you like both Austen and murder-mysteries, this is a tale for you, while we await the next installment of Sherlock.

Christmas Cake for the Disorganised

I think I promised this recipe for a simple Christmas cake, which doesn’t really need months of maturing and weekly brandy feeds, way back on Stir-Up Sunday, when you’re supposed to bake cakes and puddings for Christmas.

If, like me, you hadn’t the time, inclination, or both, back then, or just thought that it was too early to think about Christmas, here’s a recipe for that cake you meant to bake. Now that we’re, you know, in the last few days before Christmas.

What you need to do is easy. Put whatever dried fruits and candied peel that you like into a bowl. I don’t mind if you don’t like vast quantities of fruit in a cake – my fiance doesn’t, either. He doesn’t like dried grapes, which is more annoying. So, yes. Choose your fruits and amounts according to taste. Pour a little (or a lot; your choice) brandy into the bowl and let the fruits soak it up greedily. Traditionally you leave them to soak overnight, but I’m presuming you’re not that organised. I know I’m not usually. Even when I plan when I’m baking my cake. Half an hour’s fine. So’s 5 minutes. It’ll all go into the cake mix anyway.

Lay your hands on a simple sponge recipe/grab a sponge mix from the supermarket. The first time I made this cake, I used a Victoria sponge recipe. Today, I used one of Sainsbury’s Hallowe’en recipes, for a chocolate orange spider-web cake. I’ve just adapted it a bit.

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So, I had:

125g butter (I don’t care what Sainsbury’s says, I’m not using something called “baking spread” in my cake.)

125g light brown sugar. I didn’t have caster sugar.

2 tbsps milk

2 large-ish eggs

125g plain flour plus 1 tsp baking powder

40g white creme brulee chocolate powder. I’ve been saving it specially.

A bowl of dried fruits in brandy.

And the steps for making goes something like this… Mix together in order, starting by creaming together the butter and sugar, then folding in the rest.

Stick in a previously greased and lined tin and shove in the oven at 180C until it looks about ready. Half an hour or so should do it.

The trick is in using a recipe you know will give you a decent-sized cake. As you can probably see, mine’s a bit thin. Probably needed double the recipe. Never mind. Cake’s cake. I’m not fussy, I’m not proud. Or a smaller cake tin. Meh.

Friday the Thirteenth

How was it for you? Are you one of those people who ascribe anything bad happening to “It’s Friday the Thirteenth”? Or do you pay no attention to such ancient superstitions?

I was going to write this yesterday, but you know, distractions. I hadn’t even thought about it until I was in the bank and the teller made some joke because she couldn’t find a stapler with staples in it.

Anyway, Fridays have been considered unlucky for far longer than Friday the Thirteenths. Some association in early Christian minds to the crucifixion of Christ. The earliest records we have (and of which I am aware) of Fridays being unlucky are medieval. From Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400), in fact, who made some passing reference in The Canterbury Tales.

The bad luck of Friday the Thirteenth is both newer and older in its superstition. Newer in that there is no written record of such a superstition before 1869. Older in that one reason given for it is that in 1307, on Friday 13th of October, the leaders of the Knights Templar were arrested and summarily executed by Philip IV of France, which led to the disbanding of the Order five years later by Pope Clement V.

Philip, by the way, was deeply in debt to the Order, and many of the members were tortured into giving false confessions admitting the charges against them. Which caused a scandal, because they admitted, among other things, heresy, apostasy, obscene rituals, homosexuality, financial corruption and fraud. They had, after all, helped to establish Christian banking (previously, banks had been solely in the hands of Jews, Christians being forbidden to use or practise such dirty things as money lending. Apparently it didn’t count if you borrowed from a non-Christian) after the expulsion of Jews from Christendom. 

Anyway, that’s another story. Friday the Thirteenth only became popularly a day of bad luck during the Twentieth Century. So the one just gone. Which is interesting, given the Age of Reason and Rationality.

Two Weeks to Christmas!

I don’t actually have anything much to say today – my brain’s a tad too exhausted from lots of socialness because of working lots. My brain doesn’t really like lots of stimulation. It likes quiet, and few people. It doesn’t like having to be constantly bright and friendly. So here’s some nice, wintry pictures of Uppsala, in 2011.

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The Feast of St Nick

What do you call him? You know, the jolly fat man in the (Coca-cola inspired) red suit?

Do you know him as Fr. Christmas? Santa Claus? St. Nicholas? Tomten? Anything else? And does he visit your house tonight (or was it last night?) or on Christmas Eve?

Saint Nick was from Myra, in modern day Turkey. He’s credited with lots of miracles, hence the sainthood, and with legends of secret gift-giving, hence Fr. Christmas.

As with all saints, he’s the patron of many, including children, students, thieves, archers, merchants, sailors and pawnbrokers. He was also the patron saint of the Varangian Guard, an elite group of mostly Norsemen charged with the task of protecting the Byzantine Emperor. A busy man, St. Nick.

Apparently, a review of his skeleton has revealed that he was barely five feet tall. A win for all us shorties, I think. Height is no barrier to greatness. Or something.

But anyway, Santa’s not just some random, creepy stranger getting stuck down your chimney. And if he doesn’t bring what you asked for, do bear in mind that he’s got the whole rest of the world to see to as well, even if he does visit some about now to be organised and get some of his Christmas preparation out of the way early…

Advent

The real countdown to Christmas began yesterday, the First Sunday of Advent.

The first candle of the wreath was lit, the first door of the calendar opened. The panic about presents and cards and relatives and the great Christmas Feast. How interesting that a Church festival should have become such a festival of gluttony, one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

No judgement, just an observation. I think Advent would be wrong if I didn’t have at least one selection box (probably per week) providing me with chocolatey goodness.

I also think that Advent is far more fun and exciting than Christmas Day. Don’t get me wrong, I like Christmas. I like being with my family and doing all our Christmas traditions and the joyfulness of it all. But then it’s over, and that’s it.

But with Advent, there’s still all that to look forward to. All the fun and games yet to happen. The plans and the expeditions to find presents. The decorations and the tree. The baking – the pies and the cake and the pudding. (Which reminds me: I still need to do that.)

Sometimes, I think it’s a shame that Christmas has lost its original meaning, being the Mass which celebrates the birth of Christ, and the lack of properly Christmassy cards. But then, this festival, in the middle of winter, has undergone lots of transformations. Basically, it’s a time at the darkest point of the year for families to get together, to eat, drink and make merry, because frankly, it’s cold and dark out there, and we need brightness and cheer.

Yes, for Christians (and I do include myself in this category), it is a time to celebrate the birth of Christ. But that’s not just what it’s about. Which means that you don’t have to believe in him to celebrate the fact that we’re going to get lighter days some time soon.

So this Christmas-time, if you only do one thing, do this. Have fun. Have some good, honest, gleeful fun. Don’t hurt anyone.