Sunday, December 20, 2009

Riddle Me This

[Happy Sunday everyone! In this post, Eberle examines some old-time holiday entertainment. Hope you enjoy it!]

Imagine Christmas without movies or vacation packages to Las Vegas, without video games or trips to the mall to keep the younger generation occupied. Though perhaps more stay-at-home in the past, celebrations of Christmas were not necessarily idyllic. Mrs. Oliphant in her 1893 novel Hester takes Charles Dickens to task for his sentimentalized rendering of the family Christmas. It may strike modern readers as almost shockingly contemporary to hear Mrs. Oliphant refer to Christmas as that “often troublesome festival” and go on to say:

The amount of reality in the rejoicings may be very doubtful, but yet there must be a family gathering, and the different branches of the race must seem to take kindly to it whatever may be their private sentiments. Dickens did wisely in finding his types of Christmas felicity among people to whom an accidental turkey is a benediction from heaven, and the mystery of the pudding has not lost its freshness.
The apparent simplicity of a nineteenth century Christmas might seem attractive, but keeping
family groups occupied still presented a challenge.

I presume you are now all come home for the holidays, and that the brothers and sisters and cousins, papas and mammas, uncles and aunts, are all met cheerfully round a Christmas fire, enjoying the company of their friends and relations, and eating plum pudding and mince pie. These are very good things; but one cannot always be eating plum pudding and mince pie: the days are short, and the weather bad, so that you cannot be much abroad; and I think you must want something to amuse you. Besides, if you have been employed as you ought to be at school, and if you are quick and clever, as I hope you are, you will want some employment for that part of you which thinks, as well as that part of you which eats; and you will like better to solve a riddle than to crack a nut or a walnut…
Anna Laetitia (Aikin) Barbauld, A Legacy for Young Ladies (1826)

Riddles, published in magazines or books or passed along by word of mouth, made up a popular
past-time in the nineteenth century.

"Four stiff-standers, four down-hangers,
two crook-abouts, two look-abouts, and a whisk-about."
"Eh! who couldn't guess that?---it's nothing but a cow…"
"Through a riddle and through a reel,
Through an ancient spinning wheel---
Through the grass and in the skies,
If you guess this you'll be wise."
"Well, then, I am wise, for it's frost," replied Sally; but I doubt whether she could have come to this conclusion so readily from any meaning of the words. "Now I'll tell one you can't guess:
`Long legs, short thighs,
Little head, and no eyes."'
"Tongs, tongs!" shouted Jane Anne.
Alice Cary, Clovernook, or Recollections of our Neighborhood in the West (1853)

Every Family’s Book of Amusement (London, 1853) recognized the importance of
entertainment in the family domestic circle. In the winter, especially in country towns, visiting became impossible for days at a time and families had to amuse themselves at home. Every Family’s Book of Amusement contains rules for card games as well as backgammon, chess, dominoes, checkers. Sleight-of-hand and card tricks were described as well as a wide variety of word games. An example of an enigma:

“Five simple letters do compose my frame;
And, what is singular, when viewed, my name
Forwards and backwards will be the same
When I’m discovered you will plainly see
What the proud peer and peasant soon will be.” (Solution: Level.)

An example of a conundrum:

“What is that which is too much for one, enough for two, but worse than nothing for three?” (Solution: A secret.)

Charades are given in the book as well, for domestic entertainment; in the nineteenth century, charades took the form of verse, with one player acting out each syllable of the word:

“My first your sleepy head attends;
My second names your dearest friends;
My whole’s oft at your fingers’ ends.” (Solution: Nap-kin.)

Women writers in the nineteenth century often incorporated these word games in their books. Beatrix Potter, in The Tale of
Squirrel Nutkin, presents this riddle:

“A house full, a hole full, and you cannot gather a bowl full.” (Solution: Smoke.)
Jane Austen makes use of riddles and charades in her novels as well. In Emma, the following “well-known” charade appears:

My first doth affliction denote
Which my second is destin'd to feel.
And my whole is the best antidote
That affliction to soften and heal.
(First syllable, woe; second syllable, man; solution: “woman.”)

Eberle Umbach, © 2007-2009

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  1. Its one of the odd things about Christmas how it is so closely tied with the 19th Century & Dickens.Add a pinch of Bob Hope & rampant Capitalism & you just about have the modern Christmas . Rathering resfreshing to hear that even in the 18th century they had sceptics!All Hail Mrs. Oliphant !

  2. Obviously, I have not been employed as I ought at school, nor am I quick, nor clever, for I failed to get ANY of these answers although they made perfect sense once I knew them.
    By the title of this superb piece of entertainment, Eberle, I suspect you may at one time been a fan of the early "Batman" series. Were you?


  3. Dear Tony,
    I can't tell you how delightful it is to hear someone say "All Hail Mrs. Oliphant!"! Especially because yesterday I came across some very cutting words about Mrs. Oliphant from Swinburne who mentions her while complaining about the terrible superfluity of women writers, and longs for the day "when darkness everlasting has
    long since fallen upon all human memory of their cheap scientific, their vulgar erotic, and their voluminous domestic schools ; when
    even 'Daniel Deronda' has gone the way of all waxwork, when even Miss Broughton no longer cometh up as a flower, and even Mrs. Oliphant is at length cut down like the grass."

    And the phrase "rampant Capitalism" is always music to my ears...

  4. Dear Poetikat,
    I had the same experience as you did when I was gathering riddles-- I failed to solve any of them myself! But I think a nineteenth century girl would have trouble with today's crosswords puzzles (actually so do I, for that matter!)

    I am beginning to think we have quite a bit in common-- but your experience with the TV shows of youth exceeds mine. "Batman?" I asked John. "The Riddler!" he responded immediately. I am catching up on all the missed TV of my youth however-- soon after John moved in with me in Indian Valley and we got a satellite dish, I said to him one day: when I was growing up, we were only allowed to watch TV with supper on Sundays (Walt Disney and Animal Kingdom-- I thought Mutual of Omaha was a distant kingdom of some kind...) and how I loved it. He said: now that you are grown up, you can watch TV every night if you want to.

    What a revelation! I loved this idea. Right now we are watching old episodes of Perry Mason that I vaguely remember my mother watching faithfully after our bedtimes...we'll have to check out Batman too!

  5. Eberle, in my opinion, the original "Batman" series is the best. The dry humour that escaped me as a tot in the 60s is extremely funny to me as an adult. Frank Gorshin was The Riddler and he was clever and captivating!
    I think I saw EVERY SINGLE EPISODE of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom; it was my favourite show! I was perhaps the youngest person alive to have a crush on old Marlon Perkins! (Followed closely by those Sunday night Wonderful World of Disney episodes.)

  6. Charming and entertaining post, Eberle! Thank you!

  7. Hi Willow: & thanks from both of us!


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