Nicola here. Today I’m celebrating the “birthday” of one of my older traditional Regencies, Miss Verey’s Proposal. Today, 20th January, is the Eve of Saint Agnes and it was the legend of St Agnes that inspired the book.
I first came across the tradition of St Agnes Eve when I was in my teens and studying Keats’ poetry:
“St Agnes Eve, ah bitter chill it was! The owl, for all his feathers was a-cold; the hare limped trembling through the frozen grass, and silent was the flock in woolly fold…”
I should say at this point that I absolutely love Keats’ writing for the way he creates such beautiful images with such elegant language. I always feel cold when I read those lines! The poem goes on to tell of an ancient tradition that a girl would dream of her future husband if she went to bed without any supper and did not look behind her. In the poem the lover who appears in Madeline’s bedchamber that night is certainly more than a dream. Apparently Keats had to tone down the poem for his publishers because they felt that the first version was too erotic! Madeline and her lover, who is the sworn enemy of her family, run away together. It’s a classic historical romance.
The idea of St Agnes Eve inspired another poem, by Tennyson, and a number of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. The painting in this picture is by Millais. When I first read the poem as a teenager I suspect there was a moment when I was tempted to try out the superstition for myself but for the stumbling block was going to bed without supper. I just wasn’t able to do that! My inability to fast is actually a character trait I have given to several of my heroines down the years, including Jane in Miss Verey’s Proposal.
The tradition of St Agnes Eve was the starting point for Miss Verey’s Proposal. Jane and her friend Sophia read about the customs associated with St Agnes Eve in an old book and are keen to try them out for themselves. Jane manages to go to bed without supper but wakes up in the middle of the night so hungry that she creeps downstairs to find some food. It is then she sees a tall, dark and handsome stranger – or did she dream it?
Naturally the course of true love does not run smooth for Jane but I did love writing the book and was totally inspired by the legend of the Eve of Saint Agnes. Miss Verey’s Proposal was published in 2000 in the UK and 2002 in the US and these days is available as an e-book. I suppose it would be considered quite an old-fashioned story these days, a traditional Regency that I hope is sweet and charming.
As a reader I do enjoy “themed” books that are based around a time of year or a tradition or custom, and as a writer I’ve written my fair share of stories that feature something traditional. As well as St Agnes Eve I’ve also written the Somerset Cider Wassail in True Colours. Christmas is the most obvious theme but Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are also popular. Which led me to wonder whether there were any times of the year that you particularly enjoy reading about in a book? Is there anything unusual you have come across – Scottish customs or traditions associated with Guy Fawkes Night or Midsummer Day, for example? Is there is a time of year or a tradition or custom you would especially like to see featured in a book?