The way we were: seeing in the New Year

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
December 12, 2013

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Harold Acton at his Florentine villa, La Pietra

Madame Campan, lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, recalls New Year’s Eve 1783, during a severe winter, in her memoir of the Queen: “Wishing to give her children yet another lesson of beneficence, she desired me on the New Year’s Eve to get from Paris, as in other years, all the fashionable playthings, and have them spread out in her closet. Then taking her children by the hand, she showed them all the dolls and mechanical toys which were ranged there, and told them that she had intended to give them some handsome New Year’s gifts, but that the cold made the poor so wretched that all her money was spent in blankets and clothes to protect them from the rigour of the season, and in supplying them with bread; so that this year they would only have the pleasure of looking at the new playthings. When she returned with her children into her sitting-room, she said there was still an unavoidable expense to be incurred; that assuredly many mothers would at that season think as she did—that the toyman must lose by it; and therefore she gave him fifty louis to repay him for the cost of his journey, and console him for having sold nothing.” The painter Eugène Delacroix, aged 26 and living in Paris, writes in his journal in 1824: “As always, if I remember rightly, I brought nothing but a mood of black melancholy away from the splendid New Year’s party which Pierret gave for us. These serenades to the New Year and, above all, the horns and trumpets make one feel sad about the passing of time, instead of preparing one to greet the future joyfully. This day, I mean today, is the saddest day of the year; yesterday the year was not yet over.” Virginia Woolf, aged 23 and staying in the New Forest in 1905, writes in her journal: “This is at any rate a cheerful New Year’s day, as though we had turned over a new leaf & swept the sky clean of clouds. It was clear with frost at the the turn of the night, when the New Year came in with the new day. T & A [her brothers Thoby and Adrian] went out, with rum punch in their hands, to salute 1905; they shouted & declared that innumberable owls answered them... “The afternoon was a beautiful specimen of winter light; the air as clear as though sheets of glass had been dissolved into atmosphere & all the colours were lively & delicate.” Victor Klemperer, a Jewish professor living in Dresden, writes in his diary in 1941: “Heaviest blow, heavier than the prison week in summer: the Jew’s star since 19th September, ‘41. Since then completely cut off. Eva [his non-Jewish wife] does all the shopping... Sitting at home for days on end... “We celebrated New Year’s Eve downstairs with the Kreidls, the wife of the imprisoned landlord was also there... Very friendly reception, touching hospitality. Tea with cakes—then vermouth—towards 12 a real punch bowl. I made a serious little speech, so serious that when we toasted one another my hand was trembling... “That it was our most dreadful year, dreadful because of our own real experience, more dreadful because of the constant state of threat, most dreadful of all because of what we saw others suffering (deportations, murders), but that at the end it brought optimism—I quoted widely: nil inultum remanebit [nothing will remain unpunished].” 1972, art historian Roy Strong is invited to New Year’s Day lunch with Harold Acton outside Florence: “The Acton villa, La Pietra, has a number, 120, and is on the Via Bolognese as one leaves Florence. On arrival two vast iron gates are flung open, leading on to the customary avenue of cypresses leading to the house... “There were vast rooms whose walls were painted a grubby cream stuffed with Italian primitives, chairs of faded, raggy velvet, mottled mirrors, pieces of classical sculpture and dusty curtains swagged back and secured by gargantuan tassels... “There was a round table beautifully laid with scarlet and purple flowers in a large florid silver bowl at the centre, pale blue, long-stemmed wineglasses, and cutlery with spade-like handles. To the left of each place grissini and a tiny round of toast had been elegantly laid. Lunch consisted of a risotto of rognonicini, turkey with artichokes and soggy sprouts, salad and cream cheese, followed by a vast chocolate souffle. “The conversation was louche and flowed thick and fast, thriving on gossip and scandal.” On 31st December 1979, John Rae, headmaster of Westminster School, writes in his diary: “We dine with David and Patsy Puttnam. David’s film Chariots of Fire is finished and has been chosen for both the Royal Film Performance and as a British entry for the Cannes Film Festival. Harold Wilson is also a guest. He has recovered from an operation but still looks weak and suffers from short-term memory loss. He cannot remember where the lavatory is and twice heads for the front door before being caught and steered upstairs. But his grasp of historical detail is extraordinary as ever. Out of the blue he gives me detailed information about the six Westminster boys who became Prime Minister.”