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Tomorrow Is St. Valentine’s Day…

February 13, 2013

Far from being invented by the greeting card industry, Valentines were a concept with which Henry VIII and all of his wives would likely have been familiar, although contrary to widespread internet rumour, Henry VIII does not seem to have officially recognized it via royal decree on February 14 1537. I would love to know where that story started, but there’s no trace of it in any source even vaguely reputable — I imagine somebody was trying to scrounge up “facts” for their Valentine’s Day article and, well, Henry VIII does leap to mind when the subject of romance comes up, if not in a good way. Henry did, however, manage to miss the ultimate dramatic irony by about eighteen hours when he had Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn executed on February 13, 1542.

The first known reference to St. Valentine’s as a lovers’ holiday was of course made by Geoffrey Chaucer, when he wrote that “For this was on seynt Valentynes day / Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make” — though as this fascinating post shows, it’s possible he was simply having a laugh at the holiday more than anything. Still, it was there to be referenced, and it turns up again about a hundred years later in the Paston letters, most famously in these letters from Margery Brews to John Paston, in which she calls herself “your Voluntyne.” According to Alison Sim’s Pleasures And Pastimes In Tudor England, households sometimes drew Valentines by lot, and each woman drawn would be given a gift by her newfound Valentine, making the holiday more akin to a Secret Santa drawing than its current incarnation. The fact that almost two hundred years later, in 1661, Samuel Pepys “laid out” forty shillings on seven pairs of gloves for his Valentine (one Mrs. Batten, whom he chose “only for complacency”) shows how the custom had held on — there was no choosing by lot, but the “Valentine” was not expected to be one’s actual spouse or lover, and a gift was expected.

It sounds like a promising enough festival. So my question is, where is it? Presented with this tempting holiday, ripe for serendipitous meetings and romance, waiting for rigged lotteries and dramatic ironies, perfect for comedy and character enlargement, I can find exactly three novelists who have done anything with it.

In Reap The Storm (1998) Valentine’s Day is traditionally “a servant’s festival, and we should not interfere,” says Jane Boleyn, who is living at Grimston with George and feeling surly because he spends all of his time out with Anne and resorts to Jane’s company only when he feels like taking another shot at creating some posterity. So lonely and bored is she that she decides to come along to the barn where the maids and menservants will be drawing lots, giving gifts, and having a dance, and the festivities sound like they have the potential to become fairly lively, as her maid Molly explains:

“The boy always takes as his valentine the girl whose name he picks out and stays with her all evening. But he also has to give a present to the girl who picks his name. If she likes him better than the man who picks her she tries to take him away from his valentine. If Dickon picks me I shall have a real fight to keep him. Except I know he likes me too.”

Add to this the fact that the celebration is held in a barn partially filled with straw and which also has lanterns and candles all around for light, and you can see what’s coming: just after George and Anne have peeked in to see what’s going on, a fight breaks out between two inebriated would-be Valentines, a lantern gets kicked over, and Jane is caught on the wrong side of the flames, but still able to see clearly “George fighting his way towards Anne, although at that moment she was not in such grave danger as I was. He put his arm around her and hurried her towards the door.” Jane manages to escape with the help of a servant, and George apologizes, swearing up and down that he had no idea she was there — “It never occurred to me that you would be interested in servants’ pastimes.”

It’s no longer a servants’ pastime in The Autobiography of Henry VIII (1998) in which Valentine’s Day is celebrated at court with all the trimmings, including such unlikely-sounding articles as red paper valentines (made by the young Elizabeth) and a feast with courses which are all red and white. The Valentine’s Day in question is, of course, that of 1542. “St. Valentine’s Day. O sweet Jesu! I would be fresh a widower upon St. Valentine’s day, my sweetheart having just been beheaded. How fitting,” says Henry to himself, finally noticing the coincidence in dates five hundred and fifty-six years later. The courtiers are less than successful in their attempts at enthusiasm while drawing the names of their Valentines:

I knew well how cruel and pitiless they thought me to stage such a celebration the day after my wife’s execution …. What, did they expect me to wear mourning for the traitress? Did they expect the court to keep itself all in black for a season, as it had for Jane? No, by God! It was divinely arranged that her execution should have fallen just before a happy holiday, so that the court — and I — could be prevented from any facsimile of mourning.

Henry’s Valentine ends up being the widowed Catherine Parr, Lady Latimer — he gives her a ruby ring and later, of course, a crown.

The King’s Damsel (2012) mentions Valentine’s Day several times, because it’s heroine Tamsin Lodge’s birthday. She does not, of course, celebrate her birthday especially, but she does participate in a Valentine’s day dance on her fourteenth birthday, while attending the nine-year-old Princess Mary. Mary draws the deeply middle-aged Sir Ralph Egerton and, with perfect aplomb, tells him that “for today you are my husband adoptif and I am your pretend wife.” No presents are exchanged, but Sir Ralph has a hard time of it nonetheless as all of the Valentines are supposed to dance with each other and he has a bad case of gout. Later, while resting between dances, another maid tells Tamsin the (true) story of Ralph Egerton’s love affair with the heiress Margaret Bassett, which encountered a hitch when the latter was abducted and forcibly married by one Henry Vernon; she later escaped and married Egerton. Tamsin is thrilled.

“And they lived happily ever after,” I concluded, remembering Sir Ralph’s reference to his wife. I sighed in satisfaction.

Lady Catherine chuckled. “They have as good a marriage as most, although I understand that Sir Ralph has a number of bastard children.”

I frowned, disliking this ambivalent ending to the tale. “What happened to the band of kidnappers?”

“Vernon was fined. Then the king pardoned everyone who was involved in the abduction.”

“I prefer stories where evil is punished.”

Alas, even on Valentine’s Day, reality will intrude. But there are so many more Valentine’s scenes that could be written! I hope one day to see some. In the meantime, if someone wants to present me with a ruby ring, I certainly wouldn’t mind. Seven pairs of gloves wouldn’t go amiss, either.

From → Essays

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