We are headed towards the festive period which is typically known as ‘party season’. Speaking as someone born a scant three days before Christmas Day itself, it is often far from easy to schedule in a celebration of my own between the compulsory work Christmas do, the necessary Christmas-jumper-related charity event and of course the family get togethers. All of that being said, I am one of those rare adults who still quite likes Christmas – I like the decorations, the music is nicely up-beat and I always welcome those all too rare opportunities to see my extended family. So I got to thinking. Good, bad or chaotic – what are the fictional shin-digs, soirees, and other assorted celebrations which stand out as most memorable?
Bilbo Baggins’ Eleventy-First Birthday Party
This is the party which kicks off The Lord of the Rings – given that we last saw Bilbo at the close of The Hobbit as he reclaimed his belongings from a property auction having been declared legally dead, it is quite something to discover him happily prosperous and at the heart of festivities. As birthdays go, reaching eleventy-one is no mean achievement and Bilbo is justly proud – but he is also not above using the occasion to quite literally go out with a bang. This is the party that operates as the starting pistol for all that comes after, with Bilbo giving a rousing speech to all his guests (and he has invited everyone he has ever known or heard of) and then vanishing in a puff of smoke. Having visited Hobbiton myself this year, I now have a strong visual of what that would have looked like so it almost feels as though I was there.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Alice in Wonderland
With the clock permanently stopped at six, the Mad March Hare, the Dormouse and the Mad Hatter have been stuck having tea for quite a long time. No wonder the conversation has taken a turn for the bizarre. I remember reading an abridged version of the story when I was very small and even then, there was something deeply unsettling about the way these people spoke to each other. This is the kind of party where you find yourself edging slowly and discreetly towards the door because these people are insane. It is strange that this manic gathering should have become such a timeless template – Alice herself abandoned the festivities as soon as possible.
Dick Hawk-Monitor’s 21st Birthday Party, Cold Comfort Farm
This is one of my own favourites – it recalls Cinderella going to the ball. Flora has been very busy rearranging matters at Cold Comfort Farm to her own satisfaction and one of her major tasks was sorting out young Elfine. Although Flora is a rather to-the-point sort of Fairy Godmother, she nonetheless takes the girl to London, sorts her out a decent haircut and a new frock and generally sets up matters so the girl has a decent chance of winning her prince charming – or in this case, Dick Hawk-Monitor. Plus, Seth gets an introduction which will see him made a movie star. This is the kind of party where everyone’s dreams come true.
End of the World Party, White Teeth
In literature, the party is a useful plot device to bring together characters who would otherwise not have met. How else would Archie Jones, man in his forties fresh from both a divorce and a suicide attempt have ever encountered Clara, a seventeen year-old girl who has just given up on religion? It could only have been at the End of the World party which Archie happened to see a sign for while drinking in the world after being stopped from killing himself. Archie has a new lease on life, Clara gets a new purpose. As with Bilbo’s birthday party, the whole rest of the novel springs from here.
The Masque of the Red Death
The wicked Prince and his cold-hearted companions barricade themselves inside an abbey to escape the Red Death, a ghastly illness which kills those that contract it within minutes. After a few months, Prince Prospero grows bored and throws a masquerade ball. There are seven rooms, each decorated in a different colour. But through the ball walks a figure dressed in red, wearing a mask that resembles the symptoms of the Red Death. Furious, the Prince goes to confront the figure, only to realise that there is no person beneath the clothes, but rather the Red Death itself. Here, the party is the symbol of wickedness and decadence with the revelers justly doomed to die for their sins. The story is short but has cast a long shadow, heavily referenced in both The Shining and Bonfire of the Vanities.
The Netherfield Ball, Pride and Prejudice
This is one of those glorious car-crash situations that Austen was so gifted at conjuring up. There’s Elizabeth, who was hoping to dance with the guy she liked (Wickham), only for him to fail to show up. Then there’s Mr Collins, the relative who you can’t take anywhere and who insists on being ultra-embarrassing. And Mary, who wants to much to be accomplished but alas only makes a fool of herself. And Mr Bennet who has no social skills. Then Kitty, Lydia and Mrs Bennet have too much to drink. Plus, Elizabeth ends up having to dance with the guy she absolutely and definitely does not like at all, Mr Darcy. It’s just a wreck of an evening! I was marginally torn by the first Meryton assembly where Elizabeth finds gentleman to be scarce and then overheads Darcy being rude about her appearance, but really, I think Netherfield trumps it. This is the kind of night where you head home feeling traumatised and contemplating the possibility of emigrating. Not good. Not good at all.
Midsummer Party, The Children’s Book
Humphry and Olive Wellwood hold an annual Midsummer party to which all and sundry are invited. It is fancy dress, with the two of them going as Oberon and Titania. With scholars, Suffragettes, playwrights, artists and authors invited, it is a Bohemian and chaotic affair with no obvious bedtime for the little ones. The boy Philip is newly-arrived among the family and is utterly bewitched. Here, the party gathers all the characters together and allows us – and Philip – to meet them at once. We are intended to fall in love with this family and all their bucolic pagan splendour but if we look closely, there are cracks beneath the surface.
Blue Soup Party, Bridget Jones’ Diary
Ah Bridget, ultimate undomestic goddess. Long-overshadowed by three Renee Zellweger films, the original diary is a more low-key affair, with Bridget attempting to entertain and hold dinner parties and generally comport herself appropriately. Mishaps while so doing are a recurring theme – on one occasion, a friend intervenes, explaining innocently that she had had a ‘feeling’ that something was going to go wrong. The best of these though is the Blue Soup Incident. Twenty-odd years on, it is still frighteningly familiar to me. You’re attempting to impress your friends. You want things to be nice. You try to cook a fancy meal. And you end up with soup that is blue.
The Yule Ball, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Rowling captures so many episodes of teenage angst in Harry Potter but the ultimate has to be the Yule Ball. To his horror, Harry has to open the festivities due to having been mistakenly selected as a Triwizard champion. So he has to actually ask a girl out. Tackling the dragon earlier in the book was a simpler task. Then there’s all the panic over what to wear, with Ron having to contend with second hand dress robes and Hermione refusing to tell anyone about her ball plans at all. When the fateful day arrives, the food is plentiful and delicious, the decorations beautiful and the band terrific fun – but it doesn’t make it a good evening. The girl Harry actually likes goes with someone else, Ron and Hermione get into a shouting match and poor Ginny gets her feet trodden on by Neville. It’s classic school disco disaster, then they all have to get up the next morning and face each other.
The Manderley Fancy Dress Ball, Rebecca
The awkward moment when you’ve been tricked by your housekeeper into dressing up as your new husband’s deceased first wife. We’ve all been there. The Manderley Fancy Dress Ball was supposed to mark the new Mrs Dewinter’s first social triumph. Instead it’s a last-minute disaster and the fate of her marriage suddenly appears to be in the balance. Here the party marks the moment where the dramatic tension, which has been building for so long, suddenly breaks.
Jay Gatsby’s Party, The Great Gatsby
The glittering parties of The Great Gatsby have almost overshadowed the novel and remain a popular theme for modern events, thanks undoubtedly to the recent Baz Luhrmann film. Prohibition era decadence, flapper fashion and the long hot summer of 1922 make for some very strong visuals. Of course, the parties here were never about Gatsby actually enjoying himself, but rather about attracting the attention of Daisy Buchanan, the love he lost to another. As with the Wellwoods, there is something almost magical going on here with Fitzgerald’s writing peerless in its description. This is the ultimate, perfect party – but we are only being told about it in retrospect. Was it really as good as all that?
Post-Flood Party, Winnie the Pooh
Much has happened, Pooh showed bravery in the flood and saved Piglet and so Christopher Robin decides to throw a party in his honour. On his way, Winnie the Pooh worries about being in the spotlight and then when he is there gets miffed when Eeyore steals his thunder. Repeatedly. But then Pooh gets pencils with his name on as a reward and that is widely agreed to be very cool. I remember being read this story following on from a winter when I had received pencils with my name on so I entirely understood his excitement.
Fezziwig’s Christmas Party, A Christmas Carol
From the height of decadence and hedonism, we come to casa Fezziwig, the complete other end of the spectrum. Fezziwig was Scrooge’s first employer and his seasonal festivities is one of the events that the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to. The party here is a real floor-stamper, all kinds of folk invited, no expense spared and the focus on making sure that everyone has a nice time and everyone behaves themselves. We are being told firmly by Dickens that this is how we should be celebrating Christmas – if you’re not entering into the occasion in the same spirit as Fezziwig, you’re probably doing it wrong. Parsimony is set aside, as is personal antagonism or expectation. Fezziwig just wants everyone to be happy. Out of surprisingly few on this list, this is one party I would actually like to attend.