The Mystery of the Philopena Solv’d
With thanks to St. Isidore of Seville, whom you may know as the patron saint of the Internet, and who surely intervened to solve a question that has haunted me for nearly 30 years:
What is a philopena?
I first encountered the philopena in a rarely-read book of Louisa May Alcott’s, An Old-Fashioned Girl. Fanny, the worldly fourteen-year-old city girl, tries to explain the flowers and poetry she’s gotten from a college man by telling her father, “I can’t help it if the boys send me philopena presents, as they do the other girls.”
Her father isn’t fooled, and Fanny gets into a lot of trouble. But I was never able to find out just what a philopena present was, or why Fanny might have thought it was an excuse. After a while, I forgot all about it.
But in looking through old posts on the endless fascinating LanguageHat, I discovered that the philopena makes an appearance in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu! It was a kind of flirtatious dinner party game.
LanguageHat has this charming quotation from an old Sears, Roebuck catalog, of all places:
“Another and highly reprehensible way of extorting a gift is to have what is called a philopena with a gentleman. This very silly joke is when a young lady, in cracking almonds, chances to find two kernels in one shell; she shares them with a beau; and whichever calls out ‘philopena’ on their next meeting, is entitled to receive a present from the other; and she is to remind him of it till he remembers to comply. . . . There is a great want of delicacy and self-respect in philopenaism, and no lady who has a proper sense of her dignity as a lady will engage in anything of the sort.”
A mystery solved, and in a highly satisfactory way which strengthens my high opinion of Alcott, who is exceptionally accomplished in her use of popular culture in her narratives: the Gossip Girls have got nothing on her.
When I get that MacArthur grant, I’m going to produce a series of extraordinarily beautiful annotated texts of popular 19th-century girls’ fiction: Charlotte Yonge, Pansy, L. M. Alcott, Elizabeth Prentiss . . . no one will buy them, but they’ll exist, and no-one else will ever have to wonder what a philopena was, or what the initials CSLC stand for*, or what a Christian Endeavor badge looked like.
*Chatauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.