Monthly Archives: December 2012

One child’s ‘Downton’ Christmas

CHRISTMAS WITH THE SAVAGES by Mary Clive, originally published in 1955, my edition 1964; illustrated (delightfully) by Philip Gough

My choice – no roll of the dice this time!

coverIt’s nearly a year since I started this project and so, in celebration of my year of random reading, I decided to put away my dice shaker and choose a book for myself.

The last two have been – completely accidentally – quite appropriately seasonal, so I thought I would throw in a third for good measure. Since my mother ferretted out Christmas with the Savages in a second-hand bookshop and passed it on to me many years ago, it has been one of my traditional Christmas reads. A real comfort book, especially when the weather is dreadful, the roof has started leaking where it’s never leaked before and the Christmas lights have failed.

Christmas with the Savages is a fictionalised account of an Edwardian Christmas (possibly about 1910?), one which draws heavily on Lady Mary Clive’s own upbringing. The heroine (and she is undoubtedly that) is Evelyn. A somewhat – er, let’s settle for ‘indulged’ – only child from a upper-class London background, her parents are away just before Christmas when her father is taken ill. Her mother therefore arranges for Evelyn to spend Christmas at Tamerlane Hall, where her friend Lady Tamerlane is hosting a family Christmas.

book 1

This effectively means that Evelyn will be spending her Christmas with a whole load of children she does not know: the Savages, the Glens and the Howliboos, plus their nannies and nursemaids. This is something of a shock to her system: ‘…I did not see many other children…’. But they’d probably be a shock to anyone’s system; certainly they don’t behave as you might expect Edwardian children to do if your only frame of reference is TV and some rather stuffy autobiographies.

book 3

These are very real children, delineated with a dry pen:

‘You’d better not have any more sweets, Harry,’ said Rosamund, ‘not after what happened at dinner.’
Harry appeared to be pondering great thoughts. At last he spoke.
‘Sick can be very surprising sometimes.’

They misbehave horribly and quite dangerously, and their perspective on the house party is their perspective, or specifically Evelyn’s almost anthropological perspective. She’s always slightly outside (typical of the author’s position, perhaps).

book2

And from her perspective, the rest of the house party scarcely exists: as she says ‘in fact I never did really discover how many grown-ups there were downstairs’. This isn’t one of those books where the child holds up a knowing mirror to the adult world; there are no shades of The Go-Between here. The adult house guests hardly intrude (apart from ‘Aunt Muriel’s Husband’ the archetypal Christmas nightmare whose connection to the family is no longer really valid, Aunt Muriel having died some years before, but who nevertheless contrives to be invited). Adults – apart from the servants, who are much more part of the children’s world – are generally there as foils or enablers, as people who can help to stage a play, urge you to write your thank-you letters or guide you home when you get lost.

book 5

Evelyn gets through Christmas without too many perils, hideous amateur dramatics notwithstanding, but it all – well, no spoilers. Suffice it to say that she manages to evade a court martial on the rubbish heap by being called back to her home, and I’ll just leave it at that. A truly delightful book, and not just one for those hankering after a vanished, nostalgic, upstairs-downstairs world (even the New Statesman liked it on publication: ‘This book is wonderful and touching and hilariously funny’).

book 4

I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas, and all the very best for the New Year.

So am I going to continue? After all, this was supposed to be one year of random reading, with the aim of encouraging me to reread books rather than buy new, and reread unexpected choices (hence the roll of the dice).

Well, I have to go on. It’s been great; I’ve rediscovered old favourites, renewed my friendship with authors I’d almost forgotten, and had a whale of a time. I’ve even been freshly pressed by WordPress following my return to Eric Newby’s wonderful The Last Grain Race. I can’t stop now – especially as I’ve barely scratched the surface. Where did I put that dice shaker?

What’s ‘hooray’ in Finnish – or Swedish, come to that?

MOOMINLAND MIDWINTER, by Tove Jansson, published in English translation in 1958, my (extremely tatty and yellowing) edition 1977

Bookcase 3, shelf 6, book 10

coverWhat are the odds of getting two appropriately wintry books in succession? I guess that’s the point about rolling the dice and picking a book – it is truly random. Actually, I think I’d have preferred Comet in Moominland when it comes to the stories of Moomintroll and his friends, but let’s not quibble: this is wonderful. And it’s frosty outside and we are thundering towards the solstice – “‘But that’s exactly why we burn up the great winter bonfire tonight,’ said Too-ticky. ‘You’ll get your sun back tomorrow.'” – and this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. For adults and children both; I’m as enchanted by it now as I was when I was six. There’s only one downside to Moominland Midwinter as far as I’m concerned: the almost complete absence of my hero and role model, Snufkin (aka Aragorn, in his Strider persona?).

I’m not sure why the Moomins and their friends have exerted such a strong pull on me over the years, as they have on many other people. They’re undeniably attractive to small children (and bigger ones, even if you do end up identifying with Snufkin, a wanderer and adventurer, rather than the cutely rotund and domesticated moomins). The stories are good, and the illustrations are absolutely wonderful.

wood

They’re atmospheric (here are people bringing torches to the midwinter fire), and the larger, more elaborate ones have a wealth of detail which used to fascinate me. Er, still does fascinate me. For me, they sit perfectly with the text, the ideal of children’s book illustration. A little, in fact, like Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations in the previous post.

But what of the plot? What of the story, the essence?

oooooWell, this book has been described, just a little pompously, as ‘having greater psychological depth’ than the earlier books in the series – I’m not so sure about that, though maybe once I stop laughing I’ll agree (I don’t have a lot of patience with over-academic analysis these days). Moominland Midwinter opens when Moomintroll wakes up when he should be hibernating, safely tucked up in bed with his tummy full of pine needles. No-one else is awake, and he is suddenly in a strange and alien land, where even the most familiar things are strangely different. The moominhouse is covered with snow, the sky is black and – when he goes exploring – the sea is frozen. He is terribly lonely, but gradually discovers that this different world has interesting inhabitants, notably Too-ticky, who has taken up residence in the family bathing-house

walk

which she shares with some invisible shrews and a mystery resident… and soon others come to the fore. Little My, for instance, an old friend, has also woken and crashes into him as she sledges downhill on a silver tray:

‘Little My!’ cried Moomintroll once again. ‘Oh, you can’t even guess… it’s been so strange, so lonely… Remember last summer when…?’
‘But now it’s winter,’ said Little My, and fished for the silver tray in the snow. ‘We took a good jump, didn’t we?’

fireGradually, through the coming of the Great Cold, the lighting of the Midwinter Fire and the arrival of many refugees from the consequences of the cold (who are welcomed, camp in the moominhouse and eat all the stored jam), Moomintroll becomes more and more at home in his winter world. But it’s not just about Moomintroll conquering his homesickness for the summer. There are many other little touches. There’s Salome the Little Creep, one of the refugees, who has taken up residence in a Merschaum tram, and her unrequited passion for the hideously sporty Hemulen (Moomintroll describes him to Too-ticky: ‘He’s going to live in an igloo, and at this moment he’s bathing in the river.’ ‘Oh, that kind of Hemulen,’ says Too-ticky, and we all know exactly what she means even though we may never have met a Hemulen). There’s Sorry-oo, the little dog in his hat and blanket who’d really like to be a wolf until he encounters the real thing; there’s the Squirrel with the Wonderful Tail, there’s the Groke… Hmm, maybe we’ll leave it at the Groke.

And above all, there’s winter:

cold...

Poor Tove Jansson, though (she was part of Finland’s Swedish-speaking community, by the way; hence the post’s title – knew I’d forgotten something!). There was a lot more to her and her work than the delightful family of small trolls she created, but they did tend to take over due to their immense popularity (her Summer Book is another wonderful read, and there isn’t a hint of a moomin). It’s difficult, though. Unless you are someone like Tolkien, who lived and breathed his world so completely, an incredibly popular character or range of characters is bound to assume greater importance than your other work, at least in your readers’ minds. And as a footnote I’d just like to raise another Tolkien comparison: the importance of the landscape and the natural world. Moominland is fully realised; the trees and – my goodness, they both have Lonely Mountains. Maybe it’s no coincidence that both Tolkien and Jansson were great lovers of the north… now, where’s the snow?