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!
It’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.
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.
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).
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.
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’).
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?