Five Gold Reads
There’s something about Christmas scenes in books that makes them particularly unforgettable. Perhaps it’s because you can’t help comparing them with your own experience, and finding them wanting, or else magically different. Anyway, here are five that come to mind whenever this time of year comes around.
“’Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” must be one of the most famous openings in literature. Of course, despite their straitened circumstances there are presents after all: each daughter receives a different-coloured Bible from Marmee, and they spend all their own money to give her slippers, hankies, perfume and gloves. Oh, and they all give their breakfast to a destitute local family . . .
The festive season in the Mole household is far from harmonious, not least because Adrian has taken it upon himself to invite bolshie courting pensioners Fred and Queenie round for Christmas dinner without telling anyone. Adrian’s mother does not cope well with the strain: “I went up to the bathroom and found my mother crying and running the turkey under the hot tap. ‘The bloody thing won’t thaw out, Adrian. What am I going to do?’ I said, ‘Just bung it in the oven.’ So she did.”
South Riding, Winifred Holtby
This brilliant 1936 novel has it all: an astute portrait of society in a small town in the north, an exposé of council corruption, and a fiery protagonist way ahead of her time. Holtby’s wry humour is also evident when Mrs Beddowes, a big-hearted alderwoman, confronts the problem of having large numbers of people to give Christmas presents to but not much money, so all gifts have to be recycled: “Aunt Ursula’s plant pot might do for the Rectory, but Mr Peckover’s framed verse (A Garden Is a Lovesome Thing, God Wot) must not be sent to Dr Dale … consternation reigned in Willow Lodge if it were found that Cousin Rose, who had sent a cut-glass vase, had been rewarded only by three coat-hangers in a cretonne case.”
Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain
A Christmas of a more sombre mood appears in this memoir by Holtby’s great friend and fellow feminist Vera Brittain. Vera’s anticipation reaches fever pitch when she hears from her fiancé, Roland, that he will be back from the front: “Shall be home on leave 24th Dec–31st. Land Christmas Day.” She discovers that a boat train arrives at 7.30 in the evening on Christmas Day, and eagerly waits for his call. “I was putting the finishing touches to the blue-pastel crêpe-de-Chine blouse when the expected message came to say that I was wanted on the telephone … I dashed joyously into the corridor. But the message … was not to say that he had arrived, but to tell me had died of wounds at a Casualty Clearing Station on December 23rd.”
The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald’s fictional recreation of the life of the 18th century German poet Novalis contains a dazzling evocation of a very different Christmas traditions, but from the country that has contributed more to our festivities than any other: “In the library candles had been attached … on every spring of the heaped up fir branches. The tables were laid with white cloths, a table for each soul in the household. On each table was placed a name, made out of almond paste and baked brown … the myriad shining points of light threw vast shadows of the fir branches onto the walls and even across the ceiling. In the warmth the room breathed even more deeply, more resinously, more greenly. On the tables the light sparkled across gold-painted walnuts, birds in cages, dormice in their nests, dolls made of white bread twisted into shape, hymn-books, Fritz’s needle cases and little bottles of Kölnischwasser, Sidonie’s embroidery, oddments made out of willow and birch, pocket knives, scissors, pipes, wooden spoons with curious handles which made them almost unusable, religious prints mounted on brilliant sheets of tin.”
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I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of Christmas lit. Are there any particular books that come to mind for you at Christmas? Let is have your nominations.