In the middle of the uproar, and just as Lionel had thrown a cushion into the middle of the food, there came a heavy knock on the door which led to the passage.
No-one had heard any footsteps so we all jumped, and Lionel popped under the table where he was well hidden by the long tablecloth.
Slowly, slowly the door opened, and, to our astonishment, who should come in but Father Christmas.
We big ones naturally guessed at once that it must be someone dressed up; but it didn’t look like anyone we knew, and it did look exactly like Father Christmas. Betty was sitting opposite to me and I saw her round face go absolutely white as if she were about to faint, while Peter blushed purple…
Father Christmas now raised his hand and began counting the children in a queer deep voice.
As Lionel was under the table of course we were one short. Father Christmas counted again, but it still came to ten.
Then he pronounced in a slow, solemn voice:
The child under the table, I give you fair warning,
Will find nothing in his stocking on Christmas morning.
This was too much for Lionel who suddenly scrambled out and slunk onto his chair, trying to pretend he had been there all the time.
‘Eleven!’ said Father Christmas and slipped out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
commentary: See earlier entry on this book for an explanation of why I read it (thanks Lissa) and the setup - the prim only child sharing an Edwardian Christmas houseparty with a gang of unruly other children.
Evelyn – who is 8 – narrates, and is quite hilarious in her descriptions of trying to fascinate the grown-ups – when she first hears of the visit she assumes she will be a companion to matriarch/grandmother Lady Tamerlane, and says she might be able to do acrostics with her, but ‘I don’t think I could bear the Italian poetry.’
But of course she spends all her time with the other children, particularly the eponymous Savages, and sets about making friends with the oldest boy – who is both uncharmed by her, and unworthy of her charms.
Evelyn, with her alternating air of knowingness and regret, is the most perfect narrator, with a touch of the E.Nesbits about her. There are a few others who write so beautifully about children – the book somewhat resembles Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, and I always think Pamela Brown’s child characters and dialogue are excellent too – though the books aren’t nearly the works of art that Raverat’s and Clive’s are. Leo in LP Hartley’s The Go-Between is another tremendous child character, and he and Evelyn share a fascination with the rubbish heap.
Clive herself was born in 1907 and lived to be 102. Christmas with the Savages is set in an Edwardian dreamland, presumably pre-WW1. The book will surely go on forever… it has just been republished - get your copy now and start reading.