Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.
Cheerfulness Breaks In by Angela Thirkellpublished 1940
[The local women are preparing a Christmas party for evacuee children]
A large Christmas tree had already been planted in a tub of earth. Boxes and bags of toys and ornaments lay about ready for decorating its branches. This important part of the work was under the supervision of Mrs. Phelps who had decorated Christmas Trees in every part of the globe since her early married days…
They draped [a length of green material] in folds and billows round the tub and when Kate had sprinkled a shilling’s worth of artificial frost over it, the effect was pronounced quite fairy-like. Then Miss Phelps, mounting a step-ladder, hung festoons of silver tinsel among the boughs and began to fasten the gold, silver, red and blue glass ornaments on to the higher branches.
[When the party gets under way]
All the children got up and banged into each other deliberately, while they puffed and blew crumbs into the whistles, mouth organs and other wind instruments provided for them. The Hosiers’ Boys, who were really invaluable, cleared away the crockery and took down the tables thus giving the evacuees plenty of room to fight, as well as bang and bump and puff. Mrs. Morland, looking on from the door of the gymnasium changing-room, where she was helping to wash up, thought she had never seen a more revolting sight than so many hot children, the girls with their party frocks already crumpled and stained, the boys smeared with food from ear to ear, their unprepossessing faces full of the almost bestial look of satiety that cake and lemonade can produce even in the most gently nurtured young; so she went back to the washing up.
commentary: Nice to compare this children’s Xmas party with the one in the London hospital in Richard Gordon’s Doctor in the House, and another Thirkell book set later in the war, Northbridge Rectory. Gordon takes a similar view to this book: he says it would take an Ernest Hemingway to do it justice – a writer with ‘a gift of extracting a forceful attractiveness from descriptions of active animals feeding in large numbers’. But the second Thirkell book has a much kinder eye for the children.
Any book written in 1940, and dealing with contemporary life, is bound to have its fascinations, what with the author not knowing how things were going to turn out. Thirkell wrote her light books through the 30s – a mixture of comedy, social satire, and light romance – and adapted her style to wartime. Always in the background, amid the jokes, is the idea that the young people may not survive the war. (This was before the bombing got under way, so civilians did not feel at risk.)
This one starts with the blessed Rose Birkett (after her serial engagements) finally getting married, and this splendid description:
Lydia, who had constituted herself chief bridesmaid, was pleased by the admiration around her, and collecting Rose’s bouquet prepared to stand by… she had something of the air of a very competent second, bouquet in hand instead of a sponge, ready to give first aid between the rounds.Those excellent Lesbians, Miss Hampton and Miss Bent, feature to great effect, and there is a lot of harmless fun about Miss Hampton’s shocking books, and the advantage of being banned:
‘That was the one that was the Banned Book of the Month here. But of course one can’t hope for that luck again. After all, other people must have their turn. I have a friend on the Banned Book Society Council and he says Esmé Bellenden’s Men of Harlech will probably be the next choice.Throughout the book, most people are shown doing their best for the war effort in whatever way they can. And when one young man complains about the party above:
‘The whole thing is revolting. A lot of women working themselves up and playing at being Lady Bountifuls.’- the reader objects as much as the other characters do. If the best thing to do for the war effort and to help people was hold a party for some children, then that’s what the good ladies would do, to the best of their ability and generosity.
Picture from the wonderful Imperial War Museum archive, a children’s party in 1941.