Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. If you use Pinterest you can see some of the beautiful seasonal pictures on this page, and you can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page. You’d think I’d be running out of Xmas books and scenes by now, but far from it – I have to begin this feature earlier in December each year. More ideas still welcome in the comments. (If it’s a particularly good choice I will ditch one of the ones I have ready and give you credit…)
Troubles by JG Farrellpublished 1970
Set in 1920, in an Irish country house hotel
At length the Major decided that something must be done, so he took the twins, Viola, Padraig and Sean Murphy into the park to collect holly and mistletoe, while he himself chopped down a puny and naked Christmas tree he had noticed near the lodge. At the sight of this activity the ladies cheered up and soon they were helping to make paper decorations. The residents’ lounge became a hive of industry. Miss Johnston mounted the largest and most drastic shopping expedition hitherto, and returned from Kilnalough with a great supply of glass ornaments and coloured ribbons. In due course this enthusiasm spread to everyone, servants and guests alike; even the newcomers became eager to lend a hand.
The old ladies underwent a gay metamorphosis and showed themselves full of energy, humming and singing as they worked, reaching up with trembling hands to pin mistletoe strategically over doors or intrepidly making their way up shivering step-ladders to hang coloured streamers. The Major watched them and admired their daring. Whenever a step-ladder began to get a fit of the shakes he would spring forward and anchor it firmly, but then perhaps another step-ladder would begin to rattle on the other side of the room and he would have to watch helplessly, with that mixture of resentment and admiration one feels as one watches trapeze artistes sailing dangerously here and there und the circus roof.
commentary: One of the old ladies is about to fall off a step-ladder, but the hotel guests will take it in their stride.
I wrote about this book earlier this year, saying it was a haunting and memorable masterpiece. All the people above are living in a crumbling hotel – it is more or less coming down around their ears. No-one really gets the seriousness of what is going on outside the hotel, as the Irish fight for their independence. The owners guests and residents firmly believe that they are the nice English, who’ve always been good to the locals, and no-one wants to do them down.
It’s a very funny book, though much of the humour comes from people not understanding each other – the Major jocularly warns the bank manager about his dog:
‘Careful he doesn’t gobble up all your bank-notes.’ Mr Devlin did not appear to find this funny, however; indeed, he looked quite upset.
JG Farrell is, I think , no relation to the other great chronicler of the Anglo Irish, Molly Keane, who wrote under the name MJ Farrell.
The family photograph is from 1919, from the Library of Congress.
Decorations from a postcard held in a collection at the NYPL.
Man trimming the tree also from NYPL.