Christmas with the Savages by Mary Clive


published 1955



Christmas with the Savages part 2


[Narrator Evelyn is at an Edwardian houseparty in the country, with many other children]

The children were getting ready to go out, a weary process in nursery days.

You would have laughed at the clothes which we wore for playing in the garden. They were last year’s Sunday ones and were not at all suitable. My hat was a huge object made of velvet. The brim was lined with pleated satin and was trimmed with a wreath of big satin roses. My coat had a floppy collar and we wore button-boots which took a long time to do up and let in the water. However, we did not think that we looked funny, and as we had never heard of dungarees or gumboots or pixy hoods, we didn’t want them.


 
Christmas Savages


We were getting ready to go downstairs [to see the parents, grandparents and other adults]… Betty and Rosamund always wore either pink or blue sashes on their white frocks, and Rosamund had dressed first and had put on the pink sash which had been laid ready for her. Suddenly Betty said that she couldn’t wear pink, she wouldn’t wear pink, nothing in the world would make her wear pink. Nana Savage would probably have given in, only Rosamund would not, of course, change to blue, and if they had gone downstairs with different sashes awkward questions would have been asked.

The dresses were hideously over-decorated according to modern ideas.

commentary: Last year I did a post on my favourite Xmas books, and the response to the list was so overwhelming that I then did a piece on readers’ best Xmas books. One of those suggestions was from blog favourite and friend Lissa Evans, who said of Christmas with the Savages: ‘it's perfect in every way (the story of a prim little girl at an Edwardian house party - funny, original, touching), and also perfect for Clothes in Books.' So obviously I ordered it straight away. Lissa asked me recently why I hadn’t featured it yet, but then worked out for herself that I was saving it for a Christmas entry – so here it is, Lissa.

She was (of course) absolutely right: it’s a wonderful book, and it captured me instantly. Mary Clive was one of the Longford/Pakenham family, and the book is a fictionalized memoir about her childhood Christmases, drawn into one story of the only child Evelyn, 8, who lands up in a rather grand English houseparty  at Christmas, among three other families of very wild children.

It is hard to describe why the book is so hilarious, and so perfect. Perhaps it is because these are very posh, wealthy children of 100 years ago, growing up to inherit the earth, but Clive gives them that universality – you recognized that yes, this is how children behave, and most writers simply don’t do that. There is a randomness and an inconsequentiality about them: they take up crazes and excitements, they fight, they make friends, they make plans. They climb up to the attics, and farther, inviting danger and trouble. There are great unfairnesses in the way they are treated, but all are related in a matter-of-fact way.

One thing that’s nice is the Christmas festivities are described in great detail, and sound fabulous, but there is no trace of sentimentality: Clive really writes as if Evelyn is describing them, not an adult looking back.

And in fact there will have to be another Christmas-y entry on this book.

And thank you, yet again, to Lissa Evans.











Comments

  1. Moira, this sounds like a delightful book to read, and reading about Christmas festivities makes me feel good. It is such a lovely end-of-the-year season.

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    1. It is the perfect Xmas book, Prashant, and I expect I will re-read it every year at this time.

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  2. I like the narrator's voice, just from the bit you've shared, Moira. It can be tricky to tell a story like this without being either sentimental or too harsh, and I'm glad Clive has struck that balance here. Looks like a lovely insight into the times, too.

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    1. The author strikes a perfect balance Margot.

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  3. Yes - you're absolutely right (as usual), it is the randomness that delights; I particularly loved the rail journey, with Betty (the youngest Savage) reciting the same line of a poem over and over again, while her brother accidentally and irretrievably drops a book down the slot of the window pane. (also the plan to 'slap Uncle Archie on his bald head' and its disastrous outcome). It's that childhood feeling of an endless present tense - incidents pile up without forethought or particular consequence, and current woes seem inconsolable.
    Lovely coincidence, incidentally, that it was reissued this year.

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    1. Yes - I feel really happy recommending it now I see that it is easily available. Such real children - and although she doesn't use parental hindsight, she does show clearly how annoying they must be. Also I love the indecisive parents who never know quite what to do. She was a genius of observation...

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  4. The fact that this is based on the author's childhood somewhat makes this sound attractive, but I don't think I will add this to my piles of books. I look forward to hearing more.

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    1. You'll think I've read it by the time I'm finished. It is a lovely book.

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  5. Incidentally, I've just bought a copy too (as a Christmas present) and, flicking through it have discovered a glossary at the end - this is issued as a children's book, so the need to explain words like 'ottoman', 'garret' and so on is quite understandable. Also 'John Gilpin', though I'm 100% certain that the John Gilpin the book refers to is the hero of the 18th century comic ballad and not the John Gilpin who 'was a British ballet dancer who died in 1983....'

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    1. NO glossary in mine, v interesting, and hysterical about Gilpin... Thanks again for the most brilliant recommendation.

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  6. This sounds like just my thing. How lovely to share it and at just the right time of year! I also love the Christmas chapters in Alison Uttley's A Country Child, though I don't know if that one has been reissued at all.

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    1. I think it is the perfect Christmas book. I don't know the Uttley, it sounds intriguing - there's always hope these days that the treasures will be re-issued.

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    2. I grew up with 'A Country Child'. It's an extraordinarily beautiful and detailed book- 'Susan' (Alison) was an only child, who grew up on a remote Derbyshire Hill Farm with undemonstrative (yet loving) parents. She was, above all, a quiet observer, savouring the rhythms of the year and the pattern of a way of life that had already almost disappeared. The Christmas chapter is wonderful: opening her stocking in the dark, ('she touched a knob and a tape flew out - for measuring a thousand things, the calf's nose, the water trough...), the joy of giving her presents to her parents and the farm workers, the Mummers arriving. I think you'd love it, and there's a marvellous/painful 'clothes' chapter, where Susan, for her first day of school, has to wear an appallingly old-fashioned dress from the attic ('what a figure of fun!')

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    3. Come on you two, now that's ANOTHER book I have to obtain and read! You do make it sound unmissable though, off I go to search for it.

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  7. Thanks for that Moira - I am just about ready to really get in the Christmas mood (not being a drinker, this seems to take me longer which each passing year ...)

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    1. I know exactly what you mean Sergio, curmudgeonliness to the fore. I need to watch my fave Xmas film, I wonder if you have come across it? A 50s b/w stonker called The Holly and the Ivy, Celia Johnson, Ralph Richardson etc. It slightly increases my goodwill to all personkind....

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  8. Is this the one where the meddling uncle breaks a very valuable boomerang the children have been entrusted with under warning that it is very precious to the lender - while the lender looks on? We've all had relatives/friends of the family just like that!

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    1. Yes exactly, and she tells the story so perfectly, deadpan, and the fact that we can all see it coming a mile off just adds to it.

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  9. Got it! Arrived a few days after Christmas, but I am reading it regardless. Halfway through. My, what a prim little miss the narrator is, and not a particularly kind one, either, where the servants are concerned. Little snob! You're right, deeply realistic as to the things the children get up to, and the bemused reactions of their somewhat removed parents. And the nannies - oh my - now there are some telling character portraits through the eyes of the child.

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    1. Excellent! Hope you continue enjoying it. I like the fact that the narrator is so very far from perfect, and I think it is cleverly done... what a treat the book is.

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