Sally’s Family by Gwendoline Courtneypublished 1946
[The Hamilton family have gathered for the first time after the Second World War: the six children are aged between 24 and 10. This is their first Christmas as a family]
‘Oh Kitty! How beau-ti-ful!’
She held up a dainty little pink silk dress, to make which Kitty had sacrificed an entirely new, unworn set of underwear.
‘I thought it was time you had a really pretty little party dress, as well as those prim little dresses Mrs Jarvis always had made for you.’
‘Oh!’ Pookum gazed at it with blissful eyes. ‘Can I wear it today?’ she demanded breathlessly.
‘Of course! I’d put it on just before tea, if I were you, then it won’t be creased before all the visitors come,’ Sally suggested.
‘Now you’ve given us a dress each,’ Lucy said with satisfaction. ‘This is good of you, Kitty. I’m going to wear my blue later. Oh, Sally! Silk stockings! However did you get them?’
‘I bought all my Christmas presents before I came back from overseas,’ Sally confessed.
comments: Last year I did a post on another book by the same author: Stepmother. I enjoyed that book hugely, and there was also a great discussion (begins in the post and continues below the line) of the ethics of borrowing books from a holiday house or hotel.
And then commenter and blogfriend callmemadam recommended this book:
My favourite Courtney, indeed one of my favourite books, is Sally's Family. It's about a young woman trying to make a home for her orphaned brothers and sisters after they've all been scattered during the war. Top comfort reading!So of course I had to get hold of it, and it is indeed a marvellous read. (Both books are what would now be called Young Adult). This one is set at a very specific time: just after WW2 had finished. This family has lost both parents, and their house, and they have been separated by circumstances and different paths. Now they come together and try to build a life together. It is a touching story and full of the values of the era, and of a very particular kind of family. And also full of wonderful details of the time. There are detailed descriptions of how they put their new home together, and of how work of the household and garden are divided up, and what a ‘housewife’s’ daily plan would be. There is the usual disaster as the children learn to cook – in this case they mistake dry mustard for powdered egg: eggs were still rationed at that time.
There is an encouraging discussion when one of the girls says she wants to be a doctor: ‘not a nurse?’ is the obvious question at that time, but she is very firm.
I misunderstood a reference to the ‘dreamy rector’, thinking this meant a romantic interest, but I think it was just that he had a mind above worldly things.
The book has echoes of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, because of the worries about money and the determination of all the family to help, and of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women with the very different character of the siblings – and of course the Christmas scenes. They are nicely done as the children find and make presents for each other.
Sally, the eldest, is scarcely a child of course: she is 24, and being ‘overseas’ in the quote above means she was in the women’s services for the entire war. The next girl, Kitty, starts the book being rather vain and worldly, because she was sent to live with family friends who spoiled and cossetted her, and she is used to a luxurious life with pretty clothes and outings: she is shocked when she has to get her hands dirty and pitch in. (This particular situation must have happened to many people: I know there was exactly this in the older generation of my own family – the sister who had gone very upmarket after being sent to live with an affluent and loving childless couple during the war.)
I’m impressed by the idea of a whole dress made out of a set of underwear, the mind slightly boggles. The stockings are interesting – in a book published a few years later (1952) it is nylon stockings that the young women cherish: see my entry on The Black Banner Players here. Wartime stockings are a key element in Frances Crane’s The Applegreen Cat, a book given a comprehensive rubbishing and going-over here.
And one of my favourites of the books pieces I wrote for the Guardian – a look at the way stockings in literature reflect women’s history in the 20th century.
I have now also read Courtney’s The Girls of Friar’s Rise, which combines many features of the other two books. The standard edition has this cover:
Which really could be the cover for any of her books I have read so far.
The children opening presents are actually from Christmas 1944, from the IWM’s wonderful collection and used with their kind permission.
The picture of a woman putting on her stockings is by William Orpen and is called Sunlight.