That Uneasy Feeling Xmas Brings

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. 


Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns


published 1947






[spelling and punctuation as in the original]


Although I was always sure I hadn’t been to sleep, I would suddenly notice the shape of the stocking had become quite different, very bulky, and a pile of boxes and parcels underneath… a heavenly smell of spice, tinsel, new books and fruit seemed to come. When our beds were strewn with the contents of our stockings, open jack-in-a-boxes, dolls and teasets all jumbled up together, and a miniture Christmas pudding, there was always one of those in the toe of our stockings, with the orange and new pennies and nuts, when all these things had been examined, there were still the parcels from various relations to be unwrapped…

After breakfast we didn’t go to church like most people seem to, we just played in the drawing-room, we each took a corner to keep our new toys in…

We had our Christmas dinner in the middle of the day, and an enormous amount was eaten and drunk, even we children were allowed wine.

When it came to the pudding part, I was scared in case I got the thimble, and had to be a governess when I grew up, once I got the bachelors button, but everyone knows this isn’t so bad…

There were quite a lot of carol singers, and we used to give them pennies and mince pies, that were left in the hall for them, but their singing always rather depressed me.

commentary: As explained in an earlier entry, on the whole this book left me cold: the ridiculous spelling and punctuation mistakes seemed pointless, and the narrator seemed far too consciously naïve. But there were moments of description that I enjoyed, and this was one of them.

The book tells the story of a set of sisters living in a dire situation somewhere in the Midlands, probably in the 1920s. Although it is a novel, it is also highly autobiographical, and this description of Christmas Day has the ring of conviction.

The chapter ends up saying
I took a kind of pride in seeing how late I would be allowed to stay on Christmas night, but I was always very tierd, and glad underneath when they sent me to bed, as long as Beatrix didn’t stay up later than me, I was such a long day, and there was always tomorrow.
- something we all might recognize from our own childhoods.

The picture, from the Athenaeum, is called The Day after Christmas by Mark Lancelot Symons from around 1931. The milieu may be a bit down-market from the down-at-heel toffs in the book, but isn’t it a wonderful picture?














Comments

  1. I do like this description, Moira. Interesting, isn't it, how even a book that leaves one cold can sometimes have those aspects to it that are worth remembering. Thanks for sharing this one.

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    1. Thanks Margot - I'm coming to the conclusion that I just really like Christmas scenes, as there are a number of books this year where I'm saying 'didn't care for the book much - but liked THIS chapter.'

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  2. Ha! "Consciously naive" - I recognize that phrase... But it is a good Christmas description, and an excellent picture.

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    1. I bet you do - a favourite phrase from one of my favourite books of all time, and a phrase, concept even, that absolutely describes a certain kind of carryon, so find it tremendously useful. (For anyone else: Cassandra in Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle is (wrongly!) described as being 'consciously naïve' by Simon and Neil, and is horrified when she overhears them saying so.)

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  3. Barbara Comyns is one of my favourite authors, and I love this - it's so wonderfully chaotic. By the way, have you ever read The Glass Peacock by Eleanor Farjeon? I suspect you may find it twee and patronising, but it has the most magical description of a 'radiant' little Christmas Tree 'glittering and twinkling with all the prettiest fantasies in glass that the mind of Christmas had been able to invent, little gas lamps and candlesticks, shining balls of every colour, a scarlet-and-silver Father Christmas, also in glass, chains and festoons of gold and silver beads, stars, and flowers, and long clear drops like icicles; birds, too, in glass, blue and yellow birds, seeming to fly, and one, proudest and loveliest of all, a peacock,shimmering in blue and green and gold, with a crest and long, long tail of fine spun glass, like silk'.

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    1. I feel I'm standing outside Barbara Comyns, not understanding why others like her, but I have read three books by her now and she hasn't lured me in.
      Eleanor Farjeon wrote a ghost story that I absolutely love, ... And a Pearl in the Middes (I think), and otherwise I associate her with marvellous Puffin anthologies and collections that I very much enjoyed as a child. I just tried to track down the story you mention, because I'm sure I would love it, but it is not turning up anywhere. I will keep trying - thank you.

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    2. I have it in an old book with various Christmas stories for children that my mother read to me when I was very young, but it is also in The Little Bookroom, her collection of short stories for children (which I read to my daughters when they were small), and I've found that for you online (free) from https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/farjeone-littlebookroom/farjeone-littlebookroom-00-h.html - the index lists links to the various stories.

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    3. Thank you so much! I will go and make sure I read it.

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  4. I can understand that Comyns’s naive narrators aren’t to everyone’s taste, but in this novel particularly I think it works - the children grow up almost feral, unconstrained for much of the time. Descriptions like this one are beautifully done, but there’s a dark side, too, which the child only dimly perceives, creating an almost painful tension

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    1. thanks Simon - it's personal taste in the end, and this book doesn't work for me, but I cannot deny that she paints a very real picture of a chaotic childhood, it's certainly convincing.

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    1. I didn't even like this one all that much myself, but it did make for a nice Xmas entry...

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  6. That is a lovely picture to illustrate this post. And a nice description of a Christmas day.

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    1. Thanks Tracy - I love the picture so much.

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