Another bookish post for Tuesday. And with Advent calendars starting tomorrow, and snow outside, it doesn’t seem too unseasonal to do a slightly Christmassy post. All the books I’m writing about here are sadly out of print, but they’re well worth tracking down; two of them are children’s picture books, and the other is one for the grown-ups.
Alice Jane Uttley (born Alice Jane Taylor in 1884) was a bit of a remarkable woman. Only the second woman to graduate with honours from Manchester University, with a degree in physics in 1906, she worked as a teacher before marrying in 1911. After her husband’s death, she turned to writing, drawing upon her childhood growing up on a farm near Matlock in Derbyshire for a series of books for children.
She’s probably best known now for the later series of stories about Grey Rabbit and her woodland friends who recreate ‘a rural society largely populated by animals’ (Brian Alderson, Dictionary of National Biography). She was helped in this by her illustrators: Margaret Tempest for the earlier books and Katherine Wigglesworth for the later ones. Both produced lovely pictures. It’s Uttley’s mirroring of a remembered society, as well as the lovely illustrations, which make the Grey Rabbit books so enjoyable.
This is true for the two Grey Rabbit books set around Christmas, Little Grey Rabbit’s Christmas and Little Grey Rabbit and the Snow-Baby, are typical Uttley fables. They’re lovely books. The gentle sentiments contained within manage to avoid being oversweet: the Snow Baby in particular is a lovely little tale of a Winter visitor who leaves with the season, not unlike Raymond Briggs’ snowman.
The coming together of all the characters in Little Grey Rabbit’s Christmas, around mole’s tree, says something strong about community, rather than something sappy. Sadly, while the Christmas book is available from Abebooks (linked above), the Snow Baby story appears to be more seriously out of print. They’d be well worth a reprint. And they do turn up from time to time in second hand shops..
The same qualities, without the animal trappings, are evident in a rather wonderful 1932 memoir, The Country Child. For anyone interested in reading about the ordinary customs of a Christmas in England at the end of the nineteenth century, this book is one of the first places to go. In the three wintry chapters, December, Christmas Day and January, Uttley describes familiar customs like stockings and trees and plum puddings; and traditions that have not come all the way to our century, like a kissing bough and the ‘Christmas texts’, improving pious mottos to decorate the walls. The blessed relief of Christmas in contrast to an often harsh Christianity is striking:
She was almost too happy, and her heart ached with joy as she stood on a hassock by her mother’s side, with her hymn-book in her hand, singing “Noel, Noel”, feasting her eyes on the coloured windows and bright berries and flowers, wrapped in scents and sounds as in a cloud of incense. She buried her face in her muff in ecstasy. No thoughts of hell or idols to-day, only of Baby Jesus in the manger, and the singing angels.
On her return from church, Susan is surprised to see a small Christmas tree, brought in alive to be returned to the plantation after Christmas, and decorated as it sat in its pot on a table (see the bottom pic). It’s a reminder that the Christmas tree in England is a relatively young custom, especially in its adoption by all parts of society. Elsewhere there is music and visits from guisers, visits which Uttley transferred across into Little Grey Rabbit’s Christmas (right).
The reading of the Christmas Story from the Bible on Christmas Eve reminded me of the family reading in Enid Blyton’s Christmas Book (1944), my favourite when I was little. Is this another lost, widespread custom? Today we may rely on one-to-one re-tellings from children’s books (if at all) than to sit down with the family Bible or to tell our own version (as the idealised Blyton mother does…). The stories we respond to as whole families are probably more likely to be on TV or DVD now.
The Country Child describes a world in transition from the nineteenth century re-imagining of Christmas to our more familiar, modern celebrations. There’s still a balance of the sacred and profane; tall tales and the Bible, carols and concertinas, set within a community coming together to wish each other well:
Then the villagers rose to their feet and passed out of church, to greet each other in the porch and find their mufflers, sticks and pattens. Margaret lighted the lantern and they pulled their stockings over their shoes in the confusion of the crowd. Becky waited for them at the gate, and they called, “Good night, good night. A happy Christmas and many of them. A happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year when it comes. Same to you and many of them”, as they turned away to the darkness.
Passed through memories and fond nostalgia, these little snapshots, whether they are villagers in the shapes of animals, or the remembered characters of Uttley’s childhood, give us a corner of the eye glimpse into a Christmas that’s at once familiar and far from us now. The outward shows we put on may be quite different now; the well-wishing, community and abundance at the centre of it hopefully are not. All three of these books are great reads, in their own way, and each might prompt some thoughts about the way we celebrate our Christmases.