Christmas With The Savages by Mary Clive has been on my to read list forever. It’s right up my street and having devoured it in a day, I am wondering why it took me so long to read it, and already on the look out for other work by her.
It is largely marketed as a children’s book these days, and I can kind of see where they’re coming from here. During my childhood, I inherited books from my mum’s childhood, and bought whatever looked child friendly from rummage sales and charity shops and read through all the library shelves. I was a voracious reader and there were simply not a lot of children’s books out there. The boom in children’s publishing is really down to the popularity of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. These days you have whole floors of children’s fiction. In the Seventies you were lucky to get a stack, and a lot of what was published tended to be older, classics. I was used to old fashioned language and reading about children whose supposedly ‘normal’ childhoods were nothing like my own. I treated these books a bit like modern readers would treat fantasy or science fiction books. There was a willing suspension of disbelief.
So, Christmas With The Savages is this kind of book. It is old fashioned because it is old. Mary Clive grew up at the tag end of a Victorian era, into a wealthy, aristocratic family, with everything that entailed. Her story is of her own childhood Christmases, which I believe are rolled into one and turned into one particular Christmas where she stayed in a stately home (which was someone’s actual home) with a whole bunch of children who she had never met before. In the story, her father is ill in hospital and her mother is with him, so she travels alone, with her ‘useless’ French nursemaid, and is dumped into the hurly burly of another family’s Christmas.
I loved it. It’s funny and sharp and in places very poignant. It’s completely alien to life now, and rather like being reader as anthropologist. Some of the stories of what the children get up to are very Just William and laugh out loud funny. Whether you’d actually get a modern child to read it however, is debatable. If you have a child who is patient at waiting for stories to develop, who already reads classics and who likes old fashioned tales, this will be perfect. Otherwise I think a child reading alone will struggle. It would be a great read out loud story for a class doing a project on the Victorians or how Christmas has changed over the years, and I think, once a child is used to the rhythm and cadence of this, and is hooked by what is largely a very funny story, they might be persuaded to go it alone, but it’s a reach.