Friday, November 14, 2014

Aunt Sass - Christmas Stories - P. L. Travers

It doesn't take much to make me cry, actually so little that it's embarrassing - Christmas adverts do it, euro Disney did it (though perhaps for different reasons), Victorian paintings of sad eyed dogs mourning their lost masters do it. I don't know why I do this, it's a reaction like blushing - which I also do easily, and not necessarily based on real emotion, but anything with even a hint of pathos will have my eyes welling up and voice wobbling. 'Aunt Sass' was a three tissue job.

P. L. Travers was the author of Mary Poppins (which reduced a previous boss to tears along with his father and brother on a regular basis as it called to mind their grandmother). I think I might be like a lot of people in that I only know the film version - which along with 'The Sound of Music' was an inescapable part of childhood (is it still?). Having read 'Aunt Sass' I think I might need to investigate the book, it might not be quite what I expect.

Travers wrote the 3 stories in this collection as Christmas gifts through the 1940's, reading them reinforces a chance conversation with a woman who I was browsing Christmas cards next to earlier this month. We were both irritated by Christmassy music and both felt that whilst October/ November where perfectly reasonable times to make preparations in the way of cake baking and pudding making, even of putting aside gifts and choosing cards whilst the choice is still appealing, we both resent all the adverts that tell us it's now Christmas. Quite clearly it isn't!

In 'Aunt Sass' Travers recalls a beloved if formidable great aunt. The matriarch and head of the family even though she never had children of her own, who provided unstinting support for all around her. Aunt Sass is a sometimes contradictory figure who receives a wonderful eulogy here. It's not a Christmassy account in any way but is very much in the spirit of taking time to think of and acknowledge those you love.

The second story deals with Ah Wong, a Chinese cook the children try and convert to Christianity (unsuccessfully). For the most part it's a humorous recollection of someone met and liked in childhood but there is a sort of sequel to the events of childhood that turns it into something more.

The final story tells of Johnny Delaney, and is the most obviously Christmassy. It's also the one that feels most like a story often told. There is a fairy tale quality to it and enough sentiment to really tip me over the edge into what can only be described as sobs. Johnny Delaney is a jockey, groom, coachman, carpenter, and suffragette parent to this band of children. He's contrary, grim, a champion swearer, heavy drinker, and object of devotion for the family. He's also gifted with a sort of second sight and a life's work to complete.

So in the spirit of preparing for Christmas this would make a handy stocking filler for the readers in your life of pretty much any age (though perhaps not very young children). It's funny and charming and wise, will leave the (over) sensitive reader in bits whilst they remember much loved figures now gone from their own lives, and is generally heartwarming. Alternatively just get it for yourself if you think nobody else will oblige...


  1. The incessant advertising has worked on me and I am now firmly in the Christmas mood. My Christmas cakes are baked and I'm still a couple of weeks away from being ready to start the Herculean task of baking hundreds of Czech Christmas cookies, so a Christmas-y book sounds like just the thing right now. I have my eye on the new Penguin edition of Trollope's Christmas at Thompson Hall and Other Christmas Stories but might have to look out for this one too. I cry easily too so I'm sure this will have me in a flood of tears.

  2. Ooh. Did not know about the Trollope. Straight on the wish list!

  3. If you can get a copy of the Mary Poppins stories do. I am currently working my way through them. Each book is like a set of short stories anyway. They will make you seriously question the Disney film. Despite having read them it remains in my top three films, along with The Sound of Music too!

    I am going to look out for this book, to compare it to the writing I have read of hers.

    I hope the shingles is on the mend.

  4. I'll definitely look for a copy. shingles improving, had no idea how nasty they were!