Posted in Throwback Thursday

Festive Throwback Thursday! Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is one of my all time favourite books and the films, whether the old version Katherine Hepburn or the latest one with Saiorse Ronan, are essential viewing for me and my girls at Christmas. For my throwback posts this month I’m focusing on older books that truly give me those Christmas ‘feels’. That could be because they’re set at Christmas or they might have a special meaning associated with Christmas, such as something we would watch as a family or that I just happened to read at that time of year. As soon as it gets close to Christmas I think of Little Women, and it’s not just that first line of Jo’s; ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents’. The book begins and ends at Christmas and it highlights the way the family has changed in that time, who is lost and who has joined the March family. I think the fact that most of the film adaptations have that snowy New England appeal and the contrasting warmth of the March family’s home with it’s handmade decorations and open fire. It’s also the way the family celebrate and their values that really shine out to me. They have traditions, like the play they all prepare for in the evening, having so much fun that the lonely boy living next door with only an old Uncle for company yearns to join them. I see so many parallels with my own family in the Marches, even the love and support they offer to people who are struggling reminds me of the values my parents have instilled in me and my brother.

The recent adaptation of Little Women starring Saoirse Ronan and Timothy Chalumet.

Our family traditions are smaller, but important and poignant to us, especially as the years pass and people are missing from those celebrations or new members of the family have come along. Back in the late 1970’s when I was around seven years old, my Mum had a beautiful set of nativity figures and my dad made her a tiny stable complete with wood shavings for straw and a single light over the roof to represent the star. Every year we loved to put the crib up and it was the tradition that the youngest member of the family would place baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve. That was my younger brother Terry and I remember him having to be lifted to reach the crib and my mum would steady his small hand to place him in safely. Now my brother is in his forties and is a grandad too, so his grandson Harvey places Jesus in the crib and soon it might be his younger brother Oakley who helps him. To have so many generations in one family is so lucky, but it’s also poignant when I notice that my dad can’t pick up his great-grandson and his hand isn’t so steady. Similarly, for the Marches there’s that bittersweet feeling within the celebration, the acknowledgement that someone is missing from the table. It’s a feeling I share when we have our Polish Christmas Eve tradition that remembers my late husband’s family, something we do alongside my sister-in-law and nephews over in New Zealand, now that she too is a widow. It gives us an opportunity to raise a glass and talk about our loved ones, to have that Christmas phone call and remember them together.

The March girl’s Christmas Supper from Mr Lawrence.

Charles Dickens set the standard for the typical Victorian Christmas, setting in stone some of the traditions we still keep today. In the same way, Louisa May Alcott defines the ideal New England Christmas of the 1800’s. The Civil War rumbles on quietly in the background, but Marmee and Hannah keep the home fires burning despite having little money, but what little they have they are willing to share. There is a glow of nostalgia around their plans that makes me feel welcomed into their world, but also inspires me to have a more simple Christmas where we make the presents and the emphasis is on time together, rather than money spent. In the end it’s the feelings that make the Christmases of the Little Women so appealing. It’s their simplicity when we look at them against the current onslaught of adverts, consumption and pressure to have the perfect Christmas- especially this year, when we had such a quiet one in 2020. There’s an urge to really overspend that’s all about rescuing the economy rather than true Christmas spirit. We could really learn from the March girls’s generosity in using the one dollar they each receive from Aunt March to make Marmee’s Christmas better. There’s a thoughtfulness in the gifts they give, even Amy who has a last minute change of heart and uses her whole dollar for Marmee’s cologne rather than buying the smaller bottle to save money for some drawing pencils. I like to think about the gifts I send, and I do make when I’m able – I’ve made my step-daughters zombie dolls in the past and this year I’m embroidering denim jackets. I also make Christmas Cakes and biscuits for neighbours, sloe gin and jams, because it feels good to put myself into he gifts and it’s lovely to make them with a friend, listening to Christmas music and enjoying the moment. This year we’re having a biscuit and truffle making day together with my carer’s children. It’s this effort to spend time with people that makes Christmas, because it creates memories. This is no different from the March girls practicing their Christmas play together or singing carols at Beth’s piano. My immediate family are not buying presents this year, because we can’t all afford to do it, so instead we’re having a meal together which we’ll enjoy so much more than stuff. To have a March Christmas we need to adopt a simpler approach, guided by values of generosity, kindness, thankfulness and love.

The March girls listen to a letter from their Father on Christmas Eve.

A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm. How the big eyes stared and the blue lips smiled as the girls went in. “Ach, mein Gott! It is good angels come to us!” said the poor woman, crying for joy. “Funny angels in hoods and mittens,” said Jo, and set them to laughing. In a few minutes it really did seem as if kind spirits had been at work there. Hannah, who had carried wood, made a fire, and stopped up the broken panes with old hats and her own cloak. Mrs. March gave the mother the children round the fire, and fed them like so many hungry birds, laughing, talking, and trying to understand the funny broken English. “Das ist gut!” “Die Engel-kinder!” cried the poor things as they ate and warmed their purple hands at the comfortable blaze. The girls had never been called angel children before, and thought it very agreeable, especially Jo, who had been considered a “Sancho” ever since she was born. That was a very happy breakfast, though they didn’t get any of it. And when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning. “That’s loving our neighbor better than ourselves, and I like it,” said Meg, as they set out their presents while their mother was upstairs collecting clothes for the poor Hummels. Not a very splendid show, but there was a great deal of love done up in the few little bundles, and the tall vase of red roses, white chrysanthemums, and trailing vines, which stood in the middle, gave quite an elegant air to the table. “She’s coming! Strike up, Beth! Open the door, Amy! Three cheers for Marmee!” cried Jo, prancing about while Meg went to conduct Mother to the seat of honor.

Beth played her gayest march, Amy threw open the door, and Meg enacted escort with great dignity. Mrs. March was both surprised and touched, and smiled with her eyes full as she examined her presents and read the little notes which accompanied them. The slippers went on at once, a new handkerchief was slipped into her pocket, well scented with Amy’s cologne, the rose was fastened in her bosom, and the nice gloves were pronounced a perfect fit. There was a good deal of laughing and kissing and explaining, in the simple, loving fashion which makes these home festivals so pleasant at the time, so sweet to remember long afterward.

Little Women. Louisa May Alcott. Amazon Classics. 29th August 2017.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Libraries Week

If it hadn’t been for libraries this blog wouldn’t exist and I would be a very different person. I have my mum, another avid reader, to thank for this. Every Saturday morning my father would drop us in Scunthorpe and go off to play football. We would do some shopping in the market, pay Radio Rentals for the telly and then best bit – we would go to the library and change our books.

Scunthorpe Library

In the 70s/80s the library was a very odd looking building that visitors entered through a glass pyramid. A type of working class Louvre, usually covered in poo from all the pigeons in the square! However, it was the magic gateway to culture for me. A place where the message board advertised local gigs and theatre productions and downstairs housed an art house cinema, where Mum famously fainted after being overcome by Kevin Costner on the wide screen. We were a low income family, living in the middle of nowhere in Lincolnshire. Dad’s basic wage from the drainage board had to keep all four of us and the pets. Books were loved but not a priority in the budget, so I had to wait for Christmas and birthdays to get book tokens. This building was my holy grail of reading and I read classics, comedies, books about growing up. This was my window on the world and it didn’t matter if I didn’t like one, I could just put it to one side and take it back the following week. Mum would go upstairs to choose her books and I was left to browse on my own and I could take all the time I wanted.

After the library we would grab a sandwich and get the 336 bus to Ashby where my grandma and grandad lived. We would stay there until Dad picked us up at teatime. In spring and summer I might sit out in the garden or in Grandad’s shed which always smelled of shallots and had a pair of curtains at the window. While he pottered doing jobs and I would read my book. Or in the colder months we’d be inside, with the gas fire on so high it gave me a headache, and my Grandad in his red all-in-one (he was ahead of his time when it came to onesies). He’d watch rugby league or an old black and white film, while I read or we would read together. Grandad was very fond of pioneer stories, adventure novels and Wilbur Smith.

These are just a few of my book choices from those earliest days of picking my own books and cultivating a love of reading:

Little Women: This was the first book I read after completing the reading scheme at school. School had the first book, but I went to Scunthorpe Library to read the next stage of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy growing up in civil war America. I borrowed this series so many times that I still know each girl’s story off by heart. Of course Jo is my favourite. I wanted to be a writer and have a room to work in with lots of books. However, I also grew to love Amy despite her haughty character and snobbish tendencies. These early attempts to seem genteel were affected and often satirised by her older sisters. Yet, Amy grows from there. She keeps a certain steeliness and determination to succeed, but becomes kinder, softer and more vulnerable. Her interest in the finer things though give her a certain polish, she is cultured and this gives her opportunities. Good Wives shows this growth. I love how this series seems to stay relevant for every generation, with the latest film taking an interesting, more feminist slant than before. I love this Puffin ‘In Bloom’ edition of the book.

What Katy Did: I chose to read about more 19th Century growing up with Katy Carr and her house full of brothers and sisters. Katy’s mother had died and her father worked long hours as a local doctor, leaving the siblings to run a bit wild. Until her father’s sister, Aunt Izzy takes over as housekeeper. The strangest thing about reading this series was Katy’s accident on the garden swing that leaves her paralysed. I had an accident and broke my back at a similar age and was temporarily stuck in bed. I remember wanting to be like Katy or her mentor Cousin Helen who was always cheerful and helpful, even though she was in constant pain and a wheelchair user. In later years I wrote about the illness of Katy and other 19th Century heroines such as Beth March and Pollyanna. They all learn to be well behaved and Christian young ladies through suffering, if you read them from a feminist viewpoint. Back then though I just loved the sequels to Katy’s story – the secret societies at school, the trunks of goodies sent from home, Katy’s travels across Europe, particularly the Venice carnival. I’m sure it was this book that made me determined to visit Venice when I was older.

The Bagthorpes Saga: For humour I always enjoyed James Herriot’s stories, and later the Adrian Mole diaries, but the Bagthorpes were in a league of their own when it came to comedy. The four siblings William, Tess, Rosie and Jack were the children of writers – capable Agony Aunt Mrs Bagthorpe and the stressed out and highly strung scriptwriter Mr Bagthorpe. The whole family are always getting into scrapes with Grandma and their psychopathic four year old cousin Daisy behind all sorts of nefarious schemes. The siblings are all busy with accomplishments that Mrs Bagthorpe calls ‘strings to their bow’. All except Jack. Jack is the ordinary sibling, who enjoys walking his dog Zero and doesn’t really excel at anything. Aided by a hedgehog like housekeeper, Mrs Thorndyke, the Bagthorpe family lurch from one disaster to another; fires, floods, hauntings and kleptomaniac four year olds! I read these books over and over.

Pippi Longstocking: Pippi was one of those marvellous heroines who is an orphan so has no restrictions to her imagine or what she can get up to. Pippi Longstocking is only nine years old and lives all by herself with a horse, a monkey, a suitcase full of gold, and no grown-ups to tell her what to do. She’s wild and funny and her crazy ideas are always getting her into trouble! She devises adventures for her new found friends Tommy and Annika. Pippi performs at the circus, is reunited with her long-lost father, and takes her friends Tommy and Annika on a trip to the Canny Canny Islands. She also finds a squeazle, gives a shark a good telling-off, and turns 43 somersaults in the air. I loved her sense of adventure and wanted to feel as free as she did. I love the new gift editions illustrated by Lauren Child, they seem to capture the spirit of Pippi perfectly.

The Moomin Sagas: Oh how I love the Moomins! Today I have a Moomin dress, light box, mug collection and many other reminders of Tove Jansens eclectic characters. The Moomintroll family live in a tall blue house in Finland and are peaceful, happy creatures. Moominmamma is an earth mother type, always willing to feed another at her table and often taking in other creatures to help, such as the Hemulen – a tall, cross dressing botanist with depressive tendencies. Moominpapa likes nothing better than a quiet day fishing and smoking his pipe. Moomintroll is their son and has various friends such as Snufkin, a green clad, flute playing traveller who often wanders off to have adventures. Moomintroll’s love interest is the Snork Maiden, a Moomin with curly eyelashes, blond hair and a few cuddly extra pounds that she worries about (I feel a great affinity with her). There are adventures with eclipses, hobgoblins and comets, but it is the characterisation of these varied creatures that has always stuck with me and their philosophical musings on life. I’m considering a Moomin tattoo, perhaps Little My?

I’m thinking of a combi Moomin and reading tattoo to represent this childhood love of reading, all started with a library card.