During the 1940’s P L Travers, most famous of course for Mary Poppins, wrote three stories which she gave away to friends as Christmas gifts. It is to these special gifts that the title refers, the setting of the stories not actually being Christmassy. Virago has now reproduced these stories in a particularly beautiful sounding hardback edition (my edition a paperback review copy won via Twitter). The new edition, printed on board with illustrations by Gillian Taylor. A perfect Christmas gift in itself I expect it will be turning up in a few Christmas stockings this year.
These charming autobiographical stories concern the real life characters of P L Travers Australian childhood. Remembering three influential figures from her childhood, P L Travers shows how friendship sometimes comes along in unexpected packages. In this case; an eccentric great aunt – Aunt Sass of the title, a Chinese cook and an Irish, foul mouthed former jockey.
The original inspiration for the character of Mary Poppins, Aunt Sass born in 1846 was a character I instantly fell for. Christina Saraset already seemed quite an old woman to the author as a child, yet she lived to the ripe old age of ninety-four. With her indomitable spirit and her own peculiar grasp of history, this unmarried lady became the matriarchal figurehead of the family, around whom a host of stories were woven.
“Right and wrong were Aunt Sass’s favourite subjects. Her remembrance of the Sphinx was that ‘the huge ugly thing terrified your Great-aunt Jane. They had no right to put it there –just where people are passing!’ Of the Pyramids, all she had to say was that ‘Your Great-Uncle Robert was disappointed that they were not larger.’
Ah Wong became the family’s cook on their Australian sugar plantation, when he inexplicably turned up to take the place of their previous cook. Ah Wong was popular with everyone in the household, but the children’s governess, which possibly helped to endear him further to the author and her siblings.
“He was proud of us however, particularly the girls. He distinguished between myself and my sister by calling us Big-fellow Little Missy and Small-fellow Little Missy and continually assured our mother that we would fetch good prices when the time came to sell us in the market”
With his long, neat pigtail, his sing-song English Ah Wong took his place at the centre of family life. His exotically scented, little hut, neat as a pin, housed his prize possession a tiny Chinese tea set. When the children hit upon the shocking realisation that their friend is not Christian, they set about an ill-thought out plan to have him baptised. Ah Wong’s story ends beautifully and very poignantly many years later when the author was working as a journalist.
Johnny Delaney is another member of the household during P L Traver’s childhood, a groom, stable man – who like Ah Wong becomes a favourite of the children, someone who advises – in his own inimitable way, protects and instructs, and is never forgotten. In his hut – a place of intense privacy, where the children aren’t admitted, Johnny undertakes his mysterious ‘life’s work’.
“He and the earth were brother and sister, scored on their visible surface, because of the pits at the heart. But on earth there are men with pick and shovel to set that dark mass free. They mine it to glow on human hearthstones and redeem itself in flame. For Johnny there were no such mediators. His bitter tongue could not say the words, nor his seared face give evidence. His love was heavy and silent within him. Not even the children could make it speak.”
These memorable figures and their stories are endearingly charming, and this slim volume will surely delight existing P L Travers fans and those being introduced to her work for the first time. It is easy to see why these people had such an effect on young P L Travers, people who coming into her life at exactly the right time, leaving their mark upon a young girl’s impressionable mind, a young girl destined to become a famous storyteller, giving the world one of the most loved and memorable characters. It seems fitting therefore, that finally, the stories of three people who played a part in the childhood and young womanhood of this writer, should now be shared. An endearingly, touching little collection, that could be easily read in a sitting, but many readers will want to savour.