We all know I think how reading blog posts about books can lead to us to spend money and add more books to our already over flowing piles – but I do really try to keep that spending urge in check. However when I recently read a post from Leaves and Pages about The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse I knew it was a book I wanted to read right away. The only problem was going to be finding an affordable copy. I went in search…I found two expensive copies on Abebooks, one is still available there at over £40, there was nothing on Ebay – but surprisingly there were a couple of cheaper editions available on Amazon marketplace – (there seem to be none there now). So I paid £11.99 and waited for what I assumed would be a battered rather foxed copy to arrive. Therefore when a practically pristine copy arrived a few days later I was over joyed – no dust jacket of course – but every page is clean and unmarked – I feel I got a bargain. I started reading it just a couple of days later. I knew I would love it – and I did. Each chapter is headed by a lovely little illustration and a short piece of verse – details which for me added to my reading experience.
The story of an eleven year old girl sometime in the mid-nineteenth century paying a two week Christmas visit to her grandparents’ house feels very autobiographical, and seems to be viewed by other readers as a memoir. However that is where I am a bit confused – Celia Furse (Lady Margaret Cecilia Newbolt Furse) published this book in 1956 – it was written a year earlier when the author was apparently in her sixties – so I can only assume that Celia’s own Christmas visit (if there ever was one) took place at a much later date than the early years of Victoria’s reign (there are references which point to the Queen’s reign being of reasonably recent date, and books still stamped William IV). In a sense that really doesn’t matter – this is a wonderful story of childhood at Christmas, set in an enormous country house – the kind now firmly in the hands of the National Trust – it paints a wonderful portrait of an aristocratic family Christmas. I must say I saw this as a novel – which I assumed to be heavily autobiographical, perhaps based on the author’s own family – but perhaps not strictly speaking a memoir.
Antonia is the young girl at the centre of this novel; she is an immediately engaging character, a spirited, lively child bubbling over with affection and enthusiasm. As the novel starts though she is a little sad, feeling deserted by her parents. Her mother has had to go to Madeira to care for her sick father, while she and her baby brother are left in the care of Nanna – and sent for a fortnight’s holiday to her grandparents’ estate, where a host of aunts, uncles and cousins also wait to celebrate the season. Nanna and the children arrive by train, are collected at the station by Burgess and Rolf in their smart silver buttoned livery.
“The young moon had set and it seemed very dark when once they had left the friendly yellow gas lamps of the town. But Antonia, who had so often driven to Selwood with Aunt Fanny in the wagonette or pony-cart, knew every bend in the road and exactly what point on the hill they had reached when Burgess reined in and, with a double effort, put on the grinding brakes. She held her breath then till, on the railway bridge near the bottom, he, he suddenly let them go again, allowing Whitefoot and Sultan to break into a canter for the last few yards downhill before they turned aside through the Lodge gates, to climb the long slope in the park. At the usual hawthorn clump the trot fell to a slow walk, and Antonia could just see Rolf plodding up the hill on foot beside the front wheel. He looked enormous in the fitful lamplight, with his tall hat and his long coat flapping round his ankles.”
With her arrival at her Grandparents’ home, Antonia (or Tony as she is mainly known) is surrounded by a large and loving family, and her regret at not being with her parents is largely forgotten. Grandpapa, Grandmamma, Great aunts, aunts, uncles and cousins and especially Aunty Fanny – a favourite with all the children – who often aids the children in their plans. Tony’s cousins, there are nine children in total – include thirteen year old John who Tony is keen to impress – plans made by one almost always including the other over the coming days. Helena is the girl closest to Tony in age, and five year Peter simply adores Tony hanging upon her every word.
Through Tony’s eyes we see and feel the heady excitement of Christmas, the anticipation of Christmas stockings, – and the absolute joy when its contents are revealed. The singing of carols, attending services – a plum pudding that catches fire.
Over the next two weeks Tony and her cousins celebrate Christmas with their large family, but there is a lot more than that to do. Tony is enchanted when snow falls, she sneaks outside onto the roof so excited to experience the Christmas snowfall, the day after is one of tobogganing on tea-trays borrowed from the cook. They play games of hide and seek, skate on the frozen lake by the light of the full moon, rehearse for a play of Struwwelpeter, attend a children’s party and are treated to a New Year’s Day picnic.
“Aunt Fanny smiled and kissed the child good night, not supposing an answer was needed. But when she was tucked up in the dark, Antonia lay awake a long time ruminating on all she had lived through since bedtime yesterday; the midnight bells that seemed now like something that had happened in a dream long ago; the winged spaces of ice; the picnic; and now the moonlight expedition that was even more exciting than anything she had ever dreamed of. Nothing she had told Aunt Fanny had been what she really wanted to say. It would never go into words, not into the words that Aunt Fanny would understand.”
Whether this is a novel or a memoir I am still uncertain – but whichever it is, it’s a glorious Christmas read. Tony’s world is idyllic, but very realistically portrayed. Tony’s grandparents are very religious, religion is at the heart of everything they do – the household is a wonderfully loving one, the adults are shown to enjoy seeing the children having fun – although the children in question know where the boundaries are and don’t really push it. This is a book I will return to again – and one I will guard jealously – now I know how hard it will be to replace.