After spending nearly a week reading a book which really wasn’t worth the effort, I turned to seasonal reading and read very quickly: No Holly for Miss Quinn, Miss Read; The Christmas Child by Hesba Stretton and The Christmas Village. I’ve nearly finished Trisha Ashley’s Twelve Days of Christmas, which is so full of delicious food that it’s almost (but not quite) reconciled me to cooking Christmas dinner for the forty second time. These were all re-reads and this post is not about them but about children’s gift books.
When I was very young I had the run of the gift books which my mother had been given as a child. There was the Bessie Pease Alice, the Harry Theakston Water Babies and best of all, the Odhams treasury books. These had various titles: The Golden Wonder Book, The Children’s Wonder Book, The Favourite Wonder Book etc. They were packed with stories and pictures by famous authors and artists. These 1930s books were lavishly produced. They had an onlaid picture on the front cover, dramatic full colour endpapers and lots of plates. I have one with colour plates by Anne Anderson.
How I must have pored over those books. The Affair at Noah’s Ark! Miss Prune and Miss Prism at Veryneat Villa! The illustrations to those stories and many others are burned into my brain. One story I liked particularly was The Glass Peacock, which I’ve used for the header picture. It’s very short and tells of poor children in London at Christmas time. The heroine is Anna-Mariar, who has a little brother called Willyum. We know nothing about their parents, nor why they are so poor. Anna-Mariar is an unselfish little thing and the friend of all; you ought to hate her but you can’t.
Christmas drew near, and the little shops in Mellins Court began to look happy. The sweet shop had a fairy doll in white muslin and tinsel in the middle of the window, and some paper festoons and cheap toys appeared among the glass bottles. At the greengrocer’s, a sort of glorified open stall which overflowed into the courtyard, evergreens and pineapples appeared, and one magic morning Christmas-trees. The grocery window at the corner had already blossomed into dates and figs and candied fruits, and blue and white jars of ginger; and the big confectioner’s in the High Street, as well as puddings in basins, had a Christmas cake in the window a yard square – a great flat frosted ‘set piece’, covered with robins, windmills, snow babies and a scarlet Santa Claus with a sled full of tiny toys. The cake would presently be cut up and sold by the pound, and you got the attractions on top ‘as you came’ – oh lucky, lucky buyer-to-be of the Santa Claus sled!
The children of the court gleefully pick out the treats they would choose if they had the money but it’s soon clear that while some children may get at least some of these things, Anna-Mariar and Willyum will get nothing. Christmas passes, Twelfth Night comes, and a lady enters the Court bearing a small Christmas tree.
such a radiant little tree! It was glittering and twinkling with all the prettiest fantasies in glass that the mind of Christmas had been able to invent, little glass lamps and candlesticks, shining balls of every colour, … and loveliest of all, a peacock, shimmering in green and blue and gold with a crest and a long, long tail of spun glass.
‘Oo!’ gasped Annar-Mariar, ‘A Chrismuss-tree!’
The lady did an undreamed-of thing. She came straight up to Anna-Mariar and said, ‘Would you like it?’
Anna-Mariar can only giggle but the lady says the tree was for the first child to say, ‘Oo!’ and so it’s hers. Being the child she is, Anna-Mariar decides to hold a party for all the other children and eventually the tree is stripped of all its lovely things: except the peacock, which she takes home to treasure. Re-reading the story now, it’s hard to see why I liked it so much. The cockney speech of the children is rather patronisingly described and the ending, I’m sorry to say, is heartbreaking. Yet I loved it. I think it’s the transformation effect: going from nothing to glory, like the wonderful transformation scene in A Little Princess, where Sara finds her attic room turned into a cosy haven.
Odhams continued with these books for years, although in the 1940s they became thinner and had fewer pictures. I’ve been able to pick up a couple very cheaply over the years and they are well worth looking out for.
An Anne Anderson plate from 1935.