I’m celebrating Day 11 of the Advent Bookfest with a 1952 Faber and Faber edition of Alison Uttley’s The Country Child, illustrated with woodblock engravings by CF Tunnicliffe. Uttley is probably best known for her children’s books, especially the Little Grey Rabbit stories with their beautiful pictures painted by Margaret Tempest, so I’ve included one, because I can’t resist it – here’s Little Grey Rabbit and Hare, by the fire, which is decorated for Christmas.
The country customs described in these books were still in practice in the author’s childhood, which she recalled in a fictionalised account in The Country Child. Like Uttley herself, Susan Garland lives in an isolated Derbyshire farm – every day she walks four miles to school and four miles back, living a life that must have seemed quaint and old fashioned to many of the girls she knew, and the book is a treasure trove of information about a way of life long gone, seen through the eyes of a lonely, imaginative girl.
Uttley’s description of the preparations for Christmas, and the celebrations on the big day itself are enchanting. The house is full of food, enough to see the family and farm workers through the whole winter. Bacon and hams hang from the kitchen ceiling; apples and onions have been stored, and there are pickles and spices, jams, plum puddings, wine, mince pies and Christmas cheeses with sage running through the middle ‘like green ribbon’ – all home-made, of course.
The house has been cleaned until everything gleams and is festooned with holly, boughs of fir and ivy berries, dipped in the red raddle left over from sheep marking.
“In the middle of the kitchen ceiling there hung the kissing bunch, the best and brightest of holly, made in the shape of a large ball which dangled from the hook. Silver and gilt drops, crimson bells, blue glass trumpets, bright oranges and red polished apples, peeped and glittered through the glossy leaves. Little flags of all nations, but chiefly Turkish for some unknown reason, stuck out like quills on a hedgehog. The lamp hung near, and every little berry, every leaf, every pretty ball and apple had a tiny yellow flame reflected in its heart.“Twisted candles hung down, yellow, red, and blue, unlighted but gay, and on either side was a string of paper lanterns.”
If you enjoy Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford, another fictionalised account of a country childhood at the end of the 19th century, then I am sure you will love The Country Child, with its detailed observations of nature and weather, the descriptions of people who worked and visited the farm, and the events that Uttley remembered – Christmas, Easter, Harvest, her first day at school and a visit to the circus.
Uttley, born Alice Taylor in 1884, studied physics at Manchester University and became a teacher. She only started writing to support herself and her son following the suicide of her husband, who suffered mental illness after serving in WWI. She died in 1976. To find out more about her, look at the Alison Uttley Society website http://www.alisonuttley.co.uk/main.html.