‘Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories’ by P.L. Travers ****

Virago’s delightful Christmas gift book for 2014 is P.L. Travers’ Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories.  In the early 1940s, Travers – most famous, of course, for her charming Mary Poppins books – wrote these stories, which she gave as Christmas gifts to her friends.  Each was published in a limited run of 500 copies – ‘Aunt Sass’ in 1941, ‘Ah Wong’ in 1943 and ‘Johnny Delaney’ in 1944 – and they are now available to a wide audience for the very first time.

In Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories, Travers focuses upon three quite unusual characters, all of whom inspired her childhood.  They range from ‘eccentric great aunt’ Christina, who was known as Sass and was the inspiration for Mary Poppins, to a Chinese cook and a ‘foul-mouthed ex-jockey’.

Victoria Coren Mitchell’s foreword is rather lovely, and so nicely written.  She begins: ‘These stories should be a delight for any reader, but particularly magical for fans of P.L. Travers; great masterpiece, the Mary Poppins stories.  Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations’.

As in Mary Poppins, Travers’ descriptions are lovely, and her characters sparkle with vivacity from the moment in which they are introduced.  Aunt Sass, whom it is believed is based upon Travers’ own great-aunt Ellie, is ‘stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving’.  ‘Like Mary Poppins,’ writes Coren Mitchell, ‘she twinkles and snaps in spits and spots’.

In her title story, Travers describes the way in which ‘Everything in the world came back to herself – or her family.  She used notable people simply as a background for her own life…  The universe and other unknown worlds swung about the central pivot of Aunt Sass and those nearest her…  She was like the central shaft of a merry-go-round.  When her whistle blew the family revolved about her like so many wooden horses’.  Parallels can certainly be drawn between Aunt Sass and Mary Poppins in sentences such as this: ‘The gruff words were immediately discounted by the smile that lit the grim face with a radiance more moving than beauty’.

In ‘Ah Wong’, a family of Australian children try to convert their quirky Chinese cook to Christianity, with some quite amusing results.  In the third and final story, ‘Johnny Delaney’, the title character, with his ‘little thin bow-legs’ and ‘black, Irish head’, works on the family’s plantation and is a jack-of-all trades: ‘I suppose you would have said that he was primarily a jockey.  That, at any rate, was the form of address he preferred.  But he was also groom, stable-boy and carpenter; even, when labour was short, a cane cutter, and sometimes a feeder at the mill’.  In each successive story, elements of darkness creep in, and everything has a hidden depth of sorts.

In Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories, Travers lets her readers in, just a little, to her craft: ‘We write more than we know we are writing.’  The places which spring from her pen are so richly described that it does not take long for the scenes which she depicts to become vivid.

Despite the title of the collection, the stories themselves are not festive; they are merely autobiographical tales which show those who had a large impact upon Travers when she was young.  Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories is amusing and heartwarming, and would make a charming addition to any bookshelf.  The book contains lovely illustrations by Gillian Tyler, which match the tales beautifully.

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‘Witches: James I and the English Witch-Hunts’ by Tracy Borman ****

In September 1613, in Belvoir Castle in the north-eastern corner of Leicestershire, the heir of ‘one of England’s great noble families falls suddenly and dangerously ill.  Within a few short weeks he will suffer an excrutiating death’.  His entire family then succumb to the same ‘terrifying symptoms’, and the blame is soon pressed upon a local family of women, believed to be witches.  This case is the one which Tracy Borman has decided to focus upon in her newest book, Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts, and has aimed to bring to light ‘a conspiracy that has remained hidden for centuries’.

The widespread European ‘witch craze’ which Borman discusses within her introduction, took place between the 15th and 18th centuries.  She then sets out the often barbaric historical events which occurred during this period: in the south of Germany, for example, ’63 women were executed as witches between 1562 and 1563 for causing a violent hailstorm’.  Borman also muses upon the subject of what a witch is – a ‘deceptively simple question’, she believes – and the distinction between white (good) and black (bad) witches.

Borman writes of the way in which ‘suspected witches were believed to have caused many thousands of deaths, injuries and illnesses in England alone during the sixteenth and seventeenth century.  Little wonder that they were feared and reviled in equal measure’.  James I, who ruled England and Ireland between 1603 and 1625, was ‘one of the most famous witch hunters in history’, whose ‘personal crusade’ meant that thousands of women in both England and Scotland were murdered on suspicion of witchcraft.  Borman discusses the conditions which led to his fanaticism with regard to witches, and the ways in which he went about eradicating them.

Embroiled within this were the Manners family, who lived within Belvoir Castle.  Francis Manners, the sixth Earl of Rutland, believed that ‘wicked practice and sorcerye’ was to blame for the deaths of his two infant sons.  Their ‘alleged murderers’ were Joan Flower and her two daughters, Margaret and Phillipa, who have come to be known as ‘the witches of Belvoir’.  Borman believes that the case of the Belvoir witches has been overshadowed by the more notorious cases throughout history – that of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials, for example.  She believes that the Belvoir trial is ‘one of the most extraordinary’ to take place during the entire seventeenth century, merely due to the ‘murderous conspiracy’ at its heart.

Witches has been split into fourteen chapters, some of which are relatively concise.  Borman has also included, as one would expect, an extensive section of notes and a thorough bibliography.  Throughout, she makes use of quotes from varied sources – those of the period, and the more contemporary introspectives which have been made into the history of witchcraft.  Borman takes into account the social standing of women at the time, and the way in which very few trial records were kept by councils across the country.  Throughout, she considers many points: the standard diet and the scarcity of food within Britain, the advent of the Plague, the tight-knit communities around the country, the nationwide growth of population, the high rates of unemployment, high death rates, superstition and how people were affected by religious change.  As well as focusing upon Britain, Borman constantly asserts the situation within the rest of Europe too.

Witches has been well received by critics, and it is easy to see why; Borman’s interesting and thorough account is really well written, and is both scholarly and easily accessible.  She has created a rich sense of history, and has put together her sources and own opinion incredibly well.

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