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.