It was a plain red hardback sitting on a shelf in a secondhand bookshop. There was no dust jacket, no adornment at all, just the title and the author’s name on the spine.
I knew the author’s name. Two of her books were reissued as Virago Modern Classics, and she wrote two books about Jane Austen with Sheila Kaye-Smith, another Virago author.
And I wondered, why ten days of Christmas instead of the more usual twelve?
It was, I found, because this is a house-party novel, set over ten eventful days at 1948.
On the first page I met fifteen year-old Claire, who had arrived from America to spend Christmas with friends and family she hadn’t seen since before the war. Her American-born mother had whisked her family across the Atlantic as soon as war broke out. Younger siblings were born in America, but Claire remembered her English roots, and so her parents were persuaded to allow her to visit.
I was drawn in by lovely prose and storytelling, and I noticed that Claire was an exact contemporary of my mother.
Claire barely remembered her hosts, Anthony and Dorothy, but it didn’t matter. She was quickly caught up in a big gathering of adults and children, extended family and friends.
Upstairs the children planned to put on a play, to honour Claire’s Uncle Ted. He was Lal’s uncle too and he was acting in a highly successful West End revue, which would delay his arrival until after Christmas.
It was lovely to watch the preparations. Which play to choose? Who should do what? Where should the performance take place?
And downstairs the adults enjoyed each others company, caught up on news, and made preparations.
The writing was lovely, the characters were beautifully drawn and that post-war era was captured beautifully. The war was over, the past was done, but the future was uncertain.
The joy was in the details… Nineteen year-old Rosalind leaving the children to join the adults… William, Anthony’s elderly father, complaining about people who gave him one present for Christmas and his boxing day birthday… Sixteen year-old Terry, arriving a little later than the others, commissioned to bring copies of the chosen play and arriving with stars in her eyes… Nick and Tan, from different sides of the family, neither settled into post-war lives, good friends who maybe could be something more …
I thought I was just going to float along, watching a happy house-party and seeing a play, but then something changed.
It was such a small thing that started it. A duplicated gift. The recipient, Rosalind, didn’t deal with the situation as well as she might. Terry, who idolised Rosalind, was upset when her gift was given back to her. Sorrel, the abandoned wife of Dorothy’s errant brother, was upset for her daughter.
There were cross words between children and adults. Old recriminations were spoken aloud. Secrets were revealed. Words that should be left unsaid were spoken aloud.
It was horribly believable.
The play was cancelled. And it seemed that the house-party would come to an end sooner than had been planned.
Then Ted arrived, happy and quite unaware of the disharmony in the house. His warmth and enthusiasm changed things again. he helped to build bridges, and adults and children built new relationships, on better understanding.
That sounds a little contrived. And maybe it was, but it felt right.
Because the author so clearly understood how families work.
And because in what seemed to be a simple story she said so much about two generations and the times they lived in.
An afterword, two years later, made me catch my breath.
I am only sorry that Ten Days of Christmas is out of print.
It would suit a dove grey dust jacket very well …