‘Winter Holiday’ by Arthur Ransome and ‘Mistletoe and Murder’ by Robin Stevens
(read as part of the Classics Club and Christmas Reading challenges)
It’s a little late to mention that I read every book and short story on my Christmas Challenge list within the time allotted – together with a few more. The time to write about things Christmassy is passed, but I shall note that I was astonished by the variety within the choices I’d made. The stories were written over a period spanning almost two centuries, were intended for a wide range of ages, and were held together by the time of year in which they were set rather than by the season of Christmas itself, which frequently didn’t feature at all. Alongside a pleasurable dose of nostalgia came some adventure, a generous sprinkling of humour, a dash of acerbic social comment, and a murder or two. On reflection, perhaps that is a fair impression of Christmas for some of us!
The start of 2017 was bookended by two books from the Christmas challenge which shared more than just being set in wintertime. The most apparent common ground: both are children’s books. There are a good number of children’s classics which stand up to adult reading in my view. They are lighter, faster reads, are generally undemanding and frequently very well written. I enjoy the trip down memory lane, and since I’m usually reading at least 4 books at once, they offer a pleasing counterpoint to any more serious or heavier reads running alongside.
At first sight my pair of children’s tales have little in common beyond their intended audience and the time of year in which they are set – for one was published eighty years ago and the other just last year. But there are a number of parallels. Both books are set in real places. Each is part of a series. Each features similarly aged protagonists who have formed themselves into a club and each is set in the 1930s.
‘Winter Holiday’ by Arthur Ransome, was published in 1933 and is on my Classics Club list. It happened to be included in a bundle of Christmas-themed adult books I bought a year or two ago. I was delighted when I saw it: I have memories of Ransome’s Swallows and Amazon books from my own childhood. But I was – and still am – rather frightened of boats and water, and the stories centre around the adventures of two groups of children and their boats, so the books don’t feature that highly among my all-time best-loved books from my childhood. My preference at that age was for mysteries over adventure stories. (Malcolm Saville, anyone? I loved his Lone Pine books!) And perhaps that’s what intrigued me about ‘Mistletoe and Murder’: no prizes for guessing what this one’s about!
The Idle Woman spoke highly of the earlier books in this series: enough to prompt me to discover that the most recent one had a Christmas theme. Ignoring the four previous books, I took a punt and dived in. Children’s classics, and books from my childhood are one thing, but this is quite different: Mistletoe and Murder, by Robin Stevens, was only published in 2016. I can’t remember when – if ever – I have chosen, as an adult, to read a recently written children’s book for my own amusement.
As a child I read several of Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. I would have argued that I read them all, but clearly not, since I’d never heard of this one. In fact, there were thirteen books in the series, Winter Holiday being book 4. I suspect I’ve read less than half. And I’m now very tempted to read the full set.
Winter Holiday is different from the previous S & A stories in that, being set in the winter, there is not much chance of messing about on the water. Indeed, in this adventure the Lake District becomes a very plausible Arctic – with an exceptionally civilised and well-provisioned North Pole. The story opens in January – after Christmas but before school begins, in the days when school terms started later, and when contact with an infectious illness meant quarantine – and a delayed return to school. As only one of the 8 children in the tale is unlucky enough to contract mumps, the remaining 7 enjoy a much-extended holiday in which they build an igloo and commandeer a houseboat frozen in the ice which then becomes a stranded polar expedition ship. They plan their expedition to the North Pole in the hope that the whole lake freezes and they can travel its full length on skates and sleds. Much healthy, outdoor and innocent fun was had by all. And they weren’t held back by the lack of mobile phones either: the children develop a signaling system which enabled them to communicate between houses with instructions for the day; traditional semaphore was also helpful and in some ingenious ways.
It’s true to say that a mobile phone or two might have saved some worry when the Ds set off on their own for the North Pole and found themselves caught in a blizzard after dark, but it would have been a waste of a good blizzard – and there would have been no use then for the search party:
“Hoo,” said Roger, when they were half-way between the island and the shore. “Hooooooooo!” He said no more, and there was no need. Everybody knew what he meant. Cold and loneliness and something more. Out there, on that enormous sheet of ice, with no other living thing in sight, they all understood that owlish cry. The lantern flickered and swung before them, as Susan steadily went on her way. They could see each other only dimly in the dark, ghosts looking at ghosts. In that tremendous silence there was no noise but that of their own skates and of the sled runners.
Ransome wrote his stories in a simple and straightforward manner but there is space enough among the words for readers to use their imaginations – and a sense of respect for his young audience, be it through his descriptions of place or insights into character:
“But Dorothea could not make herself hurry. The snow had changed everything. Almost she felt like walking on tiptoe through this new sparkling world. A whole jumble of things was in her mind. Good King Wenceslaus, the Ice Queen, Ib and Little Christina, and the little girl who sat on her wedding chest in the winter forest, waiting for the coming of Frost. It was not much good talking about these things to Dick, whose mind worked differently. Why, the first thing he had done that morning when they had run out into the glittering snow had been to put a scrap of snow on a bit of glass, so that he could look at the crystals under his microscope. And then he had stuck a bit of stick upright in the snow and made a notch on it, and taken it indoors to borrow Mrs Dixon’s measuring tape to see exactly what depth of snowfall there had been. And now, she knew, he was eager to get to the igloo, to see how the snow covering would stand the heat of the fire inside. Dorothea was thinking more of Captain Nancy. Well, here was the snow she had hoped for. Already, long before they were anywhere near the igloo, Dorothea could almost feel Nancy stirring things up and filling the air with adventure.”
Robin Stevens’ series, the first of which was published in 2015 under the umbrella title “A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery” (a bit of a mouthful, I think) introduces Daisy, and her friend Hazel. Because I wanted the Christmas connection, I dived straight in with Mistletoe and Murder, which is book 5 in the series, resisting at this stage The Idle Woman’s urgings to read them all. The book stands alone quite comfortably but throughout the story there are references to what’s gone on before – earlier murders of course. Not enough to get in the way or disrupt the flow, just enough to make me wonder about going back and reading from the start.
Like most of the children in Winter Holiday, Daisy and Hazel attend a boarding school and seem quite unfazed by spending their holidays away from their parents in the care of a family friend or relative. While Nancy and her companions roam the Lake District in their Christmas break, Daisy and Hazel have been sent to Cambridge for the duration, where Daisy’s brother is a student. There are a surprising number of students who are not going home for the holidays it seems – some of which unfortunately do not survive long enough to enjoy their Christmas festivities. Daisy and Hazel, with the help of their rival detectives The Junior Pinkertons, (boys, of course) methodically establish that the unfortunate accidents occurring amidst the colleges are not accidents at all but something much more sinister.
Both books are written in a direct and straightforward style but I preferred Ransome’s writing to Stevens’:
“… I at last discovered that there was one part of St Lucy’s that I truly liked. The study might be faded, but it was still one of the most beautiful rooms I had ever been in. The red velvet curtains might be rather frayed and old, and the chairs mismatched, but a log fire crackled in the grate, and the walls were all but hidden by shelves and shelves of books. They went almost up to the ceiling, and the books looked worn with use and love. My heart swelled.”
Perhaps, because Murder and Mistletoe is written in the first person by Hazel, as a report on their investigation, the language is simpler and I found the tone to be sometimes stilted. The pace seemed slow but perhaps that is necessary in a whodunit, where the reader needs to be fed clues and red-herrings and permitted time to make their own deductions.
What interested me however, were the references not just to women and the barriers young women faced at that time, but also to how it felt being non-British. Hazel comes from Hong Kong, where her family still live, and she feels being an outsider keenly. There is a point in the story where the children’s main suspect becomes Alfred Cheng and a very topical discussion ensues:
“You really think he did it?” I asked, swallowing.
I imagined what would happen to Alfred if we accused him of murdering two Englishmen. Would he be given the opportunity to explain himself? Or would PC Cross and the rest of the police, and a jury and judge, simply look at the colour of his skin and make up their minds on the spot?
“I think he’s the most likely suspect,” said George.
“But what if we are wrong?” I asked. “Once we’ve accused him, we won’t be able to take it back!”
“That’s very true,” said Daisy. “PC Cross is a terrible clodhopper. So?”
“Think about it!” I said. “What if it were me? Or… or George? We’re not British, Daisy – at least, not in the way you are, or Chummy or Donald. Would we be given a chance to defend ourselves if we were accused of a crime? Would we be listened to properly?”
….. I knew I was speaking the truth. British people were always waiting for the moment that proved we were not like them. We could study Britishness at the best schools, like I had, or we could even be born British, like George – but we did not look right, and deep down, everyone knew that meant we could never be right. It made me feel quite lost for a moment. I have grown up wishing I could be absolutely English. That was why I had come to Deepdean. But now that I am nearly fifteen I see that, sometimes, being absolutely English is not the perfect thing to be.
“That’s a stupid thought, Hazel,” said Daisy angrily. “Stop it at once.”
(I have underlined words where the writer used italics.)
I don’t know how prevalent this experience was in 1935. It certainly seems politically correct for today’s multi-cultural audience; would it have been equally applicable then? I found it an interesting twist.
Compared with Winter Holiday, at no time could I forget that Mistletoe and Murder is a children’s book. Arthur Ransome was a respected journalist, a writer for adults as well as for children. The Swallows and Amazons series is considered a classic and perhaps intended for a slightly older audience than A Murder Most Unladylike. It’s inappropriate to compare the two series in terms of quality. I enjoyed both books and I think their respective intended audiences would enjoy them too. That said, I can’t help wondering whether more was expected of a young reader in the past. Digging around, I find there are various new series emerging which are themed around what I would consider old-fashioned genres. It’s an indication of my lack of awareness of modern children’s literature that I was surprised to find recently-published boarding school series exist beyond Hogwarts, but I suppose there will always be perennial themes to which authors and audiences gravitate – and boarding schools offer such opportunities for freedom and independence (and nasty teachers). It’s very tempting to read a few more with the intention of gauging the tone, the language used, the expectations placed upon a young audience.
These two winter-based books overlap in their featuring of children who are independent and resourceful at a time when it seems that children had more freedom and scope. Life was simpler; children more imaginative and self-reliant. The protagonists of both series are also privileged: and this set me wondering what stories I could recall of children from this era who did not roam the countryside from dawn to dust, or attend boarding schools whilst their parents’ lives continued uninterrupted in foreign climes.
I didn’t need to look far for the answer. Ransome’s ‘Pigeon Post’ (book six in the series) won the inaugural Carnegie Medal for children’s literature in 1936; the second winner of the Carnegie Medal (1937) offers the perfect foil: ‘The Family from One End Street’ by Eve Garnett!
“The story of everyday life in the big, happy Ruggles family who live in the small town of Otwell. Father is a dustman and Mother a washerwoman. Then there’s all the children – practical Lily Rose, clever Kate, mischievous twins James and John, followed by Jo, who loves films, little Peg and finally baby William.”
One of my sisters adored this series; I’ve not thought of it in years.
I’m already having to stop myself from diving into one or two of the contemporary children’s books I stumbled across – to be read purely in the interests of research, you understand. And I’m so very tempted to embark on a re-read of Swallows and Amazons – just to check whether I really ought to include them in my own personal list of childhood classics. Now I’m in a happy reverie over One End Street and wanting to re-read that as well – to understand why my sister loved the books and I was ambivalent. Then there’s the enticing prospect of reading through the winners of the Carnegie Medal…
Oh, for enough time to explore every path that beckons from one book to another!