I had never heard of G.B. Stern until I read a review of Ten Days of Christmas that Jane wrote on Fleur Fisher in her world. I wanted to read something with a Christmas setting, to get me in the mood for the holiday after all the fuss of preparation.
This is the story of the Maitland family, gathering to celebrate Christmas in 1946 at Anthony and Dorothy's home in the country. For the grown-ups at least, it is the first "real" Christmas of the peace, when they can all be together again for the first time since 1938. In addition to Dorothy (Doe) and Anthony's two children, Erica and Roddy, Doe has a daughter, Rosalind, from her first marriage. Anthony's sister Tania, his sister-in-law Sorrel and niece Terry are joining them, with his father the senior Mr. Maitland, as well as Nicholas, the younger brother of Doe's first husband (fortunately there is a family tree to keep all these people sorted out at the start). Honorary family members Ted Bartlett, a famous actor, his nephew Lal and niece Clare will also be spending the holidays with the Maitlands (I had to draw my own tree to keep this family straight). Clare, whose mother is American, has spent the war years with her family in the United States; this is her first trip back to England since 1939.
We have a running joke in my family, when we get together at the holidays, over all the different ways that someone can "ruin Christmas." If a dish doesn't turn out perfectly, or if someone forgets to bring something, a chorus goes up: "Lisa ruined Christmas!" In Ten Days of Christmas, what should have been a joyous reunion falls spectacularly apart, and almost every character takes his or her turn at ruining the family's Christmas.
Trouble starts with the younger members, who are trying to stage a Nativity play with the help of a neighbor down from Oxford for the holiday. It breaks out over two identical gifts, given to the same person, and spreads from there to the adults, whose quarrels and alliances mirror those of the younger set and can turn just as vicious. Accusations fly, old grievances are resurrected, new injuries are proclaimed. The elder Mr. Maitland, whose birthday is on Boxing Day, adds his mite to the tension with his demands of a proper birthday celebration and a completely separate set of lavish presents, under threat of sulks and tantrums (a welcome touch of humor among the more serious clashes). His son Anthony, watching all of this with a detached eye, find a theme for his next book:
"The children started me off, gave me the germs for a new book, and a title . . . The Psychology of Quarrels . . . The whole world apparently wants peace and rest; the whole world declares itself glad the war's over. Doesn't everyone in the thick of a quarrel always deny any wish on their part to have brought it about or to be keeping it up? . . . We're apt to keep children and adults in watertight compartments, but when we come to quarrelling, don't the adults also behave and talk and think in an utterly childish way? Not all the time, of course, but off and on; relaxing too suddenly from some long mental strain."It is only with the belated arrival of Ted Bartlett, who immediately becomes involved in the Nativity Play, that the younger members of the family can let go of their grievances, as the play brings them together again in peace and shared purpose. Some of the adults will take longer to forgive, to move on.
Ten Days of Christmas is not a cozy Christmas story. Even after all that had come before, I found the last chapter a jolt, one which left me sad. But it is a very good story, with people you come to care about. It reminded me of Rumer Godden's books, and also of Penelope Lively's. Though I'd never heard of G.B. Stern, I will be looking for her other books.