December 12, 2015. Originally posted a year ago, I offer you all this most seasonal book recommendation. It may be a challenge to come by – just two expensive copies show up on an ABE search – but it might still be in some library systems. This one would be a prime candidate for republishing – Slightly Foxed ?
Marijke, thank you once again for the making me aware of this lovely memoir.
The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse ~ 1956. This edition: Faber & Faber, 1956. Chapter-head illustrations by Charles Stewart. Hardcover. 260 pages.
My rating: 10/10
I will tell the very recent history of how I came across this book here, inspired by the words of a fellow reader who recommended it to me.
On December 3rd, I received a comment on a post from Marijke in Holland, and in it she said:
…There is…one book… and as it is about Christmas and as Christmas is coming, I recommend it hereby “from all my heart”!
In 1966, when I was 22, I stayed for 4 weeks in August at a family in Cheadle, Cheshire, England. I had met them some 10 years before at my aunt’s bed and breakfast in my (then) hometown Nijmegen, where I was doing the washing up, and being a tolk for the family: father, mother and grownup daughter. They had come to Nijmegen because the father had fought in the battle around Nijmegen in the winter of 1944-1945, and he wanted to let his wife and daughter see the place. So I went around with them every day, even to some German places not far from our border, and they invited me to come and stay in England, and I went for the first time when I was 17, after finishing school, and, as I said before, again in 1966. Cheadle is near Manchester and I went there to the antiquarian bookshops, looking for Elizabeth Goudge and Beverley Nichols, and one of the bookshop-owners, a very nice and understanding man said, that when I liked these authors I might like THE VISITING MOON by CELIA FURSE (Faber 1956). I bought the book, merely because of the illustrations, and read it, at home again, in the week before Christmas, fell in love with it, and have read it since that time EVERY YEAR at Christmas. It is stained by candlegrease, because it is always lying under the Christmastree, and it has lost its cover and it is my very very best Christmas-story ever, and when you do not know it, look for it at Amazon or Abe-books immediately!
Celia Furse is the daughter of Sir Henry Newbolt, but that is another story and a very peculiar one indeed…
If you think I can resist a recommendation like this, you don’t know me very well 😉 so of course off I immediately went to ABE and ordered myself a copy from a bookseller in England and with wonderful serendipity it arrived well before Christmas.
What a grand book. I think I can safely add it to the “Hidden Gem” category, and I know it will become a favorite Christmas season re-read, though it is so good that one could pleasurably read in in any of the twelve months.
Lady Margaret Cecilia Newbolt Furse – her pen name a shortened version – writing in 1955 when she was 65 years old, tells of a two-week visit to a large English country home at the turn of the 19th Century. The 11-year-old girl in the story, “Antonia”, or “Tony” as she is called by almost everyone, is a boisterous tomboy of a girl, imaginative and occasionally pensive, and our omnipotent narrator (Celia Furse herself, as we are given confirmation of at the close of the story) follows her through a fortnight, recording the goings-on in a large Victorian household packed with visiting relations, and full of family tradition and local custom.
A detailed and loving remembrance of a moment in time now long past, deeply nostalgic but also wonderfully realistic. This is a charming book, but never sticky-sweet: Antonia/Celia has much too much forthright character for that to be a danger.
Here are the first 5 pages, so you can sample this for yourself. (Click each page scan to enlarge for reading.)
It just gets better and better – a perfect gem of its childhood memoir genre.
Highly recommended, though you may have a bit of a quest getting your hands on it. There are only 9 copies listed this morning on ABE, ranging from $2 US (plus $26 shipping to Canada from the UK, so not such a bargain as all that) to $60 US. (Edited to add: Only two copies on December 12, 2015, starting at $50 U.S. plus shipping – perhaps a mite too high-priced?)
This book cries out for republication – it has Slightly Foxed written all over it – spread the word!
A little more information I picked up while (fruitlessly) looking for more by this writer. The Visiting Moon appears to be Celia Furse’s only published memoir (and what a shame that is, for it is really good), but it seems that she was a lifelong writer, as I did come across mention of her as a minor Edwardian poetess, including this rather twee example, circa 1919, from her only published (apparently, for I could not find mention of any more) book of poetry, The Gift.
The Lamp Flower
by Margaret Cecilia Furse
The campion white
Above the grass
Her lamps doth light
Where fairies pass.
Softly they show
The secret way,
For elf and fay.
My little thought
Hath donned her shoe,
And all untaught
Gone dancing too.
Sadly I peer
Among the grass
And seem to hear
The fairies pass.
But where they go
I cannot see,
Too faintly glow
The lamps for me.
My thought is gone
With fay and elf,
We mope alone,
I and myself.
Don’t let this put you off, though, for The Visiting Moon is good strong stuff, with prose much less sentimental than this poetic effort.
Celia Furse’s father was the poet Sir Henry Newbolt, as mentioned by Marijke, and I am most intrigued by his particulars.
I’m sure you will have come across one of his most well-known poems, the ubiquitous “Vitai Lampada”, beloved of Great War propagandists, though Sir Henry came to dislike his early effort greatly, as its lasting popularity eclipsed his later work:
There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind —
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
Good strong manly stuff, what?
So here’s a rather salacious tidbit about its writer, and of the household set-up of our Celia Furse, who must have had some sort of inkling that her parents’ marriage was of an unconventional sort. (She does refer in The Visiting Moon to “Tony’s” mother’s “boyish” qualities, which the 11-year-old of the memoir feels she has inherited.)
When Sir Henry Newbolt proposed to his wife, Margaret Duckworth, she was already in love with her lesbian cousin, Ella Coltman. Margaret agreed to marry Henry only if she could continue in her relationship with Ella; Henry agreed and went a bit further, by setting up a ménage à trois with both women, and noting in his diaries the number of times he slept with each one, turn and turn about. This situation lasted out the life of the principles, and seemed reasonably successful for all of them, though there were reported to be some to-be-expected flurries of emotion upon occasion.
On my reading list for 2015: a biography of Sir Henry Newbolt. Luckily there appears to be quite a good one out there, 1997’s Playing the Game, by Susan Chitty.
Isn’t this sort of thing quite wonderful? One thing leads to another, and I know I will never run all of these meandering book-related questings and explorations!