Review of The Birds’ Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin

“The book, the dear, enlivening, enchanting, stimulating, informing, uplifting book, is the most faithful of all allies, and, after human friendship, the chief solace as well as the most inspiring influence in human life.”

Kate Douglas Wiggin

What a dear book this is! The Birds’ Christmas Carol is about a family who stays cheerful, strong, industrious and generous, even amid sad circumstances that require constant sacrifice.

One reason I picked this up was because I was familiar with the author, who is best known for her book Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

Another reason was because I thought this book had to do with feathered friends! I imagined a delightful story about birds singing in snow-covered pines during the holiday season. But actually it is about a girl named Carol born on Christmas Day into a family with the last name of Bird.

From childhood, little Carol had a sparkling personality, always finding ways to share whatever she had, help other people, compliment them and encourage them. When her brother wondered aloud why she wouldn’t take a bite of food until she’d given some of it away, their mother said, “She is a little Christmas child, and so she has a tiny share of the blessedest birthday the world ever saw!”

As she’d grown older, Carol had “wished everybody a Merry Christmas before it was light in the morning, and lent everyone her new toys before noon.”

She had never been physically strong, and by age 10 she was a helpless invalid, yet that didn’t dampen her spirits. Since she had to spend all of her time in her room, her father renovated it so that it was a conservatory full of windows.

She had the company of birds in cages, and hundreds of books which Carol turned into her own circulating library. Every Saturday she loaned ten books to the children’s hospital, and the patients who read her books would write letters to her to thank her.

In warm-weather Carol had a “window school” where she read to the poor neighbors next door, the Ruggles. She was so contented she called herself a “Bird of Paradise”.

Carol wrote a magazine article about living in her own room for three years, and what she did to amuse herself. With the money she earned from the article, she decided to treat the nine Ruggles children to something they had never before experienced: a grand Christmas dinner—in her own room! She paid for the food and decorations, a Christmas tree and presents.

According to my book, The Birds’ Christmas Carol was first published in 1895. However, on further research, I discovered that it was originally published privately in 1886 by the American author, and copyright in 1888 by Houghton, Mifflin Company, U.S.

My copy of this little 72-page book was published by A. & C. Black Ltd., London, in 1929, and illustrated by Francis E. Hiley, an extremely prolific and popular self-taught artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When I read the inscription, I thought, “Auntie Kate Douglas Wiggin? Did the author give the copy I am holding in my hand to her nieces?” But that isn’t possible, as the author had been born in 1856 and died in 1923.

According to her autobiography, Wiggin described her childhood as happy. But at the age of 9, her country grieved over the death of Abraham Lincoln. She described this event as her “first conscious recognition of the greatness of individual character.” It no doubt helped her form fictional children and adults in her books who developed great character struggling with tragedies.

Another influence was undoubtedly the books she read. Her favorite author was Charles Dickens, and she also read Harper’s Magazine and Littell’s Living Age, the Bible, and the most popular great novels of the era.

She dedicated this book “To all lovers of little children”, which clearly included the author. In 1878 at the age of 22—before marrying Samuel Wiggin—Kate Douglas Smith headed the Silver Street Kindergarten in San Francisco—the first free kindergarten on the West Coast of the United States. She is also credited with leading the kindergarten education movement in the United States. In fact, she wrote this little book and another, The Story of Patsy, to help fund the California Kindergarten Training School, which she helped establish.

Translated into several other languages, The Birds’ Christmas Carol sold over a million copies and remains in print. This little book was so successful, it allowed Kate Wiggin to become a full-time author and to travel extensively in Europe.

I found it interesting when I read references to the toys of that era: “So Donald took his velocipede and went out to ride up and down the stone pavement, and notch the shins of innocent children as they passed by, while Paul spun his musical top on the front steps.” A velocipede is one of the earliest forms of bicycles for children and adults—without pedals—and the musical top is a classic toy available even today.

The Birds’ Christmas Carol is the most famous of all American Christmas stories; here, if anywhere in the collection, we have Victorian tearfulness; but age has its privileges, and Americans have wept too often over this tale to decline to weep once again.”

editor Edward Wagenknecht in The Fireside Book of Christmas Stories

You can read this illustrated book online for free at Gutenberg.org.

I was delighted to discover many more delightful works by this author. One short piece, written about a surprise meeting at the age of 6 with her beloved Charles Dickens, is a must-read, here.

There are 48 of her books and short stories at Gutenberg.org, available in many formats, including the work that sold more copies than any other book (other than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Birds’ Christmas Carol), Mother Carey’s Chickens.

Also at Gutenberg.org are two more Christmas stories by Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin: The Romance of a Christmas Card and The Old Peabody Pew.

Enjoy!

And Happy New Year!

Image courtesy of Susan Cipriano susan-lu4esm at Pixabay

Louisa May Alcott’s First Novel, The Inheritance

Written in 1849, first discovered in 1988 and published in 1997, The Inheritance, as expected, is a breath of fresh air. This is no surprise, considering the era in which it was written, when writers consistently wrote with dignity, delicacy, insight, and restraint. It is considered Alcott’s first novel, written when she was only seventeen years old.

 

My first reaction, as the plot unfolded, was that this story reminded me of MansfieldPark, by Jane Austin. In both stories, the heroine, a poor girl of low status with the highest of character, is indebted to the unkind head of the household, but is befriended and defended by the hero, a rich, honorable authority in the household. The ending was a bit common and predictable, but the details, reactions and the uprightness of her characters were not.

 

It’s a lovely book, but not perfect. I wouldn’t usually be excited about reading a novel that began with a detailed description of a house and its landscape, yet the opening sentences show that this type of flowery description must have been popular in that time:

 

“In a green park, where troops of bright-eyed deer lay sleeping under drooping trees and a clear lake mirrored in its bosom the flowers that grew upon its edge, there stood Lord Hamilton’s stately home, half castle and half mansion. Here and there rose a gray old tower or ivy-covered arch, while the blooming gardens that lay around it and the light balconies added grace and beauty to the old, decaying castle, making it a fair and pleasant home. The setting sun shone warmly…”

Alcott The Inheritance

During the first third of the book I was actually impatient, because we were seeing scene after scene which demonstrated with exaggeration just how good and sweet and self-sacrificing Edith Adelon is, how much the same is Lord Percy, and how much he loves Edith from the start. It’s a little too much for me, when a man reacts so decidedly, so quickly, toward a woman. And it is always hard to get into one of these eighteenth or nineteenth century stories about people who sit around all day, looking for ways to amuse themselves, because none of them has any kind of job or responsibilities to speak of. (Even if they are rich, don’t they have some contribution to make to the household or society?)

 

Again, the author shows her mastery of suspense. As soon as the conversations start, and we find out something tragic happened to the awaited Lord Percy, and we start to see the envy and evil in Ida, it is impossible to put down. The good and evil are sharpened, and go to extremes as the story goes on, and the reader can hardly believe (in a good sense!) how rotten some characters can be and how angelic and suffering Edith can be.

 

A little mystery is added with the arrival of an unidentified elderly man, and soon after Edith burns all chances of ever having any financial security or standing in life. We are in awe of her complete lack of selfishness, and frightened at such a level of undeserved trust.

Alcott The Inheritance 2

I enjoyed every page of this high quality book. But what makes it so extraordinary?

 

First, the focus of the heroine is different from that of a typical contemporary book: instead of seeking love, security, power, respect, revenge, or any other “worthy” goal (by some standards), Edith seeks the good of others. She seeks to serve and to sacrifice, and she is grateful, humble, gentle, truthful, and disciplined. How uplifting.

 

Second, she admires a man with the same qualities as her. Most contemporary heroines admire a man who has wealth, power, prestige, and good looks, but rarely does the heroine know much about his moral character and inner strength and convictions. Edith respects a man who respects her. The concept of “love” in this period of books is also different. Love in The Inheritance is based on what is inside, instead of what is on the outside.

 

Third, the expression of love is in good deeds and kindnesses in this novel, whereas contemporary fiction usually shows love expressed in sensual physical contact.

 

The fourth extraordinary quality relates to my pet peeve with fiction, a lack of believability. Although it is certainly made up of idealistic, romantic characters, I found the dialogue, plot and events realistic and natural.

 

This widely available book is a treasure, ideal for a young girl. An A+.

 

An interesting note: according to the scholars who found the manuscript in Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1988, The Inheritance is the novel Jo March writes in Little Women. To read an interesting article about the discovery of this manuscript, click here.