Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking… it's Christmas week in history, compiled by Ian Irvine

Ian Irvine
Sunday 21 December 2014 01:00 GMT
Children carry Christmas trees home in December 1923
Children carry Christmas trees home in December 1923

24 December 1841

Barclay Fox, Cornish businessman: "Christmas Eve festivities. We were among a select few invited by [the author John] Sterling's little people to witness the unfolding of a mighty mystery which had occupied their small brains for the last week.

"The folding doors of the drawing-room being thrown open, the inner room appeared like a blaze of light & luxury. In the centre stood a fir tree reaching nearly to the ceiling, covered in all directions with lighted tapers & various gay & glittering symbols, while pendant from the lower branches were numerous presents for children and guests.

"Papa's ingenious irony had placed a foolscap on the top, immediately overshadowing the man in the moon & the Pope of Rome; crowns and helmets, paper flags & necklaces sparkled among the foliage & we all, old children and young, gave ourselves up to the enthusiasm of the moment.

"My present was a beautiful ivory pen tipped with silver & wreathed with laurel, a most elegant compliment. The excitement having somewhat subsided, I put off a volcano in the garden. The abandon of the children to their supreme delight was beautiful."

Tory MP Alan Clark bemoans the fact that he can't afford servants

24 December 1987

Alan Clark, Conservative MP: "I've got £700,000 in my Abbey National Crazy-High-Interest account. But what's the use: Ash, ash, all is ash. Lay not up for thyself treasures on earth. The cars are all getting streaked and rust-spotted, the books foxed, the furniture dusty. The window panes, all 52,000 of them are revolting, so greasily blotched. And there is moth everywhere. My grandfather's great Rothschild coat, bought in Wien in 1906, is terminally degraded… The whole thing is out of control.

"And why? I know why. Because I'm not rich enough to have servants. We have to do everything ourselves, and we just haven't got the time, and things get neglected. This morning, rummaging up in the archive room I found the old Wages Book for 1960. That was the year [his first son] James was born, and we bought our first new car, a dear little red Mini. It was the cheapo model with cloth seats, and we saved a further three pounds and ten shillings by hand-painting the registration numbers ourselves. Total cost on the road was £460.

"The total wage bill, per week, for the seven servants who worked at Saltwood Castle, was £32 and five shillings. MacTaggart, a clumsy fellow who had such ugly hands that my mother always made him wear white gloves when he was waiting at table, and who crashed my father's Bentley in circs that will never be wholly explained… got £12 per week and occupancy of the Lodge.

"I'm bust, virtually."

25 December 1866

The Reverend Benjamin Newton, rector of the parish of Wath in Yorkshire: "Married a young parishioner of the name of Mahershallalashbaz Tuck. He accounted for the possession of so extraordinary a name thus: his father wished to call him by the shortest name in the Bible, and for that purpose selected Uz. The clergyman making some demur, the father said in pique, 'Well, if he cannot have the shortest he shall have the longest.'"

William Lashly pictured during an Antarctic expedition

25 December 1911

William Lashly, the engineer on Scott's final Antarctic expedition: "Christmas Day and a good one. We have done 15 miles over a very changing surface. First of all it was very crevassed and pretty rotten; we were often in difficulties as to which way we should tackle it. I had the misfortune to drop clean through, but was stopped with a jerk when at the end of my harness. It was not of course a very nice sensation, especially on Christmas Day and being my birthday as well. Anyhow, Mr Evans, Bowers and Crean hauled me out and Crean wished me many happy returns of the day. I thanked him politely and the others laughed, but were pleased I was not hurt bar a bit of a shake."

25 December 1913

Raymond Asquith, son of the Prime Minister, writes to Lady Diana Manners: "I must apologise for sending you Aubrey Beardsley's drawings but I do so want to lead you back from your tainted and artificial ideals for a simpler, saner, more childlike outlook upon life. Anyhow, they will do for Bonar Law's bedroom next time he stays with you.

"Here we have to knock along as best we may without the faintest element of corruption – not a hint of decay, not a breath of Leon Bakst; on the contrary, Christmas cards, Morris dances, children's prattle, woolwork, goodwill and so forth – all that was ever joyous and clear and fresh."

25 December 1924

Evelyn Waugh, the author, aged 21: "I have decided to grow a moustache because I cannot afford any new clothes for several years and I want to see some change in myself. Also, if I am to be a schoolmaster it will help impress the urchins with my age. I look so intolerably young now that I have had to give up regular excessive drinking.

"Christmas Day always makes me feel a little sad; for one reason because strangely enough my few romances have always culminated in Christmas week – Luned, Richard, Alastair. Now with Alastair a thousand miles away and my heart leaden and the future drearily uncertain, things are not as they were. My only letter this morning was a notice of a vacancy from Truman & Knightley [the educational trust].

"There are coming to dinner tonight Stella Rhys and Audrey Lucas and Philippa Fleming. I should scarcely think it will be a jovial evening."

Virginia Woolf writes about fellow Bloomsbury Set author Lytton Strachey

25 December 1931

Virginia Woolf, the author: "Lytton [Strachey] is still alive this morning. We thought he could not live through the night. It was a moonlit night. Nessa [her sister] rang up at 10 to say that he has taken milk and tea after an injection. He had taken nothing for 24 hours and was only half-conscious. This may be the turn or it may be nothing. Now again all one's sense of him flies out and expands and I begin to think of things I shall say to him, so strange is the desire for life ."

27 December 1931

"For 48 hours Lytton has been better, and now, Nessa says, realises that he is better, and eats; whatever he is allowed. I am therefore freely imagining a future with my old serpent to talk to, to laugh at, to abuse. I shall read his book on Shakespeare; I shall stay at Ham Spray [his house]; I shall tell him how Leonard [her husband] and I sobbed on Christmas Eve."

25 December 1942

Joan Wyndham, a young WAAF: "My first Christmas in Scotland. I had behaved so well for the last few months, and everyone here thought I was such a nice, quiet intellectual little girl – but not any more! We were up at the men's Mess, and it was fantastic – colossal buffet, unlimited booze. I can't remember when I got so drunk or felt so exhilarated, except possibly when I went out with my dad. I have an awful feeling I called the CO a stinker – it was one of those religious arguments about whether the popes had mistresses.

"A very nice pongo drove me home and wanted to kiss me but I said 'No,' and he said, 'God, what a swine I am trying to take advantage of a gel when she's tight!'

"Mama sent me a kettle – unobtainable up here – some ginger nuts, some Persian oil, and a beautiful silk kimono. The girls tell me I look the personification of sin in it."

Playwright Noël Coward wrote about a 'peaceful Christmas Day spent in bed'

25 December 1946

Noël Coward, the playwright: "A peaceful Christmas Day spent in bed talking to people on the telephone. Sybil, Graham, Gladys and I had dinner. Delicious food, including caviare. Later, a party at Binkie's. Very enjoyable."

26 December 1662

Samuel Pepys, the diarist: "Up, my wife to the making of Christmas pies all day, and I abroad to several places. To the Wardrobe. Hither come Mr Battersby; and we falling into discourse of a new book of drollery in verse, called Hudibras, I would needs go and find it out, and met with it at the Temple, cost me 2s 6d… But when I came to read it, it is so silly an abuse of the Presbyter Knight going to the wars, that I was ashamed of it; and by and by meeting at Mr Townsend's at dinner, I sold it to him for 18d."

Author Vera Brittain recevied a telegram to say her fiancé had been killed during the war

27 December 1915

Vera Brittain, author of the 1933 memoir 'Testament of Youth', recounting her experiences during the First World War: "I had just finished dressing when a message came to say that there was a telephone message for me. I sprang up joyfully, thinking to hear in a moment the… dreamed-of tones of the beloved voice.

But the telephone message was not from Roland [her fiancé] but from Clare [Roland's sister]; it was not to say that Roland had arrived, but that instead had come this telegram… 'Regret to inform you that Lieutenant RA Leighton 7th Worcesters died of wounds December 23rd. Lord Kitchener sends his sympathy.'"

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