What do you write about Tom’s Midnight Garden, a ‘modern classic’ if there ever was one? A book about which Phillip Pulman wrote that it was ‘a perfect book’? It is one of the Carnegies of Carnegies (i.e. the top 10 Carnegie winners) and is widely read and loved today and has been adapted for radio, tv, cinema and the stage. It is an exceptionally tightly constructed time-travel fantasy and seemingly kicked off a spade of time-travel plots to follow. I would venture that time-travel is one of the key plots in historical fiction for children and a host of other time-travel winners followed Tom’s Midnight Garden. Tom is sent away to stay with his aunt and uncle for the summer holidays as his brother is ill at home. With no garden or children to play with, he feels lonely and unhappy, until one night he hears the clock striking thirteen and discovers a secret garden where he makes a new friend, Hatty. Yet it soon becomes clear that his new-found friend is living in another time altogether, and to her, Tom is a sort of ghost. Each time he visits the garden, Hatty has grown older. Finally, on a skating trip up the frozen river in the garden, Hatty and Tom begin to fade and become invisible to each other once more. However, it turns out that Hattie is the old lady who lives on the top-floor and Tom and she meets in the present before Tom returns home.
The story unfolds in a specific time and place. At the start of the book, it is not clear whose world is ‘real’ and if one of the children is a ghost, but over time the time-slip nature becomes clear and logical. Sometimes in time-slip fantasies, the present-day child is the catalyst for a change in the past (for instance in Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park) but not here. Tom and Hattie are brought together by loneliness and derive solace and happiness from playing together. As the summer draws to a natural close Hattie has grown up, and Tom is returning home to his family.
It is a book about relationships, Tom’s and Hattie’s of course first and foremost, but both are part of a web of other relationships which are described in a nuanced way. For instance, at the start of the novel, Tom very much feels that he’s been abandoned by his family and sent away to his aunt and uncle who he doesn’t know very well. But over the course of the story, his relationship with them grows and develops not in a schmaltzy way but to the point of mutual like and appreciation. Tom’s Midnight Garden is also a meditation on growing up and growing old, and about the passage of time facilitated through the ancient metaphor of the garden. Both Tom and Hattie are staying with relatives. For Tom, like for Mary in The Secret Garden (and it would of course be interesting to do a ‘compare and contrast’ on the two), the garden is a place of solace and healing of hurt. For Hattie, playing with Tom in the garden is assuaging her loneliness and benign neglect. Significantly, they are not able to leave the garden until the last meeting where they are able to escape to skate on the river together. Here, at the end of this sequence, Hattie has met her future husband and leaves Tom behind.
Tom’s Midnight Garden is both well-constructed and well-written. I admire its tight construction and internal logic, but somehow it left me slightly unmoved. I liked it, but I didn’t absolutely love it. 7/10
Back in April, in the throes of Lockdown I, I started this project with the intention of reading my way through the Carnegie winners in a chronological manner and blog about it along the way. In my naivety, I thought I’d probably be done sometime in the Autumn. After all, since I can read a book in a day or two and write a couple of pages in as much time, how long could it take? As it turned out, quite a while because no, I wouldn’t have absolutely masses of time now everything was cancelled, and yes, I was right that homeschooling is for people with a more saintly disposition than me. The result was predictable, and, currently, I’ve only covered the first 21 years.
So what have I learnt about the project so far? While it can take me a day or two to read a great book (sometimes stretching the concept of ‘day’ past evening and night into the early morning hours), I am also capable of procrastinating endlessly by reading other books instead if the subject of a particular Carnegie Medal winner does not grab me. I have confirmed (to myself, if nobody else) that short stories are not my bag (sorry Walter de la Mare and Eleanor Farjeon) and that Romantic fiction whether disguised as fantasy or not, is definitely not my bag either (sorry Elizabeth Goudge and Elfrida Vipont). On the other hand, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some excellent family stories (thank you Eve Garnett and Kitty Barne) and some riveting action (Knight Crusader, for instance) and those books I have sprinted through.
However, the writing of the blog always takes me by surprise. Firstly, it can take quite a while to do the research, but I have learnt so much about the critical issues around the novels in writing these post, but the most surprising aspect is how much I have learnt about how I feel about any of the books. I am one of these people who often have to ‘talk’ around a subject to realise how I feel about it, and apparently writing serves the same purpose; opinions and issues held in my unconscious flow onto the screen, much to my own surprise.
Simultaneously with reading for the blog I’ve been reading for my Carnegie book group which I set up for and with some of my fellow students. We meet every three weeks and discuss a book we’ve jointly chosen. So far, we’ve chosen one book each decade, often choosing one of the “Carnegies of Carnegies” if appropriate. We are coming into the last decade of books, and though we’ve slightly dodged this discussion by choosing two books from the ‘noughties’ (a term I hate, btw), we will soon have to discuss what’s next. We want to keep going; now we just need to find some selection criteria to identify our next reads.
The fact that my fellows students are also new to many of these books have come as a surprise. I am Danish, so I had not read many of the Carnegie winners before. The Danish children’s literature canon is made up mainly of books from Scandinavia and British / American novels in translation. Many of the Carnegie winners have probably not been translated in Danish and would therefore not have been part of my childhood reading. And when I moved here as a young adult, I picked up either the standard ‘classic’ books like The Wind in the Willows or contemporary books that were recommended to me one way or another. This was the starting point for the project: I wanted to explore British children’s literature in some sort of historical perspective (I am, after all, doing a Masters in Children’s Literature so this is exactly the kind of thing that floats my boat) and I wanted to discover great authors who were new to me. The fact that my fellow MA students had not read that many of the winners either has had the fortunate effect, for me, that the Carnegie reading has become more of a joint discovery than I had anticipated. It also raises questions about how the ‘canon’ of children’s literature is formed, but more about that another time.
One of the results of the procrastination caused by not knowing how to tackle the subject of William Mayne (now resolved, see the previous blog post) was that I managed to read the two Carnegie Winners I do not own (due to their expense) at the British Library and blog about them, so now my chronological attempt is a bit muddled. I don’t know if I should continue with my chronological blogging (the next would be 1958, Tom’s Midnight Garden) or whether it is more ‘true’ to my experience to blog about the book we read in the book group though these are, of course, scattered across 85 years. If anyone has read this far and have an opinion, either way, I’d be very grateful for the feedback!
I have been debating how to approach this particular blog post for a while, choosing to ‘catch up’ on the two Carnegie Medal Winners that I had to visit the British Library to read – Visitors from London and The Story of a Valley. But now we are here, in front of A Grass Rope by William Mayne.
It was a promising start. I was not familiar with William Mayne before embarking on this project. His name kept popping up in my children’s literary criticism works from the 1960s and 1970s so I was excited at the prospect of discovering a great author (a prolific one at that, he wrote over 100 books for children) who would be new to me. Then I learnt that William Mayne was convicted in 2004 of sexual abuse of young girls, and by all accounts a highly predatory paedophile like Jimmy Saville at that. I had not yet read A Grass Rope by then, but I found any pleasure in the book had disappeared. I wasn’t sure if I should read it at all, but I decided to do so for the completeness of this project. I couldn’t spot any sexual or sexualised overtones in this particular book, thankfully, nonetheless, I have decided not to discuss the book on this blog. Other people might feel differently; Mark Skinner puts forward a different view about the moral issues around engaging with William Mayne’s oeuvre in his blogpost on Freaky Trigger: http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2012/01/william-mayne-1928-2010-or-what-if-the-greatest-20th-century-childrens-author-were-to-present-us-with-an-intractable-moral-knot/ Though I couldn’t see any follow-up posts describing his ongoing engagement so maybe he had second thoughts too?
For myself, I swiftly moved on to Tom’s Midnight Garden, up next.
Written by Kitty Barne, illustrated by Ruth Gervis.
In the summer of 1939, the four Farrar children come to spend the summer with their aunt and become involved in Operation Pied Piper when their aunt get wrangled into becoming a ‘Housemother’ for 17 evacuees at the nearby farmhouse ‘Steadings’. The children are involved, first with the preparations in getting the empty house ready for the four families from the East End of London, later with helping them settle into life in the country. As it happens, it is a short stay of only a couple of weeks, with some families staying on elsewhere in the countryside and some returning, reluctantly or with alacrity to their old life in London.
Visitors from London is illustrated by Ruth Gervis, a prolific illustrator of children’s books, who also illustrated books by Paula Harris, Mary Treadgold, Enid Blyton and Noel Streathfield. Her original drawings for Ballet Shoes are held by the Centre for the Children’s Books, and many of her other drawings are owned by the Museum in Sherborne. Ruth Gervis was the sister of Noel Streathfield, and Kitty Barne was also related to both through her marriage to Eric Streathfield. I am a real sucker for illustrations like these; ageless pencil drawings of children, in the same vein as those of Eve Garnett.
Almost all are of the human characters, and Ruth Gervis recounts (in Chosen for Children) how she and Kitty Barne would send them forth and back before the final version was agreed. Kitty corrected an element here and there: ‘You’ve made her too old, she looks quite ten, and she won’t be nine till next birthday’ or ‘Aren’t his legs too long and thin, he is a very sturdy boy’.
Visitors from London has long since gone out of print (Baker says it was the first one of the Carnegie medal winners to do so) and it is very expensive to buy second-hand. So for me, this was a British Library read, squeezed into my pre-booked reading slot. I came to it with preconceived expectations, from Barker, of a dated and old-fashioned book. After three hours of vicarious reading, I can appreciate his points of criticism, but where he saw a work flawed by its extreme topicality, I see a small masterpiece of early war-time writing. I marvel at the fact that Kitty Barne could observe, write, work on the illustrations with Ruth Gervis, print and publish a book between September 1939, when the story is set, and 1940, when it was published. And she achieved this in the midst of war and her own involvement in the Women’s Voluntary Service dealing with the evacuees to her home-county of Sussex! Besides, Keith Barker wrote the scathing review in the Library Association Guide to the Carnegie Winners in 1997. In the intervening years, publishers like Persephone Press have been set up with the express remit of finding neglected writing by mid-century (mostly women) writers. Through these, readers have discovered (or been reminded of) much excellent writing, lots of it set in time around the World Wars and saturated with the type of domestic detail given focus and importance by Persephone. In fact, Visitors from London reminds me very much of the war-time writing of Mollie Panter-Downes (also published by Persephone), only for children. It appears so real because, though we now read it as historical fiction, it is not. It is very much set in the here-and-now for the author, and in this way, it is more true to ‘real-life’ than all the books that were written afterwards by writers who could look back with historicist eyes or by writers who were not born then.
Keith Barker’s main criticism is that the novel is extremely topical and old-fashioned because it takes the “outsider’s look” at the working-class families, treating “those who yearn for the urban lifestyle” with derision and contempt – in modern terms Barne stands accused of ‘othering’ the evacuees. Barker feels that this makes the book a “piece of historical interest only”. I don’t entirely agree with this point of view.
It is true that Visitors from London is told from the point of view of the upper-middle class Farrar children, who are returning to the countryside for the summer to stay with family. Parents are, as usual, conspicuously absent. It is also true that Kitty Barne does not have Eve Garnett’s perceptive understanding of working-class life, conveyed in a non-judgemental way, far ahead of prevailing fictional norms at the time. Indeed, the one genuinely villainous character, Steve, who lies, bullies, steals and gambles, is working class.
But, Kitty Barne’s descriptions of people are quite balanced, and her portraits gently poke fun at working-class and middle-class, visitors and permanent residents alike. Her character portraits are not rejections of lower-class figures; for instance, she makes fun of Mrs Meredith-Smith (middle-class, from the country) with her do-gooder misguided attempt at engaging with the children in ‘naïve’ country games that she herself doesn’t fully understand. Fortunately, one of the Londoners, Joe, instigates a game of cricket ‘the national game’ known and played by all, female, male, young and old and which brings everyone together. Or here, the portrait of the warden, whose response to the disruption of war has been echoed, I’m sure, in many disgruntled reactions to lockdown-disrupted plans:
“The warden was slowly working himself into a rage, partly at the idea of starting out again when he had only just got in, partly at the thought that there should be an enemy at all, for he had decided to remake his rock garden in September, and now it looked as if he would never have a moment to touch it”.
The Shepherd, Tolhurst, the very essence of a working-class country person, bonds with the Cockney evacuee, Fred; ‘This boy, he’s from London, said Tolhurst, introducing them as if they had never met. He’s fair eat up with curiosity about they sheep. Never heard so many questions in all my life’ `then he twinkled in a friendly sort of way, and added: Reckon I could ask him something bout London, come to that”.
Their relationship is the key to this book; it is not really about class, per se, but about values. As ‘Chosen for Children’, says: “Miss Barne loves the country like a countrywoman; that is, she takes it for granted. Her descriptions are delightfully free of romanticism. The country for her, and for her characters, is a place to work in”.
What really separates the wheat from the chaff in Barne’s portraits is where they fit within her value system. The ‘visitors’ who are most successful are the ones who are adaptable and resourceful, like 14-year-old Lily who is acting as mother to her younger siblings or Mrs Jacobsen who contributes to the running of the household by cooking. The least successful ones are the ones who see problems at every turn, like Mrs Fell. The most successful and happy of the evacuees is Fred, who finds fulfilment and a productive life among the Downland shepherds. Though one might question his easy conversion from gang leader in London to happy shepherd, we do now know, now more than ever, about the strong impetus of ‘returning to the land’.
Keith Barker criticises the book for taking an outsider’s look at the working-class families who, in his words “invade the leafy middle-class suburbs” (actually not true, this is the deep Sussex countryside). As I said above, I think this is about values, rather than class. And in any case, surely both viewpoints are valid – those of the hosts’ and the visitors’ view? The real strength of the book is that it is based on real-life experienced by somebody who was there and did the actual job. The dedication of the book reads: “With Respect and Admiration to the Seventeen Housemothers of my Acquaintance”. Description of the evacuation scheme is quite breathtaking – 1 million children between 5 and 14 were evacuated in three days and Operation Pied Piper evacuated 1.5 million people in total. Comparison with current governmental schemes springs to mind, or not! In the novel, but probably quite true to life, thirty-five people fitted into one house, previously empty, with beds and bedding provided (in the end) but not soap, cutlery, cooking implements. And Barne was there, doing it, amongst the other housemothers. Maybe they were not always thrilled, just like the evacuees were naturally not always grateful or happy to integrate into country life. We might want the past to be different, and more in accordance with our own apparently ‘enlightened’ views, but this would not always be true.
Actually, there’s a sad, adult subplot, though it is treated with a sort of off-hand subtlety. that of Mrs Thomsen, who arrives with her newborn baby and two only slightly older children. She’s not yet recovered from the birth, she’s tired and overworked (we later surmise) by an unsympathetic husband, and is scared out of her wits by the threat of bombs. For her, the two-week evacuation becomes a period of rest and recuperation. Without much ado, the other women simply do all the work and allow her to lie in bed and rest and read until her husband summarily returns her to London so that she can provide domestic service for his convenience. The way that her young son has to assume adult responsibilities, the description of how, as she’s ‘been told all her life what to do’ so blindly obey a young boy, Jimmy, who is trying to coax her out for a bit of fresh air for the sake of her children, the impact on the children of the mother’s anxieties which keeps them locked up in the room, all this could be a story in itself, though probably not for children. With today’s eyes, it is clear that she’s a victim of domestic violence (coercive rather than physical, probably) by her husband who forces her to return with him, against her wishes and best options for the family’s safety, but for his convenience of getting waited on morning and evening. Here I could have done with a bit of intervention from the other adults, but of course, again this is somewhat true to a period where the husband was the king and there was little objection to domestic violence.
I read Visitors from London the week before the UK went into the second Lockdown. While thankfully we are not at war, I had a similar sense of imminent threat and countrywide hardship which sharpened my appreciation of the book. Having been cooped up in London during the last one (albeit in the very privileged position of having access to a small garden and an allotment), and now embarking on a long dark winter one, with the threat of climate change and suspicious post-Brexit trade deals ever-present, I find myself agreeing with Kitty Barne’s values I too long for the countryside, the Downs and coastal walks! I find myself somewhat agreeing with the old shepherd’s views on London:
“I knows a town. Can’t have a bit of fire without it costs you money. If you wants a potato you got to buy it. Hy, the gentleman that comes from London to see I, he says if you want a pot of soil for a geranium in your winder you got to go to a shop for it. The earth we lives on! My! That’s London. Miserable old place, I call he.
Anyway, I can only hope that life will eventually go back to a semblance of normal as suddenly and completely as it does at the end of Visitors from London with Steadings empty again and the children about to return to school.
Visitors from London is the kind of book I hoped to find when I embarked on this challenge, a small hidden gem that would become a personal favourite. It is not perfect, it is a time capsule, for better or worse, it is well written but not linguistically outstanding, but I found it engaging and funny, interesting in its description of the preparation for evacuation, the domestic details and the love of the simple pleasures of the countryside. In my opinion, this book is absolutely ripe for reprinting by one of the flourishing smaller reprints out there – Persephone Books, Slightly Foxed, or Girls Gone By. 9/10
Osmond was a prolific writer and illustrator ( British Library holds 97 titles either written or illustrated by him), yet none are still in print, though some are available secondhand through abebooks.com. However, A Valley Grows Up is so expensive, even secondhand, that I had to go to the British Library and read their copy. It is so nice being back there after lockdown and I’m enjoying it while I can. Thankfully it was a short book (82 pages), readable in the 3-hour timeslot we British Library cardholders are allocated upon booking.
Edward Osmond was an artist-illustrator and a teacher. When he was asked to help students with learning difficulties, he drew a village on the blackboard and, in effect, co-created its history with his students. The educational effectiveness of the concept led to a book about British history through the millennia as seen from a fictional valley in the South of England (Dubnonum/Dungate – based on Lewes in East Sussex). We start with the dinosaurs and gradually trace the story of a valley from 5000 BC to the present day (the 1950s). The same bend in the river appears on the cover and throughout the book on colour double-spreads, illustrating the changes to the landscape and the village.
It’s well-illustrated without becoming a picture book – most other double-spread text pages have black and white drawings showing specific points of the text.
The concept of place as a device for transmitting information about history reminded me strongly of James A Michener’s works (especially Centenary) except his was a fictional saga about the interrelationship between the land and the people where Osmond’s non-fictional focus is on (patriarchal) history.
Though it might have been seen as a great example of a non-fictional book trying to make history relevant to students (a genuinely worthwhile project) it fell out of print very quickly. However, it is a book that, in its time, was held up as excellent (through the award of the Carnegie Medal) and was presumably bought, taught and absorbed by children and it was undoubtedly designed to be appealing for them. And for this reason, it is fascinating to read.
In some ways, narrating history from the point of view of ‘place’ allows the author to take a more (apparently) distanced viewpoint and at the same time focus in on issues of particular local interest. The Roman invasion, the ascendency or descendency of Kings, political manoeuvres of various kinds are only really relevant to the narrative as they impact the inhabitants of this particular valley. Throughout, Osmond balances on the narrow edge between historical fact and the selectivity of fictional license. To be fair, he does not himself make any statements about the objectivity of his book but I, for one, expect an attempt at objectivity from a non-fiction book. I don’t read many history books that have fallen out of print, and I am shocked at how subjective and (consciously or unconsciously) ideologically transparent it is. Because of course, the objective stance is only skin-deep – there is a firm ideology which drives a highly selective history, specifically the history of MEN. There are no black-and-white pictures of women, only boys, men, buildings and boats and where women appear in the last two coloured double-spreads they are (significantly) portrayed riding or standing behind the men. There are no female children in the pictures and no portrayal of any domestic arrangements. This is a book about the outward history of males, kings, buildings, activities (hunting, war-mongering, farming, trade etc).
Servants (other than slaves) are mentioned on page 69, once. For me, this is a huge gap. But, the “New History’ movement – the study and interest in ‘lived lives’, social history which also considers the lives of women and minorities – didn’t really arise until the 1960s and 1970 so my interest in this aspect of history in part makes me a child of my time, yet I can’t help missing this aspect of history and de-valuing A Valley Grows Up accordingly.
The tone and the approach of A Valley Grows Up is didactic and educational and very clearly aimed at children: ‘Now look at those things in the picture which are not ancient and grass-grown’. Osmond tries to make history human:
“They are in a grave dilemma, because their corn is ripe in the little square field[s] sprinkled abut on the dry tops of the higher hills, and it is necessary to harvest it before the weather breaks.”
As the book progresses, Osmond’s omniscient didactic narrator makes this non-fictional history increasingly personal and fictionalized:
“The people also very much appreciated the fact that Hugo re-built the village church (…) he did this for a double motive. In the first place, he was growing old and thought it was time to achieve som good pious deed to weigh against all the bad, cruel ones that he realized stood to his charge; and besides this, he wished to outdo William de Vibraye, his neighbour at Bevermeer, who had already set masons to work on the new church.”
In theory, narrating history from the point of view of place could make it more ‘objective’, at least in as much as it could put across the story from several points of view. This is not Osmond’s project. His is fictional narrative camouflaged as non-fictional which makes it potentially more engaging (certainly than bare facts) but does it also make it more ideologically suspect?
We can’t accuse Osmond of ‘presentism’; the temptation to view the past through the eyes of a person in the present quite shocking statements like: “having met by chance they are having quite a chat as is the custom with slaves the world over when they are not under observation” as if slaves are just workshy and left with no reflection on slavery or how they might feel !!!). His is not a progressive political or social history work: “these three industries (…) employ many of the poorer people who live in monotonous rows of dingy houses”. (END OF!) I am not after a Marxist historical analysis, but some reflection on human rights and class-issues might have been in its place, even in the 1950s.
Osmond’s project is, in fact, a conservative and entirely personal one though this is not revealed until the last pages. Here he describes his interest in the past gained when he was a boy and tries to engender a sense of awe and possibility for the modern child; ‘a Roman farmhouse may lie beneath our local cricket ground, and it may even be you who bring these things to light’. So far, so good but the key to his feelings of the more recent past are made clear here:
“Clearly life in Dungate is much healthier and more civilized than it used to be; but are the people happier? They have sanitation and cleanliness, but no buildings or sanitation can compare with the fine work of the past. Everyone has more goods to use; but the monotony of factory routine has replaced the individual interest and care that was given by the old craftsmen to their work. Instead, people in AD 1900 work for machines or their factories, and the time has not yet come when these inventions may be used only to free man from hard and tedious labour and give him leisure to create beauty by the means of his new scientific prowess”.
So has this promised state arrived in the 1950s? No, apparently ‘outside the town, the pylons of the electric grid stand like gaunt skeletons among the mellow trees”. Most tellingly we just skipped the first and second world war, which would have had some impact on this fictional town. This is a firmly pastoral and nostalgic version of history.
The final page leaves us with the image of the labourer who finds some remnants from a Roman villa. He doesn’t know what it is, but as he has been poaching, he doesn’t want to tell anyone. If only he had told the vicar or the teacher, men of learning, Osmond says. Indeed this is an author who harks back to the ‘good old days’ where men of learning knew how to identify and interpret valuable information from the past.
A Valley Grows Up is typical of its time with an emphasis on continuity, chronology, (this is suffused right through the focus on a single place through time) and a patriarchal view. Looking at the Carnegie Medal Winners, it appears that a number of the 1950s and 1960s winners were preoccupied with British history, whether from a fictional or non-fictional point of view. I wonder whether this focus on the shaping of Britain, on her own soil, was of particular urgency and relevance as the idea of the empire was dismantled and brought into disrepute during the period. Several winners sought to educate British children about the country they were living in, in engaging ways. Some were non-fiction, e.g. The Story of Your Home and A Valley Grows Up. Others were fictional accounts, like The Wool Pack and The Lantern Bearers. It is interesting to look at their respective longevity. Historical fiction has the ability to draw a direct line between the past and ourselves and allowing us to understand what it was like to live in these times. At its best, it allows us intense emotional investment to identify with and reflect on the past and can become timeless. Tapping into some of these personal histories might be why historical fiction generally has more longevity than historical non-fiction. Non-fiction falls out of print swiftly and permanently; views of history changes over time, moral mores changes, new fact come to light and ways of viewing the past changes.
The surprising thing is not that there should be an interest in learning about the country in an engaging manner, but that The Valley Grows Up was chosen as ‘the best’ books of the year. It was not even the last non-fiction book to be chosen, maybe the Carnegie Panel did not think of longevity when they selected the winners in the 1950s?
2/10 – lovely project to make history more relevant to students but outdated in so many ways.
The Last Battle was written by CS Lewis and illustrated by Pauline Baynes. In fact, Pauline Baynes’ illustrations are so iconic CS Lewis wrote to her: “is it not rather ‘our’ medal? I’m sure the illustrations were taken into account as well as the text.”
The Last Battle is, in every sense of the word, the last in The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Carnegie Medal was given in recognition of the entire series, not just this last work, which many critics consider the weakest of the books (Keith Barker, 1997). I always found the reading order of the Chronicles of Narnia very confusing, but if you want to read them all, it is certain that The Last Battle needs to be read last.
Like all the Narnia stories, the ethos of the book is the struggle between good (symbolised by Aslan) and evil (represented here by the ape Shift and the Calormeness and their god, Tash). The ape, Shift, manipulates his friend Puzzle, a donkey, into wearing a lion skin, thus pretending to be Aslan. This is used for the simple purpose of power, but it quickly spirals out of control. The Calormenes pitch battle against King Tirian and his few Narnian followers and in the process calls their god, Tash, into the world. The ‘friends of Narnia’, Professor Kirke, Polly, Peter, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, Eustace and Jill, all appear in time to see Narnia destroyed and a new world created. All the inhabitants, living and dead, gather outside a barn to be judged by Aslan; the faithful enter Aslan’s Country while those who have opposed or deserted him become ordinary animals and vanish.
All of the books in The Chronicles of Narnia series contain Biblical allusions, but The Last Battle is a direct re-imagining of the Book of Revelation, describing the end of the world as we know it. In The Last Battle, we have allegorical representations of the Antichrist, the false prophet, the fate of non-believers, Heaven, the Final Judgment, the Second Coming and the End of the World. It’s a pretty hefty topic for a children’s novel (aimed at age 9-12) and does in part, account for its mixed reputation. At the best of times, I am not a fan of Biblical allegories. The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe is also pretty heavy-handed, but at least it is an absorbing tale and CS Lewis is skilled at worldbuilding and story-telling. However, in The Last Battle, the biblical allegory takes over, and the writing feels flat and uninspiring. There’s very little dialogue and once Aslan comes on the scene what little story had developed until that point disappears and all other characters are left to stand, literally, on the sidelines to see the world they love vanish in page after page of dreary description. It’s like the characters are sitting there reading the Bible. Sorry, this is just B-O-R-I-N-G.
All the characters from ‘our world’ are a bit flat and one-dimentional. But one thing is for sure; if they are female they don’t get to participate much in the actual action. They can be instigators of the story (for instance Lucy’s entrance through the Wardrobe into Narnia), but as soon as the boys get on the stage, they get to do the real fighting. CS Lewis does seem to have a rather ambiguous relationship to the ‘daugthers of Eve’; adult women in Narnia are far, and few between and usually cast as the villains like The White Witch and the Lady of the Green Kirtle. But in The Last Battle, he excludes Susan from Narnia on the grounds that she’s more interested in ‘nylons and lipstick’ and ‘grown-up things’. This is a beloved major character, who ruled Narnia as ‘Susan the Gentle’ and looked out for her siblings through a number of the bookss! The other children, upon hearing that they have died in our world and are going to live forever in the new Narnia just dismiss her in the blink of the eye “Our sister Susan,” answered Peter, shortly and gravely, “Is no longer a friend of Narnia.” What, because she wanted to be a grown-up and lost ‘faith’? I am not the only one who has a problem with Susan’s dismissal. JK Rowling and Philip Pulman have both objected to this treatment. Neil Gaiman even wrote a short story about Susan as an old woman ‘The Problem of Susan’ in the short story anthology Fragile Things. This is a sad story about the life that Susan is left to lead after the death of her siblings and her parents, aimed at adults, definitely not children. There are other questionable aspects to The Last Battle namely the racist portrayal of the Calormenes which is toe-curling but, unfortunately, of its time.
I do appreciate the universalist sentiments, portrayed by Lewis’ treatment of Emreth, i.e. that anyone who does good deeds, no matter whose name they’re doing them in, is serving God. But I don’t particularly like the notion that Lewis sets forth that there is a one particular true God (in this case, Aslan). I have come across interpretations that, to me, are much more paleatable (but which are unfortunately not quite borne out by the text), namely that it doesn’t matter in whose name we do good or evil, only that the act is good or evil. I am not wild about the echoes of the judgement day either which does not belong in my understanding of the moral codex of modern Christianity.
Of course, for CS Lewis, this was deeply authentic, he did not put in the moral for the sake of a moral. In ‘On three ways of writing for Children’ he says: “Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that”.
Reading through the reviews, it appears that this is a book that is joyful, uplifting and powerful if you are a (certain kind of) Christian and unappealing if you are not. But there’s a different fan base out there too – this is the first book in the Carnegie medal-list that I have encountered that has its own fandom webpage(s) – I think because it’s the first ‘proper’ high-fantasy book on the Carnegie list.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of my favourite children’s stories. As is clear from the above, The Last Battle is not. 3/10
TheLittle Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon, published by Oxford University Press in 1955, with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone.
I am continually humbled by the amount of stuff I don’t know about children’s literature. Eleanor Farjeon is a name I recognise from the shelves at the children’s library, or possibly an anthology of children’s verse, but I’ve never read actually read any of her work. And then I discover that she won not one, but two prizes for The Little Bookroom; the Carnegie Medal and the inaugural Hans Christian Andersen medal. Her authorship was also recognised with the Regina medal (presented by the American Catholic Library Association for ‘lifetime dedication to the highest standards of literature for children’” and she was offered (but didn’t accept) an OBE. In turn, the Eleanor Farjeon medal, founded in 1966, a year after her death, is awarded every year by the Children’s Book Circle for distinguished service to the world of British children’s books.
Eleanor Farjeon is an advert for inquiry-based learning – she never went to school; instead, she and her brothers were taught at home by a governess who was instructed not to teach the children anything they didn’t want to learn. Her two younger brothers, Joseph and Herbert Farjeon, became writers too, while the oldest, Harry Farjeon, was a composer. Farjeon herself had a distinguished career; she was a poet, composer, biographer, satirist, author and columnist and produced 80 books, 20 musical works and many more published pieces. Today Eleanor Farjeon’s most widely known work is probably the children’s hymn “Morning has Broken”, written in 1931 to an old Gaelic tune associated with the Scottish village Bunessan. Some of her writings are still in print or periodically reprinted – The Little Bookroom itself is due to be republished in December 2020. Some of her books which are not still in print are worth getting; I’ve just bought her books Kings and Queens to help my daughter learn her English history in an amusing and, hopefully, memorable way.
To me, brought up in a house where we did a lot of reading, but all books came from the library, the thought of having whole rooms full of books would have been a dream come true (Not surprisingly ‘The Little Bookroom’ is the evocative name of ‘the oldest children’s bookshop in the world’ which opened in Melbourne in 1960) and I was all set to love this collection based on the title and the introduction:
“In the home of my childhood, there was a room we called ‘The Bookroom.’ True, every room in the house could have been called a bookroom. Our nurseries upstairs were full of books. Downstairs my father’s study was full of them. They lined the dining-room walls, and overflowed into my mother’s sitting-room, and into the bedrooms. It would have been more natural to live without clothes than without books. As unnatural not to read as not to eat.”
The Little Bookroom is a compilation of twenty-seven stories published over the thirty years previous, chosen by Eleanor Farjeon herself. Though both the inaugural HC Andersen Medal and the Carnegie Medal were awarded for The Little Bookroom, in reality, they were awarded in recognition of the contribution Farjeon had made to twentieth-century children’s literature. “The Carnegie committee felt, correctly in retrospect, that it would be the last opportunity to ‘recognise appropriate the work of one of the major writers for children of this century’” (as Keith Barker explained in Outstanding Books)
The Little Bookroom can be characterised as a quaint collection of old-fashioned stories, many with a fantasy element. Each story is unique in itself; there’s a mix of modern fables, fairy tales, and sketches of English life, all written in the lilting cadence of an oft-told fairy tale. In fact, they are literary fairy tales in the mould of Hans Christian Andersen (and it is therefore quite fitting that Farjeon won the inaugural Hans Christian Andersen Medal), a common literary form in the pain-shaded years following World War I. Hans Christian Andersen was the master of the Kunstmaerchen, indisputably literary, invented narratives that are designed to resemble traditional tales in some respects but that are entirely original and carry with them the distinctive style of a named author. Another word for these kinds of tales is ‘wonder tales’, and Marina Warner describes them as typically offering hopes of release from poverty, maltreatment and subjection through a happy ending. These characteristics are abundantly present in all of the stories in The Little Bookroom.
Of the 27 stories, my favourite was ‘Westwoods’. This is a story of a poetry-writing king and Selina the maid, who challenges him intellectually and helps him escape through the fence into the children’s land of play and imagination in Westwood. It is a clever reversal of the usual fairy tale structure, coming close to the modern feminist telling of tales which are so popular now, but probably not even thought about in the age of Farjeon.
Having said that, I am afraid I have to confess I only read two-thirds of the stories. I have a particular problem with short-stories in general; they are each so rich that I can only read a little at a time. I put the book down, lose track, pick up another book, and I’m done. Short stories, for me, are best read when ill, distracted in a doctor’s waiting room, tired from childrearing all day, or, in the case of children’s short stories, reading aloud to a young child. I prefer my reading to be more sustaining and nourishing; getting lost in a novel or the pleasure of learning something new from a piece of non-fiction. I appreciate the craft of short story writing, I really do, and from a literary point of view, there are many small jewels, beautifully crafted. Still, I feel brought up short when I come to the end of a particularly excellent short story or find myself looking ahead to the next one if I’m having trouble getting into a less gripping one. I feel a sense of abruptness, similar to (though of course not so pronounced, because there the sense of disorientation and disappointment was so deliberately crafted), as I did when I read If on a winter’s night, a traveller by Italo Calvino. There’s not the space to settle slowly into a new world and meet new characters. I mean, it took me at least 100 pages to get into The Poisonwood Bible, now one of my all-time novels.
So if my first problem with the stories in The Little Bookroom is that they are short stories, my second one is that they felt very old-fashioned. They reminded me acutely of the stories and styles of two Swedish authors I read when I was a child, The Glassblower’s Children by Maria Gripe (1923-2007) and the stories of Elsa Beskow (1874-1953). Gripe’s, Beskow’s and Farjeon’s stories have many commonalities; they are stories about young children that mix the real with the magical, set in a time ‘long ago’ and where goodness always wins in the end. I have always had a soft spot for Elsa Beskow’s stories about princes, trolls and elvers in the Swedish forests, and particularly her lovely drawings (see an example below), but they were old fashioned even in the 1970s. I recognise that there is a large element of nostalgia and longing for the Scandinavian landscape in my love for Beskow that makes it possible for me to ignore how out out of date it is.
Thinking about why Farjeon’s stories feel so old-fashioned led me to think about another Swedish author, Astrid Lindgren. Writing from the 1940s onwards, Lindgreen, who received the following, bi-annually awarded, Andersen medal in 1958, also wrote many tales set in the past or with a magical component to them. Yet her stories appear timeless and do not feel old fashioned at all. Possibly this is because their hard-hitting themes are essentially unresolved at the end of each story. The themes of loneliness and emotional neglect, in the case of Mio, my son (1954), form the entire structure of the book and are not obliterated by a happy ending. Nor is the suffering of the siblings in The Red Bird (1959) erased when they choose to end their life of poverty and neglect through death. Or possibly it is because the children feel real as in the case of the Bullerby books (The Children of Noisy Village, 1947-1952). All those children could have been alive today, playing games, being naughty, having fun. Though children are poor or neglected or sad in Farjeon’s stories, they do not suffer. They cry, but only if they are spoilt like the King’s daughter who cries for the moon. If they are poor, they are kind, and patiently wait for their lot to be changed by circumstances or recognition of their hard work and humility. You can not imagine any of Farjeon’s children being alive today.
Because they have such an old fashioned feel, I think you either have to be very young when you first encounter the tales in The Little Bookroom or read them with a large dose of nostalgia to love them truly as an adult. In contrast to HC Andersen’s fairy tales, or Astrid Lindgren’s contemporary works, they have not retained the same sense of timelessness for the adult reader coming to them for the first time. Nonetheless, I am ashamed that I haven’t read Farjeon before and sad that I came to her stories too late – both as a child and as a parent reading to young children. I can see the literary quality of each story; their content just couldn’t hold my attention.
As one reader on Goodreads put it; The world would be a better place if more people loved Farjeon. This is probably true, but I’m afraid I’m not one of them.
Knight Crusader was written by Ronald Welch in 1954. My edition was published in 1970. It is not illustrated by William Dobbs, which is a shame as apparently, his drawings are incredible. Knight Crusader is the first book in a series about the military exploits of the fictional Carey family published between 1954 and 1972. The Carey books retained their popularity and were reprinted by OUP and by Penguin throughout the 1970 and 1980s, while Knight Crusader was reprinted singly by OUP as late as 2013. The entire Carey Family cycle, including Knight Crusader, has also now been reissued by Slightly Foxed in a very delectable edition.
Set in 12th century Kingdom of Outremer (present-day Palestine) during the Third Crusade, the novel follows the exploits of Philip de Aubigny, a young squire in his father’s castle, Blanche Garde. We follow his elevation to knighthood and the shock of participating in the ruthless battle of Hattin, against the army of Saladin. When the Christians lose, Philip is taken as a slave and ends up as a trusted servant in the house of Emir Usamah Ibn-Menquidh. The second part of the book tells of his escape from Damascus and his allegiance to King Richard of England as he takes part in the victorious battle of Arsuf. In part three, he comes to Britain to claim his inheritance, the Welsh fief of Llanstephan, ousting the current occupant De Braose who will not give it up without a fight. Ronald Welch (real name: Ronald Oliver Felton) was a history master (and later headmaster) who had hands-on military experience as a tank commander during World War II. His knowledge and experience, both as a history master and as a professional soldier, is evident in his books. He complied copious notebooks of information for each novel. Welch’s research and his melding of fact and fiction gave a depth and apparent authenticity to his tales – he understood that what makes a lost epoch stick in your mind is not the dates but the details. Apparently, such was Welch’s mastery of detail that his publisher, Oxford University Press, asked him to fact-check their other historical novels.
Welch’s books are hybrids of adventure stories and military history and present a narrative where the central character is repeatedly tested in some way before achieving martial success. These characteristics put them firmly in the same genre as C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian and Bernard Cornwell – books that live on my husband’s side of the bookshelves to this day. But while the adult genre continues to flourish, Welch’s work was the last of its kind in mainstream children’s publishing. From the late nineteenth century until well into the twentieth, war stories were an acceptable part of children’s, particularly boys’ lives, whether in books or, later, comics and films. Following World War I a glorified vision of war was no longer quite possible to maintain, individually or critically. Nowadays, books about warrior virtues are rare, and combat is seen as a tragedy and a waste (e.g. as portrayed in Private Peaceful (2003) or Across the Divide (2018) by Anne Booth ) rather than a source of heroism and pride. Thus from the 1950s onward, writers of books about warriors and combats tended to retreat to previous eras when the notion of war as heroic and chivalric might still apply. The novels of Rosemary Sutcliff for instance, are about earlier warrior societies like the Romans and the Vikings. The Crusades, 800 years ago, might just about qualify as so far removed that warrior virtues can be central to the narrative thrust. This may very well explain why Knight Crusader, out of the entire Carey family cycle was repeatedly reprinted, even after the others fell out of print.
However, it is this cultural baggage that accounts for my own feelings of guilt-tinged pleasure in reading what I generally felt was a rollicking good read. I don’t really know much about the crusades, other than the rather unnuanced view that they were bloody and unjustified when viewed through a contemporary lens. Fundamentally my view was not changed through reading Knight Crusader, but the setting felt realistic, and I do feel that my understanding of (and interest in) the period has increased.
So why was it a good read? Firstly, there’s the romantic hero, Philip D’Aubigny, who, like all the Careys who come after him, possess imposing physical features, exceptional sporting talents and remarkable abilities with their weapons as well as courage, poise, manners and an ability to mix with high and low alike. These are recognisably romantic elements with the attraction of wish-fulfilment for boy readers (or, indeed, for female readers!). Secondly, Welch is fantastic on historical details and melds the cultural features and differences seamlessly into the narrative, so that the reader is never drowned in excessive detail or bogged down in unfamiliar terminology.
Welch is quite measured too – the romantic hero is grounded in the details of the experience of the professional soldier. The horrors of war are described in a clear-sighted way, taking the view of the individual soldier and calls attention to the discomfort, unpredictability and terror of the experience. In Knight Crusader, Phillip sees his adored older cousin ‘hacked to pieces’ in a battle and is advised by his father that “You will get used to seeing your friends killed before you’re much older. I’ve become hardenend to it”. Written in the 1950s, there is almost inevitably the occasional imperial racist undertone. Still, overall Welch shows great respect for the Saracens, and the customs of the Middle East are portrayed as being far more advanced and civilised than those of medieval Europe. And Philip D’Aubigny challenges and defeats a Norman knight after he questions the friendship of Philip’s family with Muslims. Relationships between regular armies on the battlefield are governed by chivalry and notions of respect for the enemy and recognition of the opponent’s common humanity.
The flaws are more observable in the absence than the presence – because the novel is generally about combat, the impact on civilians plays no part. Similarly, women, ‘half the sky’, practically do not figure in the book. As a female reader, I can accept this absence because of the setting, and find that females, in general, can imagine themselves as the main character, without sharing their gender. I am, however, beyond irritated by the one Goodreads reader who commented, on the entire Carey cycle, that thankfully there were no women in it (!!). From the fact that Welch asked his daughter to read sections of the book as he wrote it to make sure he hit the right level of details for a children’s book, I surmise Welch himself did not intend this kind of silly gender-bias.
Structurally, the book is divided into three sections; the battle against Saladin, the escape from captivity and finally the events in Wales. The transitions between these three sections are abrupt and explained only in an extremely summary way. In particular, the events leading up to Philip D’Aubigny’s arrival in Britain which could easily fill several interesting chapters, are blithely skipped. It all feels like a bit of a comedown and seems only to provide a narrative device of anchoring the Carey family back in Britain, from whence they can serve in the major British battles of the historical future. The reader lands with a clunk, and the book really never recovers from this transitional flaw.
Keith Barker was clearly not a fan: “It carries with it all the trappings of the historical adventure yarn”. Possibly he felt that Knight Crusader was not the best choice for the winner that year. 1954 was the first year the Carnegie Medal panel published a list of special commendations. Amongst them were The Children of Green Knowe (which has had more critical success) and The Horse and His Boy and The Eagle of the Ninth (by Rosemary Sutcliff) both of which have had more critical and commercial success. However, times and the fortunes of historical novels wax and wane and an article in The Telegraph (June 2020) calls the Carey cycle ‘Wolf Hall for kids’ with the subtitle “why Ronald Welch’s novels will help your children fall in love with history”. Based on Knight Crusader, and despite its flaws, I can’t help but agree. 8/10.
Have you read this book? How do you feel about it? I would love to hear your comments on it or my views of it!
For this blog post I’ve leaned on information in Keith Barker Outstanding Books for Children and Young People, Wolf Hall for Kids (article in The Telegraph, 28th June 2020), the article A View of War and Soldiering in the Carey Novels of Ronald Welch by Clive Barnes, published by Children’s Literature in Education (2016), and Chosen for Children by the Library Association which contains a short essay by Ronald Welch about the process of writing Knight Crusader.
Written by Edward Osmond, published by Oxford University Press. This is currently out of print and is £28 on abebooks.co.uk. Thus it exceeds my challenge threshold but if I manage to get hold of a copy, I’ll post about it.
The Borrowers by Mary Norton, with illustrations by Diana Stanley.
The Borrowers is the first is a series of 5 books (and one prequel short story) written by Mary Norton between 1952 and 1982. It was named one of the top ten Medal-winning works, the “Carnegies of Carnegies”. It has been made into a tv series and several movies – there’s even a Studio Ghibli version, “The Secret World of Arrietty” – and apparently a 52-episodes animated series is currently ‘in development’.
The Borrower books are fantasy novels set in the period between 1907 and 1911 but written over thirty years from 1952. In look and feel they are very Edwardian, you’d think they were contemporaries of The Secret Garden, not Tom’s Midnight Garden.
Pod, Homily and Arrietty are miniature people, borrowers, who live behind and underneath the grandfather clock in the hallway of a large, old house. They are the last anxious survivors of a considerable colony of borrowers who had once lived in style. They exist in dread of cats and of being seen. Arrietty feels frustrated that their existence has to be so covert and takes risks in venturing into the outside world where she makes friends with a little boy who is convalescing in the house. The boy brings them luxurious furniture from a dolls’ house and helps locate their lost family. Their under-floor home is finally discovered and destroyed by the housekeeper, but the little family manage to escape with the help of the boy.
As a child, I had an intense fascination with miniature worlds (my all-time favourite books are Tove Janson’s Moomin books (though NOT the comic strips), so naturally I liked The Borrowers a lot. I was charmed by the scaled-down world where human possessions are ‘borrowed’ to use for a different purpose; blotting paper serves as rugs and postage stamps as wall art, carpet fibres are turned into brushes and chestnuts are eaten slice by slice, like bread. I identified wholeheartedly with bookish Arrietty and her quest for freedom and did not in any way, pick up on the more sinister overtones of the book. I next picked this book up to read to my daughter when she was 7 or 8, but her tastes are modern and don’t run to classic children’s literature. I don’t think we read more than a couple of pages before giving up. For this challenge, I decided to re-read the book in an attempt to validate either of these two opposing views.
Norton said: “the first idea – or first feeling – of the Borrowers came through my being shortsighted”. This method of shrinking our known world makes the most ordinary surroundings and implements seem genuinely magical. Norton also tantalises her readers by continually reminding them of the evocative unreliability of storytelling. The origin of The Borrowers is wrapped up in mystery: the narrator is Kate, who heard the tale from Mrs May, who heard it from her fanciful young brother, who might have made it up.
This narrative frame of Kate’s brother, a young boy home from India, lonely and recuperating in a half-empty house with old bedridden aunts and unfriendly servants, and who, we learn, later died ‘in the war’ permeates the book with a sense of sadness and an overwhelming sense of loss. This functions on multiple levels. For the human storyteller, Kate, the feeling of loss is linked to the loss of a beloved brother and in extension, the loss of childhood, youth, and family. For the borrowers themselves, the loss of freedom, family and social interaction hangs over the story from the start. The borrowers live circumscribed lives and are potentially dying out, afraid of being seen or heard. They are nothing in their own right: “Everything they had was borrowed; they had nothing of their own at all” (p 12). Arietty is trapped in her life and the old-fashioned expectations of women, she is expected to stay home and help her mother. Only by being an only child is she allowed to learn how ‘to borrow’. Of course, this is when she meets the boy, and her increased freedom is dearly paid for by the loss of home and comfort.
Other critics have pointed out the many ways in which Norton have represented social class in the series, in some ways satirical and overt, some less so. What strikes me very clearly is that these books feel very Edwardian and not ‘modern’ at all. AN Wilson considers the work as in part an allegory of post-war Britain – with its picture of a diminished people living in an old, half-empty, decaying “Big House”. I am not sure it is as straight-forward as that – it would make quite an interesting study for a session on class in children’s literature.
What strikes me as an adult is how incredibly sad this story is. The Borrowers is a story of loneliness and two children, one a human, one a borrower, who have an equal need for friendship and companionship. Arietty reads to the boy, and he helps her track down her remaining family. Yet their friendship is doomed and bring about the end of the borrowers’ life in the house. By then we’ve switched back to the narrative frame: “[The housekeeper] began to drag him towards the door. The tears spilled over his eyelids and ran down his cheeks “Don’t hurt them’ he begged. ‘I’ll move them. I promise. I know how.’ (…) She pushed him into the schoolroom and locked the door, and he heard the boards of the passage creak beneath her tread as, satisfied, she moved away. He crept into bed then, because he was cold, and cried his heart out under the blankets”. These themes of loss and loneliness went entirely over my head as a child. I was delighted with the lilliputian world of Arietty and fascinated by the imaginative use of human detritus. The fact that the book can be read as a story on many levels is what marks it out as a classic.
I am now 20 books into this challenge, and the litmus test happens at bedtime: do I read the latest challenge, with some semblance of enjoyment, or do I find excuses to pick up another book or listen to an audiobook instead? I picked up The Borrowers every night without fail, though with an increasing sense of sadness. I am sorry I didn’t persevere with reading it aloud to my daughter – overall this was a great read, a classic, in fact. 9/10