The Little Bookroom (1955)

The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon, published by Oxford University Press in 1955, with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone.

Who can fail to be charmed by this front-cover!

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.

An illustration by Edward Ardizzone.

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.

Illustration by Elsa Beskow for the story ‘The Girl with the flowering hair’ in Tales of Elsa Beskow (Elsa Beskow’s Eventyr).

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.

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