A Valley Grows Up (1953)

Written and illustrated by Edward Osmond

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.

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