The Country Child
Illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe
Puffin Books 1981 (1931)
Alison Uttley, author of the Little Grey Rabbit picture books, was more than just a writer of sweet (some might say ‘twee’) tales of anthropomorphised animals for children. As well as a celebrated novel for older children A Traveller in Time she wrote a prolific number of non-fiction titles, as a glance at a list of her publications shows. Halfway between fiction and autobiography is The Country Child, which is in effect a true depiction of the author’s childhood but with the names changed.
Alison was born Alice Jane Taylor, daughter of Henry and Hannah, at Castle Top Farm near Cromford in Derbyshire, overlooking the Derwent Valley. Here she lived until, having secured a scholarship, she went to Manchester University to read physics, graduating with honours in 1906. In this book Castle Top Farm is lightly disguised as Windystone Hall, dating from Tudor times. The protagonist is Susan Garland, daughter of Tom and Margaret, and we largely see life at the farm through her eyes, growing up in the early 1890s. She struggles with imaginary creatures in the woods on her return home from school; worries that her doll contravenes the First Commandment; gets teased at school; interacts with farm hands and visitors; and has The Arabian Nights confiscated when she clandestinely reads it in bed. But we get to see the bigger picture as well.
The Country Child follows a year in the life of the farm, from September — when Susan goes to the village school aged seven (Alison herself was born in 1884) — through Christmas, Easter and harvest and on to Wakes week, not long before the end of the summer holidays and the beginning of the next school year. Not much happens in the way of plot but Uttley’s story vividly brings the day-to-day, season-to-season activities and moods of a late Victorian uplands farm alive for the reader.
As a city boy experiencing country life only in the last ten years it brought home to me how much and yet how little that life has changed in over a century. Yes, the work is more mechanised — tractors and quad bikes now for example where horse, cart, wagon and Shank’s pony used to be the norm — and farms are now more likely to be treated as agribusinesses rather than a vocation or inherited responsibility. But the vagaries of weather, livestock, supply chains and the rest are still constants in the effort of making a living from the soil. And for many farmers, as was the case for Tom Garland, there is an emotional attachment to the land, its creatures and the labourers in the fields and house, and that sentiment is clearly there for the author too: regardless of the fact that she went on to be a physics teacher and subsequently a writer, her love for the Derbyshire hills of her childhood remained with her till her death in 1976.
This is a book to be savoured and not hurried: it would have meant little to the younger, impatient me. I could manage only one chapter, two at most, at a time, meaning it took a while to complete this.* What strikes me most is the sheer poetry of the descriptions: every page has at least one passage over which I had to linger, the more to enjoy the moment. The closing paragraphs of the twenty-first and final chapter illustrates this well, as Susan, her mother and Becky the maid return from the Wakes fair.
“Like a lighthouse on an island, they saw the farm shining down on them, with its lamp among the planets. Susan walked with her head in the air watching the light and the mass of chimneys which stood out against a cluster of stars.
Everything seemed to move. The chimney-stacks swept across the Great Bear, the Pleiades were entangled in the elm’s boughs, a shooting star fell with a trail of gold, the trees dropped lower and lower as they climbed above them.
Windystone floated in the air.
‘It’s all moving,’ whispered Susan, ‘moving on and on,’ and she felt as if wings were behind her which would carry her away, too.”
The mid-August Perseid meteor showers, the dark star-spangled skies away from the artificial lights of towns and cities, the feeling of wanting to float off into the vastness of the universe, Uttley has caught all this well, and it’s as true now as it was then, and before then and will be after now.
A poll of visitors to the Alison Uttley Society’s website at present indicates that, out of seventy-seven respondents, The Country Child was the most popular book with just over a third voting for it, followed by the Little Grey Rabbit Stories and A Traveller in Time. Most editions after 1945 of The Country Child are enhanced by the illustrations of Charles Tunnicliffe, and though author and artist never met Tunnicliffe reportedly did his homework, providing faithful reproductions of the farm and neighbourhood. The illustrations utterly complement Uttley’s words, but even without them the book is one which twinkles in the firmament, a literary Pleiades.
* The glue of pages of the Puffin edition I read had deteriorated so much that many pages were working loose, and it wasn’t till I got to the middle of the book that I found a whole two chapters and a bit had disappeared. Luckily Julia Lee‘s excellent review of The Country Child has pointed out a recent Jane Nissen edition of The Country Child complete with illustrations, and I’ll soon be able to catch up on those missing chunks.