Lucy M Boston:
The Children of Green Knowe
Illustrated by Peter Boston
Puffin Books 1975 (1954)
It’s the Christmas holidays and a young pre-teen called Tolly has gone from his boarding school to spend a few weeks at his great-grandmother’s mansion called, mysteriously, Green Noah. Appropriately the countryside is in flood from winter rains, leaving the house like the Ark perched on Mount Ararat. But from the first Tolly will find this the most magical of visits, as does a first-time reader such as myself.
Why does this children’s novel, the first in a series, evoke such admiration and loyalty from its fans? I suspect it’s something to do with the author who, like the aged relative in the tale, is able to invoke the wondering mindset of the young, to evoke the no-man’s-land between fantasy and reality that sensitive youngsters inhabit, and to convey all that to the reader.
That fluid boundary has something to do with the sense of drifting through time that The Children of Green Knowe sets out to create, now intensified by the nostalgia — real or imagined — the reader may feel for a way of life long gone, one which existed in the postwar years but, as with all past eras, is now like a foreign country.
This modern classic is a gentle meander tAcknowledgements to Dale @ Earth Balm Creative for the copy of this bookhrough the memories of a ancient mansion very like the Manor at Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire, where the author lived. Toseland, whose father and stepmother are living in Burma, goes to stay with his great-grandmother Mrs Linnet Oldknow for a few weeks. Apart from the two of them the only other regular presence is the down-to-earth Boggis, whose ancestors have also been, like him, retainers and handymen to the Oldknow family.
But there are other, more occasional presences, who presently can be identified as children who lived during the Restoration period at Old Noah, along with more fantastic entities, spirits perhaps emanating from a statue and an old topiary yew called Green Noah.
Stuff happens, though not much, and the transitions from apparent reality to the world of Tolly’s imagination make so much appear dreamlike. There is menace, there is magic; nature melds with history and legend; the miniature merges into life-size; and all around there are the floodwaters, the snow or the dark, with the house a haven for the true of heart.
Interspersed with Tolly’s story we have tales about another Tolesland, an Alexander and a Linnet of a bygone age, as narrated by Granny Oldknow. She sees, as Tolly soon comes to see, these one-time children of Green Knowe whose family portrait hangs in the hall; their relics become as precious to the modern boy as they were to their original owners — birdcage, carved mouse, rocking horse, sword, dolls house.
Lucy Boston creates a winter atmosphere as mystical as that conjured up by, say, John Masefield in The Box of Delights, or by Susan Cooper in The Dark is Rising; both authors also feature a young lad (Kay Harker or Will Stanton) with an older, wiser, adviser or helper. As with Masefield’s The Midnight Folk there are no separate chapters, but the novella-length text is paced by being punctuated by the Restoration children’s tales. And, as with these other fictions, nature in the form of animals and plant life have an integral part to play, sometimes charming, sometimes more terrifying.
The story’s atmosphere is heightened by the inclusion of traditional rhymes, songs and carols, and by the author’s son Peter’s distinctive and striking black and white illustrations; the fact that the book is also dedicated to him reinforces the connection between Peter and the young protagonist.
But it’s the notion of timeslip — as much as a sense of place and cast of amiable characters — that adds to the book’s appeal. Unlike Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time, in which the child Penelope finds herself back in time at an earlier stage of the house called Thackers, Tolly’s visitors come forward in time to Green Knowe, some from the 17th-century, others from legend or even dreamtime. And for a lonely only child, even one with a delightful and sympathetic relative, that can only be a good thing.
Acknowledgements to Dale @ Earth Balm Creative for the copy of this book