Now, and then

River scene (engraving by Thomas Bewick)

The River at Green Knowe
by Lucy M Boston,
illustrated by Peter Boston.
Odyssey / Harcourt Young Classics 2002 (1959)

A prosaic reader might say this is a story about three children who spend an idyllic summer at a mansion in Cambridgeshire mostly messing about on the river, and in this they wouldn’t be wrong. But this is no ordinary mansion, these are no ordinary children, and this is no ordinary river: this is Green Knowe, and these are children alive to imaginative possibilities, and this is a river where those possibilities can come true.

Mrs Oldknow, who owns the ancient Manor House of Green Knowe, has let it out for the summer to the distinguished archaeologist Dr Maud Biggin and her friend, the homely Miss Sybilla Bun. Dr Biggin promptly decides to invite her great-niece Ida and two refugee boys called Oskar and Hsu to stay for the holidays.

Ida (11), affectionately called Midget, along with Oskar Stanislawsky from Poland (also 11) and Hsu, known as Ping, who’s from China, happily get on well together and, left to their own devices, get on with enjoying lazy days and stealthy nights exploring and mapping the river. This being Green Knowe the trio soon find there is unexpected natural magic around every corner.

http://www.greenknowe.co.uk/gallery4.html

First let’s focus on the adults. Maud Biggin is trying to complete her paper, A Reconstruction of the Habits and Diet of the Ogru: a Summary of Recent Discoveries, and typifies those who favour intellect over instinct. Sybilla Bun however thinks the route to happiness is through food and is therefore concerned with ensuring young bodies are well-, even over-nourished. But, as Oskar observes, “What you don’t notice isn’t there”: both grown-ups, however well-intentioned, are largely unaware of what the children need, and take no real interest in what consumes their waking hours — in fact the pair seem remarkably unobservant of present matters, only of the past:

Ping sighed. “I can’t understand — when it’s the thing [grown-ups] want most in the world and it’s there before their eyes — why they won’t see it.”

“They are often like that,” said Oskar wisely. “They don’t like now. If it’s really interesting, it has to be then.”

What do the children need? The leisure to appreciate what’s in front of and around them in the now time. There’s the natural world — things like swallows weaving through the sky and ‘cutting figures of eight at ground level’, or the telltale signs of imminent flooding:

On windy days the surface of the river is raised in little pyramids streaked like the crisscross fork pattern on mashed potatoes.

From their canoe they see bywaters where a decaying mansion houses owls and a simple structure shelters a hermit; they discern a living being in a fallen tree and a herd of horses which might take flight at any moment; when they steal out at night they witness a prehistoric dance in the shadows cast by a full moon.

Seen from the punt, the world was a symmetrical but unfamiliar pattern of bulky blacknesses jutting into quicksilver. The daylight line between reality and reflection was gone.

Lucy Boston wrote with the imaginative curiosity of a child and the sensitivity of a poet, as the alliteration and imagery conjured up by the previous passage make crystal clear. By shifting from the house and garden explored in The Children of Green Knowe to the surrounding countryside she allows us readers to share in the real delights of boating on the River Great Ouse, paddling past Hemingford Grey and through locks, under bridges, around islands, down the stream which eventually spills into the distant Wash. There are echoes, conscious or not, of The Wind in the Willows, of Grendel and his mother in the fens, and of many other literary riparian explorations, but this novel is of itself.

‘The course of the river that they knew so well was as mysterious as a foreign language.’ Similarly Boston’s writing is alive with mirrored reflections, alert to secrets and aware of eyes with which to see them. The trio draw a map of the river, marking the locks and the bridges, Flying Horse Island and Hermit Island, Owl Palace Island and the Island of the Throning Moon; like the Wonderland Alice drifting down another river they experience being both miniscule as a field mouse and dwarfed by their friends, and also awed by true giants. Above all they observe the strange behaviours of some adults, their ambiguous attitudes to those with differences — people like circus performers — and their indifference to displaced persons such as refugees:

“You don’t understand,” said Ping. “They don’t send displaced persons home. They put them in camps. They might even put them in the zoo.”

It’s that mix of awe and compassion that comes through so strongly in these pages, along with friendship of the type enjoyed by the children. The story’s punctuated by sharp images — a message in a bottle, an antlered shaman, an owl emerging from shadow; and by repetitive sounds — natural noises, or the susurration of seeds or bones on a necklace, the jangle of sistra or rattling of teeth; and, once, a moment when a great secret is vouchsafed to the children:

They were standing at midnight, alone, under a sky that was there before either earth or moon had been and would be there long after. In this agonising second of revelation that ALL passes, the bark of a disturbed heron caused them to clutch each other, and jerked loose their tongues.

Because of this author’s words we can live — if all too briefly — in an endless now, become as little children, and enter a kind of heaven.


‘Magic of the House’, a BBC documentary from 1983 with Lucy Boston and Frank Delaney about the house in the Green Knowe books.

22 thoughts on “Now, and then

    1. I’m glad you appreciated this review, Nick, I know this instalment disappointed some (like Mat Tobin on Goodreads) who missed Mrs Oldknow and Tolly, and found the narrative a little disjointed. As I said to him, I had slightly different expectations and found the lazy summer episodes exactly matched my emotional experience of the long holidays, taking each day as it came.

      LMB captures the child’s viewpoint so well and that I think is absolutely the strength in her writing — there are none of the avuncular or patronising attitudes found in many of her contemporaries, mostly if not all — I’m sorry to say — manifestly male.

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  1. Oh, to appreciate the Now’s and not lament the Then’s! We can’t go back, just as these children cannot go back to life before knowing the river. Let us love what is with us, here and now. You’re right there is a poetic style here: “The daylight line between reality and reflection was gone” is my favorite. “Reality and reflection.” So much imagined in such a short phrase.

    Thank you for this reminder, Chris. Sorely needed these days! xxxx

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    1. I’m glad you appreciate what I think is the essence of this marvellous tale, Jean, and that if you haven’t read it yet you get round to it some day — it really is a delight to read.

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  2. The Children of Green Knowe is one of those books that I experienced rather than read, if that makes sense, however I have not yet read this one. The idea of living in the “now” is one I try to adopt with limited success so I’m greatly tempted by your lovely review.

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    1. It’s true what she says, Anne: I think an earlier pre-internet generation did have the leisure to live in the ‘now’ as W H Davies wrote:

      What is this life if, full of care,
      We have no time to stand and stare.
      No time to stand beneath the boughs
      And stare as long as sheep or cows.
      No time to see, when woods we pass,
      Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
      No time to see, in broad daylight,
      Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
      No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
      And watch her feet, how they can dance.
      No time to wait till her mouth can
      Enrich that smile her eyes began.
      A poor life this if, full of care,
      We have no time to stand and stare.

      Boston’s novel is indeed about one of those “streams full of stars, like skies at night” which Ida, Ping and Oskar explore; and the seemingly endless summers without school and without much responsibility are ones I can just about remember over the seas of time.

      I should shut up now, but I’ll just add that adults’ preoccupation with the past, especially in terms of nostalgia — the good ol’ days, the Blitz fondly remembered by Brexiters, prehistoric lives ‘reconstructed’ by Ida’s great-aunt — remains an omnipresent brake on us living in the present, and it’s our loss. I hope it’s not too much of a paradox if you find this book and live in the Now even as you indulge in a bit of nostalgia from the 1950s!

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      1. When I was a school librarian and children asked me what my favourite poem was I always said Leisure and quoted the first few lines to them. They generally looked mystified. I shall read the book, Chris and will let you know what I think. Thank you.

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  3. This looks wonderful! I just love it when writers capture the details of things – like the look of water when there’s a squally wind blowing across it. We used to call it the look of cats paws when I was sailing.

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    1. “Cats’ paws” is a vivid metaphor, but I particularly liked the mashed potato image as one which might appeal to kids’ appetites — and maybe those of a few childlike adults like me too! Sailing is not something I’ve ever got into, but I do like the idea of being a passenger…

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      1. Oh yes, the mashed potato picture is super. “Cats’ paws” is not something I came up with – just a fairly well-known nautical nickname. Sailing is a wonderful thing to do, it almost feels like flying sometimes. You might enjoy it. (But you do often end up quite wet even if you don’t capsize!)

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  4. I think it must be wonderful to be on a tall ship. As a child I loved Leon Garfield’s Jack Holborn and I still enjoy a bit of Forester’s Hornblower Series now and again today, but that’s the nearest I think I’ll ever get! Rowing is lovely too though – it has a very relaxing rhythm to it.

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    1. I think I like the idea, perhaps even romance of, tall ships but much as I like to imagine myself as part of a modern crew I may lack the attention span and stamina to be of much use! I can manage half an hour or so on a municipal boating pool but that’s about it!

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      1. That makes sense. It does take some strength. I took a friend sailing once (in a small dingy on a lake). She hadn’t been before and I think she expected to be relaxing on the deck in her new sunglasses. It wasn’t like that at all. She was crewing the jib while I helmed. We had a good sail on a really windy day but she really didn’t expect it to be so physical or to see a couple of other boats out that day capsize. (They were training, so were pushing things quite a bit harder while we just pottered about.) Like you, I can’t manage sailing anymore. I have a friend who sails at my local Quaker meeting. I keep toying with the idea of asking her if we could go out one day. I think, on a very calm day, I might be able to crew especially with Liz at the helm since she’s incredibly experienced.

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  5. I’ve not come across this before but it has shades of Wind in the Willows which I adored. I think I’d have loved this as a child, far more than Swallows and Amazons.

    What a brilliant character name – Sybilla Bun

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    1. Yes, it is a bit TWITW, I agree, it’s all that messing about in boats! Also, a couple of passages come close to that mystical feel found in the Pan chapter in the Grahame story.

      I think Boston chose her characters’ names deliberately. Tolly or Toseland, the protagonist in the first book, is from a nearby placename, while Miss Bun’s forename Sybilla suggests she’s some kind of priestess (of food, perhaps, her surname reflecting her obsession) unless it’s because the whole sounds like ‘cinnamon bun’…

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