What the child’s eye saw

Edward Ardizzone illustration for The Little Bookroom (1955). More on Ardizzone at http://tweedlandthegentlemansclub.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/edward-ardizzone.html

Eleanor Farjeon: The Little Bookroom
Eleanor Farjeon’s Short Stories for Children Chosen by Herself
Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
Oxford University Press 2011 (1955)

Of all the rooms in the house, the Little Bookroom was yielded up to books as an untended garden is left to its flowers and weeds. There was no selection or sense of order here. In dining-room, study, and nursery there was choice and arrangement; but the Little Bookroom gathered to itself a motley crew of strays and vagabonds, outcasts from the ordered shelves below, the overflow of parcels bought wholesale by my father in the sales-rooms. Much trash, and more treasure. Riff-raff and gentlefolk and noblemen. A lottery, a lucky dip for a child who had never been forbidden to handle anything between covers.

From the very start of the Author’s Note we are drawn into the world of the bookroom. I could easily quote the whole of Farjeon’s introduction, so exquisitely does it conjure up a storeroom of reading matter, and so perfectly does it fulfil the maxim that a piece can be more than the sum of its parts. The whole — twenty-seven stories succeeding the author’s note — is delightfully complemented by Edward Ardizzone’s line illustrations, a fact the author acknowledged in a 1956 poem “To Ted” included as a introduction: ‘what the child’s eye saw, through you | The ageing eye remembers.’

Twenty-seven stories, some longer, some shorter, grace this collection. Some of the titles deliberately evoke the fairytale tradition, such as ‘The Giant and the Mite’, ‘The Seventh Princess’ or ‘The King’s Daughter Cries for the Moon’. Other tales can be viewed as parables (such as ‘The Lady’s Room’), fables (‘The Goldfish’), or simply enjoyed for their quiet humour (for instance ‘The Clumber Pup’ and ‘Pennyworth’). A couple or so hark back to traditional rhymes or literary pieces, riffing on phrases and names to seemingly ‘explain’ their obscurities (‘Leaving Paradise’ and ‘Pannychis’, for example).

Whatever their form many have a bittersweet melancholy that reminds me of Hans Christian Anderson’s offerings or a Wilde fairytale, though a little gentler perhaps. Several pieces stick in my mind. ‘The Connemara Donkey’ though set in an early 20th-century England speaks of the traditional belief that made-up stories can overcome any antagonism by becoming true, all seen through the eyes and ears of little Danny O’Toole. ‘The Girl Who Kissed the Peach-tree’ feels like a traditional Sicilian tale, one of a handful of tales in this collection that evince a genuine love for growing beautiful things despite a knowledge that life can be hard. Pre-echoes of this appear in the author’s own introduction to The Little Bookroom:

No servant ever came with duster and broom to polish the dim panes through which the sunlight danced, or sweep from the floor the dust of long-ago. The room would not have been the same without its dust: star-dust, gold-dust, fern-dust, the dust that returns to dust under the earth, and comes up from her lap in the shape of a hyacinth.

The best tales, in my opinion, come towards the end, and somehow evoke a deep-seated yearning for things that stretch back into time. ‘San Fairy Ann’ is a beautiful tale about the love poured into a doll and how it is paralleled in the connections that we make with other humans. ‘The Glass Peacock’ with its themes of compassion and generosity is a perfect Christmas tale, a beautiful little drama contained within a forgotten urban courtyard. And what can I say about ‘And I Dance Mine Own Child’ that does it justice? This treatment of the Patient Griselda tale-type is a worthy descendant all the way from Boccaccio via Chaucer and Thomas Dekker, muting any inherent cruelty but dwelling on a basic humanity that should never go out of fashion. I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a little tear at the end of this, and that it wasn’t because dust had got into my eyes.

When I crept out of the Little Bookroom with smarting eyes, no wonder that its mottled gold-dust still danced in my brain. its silver cobwebs still clung to the corners of my mind. No wonder that many years later, when I came to write books myself, they were a muddle of fiction and fact and fantasy and truth.

Fiction and fact and fantasy and truth, yes there is that aplenty in these tales. I challenge anybody not to feel better after reading this collection, or not to resolve to act better. These are stories to remember, and reread, and cherish, so that — as with Farjeon’s own little bookroom — we will all be able to truthfully declare that “Seven maids with seven brooms, sweeping for half-a-hundred years, have never managed to clear my mind of its dust …”


February 14th is also International Bookgiving Day, when individuals give or pass on a book or three to a child to encourage them to enjoy reading. Maybe a book such as this?

2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book of short stories


Beware the Crooked Man

John Connolly: The Book of Lost Things
Illustrated by Anne M Anderson
Hodder 2017 (2006)

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

What attracted me about The Book of Lost Things was, first, the title with its intimation of mystery and, second, the cover illustration by Robert Ryan with its suggestion of the sinister wild wood of the fairytale imagination. Then, as I read it, it morphed. At times it felt like a scrapbook filled with pictures, cuttings and ephemera saved as souvenirs. Occasionally it reminded me of a Commonplace Book, those more literary scrapbooks whose owners copy passages that catch their eye, aphorisms, and quotes, or of a jotter in which random thoughts are noted down in the hopes that they will make sense at some future point.

So what is it essentially? It is a novel about folktales and fairytales, especially the latter with their implicit morals and rules for living an honest life. It’s also a story about living in a fictional dream-like world in real time which somehow becomes real. And it’s a narrative about how living in a fairytale world can reveal secrets and the difference between truth and lies.

Continue reading “Beware the Crooked Man”

Beyond superlative

Detail of raven from a print by Alison Fennell: “Constellation Raven”

Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Bloomsbury 2007 (2005)

Here is a homage to Regency literature that surpasses mere pastiche. Here is an alternate history that makes one doubt the history one knows. Here too is a fantasy for those who hate fantasy. Here, in short, is great literature — involving as well as immersive, and above all beautifully written. It certainly deserves its accolades, both public and individual.

This is a story about the revival of English magic in the early 19th century brought about by the foremost magicians of the age. This is also a story about the dangers attached to re-awakening dormant forces that one may not understand, let alone control. All those Arabian Nights stories about the perils of letting the genie out of the bottle or of unwittingly killing the genie’s son by carelessly discarding date stones are reminders that fairy folk and their peers are not to be trifled with unless you know what you’re letting yourself in for. So it proves for Gilbert Norrell and for his pupil Jonathan Strange.

Continue reading “Beyond superlative”

Fairytales defamiliarised

Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
Introduction by Helen Simpson
Vintage Books 2006 (1979)

Feminist — Gothic — retellings — magic realism — fantasy. Yes, the short stories in The Bloody Chamber are all these and more, but to label them is to limit them. For me they are simply wonderful expeditions into the imaginary landscapes of the mind. They may, as Helen Simpson writes in her introduction, reflect and refract “a variety of portraits of desire and sexuality — heterosexual female sexuality” and, as retellings of traditional fairytales, allow her to explore “ideas of how things might be different” from the male-dominated world of the past. But, polemics aside — and I in no way want to deny how important it remains to challenge the masculine consensus — the stories must work as narratives in their own right: the reader, whatever their gender or their politics, must be eager to push on to see what the narrative brings us next.

By subverting, or expanding, or reconfiguring familiar fairytales Carter does indeed so change them that we are unsure whether the traditional narrative will survive intact. The ten stories take those old stand-by tales
Continue reading “Fairytales defamiliarised”

Training manuals


This post was part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors on Emerald City Book Review which this year ran from October 31st (Halloween) to November 6th (following on from Guy Fawkes). This year’s theme was New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. Lory, who hosts the Week on her review blog, introduced Don’t Bet on the Prince as a “groundbreaking collection of feminist fairy tales and critical essays”.

“Nearly thirty years ago,” she writes, “the work of editor Jack Zipes paved the way for a veritable explosion of creative and scholarly activity in the field since — and yet, as we’re seeing in so many ways today, we may not have come all that far on our journey toward true gender equality. What do stories, old and new, have to teach us today? Can we make out of them workable “training manuals” for the challenges we all face, in what we share as fellow human beings as well as in our differences?

Jack Zipes Don’t Bet on the Prince:
Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England
Gower/Methuen 1986

Fairy tales are never static: they’re always changing according to the teller, the medium, the audience, the prevailing culture. What we call ‘classic’ fairy tales are products of the early modern period, edited and retold by men (or women within a male-oriented or male-dominated culture). Marcia K Lieberman succinctly calls traditional fairy tales “training manuals for girls,” telling them the acceptable ways to behave and what to expect out of life. But these narratives – culturally determined dreamscapes peopled with archetypes – can and should change to reflect our awareness that all is not set in stone. As Jack Zipes, the editor of this now historic collection of tales and essays, writes, feminist fairy tales “explore new possibilities for gender rearrangement”. Continue reading “Training manuals”

Honest and very human

Rubin vase illusion http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png
Rubin vase illusion

E Nesbit The Magic World Puffin Classics 1994 (1912)

Not everyone is successful at writing literary fairytales, especially those stories that mix the modern world with traditional wonder tales of magic and enchantment. Joan Aiken was one who mastered this deft conjoining of old and new, as did her predecessor Edith Nesbit. Maybe it takes a special individual, or maybe it requires a female touch — many 19th-century male writers, such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Kingsley et al, found it hard not to come over all didactic and moral, though some female writers were not averse to these failings. Nesbit slyly parodies these aspects of Victorian literary fairytales at the end of “The Mixed Mine” when she concludes

“There is no moral to this story, except… But no – there is no moral.”

And yet morality lies deeply embedded in most of these dozen stories — the wicked meet their just deserts, or maybe just don’t profit from their wickedness; the meek inherit the earth, or at least don’t lose out. She subverts your expectations, but in a nice way, leaving the reader challenged but also satisfied.

As was the way with much fiction then Continue reading “Honest and very human”

Filled with the marvellous

Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer
Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer

Fairy tales was the next genre to be discussed in the creative writing class, though I have to say that, following the precedent of ‘folktale’, I prefer the single-word form fairytale since fairies aren’t always the litmus test for this category. As usual this post will incorporate notes from the class with comments of my own.

Stith Thompson (editor of the Aarne–Thompson tale type index) suggested in The Folktale (1977) that fairytales are “of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes”. Further defining features include “an unreal world without definite locality or definite characters and […] filled with the marvellous”. In this Never Never Land “humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses”.

So much for the traditional fairytale: does that still hold true for its modern descendants?
Continue reading “Filled with the marvellous”