Pretending to be grown-up

Eleanor Fitzsimons:
The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit
Duckworth 2019

There is only one way [to understand children]: to remember what you thought and felt and liked and hated when you yourself were a child. […] There is no other way.

Daisy Nesbit, Edith Bland and Mrs Tommy Tucker: just three of the many sides to one extraordinary character. One a fearful yet imaginative child, deprived of a father at an early age, shifting from pillar to post, to and fro across the English Channel; the second a dedicated socialist married to a prodigious womaniser, soon to become a successful writer of children’s fiction and friend to established and aspiring literati; the last a widow, remarrying for love but plagued by health issues, finally buried in a Kentish churchyard on Romney Marsh.

Edith Nesbit’s singular life — spanning over six decades, encompassing the late Victorian and Edwardian periods and witnessing momentous movements and events — is fully documented in this new Nesbit biography, the second in as many years, complete with references, a detailed index and a selection of some dozen images.

Exceedingly well researched, The Life and Loves of E Nesbit largely lets contemporary documents speak for themselves so that the reader may hear authentic voices and individual opinions, both so important in gauging the impact this woman had on those who met her, knew her, and read her.

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Time no longer

Philippa Pearce:
Tom’s Midnight Garden
Illustrated by Susan Einzig
OUP 2008 (1958)

When the dreamer dreams who dreams the dreamer? Do people change their essence as they age? And can Eternity be contained in a dream? Big questions, imponderable maybe, but ones raised by a reading of Tom’s Midnight Garden, first published over sixty years ago but retaining a freshness whilst reflecting the angst of childhood.

Though set in 1958 — when, incidentally, I was roughly the same age as young Tom — the story also harks back to the late Victorian period, specifically the late 1880s and 1890s. This is the time of the midnight garden, when orphan Hatty is growing up in a Cambridgeshire villa, reluctantly taken in by an unsympathetic aunt and largely left to her own devices.

Meanwhile — and it is a curious ‘meanwhile’ — Tom Long is sent to stay over summer with his aunt and uncle, in quarantine while his younger brother Peter recovers from measles. Like Hatty he is isolated from his contemporaries, and his yearning for company of his own age chimes in with the mystery of the grandfather clock that incorrectly marks the hours. At one witching hour, when thirteen is struck, Tom finds his way through the back door leading to a plot out of time.

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Outrage

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We are living through dangerous times, I think we all agree. Environmental disasters, virulent diseases, extremist politics, hate crimes, the threat of war, increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots. Anybody who suggests the future is rosy, that we are heading towards sunlit uplands, is an arrant fool — or else takes the rest of us for fools.

So this is a time when we should be channeling our outrage into more than just speaking out, maybe direct action or agitprop, right? We should be actively resisting, demonstrating, doing all in our power to turn hearts and minds in favour of benevolence and communitarianism, surely?

But what do I find myself increasingly doing as each day’s depressing news headlines impinge on my consciousness? I’m immersing myself in children’s fiction. Is this mere comfort reading? Escapism? Burying my head in the sand? Or is there a more profound, if perhaps unconscious, impulse behind this pattern?

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About children

1953 Coronation mug

Jan Mark: The One That Got Away.
Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
Roffo Court Press 2020

How have I not come across the fabulous Jan Mark before? I look over some of the titles of her children’s books, all written and published over some three decades from 1974, and find that not one rings a bell. Maybe they weren’t what I was avidly consuming then, or what our children brought back from the library, but I now find she represents a significant lacuna in my reading experience.

Collected here are some thirty short stories arranged by alphabetical order of titles; they represent a selection of varied narratives, from school stories to family vignettes via ghost tales and humorous anecdotes, speculative short fiction and flashbacks to life in the mid-20th-century, and everything else in between.

I can’t possibly comment on them all so I’ll point out the real highlights for me, the ones that lingered even more than others as I read through the collection over a month, though to be honest that could still be a lot more than the representative sample I was intending.

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Random rummaging and reliable references

shelves

The Ultimate Book Guide: Over 600 great books for 8-12s
Daniel Hahn and Leonie Flynn (editors) Susan Reuben (associate editor)
Anne Fine, Children’s Laureate 2001-3 (introduction)
A & C Black 2004

I couldn’t resist picking this up secondhand, especially as I love books that I can dip into, for both reliable references and for random rummaging. Despite not being completely up-to-date (what printed publication can ever be?) or truly comprehensive (as far as I can see most of the books are Eurocentric or North American, so very little world literature) this is a volume I shall hang on to — that is, unless I get my hands on the 2009 edition (subtitle: Over 700 Great Books for 8-12s).

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A book of delights

The Box of Delights (prop for the TV series: https://www.flickr.com/photos/danacea/491582034)

John Masefield: The Box of Delights
Illustrated by Judith Masefield
Mammoth 2000 (1935)

Imagine a child whose parents have separately died in tragic circumstances; a child who up to the age of ten is home-schooled, living with guardians who limit his reading so that he largely has recourse to just his own imagination; a child who has returned from his first term among strangers at boarding school, able to retreat back into that fantasy world of his own making.

Then imagine that child several decades later, successful in what he really wanted to do — to use his imagination in creative ways — looking back to that childhood. How would he recapture that wonder, the sense of play and the closet anxieties without turning his writing into autobiography?

Perhaps the way forward for John Masefield — given the accolade of Poet Laureate in 1930 — was to turn his past history on its head and make the dreamworld he’d conjured up more real than reality. This he appeared to have done in 1927 with The Midnight Folk, and this too is what he may have also done in 1935 with The Box of Delights.

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Comfort and joy

Erik Blegvad endpapers for The Winter Bear

Ruth Craft: The Winter Bear
Illustrated by Erik Blegvad
Collins Picture Lions 1976 (1974)

This is one of the most delightful of picture books for this time of year. A perfect blend of poetry and watercolour & ink illustrations, The Winter Bear tells the story of three children who set off for a brief brisk walk in the countryside as dusk and snow approach and discover something lodged, tatty and unloved, in some branches.

Retrieving it with difficulty they return home to render it presentable and something to be loved. As a mini-saga, a journey with a beginning, middle and end, it’s as beautiful a miniature to look at as well as to read aloud.

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Christmas delights

Above The Dardy, Llangattock, Crickhowell

We never had a Christmas in the country before. It was simply ripping…
— E Nesbit, New Treasure Seekers

Love it or loathe it, Christmas is coming. Even if modern Christmases are increasingly tawdry* (a perpetual cry, I’m sure) at least we have past literary Christmases to fall back on for a quantum of solace when modern commercialised Yuletides get too much to bear, when our childhood memories of more magical midwinters need reviving, when we want the traditional once-upon-a-time seasonal fare to give us reassurance and sustenance.

As you may have noticed, I recently reread and reviewed John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk as preparation for a readalong of his more familiar The Box of Delights for the Twitter readalong #DelightfulXmas.

I then took to wondering how children’s fantasy literature through the years has presented and evolved the seasonal theme; a few thoughts are offered here (links are mostly to my reviews).

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Upright people and witches

Nighttime
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John Masefield: The Midnight Folk Mammoth 2000 (1927)

“You must be the master in your own house. Don’t let a witch take the charge of Seekings. This is a house where upright people have lived. Let’s have no Endorings nor Jezebellings in Seekings.” — Grandmamma Harker’s message to Kay.

In 1885 orphan Kay Harker finds himself under the guardianship of the insensitive Sir Theopompous and the stern tutelage of an unnamed governess. His former companions, a collection of stuffed toys, have evidently been removed, their place taken by the declension of Latin adjectives for ‘sharp’, and by exercises in French, Divinity and the like.

When freed from lessons he quietly explores and investigates the surroundings of his ancestral home of Seekings, uncovering a nefarious plot to steal some long-lost treasure. He is therefore following family tradition and living up to the family name: the Harker shield displays three oreilles couped proper (that is, three disembodied flesh-coloured ears). So, true to form, Kay eavesdrops, harkening to conversations and learning from what he overhears.

Young Kay (whom we may imagine as around seven) inhabits a magic realist world midway between dreams, imagination and daily life, one inhabited by a combination of guardians and governesses, servants and smugglers, wild animals and witches, knights and toys, ancestors and archvillains.

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Timeslipping

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

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.

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A reprehensible rodent

The two Naughty Nancy picture books

John S Goodall:
Naughty Nancy, The Bad Bridesmaid
Macmillan 1975

John Goodall:
Naughty Nancy Goes to School
André Deutsch Ltd 1985

John Strickland Goodall (1908–1996) is an artist best known for his children’s picture books with Edwardian or Victorian themes, lovingly embellished with the paraphernalia of those eras, and all no doubt a nostalgic harking-back to the author’s own childhood straddling the reigns of Edward VII and George V.

The two Naughty Nancy books — both great favourites with our own children, and now their children — are typical of one of his approaches, that of using animals in period dress (mice, in this case).

These narratives, told entirely in images, without words, are laced liberally with the humour that comes from youngsters behaving badly but somehow getting away with it.

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An awful story

Illustration by John Dickson Batten from More English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs

William Mayne:
The Worm in the Well
Hodder Children’s Books 2003 (2002)

Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa’ll tell ye’s aall an aaful story,
Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa’ll tell ye ‘boot the worm.

The title of this children’s novel brought to mind a ballad a fellow student used to sing many decades ago. He was from County Durham and in amongst his faithful renditions of Dylan songs was a folksy doggerel about the Lambton Worm, a dreadful medieval creature eventually vanquished by the Heir of Lambton (though not before the Heir had brought down a curse on his descendants).

The traditional story is a familiar tale type in the mould of St George and the Dragon, and Perseus and the sea monster. What William Mayne did was to take elements from this and mix them with motifs from other myths, legends and fantasy, yet all in a fashion that can disconcert the unsuspecting reader, whether child or adult.

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Little things are important

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Nina Bawden: The Witch’s Daughter
Puffin Books 1969 (1966)

… little things are important. Even if they don’t always seem it. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. All the little bits don’t mean much on their own, till you fit them together to make a pattern.
—Tim, chapter 14

Makng a pattern. This is what the human brain is trying to do all the time in order to make sense of experiences. And that’s what the reader, in common with Tim in The Witch’s Daughter, is attempting with the seemingly random facts presented in its pages.

But life isn’t nice and ordered, is it? Sometimes the occasional facts refuse to fit the pattern, like odd socks in a drawer, or a misplaced piece in a jigsaw puzzle; and this novel, though it gives us a satisfying conclusion, doesn’t attempt to resolve all the loose ends. It a strange way, this gives it an authenticity and a realism rare in much children’s literature of this period.

And from the title you might be expecting a surfeit or at least a sufficiency of the supernatural but contrary to expectations this aspect is so muted as to cause you to doubt that it’s actually present. Nevertheless I think an underlying theme is sensitivity, a sensitivity which may include feelings and perceptions that everyday folk can be unaware of.

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Toothsome fun

Christianna Brand:
Nurse Matilda
Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
Bloomsbury 2005 (1964)

And as they spoke — lo and behold! — there was a knock at the door, and there stood a small, stout figure dressed in rusty black; and she said, ‘Good evening, Mr and Mrs Brown, I am Nurse Matilda.’

Well!

She was very ugly — the ugliest person you ever saw in your life!

With this unpreposessing description we are introduced to a character who had figured in stories told over generations in the author’s family. In Nurse Matilda and its sequels Christianna Brand gives her version of a type of governess that would have been familiar in Victorian and Edwardian times, dressed in ‘rusty black’, stern in manner and almost witch-like; yet beneath a harsh exterior one hopes for a matronly individual with children’s best interests at heart.

The Brown household consists of the parents, the regular assortment of staff, and “a huge family of children; and they were terribly, terribly naughty.” Terribly naughty is almost an understatement: an uncountable number of Brown offspring (the author dares the reader to identify them all) are the most devilish of imps in hell you can imagine, over whom their parents and an endless succession of despairing “nurses and nannies and governesses” are unable to exercise any control.

But the arrival (only marginally less spectacular than that of Mary Poppins) of the much vaunted Nurse Matilda “in rusty black” promises to put a damper on the mayhem; a sharp rap on the floor with her big black stick — a counterpart of the more famous parrot-headed umbrella — is ever the prelude to the children learning lessons the hard way. “Your children will require seven lessons,” the parents are told, and that’s what the little terrors get.

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Findism, not escapism

Kidslit: a random selection of children’s fiction

Katherine Rundell:
Why You Should Read Children’s Books
Even Though You Are So Old and Wise
Bloomsbury Publishing 2019

This insightful and beautifully written essay fits into a slim 63-page hardback but contains as many worthy gems as many a longer study. In nearly a dozen sections Katherine Rundell, herself a children’s author, makes a powerful case for juvenile fiction not being inferior to adult fiction but worthy in its own right; and, more than that, it can offer what much adult fiction can’t or won’t.

The author tries to put her finger on what those qualities are and, in my opinion, pretty much succeeds. All this review will aim to do is to give a flavour of the main points she enumerates.

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