There’s a new, Christmas issue of Shiny New Books out today! I have written something for it. Here is a hint…
The Children Who Changed is the book I’ve been reading to my six-year-old daughter as a bedtime story. I found it in a charity bookshop the last time I was in Ipswich; I am not quite sure why I picked it up as this copy has lost its dust-jacket so I couldn’t really tell what it was about. But I am very glad that I did buy it, and so is my daughter! And since I can find very little information about David Fletcher or his work on the internet, I decided to write about it here, even though I don’t usually write about children’s books.
‘They’ve been in the wars all right. “Two legs detached, one arm missing and also an eye. Most of the hair pulled off, paint badly scratched, clothes badly torn.” Dear me! it would seem you are not very fond of your dolls,’ he continued severely. ‘You must have been using the poor things as footballs or something like that, which is scarcely the way to look after a couple of expensive and beautiful dolls. Even Dr Pulitzer’s Special Composition won’t last long under that sort of treatment.’
He looked at the children so sternly that Tessa felt almost frightened. Lucy, meanwhile, was opening her mouth to explain that it wasn’t them but Turn-up, their new Spaniel puppy, who had done all the damage but before she could speak Mr Moon had gone on.
‘You should put yourselves in their place, then you’d treat them more kindly. Just supposing you were suddenly turned into dolls. You wouldn’t like that, now would you?’
‘I don’t think I’d mind it,’ said Tessa. ‘In fact I might rather like it.’
Mr Moon is the disquieting proprietor of the doll’s hospital in the village where Lucy and Tessa Trevelyan live and, it seems, a champion of dolls’ rights. After he has repaired the sisters’ dolls, Mabel and Margaret, Tessa notices that the dolls’ freshly painted faces no longer look so friendly. She also notices Mr Moon slip a mysterious packet into the dolls’ box. The sisters discover the packet to be a packet of ‘Dolls Tea. Special Magic Brew’ which, when touched to their dolls’ lips, enables them to talk. Margaret and Mabel suggest that they exchange places with Lucy and Tessa, so that the sisters can experience life as dolls. Although they are both uneasy about this, Lucy and Tessa agree. What could possibly go wrong?
The morning’s brightness had faded and thunder was in the air. Dark clouds had swept up from the south, yet the breeze had died down and, in the stillness that tells of approaching thunder, not even the most feathery willow leaf gave a quiver and for once even the sparrows had ceased their squabbling and chirping.
In this moment of stillness Lucy opened the strange black packet with the silver seal and emptied on to the floor four circular counters. Two were of shining silver and two of a dull, dead black. The silvery ones she placed, as Mr Moon had instructed, in front of herself and Tessa, the black ones in front of the dolls. Then, speaking together and with Tessa’s voice little more than a whisper, the two sisters said, ‘First we give all.’ As they spoke each pushed with the tip of a right-hand finger a silver counter across the hanky towards the motionless dolls. Then, and this time the left hand had to be used, they drew the two black counters towards them, saying, ‘Now we take all.’ Lastly, still speaking together but with Tessa’s voice now more of a whisper than ever, they chanted, ‘Let the exchange be complete.’
Crash! A terrible thunderclap, following hard on the heels of a brilliant flash, greeted the word ‘complete.’ Lucy and Tessa felt dizzy. Their heads spun round. It seemed for a moment there was nothing to see except blackness filled with circles of silvery fire. Then, as these finally faded, they found that without a shadow of a doubt – they were dolls.
The basic premise of the book – that the children are changed into dolls – is actually pretty scary. As dolls, they can neither move nor speak if a human is near them or looking at them. They also have little control over their own lives, picked up and dropped at will. Mabel and Margaret, once freed from dollhood by the exchange, have no intention of returning to their proper state ever again. In one chapter, they throw Tessa and Lucy into the mill stream and stand on the bridge watching them float down towards the millwheel, knowing that as long as they are in sight they cannot swim to the bank and save themselves. However, since this a book intended for young children the existential horror is played down (as my daughter said to me sternly, ‘All stories end happily’); the tone is cheery and the girls remain generally optimistic (rightly). While I have a few quibbles about some of the logic, it’s a well-paced story and we both enjoyed it.
Although some of the characters behave cruelly, both children and readers understand their motivations. Within the world of the book, in which toys are actually alive, Mr Moon’s desire to encourage children to take better care of their dolls is entirely moral and praiseworthy, if his method is shocking. Mabel and Margaret’s treachery and attempted murder are born from their terror of returning to a dreadful powerlessness and a life of abuse at the hands of careless children: this powerlessness is something that all children understand well and Tessa and Lucy forgive them (although in the end they give them away because they cannot quite bear to have them nearby after what they have done).
There is an interesting moment in the toy cupboard when Lucy realises that she may have to remain a doll for ever:
‘But what about us? We can’t remain here,’ Lucy cried in dismay.
‘Why ever not?’ asked Blue Bunny. ‘If we can why ever not you?’
‘Because – because we just can’t,’ replied Lucy stamping her foot.
In one sense Lucy is right: the exchange has violated the natural order of things in which you are what you seem, doll, child, dog, flower. Externally a doll while internally a child, Lucy’s outer and inner self are no longer in harmony. This must be reconciled. Yet at the same time, Lucy can only answer Blue Bunny’s question by claiming that she is special and somehow innately more deserving of a privileged existence (as a child, not as a toy) than he (or Mabel or Margaret) is. And Lucy realises that this is impossible to say to Blue Bunny because it is unfair. It is only a sort of accident of birth which places toys where they are and children where they are, and gives one group a powerless existence and bestows privilege and freedom on the other group. And this cannot be justified and yet it is the way of things. But I think that Fletcher is making a point about social justice here.
I have tried to find out a little more about David Fletcher. The Children Who Changed was published by Michael Joseph in 1961, by which time Fletcher had also written three other books for children: Miss Primrose, Angelo Goes to the Circus and The Blue Elephants. Miss Primrose was published by Hutchinson in 1955 and illustrated by Rosalie K. Fry. There is an outline of the story here.
On the quay at Las Palmas, waiting to be bought by passengers coming ashore from visiting ships, stands a row of dolls. Among them is the beautiful, kind hearted but proud Miss Primrose who has run away from home to prove she is "the most beautiful doll in the world". Her vanity receives a rude shock when all the other dolls are sold before her...
I can find no information at all about Angelo Goes to the Circus, but Amazon lists The Blue Elephants as having been published by Hutchinson in 1957 and a sales description states that it was illustrated by Doritie Kettlewell. And that is everything that I’ve managed to find out about David Fletcher: if anyone knows more or can point me to some more information I’d be very grateful! On the strength of The Children Who Changed, it’s a pity that he’s not better known and that his work is out of print. I had a little more luck with his illustrators. Rosalie K. Fry, who did the pictures for Miss Primrose, was also a writer of a number of books including Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry (1959), which was filmed as The Secret of Roan Inish. There is an interesting post about her here.
(The photograph of the book in its original dust-jacket is from here.)
When Lory first announced that today would be Elizabeth Goudge Day, I thought what a splendid idea it was and wondered what I might read to join in. I have had my grandmother’s copy of Green Dolphin Country sitting unread on my shelves for a while. But then I just happened to be fiddling around on the internet as one does and just happened to see that Miss Goudge (I can’t imagine she’d have cared to be referred to as ‘Goudge’ or ‘Elizabeth’) had written a children’s book I’d never heard of before, The Valley of Song. It seems it ran to only one edition (in 1951) and copies of it are rather expensive. However, this review by Lory intrigued me, so I sold my first-born and purchased the cheapest copy I could find. The stakes were fairly high: was this book worth selling my child for?
The story is set in about the 1830s or 1840s in the Hard, a small town on the river which makes its living building ships. Tabitha Silver, fat, cheerful and kind but often naughty, jumps out of the classroom window when Dame Threadgold’s back is turned and runs off to the yard to visit her friend Job, an elderly wood-carver. But Job is depressed, for work has stalled on the tea clipper which was being built for for the East India Company, since the money for it has run out. At dawn the next morning, Tabitha takes him off, accompanied by the Master Builder’s dog and some snails, out of the town and into a secret, quarry ‘all overgrown with travellers’ joy, honeysuckle, sweetbrier, rowan trees and hawthorn [...] the perfect children’s playground’, where a tiny door leads to the Valley of Song. There they find the Workshop, where all the world is made, and they ask for wood to finish building the ship. In subsequent visits, Tabitha and other characters explore some of the wonderful parts of the Valley of Song and request more materials so that they can complete the ship. Of course, things from this magical world are finer than anything in ours and what they are given is very special: silken cloud for the sails, Vulcan’s gold for the hull’s casing. The workers of the Hard are delighted to be able to use them. They create the most beautiful ship ever seen.
That is the plot: there isn’t any real conflict or tension, the delight of the book lies in its marvellous descriptions of the world of the Valley of Song. It’s a place where nothing hunts or kills anything else, and encompasses woods and meadows, beautiful gardens, the sea and the mountains. It’s watched over by the creatures of the Zodiac, and inhabited by the Good People, who are fairies, gnomes, dwarves, etc., and the Great Ones, who seem most like angels. Children can enter this world, and so can animals and birds and fishes, but grown-ups can only do so if they are children at heart and usually even then only in their dreams. However, children can bring such grown-ups with them. There are many ways in and out of the Valley of Song, through dreams but also through forge fires, wells, stables and even kennels.
The Valle of Song is not, however, Heaven. There is, at its highest point, a Crystal Door which is the entrance to Heaven and the Dead pass through it:
Below them the slopes of ice and snow fell away so steeply upon either side that the great gorges and crevices beneath were filled with shadow, like a purple sea from which the ice peaks rose like islands. Gliding over the sea, in and out between these islands, were wonderful sailing-ships with billowing sails, pearl-coloured and filled with light. [...] They were great ships, yet they sped forward as airily as though their sails were made of thistledown. The wind that carried them was still soundless, and the shadowy waves they rode made no whisper. The silence was vast and deep. [...] She ran after [Simon], turning by a tower of ice and finding herself running uphill upon a path that was narrower and more dangerous than ever. But she was not conscious of the precipices because the great cloud-ships had risen up from the depths below and were sailing upon either side of her. If she could have stopped, she believed she could almost have touched their lovely shining sails. She could not stop, but as she ran she was gloriously aware of the beauty close beside her, and aware too of hidden decks below the sails thronged with people. Shiploads of people were sailing along beside her, people who out in the world were called dead [...]
An important link between the Hard and the Valley of Song is the value of work, specifically, of crafting. The whole of the Valley of Song is dedicated to making things that for our world, while life in the Hard revolves around building ships:
‘It is hard work to build a ship,’ said Anthony. ‘It is hard work to plant a garden. It is hard work to make a world. But only in workshops are men happy.’
The love and joy that people have in making things is transmitted to the objects they make and they acquire a sort of life. This happens most clearly with the ship. Tabitha and Job are standing on her skeleton when they feel her come alive: ‘It seemed to Tabitha that a sudden shiver passed through the planks benath her feet, a tremor like the rising of sap.’ The work ethic is a very Protestant value, but here Elizabeth Goudge is I think taking it further to say that what we create takes on a part of our selves and our lives and makes them something more than just inanimate objects. I suppose it’s a sort of animism. I think I wrote before about a generous pantheistic quality to her spirituality, and that is evident here in her feeling for the life of things but also for the importance of the Zodiac in the Valley of Song and the existence of fairies alongside angels. I think she has a kinship with C.S. Lewis and Narnia, as well as with George MacDonald (as Lory has rightly pointed out); she certainly has a talent for creating amazing worlds you long to visit.
For the Valley of Song is just so wonderfully beautiful and so perfectly described, with a sensitivity to inner as well as outer beauty. I would like to quote chunks of it at you all day. For instance, there is this exquisite and poignant passage about the experiences in the Valley of Julie, the wife of the Master Builder, whose children all died in infancy:
Never in her life had she longed for anything so much as she longed to come to that country. She could see it clearly now, violet-shadowed golden hills and deep blue valleys, fields of rosy flowers and orchards of silver-leaved trees with golden fruit, and above them the shining snows with the stars among their domes an peaks, and long gleaming slopes of white where surely angels paced. [...] The globe of light about her was dissolving, but the starry children were holding her hands and she was running with them down the blue slope of the sky. And then their cool hands loosed hers and she was running alone down the golden slope of a hill to a deep blue misty valley filled with singing. The hill-side beneath her feet was soft as a cloud yet firm with unconquerable joy, and in case the joy of this country should at first be more than she could bear, the merciful air below her hid the treasure of the valley while she ran to it.
It took her and held her for a moment, as her mother might have done, and then set her down upon a path of silvery moss that led through a long aisle of those silver-leaved trees, long and narrow like a silver lance of joy, and at the far end of the aisle she saw as through a doorway a meadow of rosy flowers and children playing there. She ran and ran, and she blessed the length of the aisle, because at every step she took the piercing of this silver lance of joy grew easier to bear. She ran on [...]
(I love ‘a silver lance of joy’.)
Was The Valley of Song worth the price of a child? Oh definitely. (Actually I didn’t sell my child. I love books but not quite that much. Not quite.) I can see that its appeal to children, even in 1951, might be limited because of the lack of a compelling plot and the lengthy descriptions; but I do hope that it will be reprinted because I am sure that a lot of older readers would enjoy this enchanting and very special book.
Thank you Lory, for hosting this Elizabeth Goudge Day and prompting me to discover The Valley of Song!
(Jessie Willcox Smith, cover illustration for The Bedtime Book by Helen Hay Whitney, Duffield/Chatto 1907; shamelessly stolen from Annabel)
It’s that time of year, my least favourite, when the spangly pleasures and anticipations of Christmas have passed and it seems as if the cold, grey days of winter will never end. Boo. Those of us who live in houses without central heating are finding it hard to leap out of a cosy bed in the mornings and into the icy air, and those of us who are teachers are administering exams on our poor students. (And cackling evilly.) And many of us are comfort-reading, especially those who are taking part in Iris and Ana’s initiative.
I have been comfort-reading for a while now: for some reason the world’s horrors seem to have been pressing in more insistently lately, and the failures of the climate summit in Paris depressed me. I don’t want any more horror and depression in my reading at the moment, thanks anyway. I want to be reminded of humanity’s goodness before I turn into a bitter old witch. Iris and Ana define comfort-reading as reading books that are very likely to bring us comfort and joy, and that seems to sum it up nicely.
So what do I read when I comfort-read? Perhaps a little oddly, my comfort-reading of choice used to be Golden Age detective novels: those green Penguins of Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin, John Dickson Carr et al. A jolly murder or two, neatly wrapped up at the end, with lots of outdated slang and complicated alibis and eccentric detectives. Now it’s much more likely to be a children’s book and in the last few weeks I’ve gorged on Diana Wynne Jones, Joan Aiken, Cassandra Golds, Rumer Godden, Nina Beachcroft and Frances Hardinge. Perhaps one of the reasons I haven’t been feeling much of an urge to write about books has been that I’m slightly embarrassed to be reading quite so many children’s books yes I am a book snob. But I’ve also been reading a little adult fiction: that old stalwart, I Capture the Castle, and Guard Your Daughters, House of Mist and The Rabbit Back Literature Society, all of which are new to me but have been beguilingly reviewed on other blogs and somehow called to my present state of mind. I’m eyeing my generous Christmas gift to myself, a second-hand Folio Socity copy of The Once and Future King; its only disadvantage is that I can’t heave it onto the bus with me when I go to work without denting a pensioner or two.
I was thinking then about what characterises these books and makes them good comfort-reads. Formally and in terms of prose style they’re not too demanding. Anne Boyer and her Garments Against Women are sitting on the shelf until my mood changes. I don’t want to work too hard during a comfort-read, I want the author to hold my hand.
Predictability is a feature of many of the novels: quite a few are books I’ve read before, at least once, or are by authors I’ve encountered before, so there is very little risk of my not enjoying them. Some I associate with my childhood, tingeing the predictability with nostalgia. And the Golden Age detective novels also combine nostalgia, in the form of the earlier and mid-twentieth century, with predictability – I may not work out the identity of the murderer but I know that the detective will and that order will be restored by the end of the story. The children’s books too tend to end in a satisfying way, with some sort of resolution.
Another pattern is that many of the books are set at one remove from the reality I know. There are talking dolls and cats, witches, fairies and changelings, books that change their contents; the stories occur in the past, in other worlds and where other rules apply. I don’t know anyone who lives in a castle in the 1930s any more than I have visited a creepy Finnish town like Rabbit Back or a mist-wreathed hacienda beside a sinister, bride-containing lake. It goes without saying that all of these are novels. I have never felt compelled to read non-fiction when I’m in need of comfort. I do dip into Walter de la Mare’s anthology Come Hither sometimes; the poems fit the criteria of nostalgia, childhood, fantasy, being not too demanding to interpret.
And there may be a melancholy to some of the books – I’m thinking here of I Capture the Castle and Cassandra Golds’ works, in particular – but it’s a rich, Romantic sort of sadness which is connected with the best of human impulses, with care for others, rather different from despair. Perhaps House of Mist pushes this melancholy towards masochism...
What about you? Do you sometimes read books for comfort? What do you choose and why?
My daughter is five and while one of her three best friends is a boy, she identifies most strongly with girls. She draws pictures of girls, and she like stories and films about girls. She’ll tolerate a certain amount of boyness, but usually this needs to be offset by a few girls. This had never been a problem – for Edmund there is Lucy, for Moomintroll the Snork Maiden, for Danny Fox the princess. (Winnie the Pooh, however, was fine, perhaps because the characters are animals; still, it hasn’t become a favourite.)
Then, the other day, I found my old copy of Lucy Boston’s The Castle of Yew. I felt sure my daughter would enjoy it.
‘Is Joseph a boy?’ asked my daughter. ‘Is Robin a boy?’
She looked unimpressed. I had a feeling that she was about to reject the book.
Now, not very long ago I came across an article by Michelle Nijhuis in which she explained how she had read The Hobbit to her daughter, but had changed Bilbo Baggins into a girl. Her daughter had insisted that Bilbo was a girl and so, after a couple of chapters, Michelle agreed. Her daughter was satisfied, and Michelle was slightly surprised to find that her own expectations of a heroine were subtly challenged. The article is very interesting and well worth reading, and luckily I remembered it at this moment.
‘We could make Joseph into a boy this time, if you like,’ I said.
She thought that was a good idea, and we romped through the entire book despite my occasional lapses into ‘he’ (all of which were swiftly corrected by my audience). The fact that Margery Gill’s wonderful pictures all clearly showed two boys didn’t trouble us in the least.
It is a magical book and we both enjoyed it a lot. However, I found that I regretted switching Joseph’s gender but not Robin’s. Robin is older and in charge: he is the knight in their fantasy and Joseph is his page. Joseph, therefore, was often rather passive and subservient to Robin in a way that perhaps wouldn’t have irritated me had they both been boys or both been girls but did annoy me now that Joseph was Girl Joseph but Robin remained Boy Robin. Far from challenging gender stereotypes, as Girl Bilbo had done, Girl Joseph in fact slightly reinforced them, and because I had half-created her and thus this otherwise needlessly gendered situation, I was a bit cross with her. I also felt that I’d let Lucy Boston down somehow, throwing her sensitive characterisation out of balance and introducing a complication which was not present before. Next time we read this book, we might decide to have Girl Robin too, I think that would work very well. Or who knows, maybe we’ll be up to reading a story about boys... In any case, if we do any gender-switching of literary characters again (and I feel that this is quite likely) I will approach the exercise with more care.
Have you ever done anything similar to this, either in reading aloud to someone else or reading a book to yourself?
(Cover of Puffin edition of The Castle of Yew, the illustration on which is by Margery Gill, found here.)
(‘Sipping their Cups of Dew’, ‘Acheta Domestica’, Episodes of Insect Life, Vol. II (London: Reeve and Benham, 1850); taken from Melanie Keene, Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain (Oxford: OUP, 2015))
I love holidays. I love not working and lounging about in the sunshine and reading lots and not getting dressed until lunchtime and playing with my daughter. I have never understood people who say they’d still work if they won the Lottery. I wouldn’t! I remember on the teacher-training course I followed, all the trainers said sternly that if you wanted to be a teacher because of the lovely long holidays, you Wouldn’t Last Long in teaching. ‘Bother’, thought I, but three years down the line I’m still hanging in there and yes, enjoying the holidays; perhaps there are exceptions to that rule.
So, just in case you aren’t a teacher or don’t have a child at a Belgian school, I should tell you that the last two weeks have been Easter holidays and thus I have not really strayed near the computer. I am sure that you all know by now that the latest wallet-worrying edition of Shiny New Books is out and as usual stuffed to the gills with good things.
I have two reviews in there this time. The first is a new collection of Victorian fairy tales edited by Michael Newton. This was terrific fun and highly recommended: there are other similar collections but this one contains stories not in print anywhere else and a really good introduction by Newton. The other is Science in Wonderland, by Melanie Keene, an exploration of what happens when nineteenth-century enthusiasm for science meets fairy tales and produces some truly bizarre educational texts for children. The dreadful photograph at the beginning of this post is from there (taken by me, as are all the pictures in this post).
Melanie Keene mentions an album by two Victorian teenagers, Madalene and Louisa Pashley, pages from which were published in 1980. The album sounded so appealing I had to track down a copy, of course not much effort with the internet. Madalene and Louisa were enthusiastic entomologists, and their album, lavishly illustrated with their watercolours, outlines some of their adventures (bizarrely written in the personae of middle-aged spinsters). The sisters often shrink to insect size. Their adventures include ‘DARING NIGHT EXPEDITIONS’, lassoing glow worms, being outwitted by a grasshopper and capturing a dragonfly, all very dramatic. However, their lives are complicated by a succession of irritating governesses (‘none of them was interested in beetles and all of them persisted in setting us SUMS’), their ‘sour’ older sister Georgie whose mere presence causes it to rain, a staid drawing master and their admiral Papa, whose duties consist of ‘discussing repairs to ships of the line, and making arrangements for DINNER PARTIES and croquet matches’. Were I not a teacher with lots of holidays, I think I’d be an admiral, that’s a job I could manage. It all ends happily: ‘After that Papa decided that we were too old for governesses and too idle for drawing masters so we were able to entomologise as much as we liked with no one to bother us.’
(The book is The Adventures of Madalene and Louisa: Pages from the Album of L. and M.S. Pasley, Victorian Entomologists, introduced by Tim Jeal, London: William Collins, 1980, should you be interested.)
Despite the unseasonably warm weather, days of sunshine and late flowers, the early dusk, leafless branches and occasional morning mists are a reminder that autumn is very much with us and for once I’ve noticed it in my reading habits.
Isak Dinesen: The Life of Karen Blixen, by Judith Thurman – I’ve been rereading some of Seven Gothic Tales and it seemed the moment to find out more about Tanne/Isak/Karen/the Baroness, a fascinating, brilliant and troubled writer. The great moment of her life was the time she spent running her coffee plantation in Africa where she felt a deep affinity with the Kikiyu and Maasai; the many years she lived back in Denmark were a disappointing coda for her, but for us quite the reverse since it was then that she wrote her famous tales. This is a very good biography, all the more because its subject always preferred a good story to mundane truth and so it must have been difficult sometimes to weasel out fact from what we might boringly consider fiction.
The Angelic Avengers, by Isak Dinesen pretending to be Pierre Andrézel – Thurman explains that Dinesen wrote this, her only novel, during the Second World War, but afterwards practically disowned it. It’s gothic, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s by Isak Dinesen, so I bought a copy and read it. More in a separate post, but it’s a lovely read.
A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness – It’s totally Harriet’s fault that I bought this (for the princely sum of 1p, sorry Deborah) and there was much to entice: a witch, a magic book, the history of alchemy. And really it’s a tribute to the author that she painted her hero, Matthew, so believably that I hated him so very, very much. I could not bear him or the slushy love scenes (yes I am the person who shouts at James Bond to stop kissing the lady and get on with the adventure! and I was doing the equivalent here), and the pace just slowed to nothing in the middle. And yet. I read the whole thing, and once my loathing of Matthew abates I expect I shall read the sequel, which is set in 1590 in England and may involve Marlowe, Shakespeare and the ‘Wizard Earl’, Henry Percy. I can’t really resist that.
The Carbonel books, by Barbara Sleigh – I think I last read these when I was about twelve, but they are just as good thirty years later and absolutely the ticket for a fuzzy-headed cold. Carbonel is King of the Fallowhithe cats, but has to enlist the help of Rosemary Brown and her friend John when his kingdom is threatened. Mrs Cantrip, the local witch, is a marvellous character – cantankerous, sloppy, lazy and unable to resist livening up the washing-up with a spot of magic; needless to say I identified strongly with her although my nose isn’t quite as big as hers. Yet.
A Dead Man in Deptford, by Anthony Burgess – Now that I look at what I’ve been reading, it seems clear to me that I was inspired to pick up this novel about Christopher Marlowe by A Discovery of Witches. It’s written in a sort of Elizabethan-inflected English, and so far there’s been drinking, fighting, wordplay, theatre and espionage, what you’d expect really; I’m enjoying it more than the Harkness (sorry again Deborah).
Apart from that I’ve read a couple of books for the in-betweeny edition of Shiny New Books, which comes out at the beginning of December. Both books were splendid, but more I cannot tell since the editors of SNB are famed for their disembowelling of bloggers who let slip too much before the magazine’s publication. And I can barely wait to get started on Fog Island Mountains, the first novel by Michelle Bailat-Jones, who maintains a lovely blog at pieces. It slid through the letter-box a couple of days ago and is described as ‘A haunting and beautiful reinterpretation of the Japanese kitsune folktale tradition, [...] a novel about the dangers of action taken in grief and of a belief in healing through storytelling.’
What have you been reading? Any recommendations? And are you looking forward to any new publications in the next few months?
(Black-and-white illustration by V.H. Drummond, from Carbonel, by Barbara Sleigh (Harmondsworth: Longman Young Books, 1973; first published 1955; from here)
Posted at 11:20 AM in anna airy, children's books, christopher marlowe, isak dinesen, michelle bailat-jones, nanni balestrini, twentieth-century literature, twenty-first century literature, twenty-first-century art | Permalink | Comments (7)
Tags: a dead man in deptford, a discovery of witches, a weeping woman, anthony burgess, barbara sleigh, carbonel, connie toebe, deborah harkness, fog island mountains, isak dinesen, judith thurman, karen blixen, lisa stock, michelle bailat-jones, shiny new books, the angelic avengers, v.h. drummond
Cuthbert Vane twirled his moustaches, sucked another deep breath from his opium pipe and with a maniacal ‘Ha HA!’ flipped over another page of the book and slashed his fountain pen wildly through a couple of lines.
At least, that’s what I imagine happened. Last night I settled down to read Lewis Carroll’s lesser-known novel, The Story of Sylvie and Bruno. I had been anticipating this for some time and was excited. I read about forty pages and then I had to put it down because my brain was exploding in sparkly showers of ‘What the HELL is going on?’ It was the craziest reading experience I can remember having. I could not even enjoy the sections where I understood what was happening because I was reeling so much from the working-out of how on earth we had got there.
Now I appreciate that books are primarily the words they contain; the form of the container is secondary. Still, since there must be a container, I prefer it to be attractive. I like a nice edition, me. Especially a nice second-hand hardback, perhaps a little battered, definitely with an inscription. So why would I buy a bland new paperback copy of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno when I could have a pretty hardback illustrated by Harry Furniss? (Given to Bertha at Christmas 1904 by Uncle Jim and Aunt Jessie and somehow found its way into the Youth Library Collection of Bromley Public Libraries, since you ask. It is pristine.)
The answer is: because the pretty, old edition is in fact abridged. No, not abridged, butchered by someone undoubtedly fuelled by drugs or hatred of Lewis Carroll or the need for strips of printed text with which to construct blackmail letters to young men who had frittered away too much of the pater’s money at the card table. Someone – the publisher? Abridger? – had prefaced my edition (Macmillan, 1904) thus:
This book, culled from the two volumes of Sylvie and Bruno, contains only the portions about the two fairy children (with the original illustrations) in the words of Lewis Carroll, without any extraneous matter. A few words only have in some places been added or altered, when absolutely necessary to dovetail the different paragraphs together, so as to make the “Story” one consecutive whole. The humour in this book is so unique and fascinating, that The Story of Sylvie and Bruno is likely in this form to become as popular as the Alice books by the same author. The two-volume edition is still published as before.
How Cuthbert must have chortled when he read or wrote that preface. (I feel putting ‘Story’ in inverted commas is profoundly telling.) The result of his frenzied antics with the red pen? An unidentified but apparently invisible narrator, moving between two worlds, neither of them ours. Characters who appear and vanish without warning, who refer to remarks nobody has ever made and things which have not happened and who exit gardens then, as soon as they are outside the walls, exit them again. Why they are doing any of this is anybody’s guess. It’s incomprehensible, like a remembered dream – and dreams do seem to be significant to the novel, but in what way I could not begin to fathom.
Yes, it is my own fault and I should have known better. So I am ordering the paperback as soon as finances allow. If you can recommend a good (paper) edition, please tell me!
(Cuthbert and friends celebrate the mutilation of Carroll’s text: illustration by Harry Furniss from Lewis Carroll, The Story of Sylvie and Bruno; London: Macmillan and Co., 1889; from here)
It’s the last week of term, I’m finishing my paperwork, waiting for my exam results and thinking about the future and what to do next (learning to drive a car is definitely featuring here; I keep telling myself that it can’t be as difficult as following a teacher-training course in Dutch, please don’t disillusion me!). Writing more here, and more about books and less about me, is also part of the future. But today I lack energy, time and focus, so instead here are three links for you.
(The Moomins and the Great Flood; detail from the cover art from here)
The first is Jeanette Winterson, writing about the Moomins, and remembering how Finn Family Moomintroll affected her as a ten-year-old.
I wrote out random words and stuck them on the wall above my bed with flour and water. This got me into trouble but I didn’t care. The words, random, alive, were making a kind of leaf mould in my mind. From that rich and fertile place came language of a different order.
Poetic disorder is how language is made. Only later is it codified. Naming starts as joy. Think of the pleasure a child has in finding words and inventing words and forming sentences that are also shapes. Words are ear and mouth before they are pen and paper. Words run away; you have to catch them.
The second is Medieval Memoria Online.
(St Jerome in the Desert, outer panels of an early sixteenth-century triptych made for the Van Beesd Van Heemskerck-Van Diemen family, from the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen; MeMO memorial object ID 504, 25-06-2013)
MeMo is a newly established database of inventories and descriptions of pre-1580 commemorative objects and texts from the Netherlands. It has been set up by the University of Utrecht, and includes images, inscriptions, epitaphs, altarpieces, tomb monuments and archival sources.
Researchers of medieval memoria consider the commemoration of the dead (i.e. memoria) a complex phenomenon, in which prayer for the care of the souls of the deceased, the care for the poor and the sick, commemoration of the deeds of the living and the dead and political aspects are inextricably linked.
It is fascinating...
(Claire Loder, big face, ceramic; from here)
The artist Claire Loder has been working with elderly people in the rural Cotswolds, ‘to help learn or rekindle skills while reminiscing and creating lasting memories in clay’. She has also created ceramic portraits of them, which are being shown in ‘Making Memories’ at New Brewery Arts in Cirencester. Her work is lovely; do go and see it if you have the chance. A commemoration of the living.
Tags: claire loder, jeanette winterson, making memories, medieval memoria online, new brewery arts, st jerome in the desert, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, the moomins and the great flood, tove jansson
Things I should be doing right now:
But instead I am writing here... Two things have helped me through the past few weeks – well, two non-human things, my family have been lovely supportive human things – cheese and Narnia. I don’t have much to write about cheese and certainly nothing of interest, but I do want to write about the Narnia books. So I shall.
I hadn’t reread all seven books since I was a child and I was a little hesitant. I remember loving the stories very much, but since then they have come in for a lot of criticism, notably from Philip Pullman (another writer whose work I love). I didn’t really want to return to Narnia and find all the magic rubbed off and just a bundle of twigs of racism, misogyny and religious propaganda remaining.
(Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, illustration by Pauline Baynes for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950; found at Brian Sibley His Blog, which has a nice piece about Baynes)
Well, I reread all the books, which makes it quite obvious that I enjoyed them (very much!). However, I was scrupulous in amassing evidence for and against the charges brought against C.S. Lewis, and while I’m sure that Lewis has more than enough advocates I feel impelled to write my reactions here, why were web-logs invented if not for this sort of bellyaching? Since I’m feeling all bullet-pointy and subheadingy today:
Lewis is an expert synthesiser of myths, religions and fairy tales. In Narnia he has picked out all the best bits from especially Greek but also English, Norse and Western European literature – fauns, centaurs, satyrs, dryads, giants, talking animals, magic potions, etc. – to create a world we all want to inhabit too. There are echoes of the Odyssey in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a play on Hamlet in Rilian’s relationships with his parents and the Lady of the Green Kirtle and endless allusions to the mediaeval English literature Lewis knew so well. Christianity is also a clear reference point, most obviously in the figure of Aslan and his sacrifice to save others in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Eustace’s ‘conversion’ and the words of the lamb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and the life beyond death in The Last Battle.
(Aslan by Pauline Baynes, from The Magician’s Nephew, London: The Bodley Head, 1955; found here)
But propaganda? Now I know you can have really quite insidious forms of propaganda, but aren’t you at some point supposed to make it clear that you should vote for Cyril or join the Purple Party or stop eating cauliflower? I realise that personal experience isn’t in any way statistically significant, but I’ve yet to encounter anyone who, as a child, even noticed the religious symbolism, let alone felt curious enough to visit a church as a consequence. It passed me by and I was brought up as a Catholic. Lewis could write ‘propaganda’ – because I suppose you could classify The Screwtape Letters as that – so it seems surprising that if he wanted to lure children to his Christian ways he didn’t do it more effectively. (Ha ha, here I show my bias...) It does seem odd now, because to Adult-Helen the Christian themes were very obvious.
(Bacchus and entourage by Pauline Baynes, from Prince Caspian, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1951; found here)
For me, the Christian element is part of the rich mix of sources on which Lewis drew to write the Narnia books. It informs the values he upholds and the behaviours he approves in his characters – kindness, honesty, courage. Yet these values are not held exclusively by Christians, I don’t think that by promoting them he is being particularly sectarian. His religion was important to Lewis personally, but it also contains some very good stories – stories which, as he might have known, often have their roots in still older religions and cultures. These stories include creation myths and gods (and goddesses) who die and are reborn. Although Christianity is no small part of the books, I can’t help reading them as celebrating not just religious values but, intertwined with them, the value of imagination. Yet with a different religious upbringing, how would I feel about this?
(Puddleglum, illustration by Pauline Baynes for The Silver Chair, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1954; found here)
As a white European, it’s more than possible that I miss subtle – maybe even not-so-subtle – racism, or dismiss it. Is this what I am about to do?
(Tashbaan by Pauline Baynes, from The Horse and His Boy, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1953; found here)
It is the Calormenes who attract the accusations of racism on the part of Lewis. If you read the books in the order in which Lewis wrote them, they first appear in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where they are described as having ‘dark faces and long beards. They wear flowing robes and orange-coloured turbans, and they are a wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient people’. They also deal in slaves. Much of the action in The Horse and his Boy occurs in Calormen, the land from which the children and the Talking Horses are trying to escape. Calormen lies to the south of Narnia across a desert, and its climate seems to be hotter. Pretty early on skin colour is remarked upon by a Calormene noble who wishes to buy Shasta from his foster-father: ‘This boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white like the accursed but beautiful barbarians who inhabit the remote North.’ I did feel more uncomfortable reading that. There’s nothing overt, just the alignment of beauty with the fair and white, and the contrast with the dark. The ruler of Calormen, the Tisroc, is a clever, cruel despot with a sense of humour; his son is brave but rash and greedy. The other Calormenes live in fear of their absolute ruler and are good at baths, gardens and intrigue. In The Last Battle they ally with Shift the Talking Ape to infiltrate Narnia and conquer it. In this book their worship of Tash and dedication to him of human sacrifices is more prominent, as is their skin colour – the Dwarves, admittedly characters we are not intended to like, repeatedly call them ‘Darkies’, which draws attention to this.
But the Calormenes are not the only villains in the Narnia books. Narnia and the children are generally threatened by outsiders, and the White Witch/Jadis, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, Uncle Andrew, the giants, the Telmarines and the slavers of the Lone Isles are apparently all white-skinned, or at least we are not told that they are dark which, I believe, for a white British author of the mid-twentieth century comes to the same thing. Moreover, there are sympathetic Calormene characters: Aravis, Emeth and to a lesser extent Lasaraleen.
My conclusion, after a lot of thought, is that it is the Calormene culture rather than race which Lewis is portraying as Other and in opposition to the culture of Narnia. Religion is included in that. I see the Calormenes as the imaginative, cultural and religious Other Lewis chose to create. To do so, just as he used one set of literary and cultural references to create Narnia, so he used another to create its opposite: chiefly, I think, the Arabian Nights but also Ottoman history and the history of ancient cultures. The society he imagines is, in Edward Saïd’s term, Orientalised, a fantasy on several levels and too general to be linked to any one ‘real’ society. And yet I think that it can make us uncomfortable, at least, it did me in The Last Battle, because of its conflict with Narnia. There’s a distinct whiff of ‘my English, classically educated and Christian culture is better than your vaguely foreign and exotic culture’ which, being part of his culture, I didn’t notice as a child. So, I don’t find the books to be racist, but perhaps rather Little Englander sometimes.
It’s hard to argue that Lewis is really sexist when he has created characters like Lucy, Jill and the tomboy Aravis. There are some casually sexist remarks bandied about, occasionally by the narrator, but when the girls hear them they usually challenge them:
‘I hope you’re right,’ said Susan. ‘I can’t remember all that.’
‘That’s the worst of girls,’ said Edmund to Peter and the Dwarf. ‘They never can carry a map in their heads.’
‘That’s because our heads have something inside them,’ said Lucy.
Nobody argues with Father Christmas when he says ‘battles are ugly when women fight’. Would you argue with Father Christmas though? Is this view unusual even today? And is the view of a character necessarily that of the author anyway? Susan, Lucy and Jill all fight with bows and arrows. In The Last Battle Jill is not only given a knife in lieu of a sword (she’s too small for an adult one) but apparently dies in battle.
(Tea with the beavers by Pauline Baynes, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as before; found here)
The adult women in the books are rather different. For a start, there aren’t many: Aunt Letty, who takes a no-nonsense approach to Jadis; Digory’s mother, Queen Helena and Caspian’s wife, who doesn’t even get her own name, who are all pretty characterless; the grotesque giant Queen of Harfang, whose seeming motherly feelings for the children disguise her literal desire to eat them; and of course Jadis/the White Witch and the Lady of the Green Kirtle, who is both substitute mother and intended wife for Rilian. With the notable exception of Mrs Beaver – whom I believe I can include in this discussion of adult females – the only admirable woman of any real note is the grown-up Polly, who never marries and somehow retains the spirit of Narnia into old age. But when you are a child reading these books, do you notice or care? You identify with the children, not the adults. It’s quite possible that Lewis had some interesting ideas or complexes about women and mothers in particular, but I don’t think any girl would read these books and come away diminished because of her gender. Still, perhaps your experience is different?
(The White Witch and Edmund, by Pauline Baynes, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as before; found here)
And then of course there is Susan. Pullman claims that Susan is cast into hell for liking boys and clothes, but this is not how I read it. Susan, like Peter, visits Narnia twice before being told by Aslan that she is too old to return. But Susan isn’t just too old, she is changing. Already in Prince Caspian she is sceptical, closing herself off to the wonders of Narnia. At the end of The Last Battle, when all the other children are finally back in Narnia together, her absence is explained thus:
‘Sir,’ said Tirian, […] ‘Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?’
‘My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.’
‘Yes,’ said Eustace, ‘and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, “What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”’
‘Oh Susan!’ said Jill, ‘she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.’
‘Grown up, indeed,’ said the Lady Polly. ‘I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.’
I interpret Susan’s ‘crime’ as rejecting Narnia and what it stands for – religion, the imagination. This isn’t necessarily a consequence of growing up, as Polly, Digory and Peter have all remained true, but becoming an adult does often coincide with a curbing of creativity, imagination and the religious impulse and a more worldly attitude. Perhaps Lewis wanted to make this point and needed to choose a character to show this. She’s not cast into hell, as Pullman says, there’s no suggestion she’s even on the train when it crashes, but she is shut out of Narnia, albeit of her own volition.
But – it is so unfair! This is Susan, who watched over Aslan after the White Witch had killed him and who danced with him in the beautiful dawn! Aslan seems to give everyone else a second chance…
(Pauline Baynes, cover illustration for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as before; found here)
My amazing and original conclusion: C.S. Lewis was a product, perhaps even a rather conservative one, of his time. He had religious convictions and these, like his literary loves, are present in the Narnia books. He wasn’t a card-carrying feminist but gives us some great heroines and some powerful villainesses in a very male-dominated culture. His Calormen is definitely Orientalised and presented as anathema to Narnia, but unless you believe that culture is the inevitable product of race, I don’t think you could argue that it’s racist. It is not unproblematic though. Overall, I acquit Lewis of all charges – except for being utterly mean to Susan, as a character rather than as a female. How could he do that to one of the Pevensies?
If anyone has managed to read this far without dying of combined boredom and exhaustion – what do you think of the Narnia books? Do you think that they are less innocent than I suggest?
(Surely everyone’s favourite mouse? Reepicheep, illustration by Pauline Baynes for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952; found here)
Tags: c.s. lewis, calormene, narnia, orientalising, pauline baynes, prince caspian, the last battle, the lion the witch and the wardrobe, the magician's nephew, the silver chair, the voyage of the dawn treader