Home is where the heart is…in your imagination

Two of my favourite ingredients here: books about houses and the children’s author Joan Aiken.

Joan Aiken

Farrs1   We have just been saying goodbye to an old family home, where my Grandparents used to live, and where my mother Joan Aiken spent most of her childhood before she went away to school at the age of twelve.  During her lifetime she had the good fortune to be able to go back there whenever she was in the country.  Now, thanks to her writing, as in this piece from 1980,  I can go there whenever I choose.

Joan wrote:

“When I was a child, I was lucky enough to live in a very beautiful place in Sussex, England. Our cottage, which was quite small, perched on top of a steep bank behind a gnarled laurel tree, and a quince tree which was covered with pink blossom in spring and quinces in fall. Once a woman came to the front door and wanted to buy the quince tree. Imagine…

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The magic of Green Knowe

The Children of Green Knowe – Lucy M Boston (first published 1951)

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston cover illustration by Peter Boston Faber paperback

Another read just perfect at this time of year, and especially in this year’s weather. It’s winter and the land is flooded. The rain is unceasing, rivers have burst their banks, lanes have turned into rivers, meadows into lakes. Sound familiar? But if you’re cold and fed up and worried about logistics, fantasising only about a fortnight in Antigua, step into Lucy Boston’s magical world instead.

Tolly, born in steamy Burma, is sent for the Christmas holidays to stay with his as-yet-unknown great-grandmother at her ancient family house, Green Knowe. This is a story where all the dividing lines are ambiguous, not just those between water and land. The magic of Green Knowe is not the ‘ordinary’ sort with wands and spells and wishes, it’s this permeable, malleable divide between present and past, real and imaginary, animate and inanimate, wild and tame, inside and outside, myths and ghosts and people. It’s also a book that is suffused with the love that seems to radiate out from Mrs Oldknow: love of home, of animals, of dear people and old dear objects. And in her and the gardener, Boggis, it has two heroic characters who are far from young, perhaps because Lucy Boston was in her 60s when she began writing.

Mrs Oldknow and Tolly get to know each other slowly, weighing each other up, although Tolly is immediately drawn to the special atmosphere of the house, with its strange layout and old artefacts. There are the tangible comforts of a fire, candlelight, homely food, which always make a welcome appearance in a children’s book when well done. Tolly is given permission to roam, and he discovers that everything in the house and its unusual garden, filled with topiary and bounded by water, has a story. Old toys and musical instruments, birdcages and paintings hark back to the people – and animals – who lived there in the past and who are not so far from those who live there now. Their stories are slowly and hauntingly revealed. This is wonderfully imagined for those who, like me, love old houses and the idea of layers of the past remaining in their fabric. (Do look at my recent post on ‘Thackers‘ manorhouse in Derbyshire.)

As Tolly explores he sometimes feels lost and alone, and encounters genuinely terrifying aspects to the place, involving walking trees and old curses.

In fact, Green Knowe is based on Boston’s own beloved house, The Manor, Hemingford Grey, in flood-prone Cambridgeshire, built in the 1130s. It’s not a huge house, but the water all round makes it seem like an island, a castle. On his arrival, Tolly has to be rowed up to it across the flood. Then deep snow falls in time for Christmas, and Tolly and his great-grandmother make a very long walk to attend the midnight church service. It’s unusual to have a hero as young as seven in a book of this kind, and Tolly’s stamina and independence (we first meet him travelling across country alone by train) feel quite strange to the 21st century reader. I’m not sure how realistic it was even for the mid-20th century child.

This is another world (see Narnia) which wouldn’t be the quite same to me without the striking original monochrome illustrations by Lucy Boston’s son Peter, which enhance the uncanny aspects of the tale.

One of my favourite passages is the enchanting scene where Mrs Oldknow butters Tolly’s hands and shows him how the wild birds come down to feed from them. This would have been quite magical enough for me as a child – my ideal was to be like Dickon from The Secret Garden – but I didn’t discover this book until I read it to my own children. I’ve yet to catch up with other books in the Green Knowe series, but I have two more waiting on my bookshelf.

Marchpane, Queen Mary, and Adventures in Time

A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley

I have really fond memories of this book, which I read when I was about 11 or 12, but hunting for it decades later I got distracted by several similar titles and themes. No, it wasn’t Daughter of Time – a 1951 detective novel by Josephine Tey with a historical puzzle: that’s about Richard III and the book I was after concerned Mary Queen of Scots. Nor was it A Stitch In Time by Penelope Lively (1976). She might be a well-known British author and it involves time travel, but back to the Victorian era. And it certainly wasn’t A Wrinkle In Time (1962) by American writer Madeleine l’Engle, although this one is incredibly widely-known – though not by me before I began this search!

Then I lighted on A Traveller in Time and it turned out to be by Alison Uttley, famous for writing the Little Grey Rabbit books for younger children. My copy has a cover in a horrible shade of beige and a girl who looks as if she’s dressed in early-era droopy Princess Di, but inside are much more classic and appropriate illustrations by Faith Jaques.

A Traveler In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin paperback

The magic I loved as a child turning into a teen was still there. Fey young Penelope, along with her older brother and sister, goes to stay with Great Aunt Tissie and Great Uncle Barnabus on their farm in a remote Derbyshire valley. They are London children and the winter has been bad; in true Edwardian style they are sent to the country to get the roses back in their cheeks. The idyllic countryside and the sensible rural ways of Tissie and Barnabus are a strong reminder of the charms of Little Grey Rabbit, but this is a book for an older audience. It didn’t stop me wallowing during the early chapters – as Penelope does – in the slow and gentle farm and kitchen life that has hardly changed in generations. Uttley has based it on the farm she grew up on and seems to remember everything. She delves into sensory detail, bringing back every touch and taste and smell.

But then an odd thing happens: Penelope steps through a door and into another time, the era her aunt and uncle hark back to often, without being aware just how long ago it was – the dangerous times when Elizabeth held the throne and Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned nearby. The farm is the remains of Thackers, an old manor house owned by the Babington family, Catholics and passionate supporters of Mary. Penelope knows from history that their plans are doomed but gets caught up in their lives and dare not say too much. Her watch stops whenever she slips back to the 1580s and, try as she might, she can’t control when her time-trips happen. In the past, everyone accepts her as Penelope Taberner, niece of Mistress Cicely, the housekeeper (an Elizabethan dead-ringer for Aunt Tissie) and her strange ways and garb are put down to being a Londoner. Everyone, that is, except the dogs who slink and shiver as if at a ghost, and a deaf-and-dumb servant-boy who watches her in terror.

A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin Classics paperback

Faith Jaques’ depiction of Thackers farmhouse

So far, so typical of time-slip fiction, but since this was first published in 1939, I imagine it’s an early template and Uttley handles it deftly. A locket lost in the past and found in the present cannot be returned to its own time and serves as a poignant reminder to Penelope that she can do nothing with her knowledge to help those she comes to love. The author links both eras through implements that still exist in the farm kitchen: the ancient warming pan was a new-fangled gadget in the Babington household, the bread oven has been turned into a cupboard, yet the kitchen fireplace and the great best bed are the same. Springs, barns, and views are familiar, and the fields still bear their old names which feature in Anthony Babington’s will: Westwood, Squirrels, Meadow Doles. I loved the details of both early 20th century and Elizabethan rural life – it was rather like an episode of Tudor Monastery Farm!

I did question how Penelope’s Elizabethan friends so happily accept her odd coming and going – not easy for a young girl to pop back to London in those days – and get to know and trust her so thoroughly, but Uttley addresses this. Penelope has some idea that she visits more often and for longer than she is conscious of, perhaps in her sleep. And there is a dreamlike quality to the visits: she can hardly remember her present-day life when she goes back in time. Sometimes in her ‘real’ life she sees or hears figures from the past alongside the present, like an overlay, as they and she inhabit the same spaces but in different yet parallel times. And she’s shattered to find a ruin when she is taken to visit nearby Wingfield, another old manor house she first encounters in its heyday when Queen Mary was kept there.

As someone who always tries to pick up the atmosphere when visiting historical sites, longing to know what it was ‘really’ like way-back-when (Get out of the way, tourists!), I liked this meditation on old houses which have seen a great deal of history pass by. And I do enjoy novels which use objects to link different eras and characters.

When I read this book as young teen I found the budding friendship between Penelope and young Francis Babington much more romantic than this time round. In fact, for the first half of the book Penelope is quite a young child. It’s only on her return visit to Thackers several years later that a different kind of friendship blossoms, and it is very low-key. The droopy frock featured in the cover illustration is meant to be Penelope’s best dress of green taffeta: Francis sings ‘Greensleeves’ to her because of it.

A Traveller In Time visits all the seasons, but ends at Christmas in the snow, making it a great book to read at this time of year. Amidst the tense drama of the ending Uttley describes the yuletide preparations, feasts, and carol-singing of both Tudor and Edwardian eras. Penelope even gets to make a version of Thackers in marzipan, and it was here I first learned its lovely old-fashioned name – marchpane.

The Marchpane Thackers, A TRaveller In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin paperback

Penelope fashions the farmhouse out of marzipan for the Christmas feast

Houses Built Out of Air

It was one of the great disappointments of my childhood that I didn’t live in a house like Green Knowe.

Other disappointments were that I couldn’t fly, or talk to animals – at least, not so that they took any notice…

Read more about the inspiration behind The Great Hall in The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth in my blogpost at Oxford University Press Children’s Books Voices:

http://blog.oxfordchildrens.co.uk/2013/07/19/houses-built-out-of-air/