The Country Child – Alison Uttley

‘There are some happy books that are neither “children’s books” nor “adult books”,’ says Nina Bawden in her introduction to A Country Child, and this is one of them.

I have had this on my To Read list since I wrote about rediscovering Alison Uttley’s time-slip novel A Traveller In Time last year. I didn’t know until this week, when I stumbled upon it on the children’s classics table in a bookshop, that it has been reissued. It is published by Jane Nissen Books with this gorgeous cover in translucent blues and greens that sing like sun through stained glass.

 

The Country Child by Alison Uttley, published by Jane Nissen Books

Inside there are the original illustrations by C F Tunnicliffe – they are beautiful and plentiful!

Alison Uttley is best known for her delightful and nostalgic Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig books for young children.

Little Grey Rabbit by Alison Uttley children's books

She was born and bred in the Derbyshire countryside at the remote Castle Top Farm in what are still breathtaking surroundings, and writes superbly about country customs and the rhythm of the seasons. I’ve yet to check this area out for myself but would love to visit.

First published in 1931 by Faber & Faber,  A Country Child follows Susan Garland through a year in the life of her family’s farm. Uttley was born in 1884 and bases the story on her own childhood, but Nina Bawden had largely similar experiences on a farm in the Welsh Marches during World War 2. She says that ‘for anyone who loves the countryside, or wants to understand our rural past, it is a perfect book’.

It’s also a beautiful book to hold and look at and I’m so pleased I’ve found it. It might be nostalgia but it’s quality nostalgia! Whether it would appeal as much to young readers these days is another matter.

The young Alison Uttley, author

 

Advertisements

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

My Top 10 Animals in Children’s Books

Animals always manage to creep (bound, gallop, flutter) into my own writing. Dogs, cats and horses have all featured, and my next book even includes some hens. Here are my ten favourite animals in children’s books, not including horses – they deserve a list of their own!
In no particular order, then…

Jumble in Just William et al by Richmal Crompton. Jumble is like the dogs of my childhood: 1. A mongrel, of course. 2. Lives a charmed life. 3. Doesn’t do ‘walkies’. 4. Any rigorous training is devoted to learning tricks, not behaving himself in public. 5. Never sees a vet. 6. Just one of the gang.

Fred, the eponymous hero of Posy Simmonds’ picture book. Enormous, snoozy, boring Fred turns out to lead a secret double life. When he dies (yes, the difficult topic that a pet might not be immortal is raised) the neighbourhood cats come together to celebrate his legendary night-time persona in a glorious wake. A lesson for complacent cats and cat-owners everywhere.

Mole in The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Ratty knows his way about, but Mole is rather new to things, so as a child I indentified with him. I don’t think I was particularly amused by Mr Toad until I was older and met a few real-life Toad-alikes; possibly still not amused.

Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter. I’ve only seen a real red squirrel once, at Cawdor Castle in the Highlands. They are increasingly rare, reduced mainly to Scotland – and Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour. They have been pushed out by their imported cousins, the grey squirrels. Of all Potter’s immaculately-drawn animals, handsome Squirrel Nutkin remains my favourite.

Hare in the Little Grey Rabbit books by Alison Uttley, illustrated by Margaret Tempest. While Grey Rabbit keeps calm and carries on, effortlessly making bandages, soup and cowslip balls, dear old Hare is an enthusiastic, somewhat galumphing fool, full of hare-brained schemes. He also gets marks for being an elegant dresser – those coats!

Owl in Winnie The Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne. Lots of animals to choose from in the Hundred Acre Wood but most of them are made of cloth! Owl is a real bird, lives up a tree, and is the go-to creature for dispensing wisdom. “Able to read and write and spell his own name WOL, yet somehow [he] went all to pieces over delicate words like MEASLES and BUTTEREDTOAST.” Know the feeling.

Pantalaimon in His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. I so, so wish daemons were real and not just a brilliant fictional idea. Pan has all the great qualities of a companion-animal, a loyal familiar, and then some. What would my daemon be (once it had stopped shape-shifting)?

Buck in Call of The Wild by Jack London. I don’t know why I enjoyed such sad stories as a child (and this isn’t really for children), but I do love a good book told from an animal’s point of view. This one doesn’t spare the reader’s feelings as we follow Buck’s brutal path through the harsh conditions of the Klondike Gold Rush. Read and weep.

The Caterpillar in The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carl. (Can’t leave out the invertebrates.) He’s a caterpillar. He’s hungry. Some of those food choices might not be mine, but he’s got to build up his strength to transform into a beautiful butterfly. I once spent some happy hours making that butterfly for a story-bag, and was rather proud of the result. I wish I still had it.

The Monster in Not Now, Bernard by David McKee. I’ve snuck him in because I read about him to my children over and over and over again, and he still makes me laugh and I still feel sorry for him. He might have – sorry, SPOILER ALERT ! – eaten Bernard but my heart goes out to him. And I think he qualifies as an animal, doesn’t he?

Now I’m sure that – just like forgetting a friend’s birthday – I’ve unforgivably overlooked some old favourites.

Do let me know who you would choose.