I recently dived into some children's fiction that I've had on my shelves for ages. For whatever reason, I haven't done a lot of reading in that area in the past few months, but suddenly the urge seemed to hit me and in rapid succession I read several of the books from my shelves. I originally thought I'd mention all of them briefly, because I know some of you are or might in the future be fans of the authors, but it seems I have so much to say about the first two that they make a post by themselves.
I've been doing quite a bit of reading of MABEL ESTHER ALLAN's books in the past few years, and I can't even quite recall whether she first came to my attention because of Greyladies publishing some of her previously unpublished adult fiction, or whether it was because of Girls Gone By publishing some of her children's books. Whichever it was, my interest was quickly piqued and I quickly read all the books both publishers had reprinted and still wanted more, which led to me tracking down this lovely copy of Changes for the Challoners (1955), one of her fairly early family stories that Girls Gone By haven't got round to yet. (They can be readily excused, since Allan wrote over 200 books in all, and they have continued publishing more of her work in the past year or two—see here—but at this rate it will take them a good long time still.)
It could just be my perverse love for the most obscure books over those that are readily available, but I have to say that as much as I've enjoyed other of Allan's books, Changes might well be my favorite so far. And I actually don't think it can be entirely perversity, since even the merest outline of the plot—young girl moves to fictional city of Francaster, lives in old house backing onto abandoned shop in the city's medieval high street, makes friends with young aspiring archaeologist, and goes in search of lost Roman ruins—would fairly obviously (at least to anyone who read my post about our trip to England and Scotland last year) be quite enough to make me salivate.
Sure, it's all a bit of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Charming, outgoing Perry goes out exploring on her first evening in Francaster and promptly rescues Charles from the storehouse he's got himself locked in while looking for evidence of Roman columns. They become fast friends, he shows her around town, and they rescue Laura, who has fallen into the river while boating with her cousin Gareth, and now they're a solid foursome. Record time for establishing a circle of friends in a new locale!
So no, it's not always terribly realistic. But as someone who would love little more than to relocate to a town like Francaster, it's a marvelous fantasy indeed. I would even be excited about unearthing previously unknown evidence of the old Roman settlement, though admittedly I'd prefer to do it with little physical effort and without getting overly dirty. Or having to dig.
There's a further subplot about Perry's sister Greta, who is only a bit older but has reached that awkward age when she thinks she should only care about fashion and shopping and acting sophisticated. When their cousin Angeline, the same age as Greta, arrives, Perry decides to blackball Angeline from the adventures she has with her friends, in the hopes that Angeline will make friends with Greta and make her cheerful rather than elegantly melancholy. But of course, Angeline has other ideas.
Knowing Mabel Esther Allan a bit, I had a feeling that Francaster would have been based on a real city, so I poked around a bit, and indeed, a listing on the Peakirk Books website asserts that it was closely based on Chester. All the descriptions of walking on the city walls and in the narrow medieval streets had me picturing York while I read (which no doubt made the fantasy more vivid, since Andy and I had already decided, after our trip, that York is precisely the city we'd like to move to, preferably without having to rescue people from rivers in order to make friends), but I'm sure the folks at Peakirk Books know more than I do. Which means I need to add Chester to our list of places to visit on our next trip…
From Changes, I moved on to what I now realize is another wish-fulfillment fantasy for me. MONICA REDLICH's Five Farthings (1939) is about a young girl who moves with her family to London (oh, the horror!) in order for her father to get medical care (for some odd illness that is conveniently serious enough to keep him in hospital for several months—while young Vivien and the rest of the family familiarize themselves with London and learn independence and self-confidence—yet trivial enough to never affect his cheerful mood or inspire any real concern).
The children stumble across the perfect flat for the family, which—as if the book were written only to fulfill my fondest wishes—just happens to be a mere block or two from St. Paul's, in the heart of the City. The following exchange will surely give anyone who knows about London real estate today a slightly bitter chuckle:
'And it wouldn't be any dearer than Kensington, would it?' added Vivien.
'It might even be cheaper,' said Mrs Farthing. 'I've always heard that City rents are fairly low.'
Young Vivien decides to keep house for the family so that their mother can go out to work while their father is happily ailing in hospital. The keeping house part is not so much a part of my fantasies, but in her spare time Vivien allows me to live vicariously by stumbling across a lovely small (fictional) church, learning that it, like St. Paul's, was designed by Christopher Wren, and exploring the city to find more of Wren's churches and other historic buildings. For part of this process, she has the assistance of a kindly man she meets in one of the churches, who happens to work for a nearby publisher:
He took her to the old, old church of St Bartholomew's in Smithfield, to Gray's Inn and Staple Inn and Lincoln's Inn Fields, to the Roman Bath tucked away a few yards behind the Strand, and down to the Embankment Gardens to see the beautiful water-gate designed by Inigo Jones three hundred years ago.
Although the book itself is quite cheerful, this paragraph, and some of the other churches and building mentioned, led me to a melancholy wondering about the fates of said structures within a year or two of the book's publication. I had to poke around a bit, and at first glance was happy to see that all the structures seem to still exist, but on further reading I discovered that St Bartholomew's and Gray's Inn, at least, along with St Bride's Church, which Vivien visits elsewhere in the book, were all significantly damaged or outright gutted during the Blitz, though apparently the famous spire of St Bride's, second only to St Paul's, did survive. (I also learned, for what it's worth, that the "Roman Bath" near the Strand is apparently likely not a bath at all, but a cistern from the 1600s, but it still looks interesting and it did survive the Blitz. These are the interesting tidbits one can only get from reading fiction.)
But apart from this melancholy distraction, Vivien goes on to fulfill my fantasies by becoming further entangled with the publishing world. Having dabbled just a bit myself in publishing, I loved the part where she learns about jacket blurbs:
'Well,' he went on, 'a blurb is the bit about a novel or some other book which makes you convinced that you must read it immediately. You know—"This dramatic life of William the Conqueror is as thrilling as any detective story,'' or "The everyday disasters of matrimony are sketched in with a light and witty touch." That sort of thing.'
'Oh, are those blurbs? I've often thought how difficult they must be to write.'
'They are. They're ghastly. Sackville's a genius at it, but it nearly makes him sick every time.'
I can't say that writing blurbs makes me sick, exactly, though I have agonized a bit about some of them. On the other hand, I'm hardly a genius at it either.
Five Farthings makes a very charming, entertaining family story, and a very charming fantasy about London life just before the war. And believe it or not, at the time that I first acquired it, it was actually still available from Margin Notes Books. Then, it sat on my shelf for two years, and of course there's now no mention of it on their site. Dammit. But I happened across my copy second-hand, so there is hope!
I have to leave you with one passage of the novel that would likely be considerably revised if it appeared in a new novel today. It's about nothing more shocking than a game Vivien and her siblings play of calling dibs on each of the unusual urban dwellers they come across. But in the chapter called "Queer People," it is just slightly jarring to modern ears:
'I'll tell you what, Vivien—I 'm going to start a collection.'
John propped his elbows on the marble-topped table.
'Of queer people we meet—un-ordinary people. In fact it can be a competition, if you like. Yes, that's even better. We each get a mark for any one we meet who the other agrees isn't ordinary. We'd have Dinah in it too, of course. What do you think of that?'
Vivien was not quite sure. It was a good idea, in its way—but collecting queer people was her own special province, as an author looking for material. She did not much care to share so important a matter with two irreverent children.
However, John was busy elaborating his idea.
'We ought to start fair, so I won't bag that old woman,' he said magnanimously. 'We'll begin to-morrow. Let's say that the first person to claim a Queer, after two at least of us have been talking to him (to the Queer, I mean), gets a point if the other one agrees. Wouldn't that do?'
I can't possibly add anything to that.