'D'you know what a Greek once said?'
'No. What?' said Stephen.
'He said the sea could wash all malison away.'
'Yes. Let's go and see if he was right.'
'Malison,' Stephen said to himself. He thought he knew what that meant, but he made a mental note to look it up in the dictionary when he went home.
For perfect reading when I was a bit under the weather for a few days recently, I couldn't have done better than plucking this book off the shelf. And what's more, I'm happy to say, having recently labeled a kind gift from Kathy Reed a "miss" (see here), that this was an earlier gift from her, so I am making up in my love for this one for my lack of enthusiasm for the other.
I've long been a fan of E. H. Young's brilliant writing for adults, and Dean Street Press and I have even reprinted her superb 1930 novel Miss Mole as a Furrowed Middlebrow book. Her 1947 novel Chatterton Square has also been reprinted in the British Library's women writers series curated by Simon Thomas. So I've been meaning for ages to get around to sampling her two children's titles, Caravan Island (1940) and River Holiday (1942). I think I mentioned that intention a while back, and so when Kathy came across this one, she very kindly sent it along.
Hugh and Laura (Young doesn't seem to have given them last names) have been eagerly looking forward to a camping trip with their parents. But the day before they are to set out, their father breaks his leg. After some lukewarm attempts to "camp" in their back yard, Hugh and Laura are foisted onto their slightly older cousins Cicely and Stephen, who have already made plans to go camping and caravaning on a Scottish island with their lively young Aunt Judith. They're none too pleased to have their younger and rather less adventurous cousins tagging along, and it will put a crimp in their plans to move from one campsite to another every few days. Hugh and Laura are perhaps a bit spoiled and overprotected, and are surprised by Aunt Judith's distinctly un-motherly, un-smothering approach to child care. She gives the children considerable latitude, and trusts them not to do anything too reckless. Tensions among the children gradually dissipate in the excitement of climbing, bathing, and the work of the farm near which they camp.
Caravan Island is a quiet, charming little book—descriptions of Scottish countryside and gentle, entirely plausible adventures (no Nazi spies or smugglers' caves, no falling down mineshafts or death-defying rescues from burning buildings), activities that children really would get up to on a holiday in Scotland. The most harrowing moments involve getting lost on a mountain in a thick mist and coming into too close contact with an angry bull. It's a bit like a children's version of The Fortnight in September in that sense, and becomes rather like taking a delightful, restful, but thoroughly enjoyable holiday oneself (which was just exactly what the doctor ordered when I was feeling poorly).
As one would expect from Young, who did such brilliant work in her fiction for adults, the characters of the children are beautifully done. The four youngsters all have clearly defined personalities—Hugh a bit pugnacious with a slight tendency toward dishonesty, Laura meek and easily frightened but with a flair for the domestic, Cicely bold and practical and going after what she wants, Stephen intellectual and unsure of himself—and these are developed well, with some evolution, in the course of the book, though happily they all remain very much themselves at the end, just perhaps a bit more mature and knowledgeable. (For anyone who reads the book, I am obviously Stephen, and perfectly content with that.)
Where Young's inexperience in writing for children might perhaps come through a bit is in the story's tendency to rely a bit too much on lessons learned. It's not heavy-handed about it, but certainly all four children (and even Aunt Judith herself) have to confront their own weaknesses and learn from them, which occasionally felt just a bit on the didactic side. It's overall tone might also be a bit sweet for some readers—alas, not much subversive humor allowed here, the lack of which might be a bit surprising in the creator of the lusciously subversive Miss Mole. But the charm of the story's peaceful events, the vividness of the characters, and the marvelous setting more than made up for that for me.
Despite the general lack of hilarity, there are some delightful moments here and there. Aunt Judith gets a bit "Miss Mole-like" in her attitude to paths up mountainsides:
A path on a mountain was, to the aunt, like singing lovely poetry to a vulgar tune or behaving improperly in a church. It was true that, without a path, some people would never get up a mountain at all, but that, she said, was either a misfortune they had to bear or a stupidity they could overcome if they chose.
And particularly of interest for the less adventurous among us is Young's concern for allowing Laura to keep her peaceful domesticity. I assumed at first that she would of course come out of her shell and learn to be adventurous, but despite some pressure from the other children, she knows exactly who she is and sticks to it steadfastly. There's a funny but also touching scene with Mr. Firth, a friend of Aunt Judith, which I have to quote at some length:
'Come and learn to swim,' he said.
'No, thank you,' Laura said politely.
'Don't you want to?''
'I'd like to know how, but I don't want to learn.'
'Ah,' said Mr. Firth grimly, 'that's the state of mind of a great many people. You'll be sorry, you know, one of these days.'
'But not for a long time,' she said, smiling at him pleasantly.
He sat down beside her. 'But suppose,' he said, 'you were in a shipwreck.'
'I'm never going in a ship.'
'You'll have to go in one to get home.'
'Oh dear! So I shall. But,' she added anxiously, 'it's quite a nice little safe one, isn't it?'
'Oh, yes, yes,' Mr. Firth said hastily. 'I was thinking you might some day want to go to America or Australia.'
'Not at all,' Laura said firmly.
'You're not much like your aunt, are you?' he asked with disapproval.
'She isn't my aunt.'
'Isn't she? I'm afraid I don't know which of you's which yet.' And that, thought Laura, was entirely Mr. Firth's own fault, but she did not say so. 'Well,' he tried again, 'suppose you saw somebody in difficulty in the water, a baby perhaps.'
'No,' Laura said, and she shook her head. 'There'd be a father or mother if there was a baby.'
'Oh then, I give you up,' he said and this was exactly what Laura wanted.
I'm not quite as quiet and unadventurous as Laura (and utterly lack her domestic skills), but I think it's lovely that Young felt the importance of portraying and dignifying such a character, even alongside the brave and industrious Cicely who provides a different kind of female role model.
Indeed, for me, Caravan Island is a book to wash all malison away. And naturally, I've already ordered a copy of River Holiday…