Friday, November 17, 2023

"I've had a lot of bother with you myself": ELLA MONCKTON, August in Avilion (1940)

"Don't you remember she called me a fool when I married you?''
"You probably were then," Tim agreed. "I've had a lot of bother with you myself."

Seventeen years after disowning her niece, surly Aunt Amabel has a change of heart, seeing what a success Jane Gates has made of her marriage to Tim, a once starving artist who is now making a good living for Jane and their four children. Aunt Amabel's amends amount to leaving Jane her old family home, a sizeable but ramshackle and long-neglected house called Avilion, on the (apparently fictional?) Perra Cove in Cornwall, near the town of Camford. Practically as soon as she informs Jane of her legacy, Aunt Amabel conveniently keels over, and Jane, with characteristic determination, decides she'll overcome the obvious drawbacks and make a summer home there for her family (at least if she can rid herself of the Pollitts, the house's caretakers, "a couple of trolls" who feel the property doesn't properly belong to Jane).

As some of you will have already guessed, this sets us up for a fun family holiday story not unlike (if perhaps not as polished as) Ruby Ferguson's Apricot Sky, which as you know I particularly love. Tim remains stuck in London on a decorating gig for most of the novel, but in the meantime we come to know their children—Jeremy, Eleanor, Michael, and Jennifer—who have clearly been raised in laid-back artistic style, but who are mainly level-headed and responsible, if vividly imaginative. Arthur Royston, a friend of Jeremy's frequently neglected by his squabbling parents, soon arrives, along with Benjie, former nurse and now Jane's trusty right hand woman. Later, it becomes still more of a house party, as Hilda Morris, Jane's diva friend, grown bored with her own artist husband, arrives in a snit, along with Nils, a writer seeking inspiration in a nearby shack, and Jane's stodgy, judgmental brother Peter, loathed by the children for his philistine sportiness and intolerance. Then there's Robin Oakley, grandson of Aunt Amabel's solicitor, and infatuated with Jane from the moment he greets her at the train station. 

What follows is a perfectly charming, often funny, and very eventful holiday story, including a dramatic fire rescue, traumatic diving lessons, a possible haunting, thunderstorms, a backyard brawl over Hilda, and neighborhood scandals launched by the vicar's wife ("In a few plain words, Alfred, those people living at Avilion House are NUDISTS!"). Oh, and of course there's the children's games on the theme of Camelot, in which all the characters find themselves, knowingly or not, cast in prominent roles (Peter—unknowingly—as Mordred, of course). If it's sometimes a bit rough around the edges and unfocused, meandering from one event to the next with very little overarching plot, you know me well enough to know that's not a problem for me. In fact, I was enjoying it so much that I did that thing where you start rationing the remaining pages to make a book last longer. It still didn't last long enough. This one will definitely go on my list to re-read at some point when my world needs a bit of brightening.

The only scene I felt might startle modern readers was one in which all the children are reported to be smoking cigarettes as they plot their next move, to which Jane replies only "Little beasts! I hope they're sick." Naturally, the children are gloriously unsupervised most of the time as well, in keeping with the times and the conventions of children's fiction (but what fun would it be to read about well-supervised kids?!).

Ella Monckton seems to have published mostly children's fiction, often for very young children but also including the part-school girls' story Left Till Called For (1937), the most readily available of her books (and quite pleasant if not particularly remarkable—I read that one before setting my sights on August at the BL). August in Avilion seems to have been marketed more as an adult novel, and contains some slightly more adult concerns and focus on adult relationships, but I'd say it really falls, mood-wise, more into the realm of children's fiction, and indeed I've only just discovered that it appears to be a sort of sequel to one of Monckton's earlier children's titles, The Gates Family (1934), described as set in "the Bohemian household of an artist in Kensington." Food for thought for the next trip to the British Library!

I haven't thoroughly researched Monckton yet, but a web search revealed she was the wife of artist and illustrator Clifford Webb (who illustrated many of her books). They seem to have lived in Kensington themselves, so one wonders how much she is playing with real-life events in these books. One can only hope their real life was anywhere close to as cheerful as their fictional lives.

I seem to have a definite affinity for "adult" novels written by children's authors. Noel Streatfeild's Susan Scarlett novels, E. Nesbit's The Lark, not to mention Rumer Godden, Kitty Barne, Frances Hodgson Burnett's Making of a Marchioness, Richmal Crompton, Eleanor Farjeon's Miss Granby's Secret, and indeed even Ruby Ferguson, whose pony stories have a lingering fame—all authors best known for children's writing who have given me great fun in books they wrote for grownups. It's almost a subgenre of its own, which perhaps deserves more attention…


  1. This does sound like an entertaining summer holiday read. By the way, happy Thanksgiving wishes to all readers of Middlebrow Fiction

  2. This does sound like a fun one! And you're right, that's an interesting genre in itself. (LyzzyBee / Liz)


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