[The young boy Toseland is meeting his great-grandmother for the first time, in the ancient house where she lives]
The room seemed to be the ground floor of a castle, much like the ruined castles that he had explored on school picnics, only this was not a ruin. It looked as if it never possibly could be. Its thick stone walls were strong, warm and lively. It was furnished with comfortable polished old-fashioned things as though living in castles was quite ordinary. Toseland stood just inside the door and felt it must be a dream.
His great-grandmother was sitting by a huge open fireplace where logs and peat were burning. The room smelled of woods and wood-smoke. He forgot about her being frighteningly old. She had short silver curls and her face had so many wrinkles it looked as if someone had been trying to draw her for a very long time and every line put in had made the face more like her . She was wearing a soft dress of folded velvet that was as black as a hole in darkness. The room was full of candles in glass candlesticks, and there was candlelight in her ring when she held out her hand to him…The folds of her dress seemed both to weigh her down and hold her up.
observations: It feels like kicking unicorns to say so, but I didn’t like this book much. I read it as a child and didn’t like it, and I saw a TV version back then and didn’t like it. (Why would a child watch an adaptation of a book she didn’t like? Because we didn’t have many options in those days, no chance of a DVD or old favourite instead…) . Last year I took great pleasure in deciding that as an adult I COULD get something out of Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (another book I disliked as a child) – I said then:
I was hoping for something similar here, but no, the book had no magic for me at all, I thought it was tiresome and boring and weirdly unpleasant: they rub margarine on Tolly’s hands so that birds will come and peck there? (This is meant to be a good thing, not some strange torture.) There are ghosts of some previous child inhabitants hanging around, and a lot of animals, and comic gardeners.
I still think the first half is boring and badly-structured – I’m surprised everyone makes it to the end. I know, I know, blasphemy. Anyway, totes worth it for the final quarter… It has an almost unbearably moving ending.
There is a big tree called Green Noah, and here the book links up with – of all strange things – Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (a great blog favourite, which we took to the Guardian). Ford’s Tietjens family has something called The Great Tree of Groby, and both books make much of these trees and the possibility of their coming down and what that might mean, with a supernatural implication.
I read another book in the series, The River at Green Knowe, and that was even worse, close to unreadable, and with some very strange attitudes in it.
But the book has been immensely popular with many children for many years, so there must be something in it. I hope someone who loves the books will come into the comments and explain it to me.
The stories were based on a real house where Lucy Boston lived – the top photo and the one immediately above show a child's bedroom and the exterior there. This building was used in the TV show I saw as a child, and in her book on the history of children’s TV, Into the Box of Delights, Anna Home says:
It is one of the oldest inhabited buildings in the UK. Many of the things described in the book were in the house and gardens and, as in the book, the birds came inside to be fed. Lucy Boston herself was a formidable woman and daunting at first meeting. She did not have a TV set and was unclear about what having a television crew in the house meant. However, once she got over her first suspicion she was charming and welcoming.She sounds great, I wish I liked her stories.
There are a handful of illustrations in my edition of the book, done by Mrs Boston’s son Peter, and they are absolutely marvellous, really beautiful – this is one of them to the right.
The second picture – Lady in Black by Emil Fuchs – is from the Brooklyn Museum, who are wonderfully generous with permission to use their images.
The reason I re-read this book is because of a character called Linnet in it – going back to this previous entry, and I’ll do another post on this in future.