Dress Down Sunday: Childhood in the Good Old Days




King of the Barbareens by Janet Hitchman

published 1960

King of the Barbareens 1King of the Barbareens 2
King of the Barbareens 3

[The young narrator has been ill all winter: the doctor comes to see her]

He turned his attention to the discarded clothes. A flannel vest, calico chemise, a pair each of linings and bloomers, a wadded red flannel bodice, a flannel petticoat, a cotton ditto, a skirt, jersey and print overall, ten garments in all.

‘I don’t wonder she’s irritable,’ was his comment; ‘she’s wearing enough clothes for three children.’

‘But we aren’t to the end of May yet,’ said Aunt Ada.

‘Stuff and nonsense,’ snorted the lordly doctor; ‘there’s more clothes there than an Eskimo wears.’

The upshot of this visit was that the bodice lining and petticoats were discarded, and Aunt Ada’s outrage soothed by the promise that I should go to a sanatorium.

commentary: I can only think that the otherwise-lovely Lissa Evans thinks I am too happy. First she told me that The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald would make me laugh. You can see my miserable response here. Then – talking as we were about TB sanatoria – she reminded me of this book, which we both read as teenagers.

She said – absolutely correctly – that it is brilliant. She said ‘it's a book I discovered in the children's section of a bookshop in about 1973 and read and re-read - but it's not a children's book, it's the autobiography of a 1920s foster child. Born illegitimate, extremely bright, not at all pretty, Janet went from home to private home, to sanitorium, to boarding school, to children's home and finally to Barnardos - some places were kind, some unfair, none actively cruel but almost all lacking in any understanding.’

I told her that when I read it before it dismayed me, I found it hair-raising BECAUSE it was true, it was like those comic strips in the Bunty with poor put-upon orphans - but there wasn't going to be any great redemption, and she wasn't pretty, and someone wonderful wasn't going to adopt her.

This time I went into it knowing there wasn’t going to be any happy ending, and it was indeed brilliant and unputdownable. The details of life then, the sadness, the child-rearing ways so contrasting with now - not that we necessarily get it right now, but their ways seem shocking. And the same comparison applies to the way the authorities handle a parentless child, illegitimacy and fostercare. And no doubt the same would apply to adoption if she’d ever got that far.

Her treatment is dire, and she tells us cheerfully that she wasn’t very likeable. Her name growing up was Elsie Burrows, but she changed her first name to Janet on reading Jane Eyre, because it’s what Rochester calls Jane as a pet name, which seemed to me tremendously sad.

As Lissa says, Janet had a terrible time in foster homes, in a home for special needs ladies, at several schools, in two different sanatoria. I’ve read an armful of books about sanatoria recently (see particularly Linda Grant’s Dark Circle, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and Betty MacDonald’s The Plague and I). What is notable about this book is that the appalling treatment there is much as it is in the other books, but it doesn’t seem any worse than her life outside.

She was obviously very bright, but wasn’t going to get a chance for further studies or a scholarship. And although treated unfairly, she obviously WAS (understandably) very difficult and did nothing to help herself. The title comes from a children’s rhyme, and indicates that she thinks of herself as a barbarian, the King of the Barbarians.

She will have no nonsense about ‘the good old days’ – she says
It was no rarity to see a child, and I was often one of them, stand crying for no reason but the sheer pain and difficulty of living.
And later:
There is nothing so awful, that if repeated often, one cannot get used to.
It’s hard to imagine two more bleak sentences. Oh God the whole thing is so depressing.

Eventually she is thrown out of care, and goes to live in a hostel. Actually things cheer up somewhat now – not because her life gets any better, it most certainly doesn’t. But the misery of being a poor uneducated woman in London is something she has in common with many many other people, often people who haven’t had dismal childhoods, and it’s familiar from other books(eg JB Priestley’s Angel Pavement, and Peter and Paul by Susan Scarlett aka Noel Streatfeild). I love accounts of this life – she gets different jobs, she attends the theatre religiously in the cheap seats, she even makes some friends. The war comes. She gets married and has a child, but ends up a single parent. She still doesn’t sound very happy, but tries to end on a positive note.

I only know one other thing about Hitchman: she wrote a very individual biography of Dorothy L Sayers, Such a Strange Lady.

AKA Such a Strange Book.

It was probably the first hardback full price book I ever bought, certainly the first such biography I bought or read. I had come across an extract in a Sunday newspaper, revealing (certainly for the first time to me) that DLS had had an illegitimate baby. I was a massive fan of Sayers, and I saved my money to pay the outrageous price of the book. I read it religiously, and still do every couple of years. I had no idea then that it was not like other biographies – it is shorter, very individual, not really referenced. Subsequent biogs tell us more about Sayers, in meticulous detail (and often containing words to the effect of ‘Previous biographers were wrong to say…’), but I have always loved Strange Lady. She is quite critical of Sayers’ treatment of her secret lovechild, and this makes more sense in the light of Hitchman’s own story as both a daughter and a mother…

OK, grudgingly, I am glad Lissa Evans made me read King of the Barbareens again. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished it – always the sign of a great book- and will no doubt read it again when I want to be depressed when I want to be reminded of the indomitable ways of the human spirit in awful circumstances.

I think Hitchman must have been terrifying in real life, a difficult woman to be a friend to. But what an admirable person she was, and what a survivor.


  1. Oh, that does sound like such a sad book, Moira! And no matter how brilliant the writing or realistic the depiction, it's hard to read such a terribly sad story! Still, I'm glad you featured it. It does sound as though it is very well-written, and I do like learning about what life was like at different times. I'll just have to choose the time carefully if I do read it.

    1. That's exactly right Margot - you have to be strong when reading it. And we do need to know about these things: just in small doses and at the right time.

  2. Oh, will have to read this now! I have read the Strange bio several times as well (have a tatty falling-to-bits paperback) and that gives this more resonance but have also been thinking of the figure of the orphan in light of the new television adaptation of the Anne of Green Gables books. I always learn such interesting things when I pop by here, Moira!

    1. Thanks Sara, and glad to find another fan of Strange Lady - the two books really do illuminate each other in an unexpected way. I think you would find a lot of interest in King of the Barbareens.

  3. That does sound such a bleakly horrifying book! When I was a teenager I would have nightmares which weren't scary in the normal sense, but instead were filled with greyness and despair. How awful that she had to live that life for real.

    The Sayers biography always struck me as pretty peculiar. She doesn't seem to have done any interviews or any deep research, and the final book is more like her opinions on Sayers than an actual biography, and Hitchman is never really absent from the book. It's like she's always there in the background. Dickson Carr's biography of Conan Doyle is better researched, but that also has that sense of the biographer refusing to allow themselves to fade from view.


    1. I suppose she was before her time - nowadays biographers quite often intrude into their books, but I would say it was pretty rare when Strange Lady was published. And although it isn't very rigorous, I think it does give you a feel for Sayers and her character, I do trust many of her comments.

  4. Another one to avoid thanks.

  5. I think I will avoid this one also. Such a Strange Lady does sound interesting.

    1. Anyone who is interested in Dorothy L Sayers will like Such a Strange Lady.


Post a Comment