Crowns by Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock

published 1947

Study for 'The Birthday Party'

[The children have had their hair washed before getting ready to go to a party]

Mary rubbed her eyes, half asleep already from the heat of the fire, and swaddled in her dressing-gown rolled over to a more comfortable position. But Charlotte was too excited to doze…

Twenty minutes later Nanny came in, felt their head and said that they could get dressed.

Their party clothes were laid out in a ritualistic children party Crowns 2pattern on their beds, complete with clean handkerchiefs and the seed-pearl brooches which they always wore. Silently they submitted to being buttoned and tied. Their hairs were brushed and combed, their nails were cleaned, their socks pulled up so that the seams went straight up the backs of their legs, then they were packed off to the nursery to be with Stephen, while their own room was prepared to receive their guests’ coats and wraps.

commentary: Blogfriend Ann Phillips flagged this one up for me: we were discussing book heroines who become less attractive as the reader grows older…. Our comment exchange came at the end of the recent post about Little Women, you can read the whole thing there. Ann said that Charlotte in Crowns ‘had been spirited, heroic and rebellious when I read the book aged 10ish, [and] turned out to be an awful brat by the time I was in my thirties!’

I hadn’t heard of the book, so asked her about it, and now I cannot do better than reproduce her introduction to it:
'Crowns' by Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock was my most favourite book in the world when I was about ten. Imagine a younger 'Peter's Room' - so no subliminal teenage sexual stirrings, no real-life betrayal - but just four cousins hiding in a room at a party and imagining their own world where they could be kings and queens. Charlotte is an adventurer and explorer, Andrew a rather mystic, hippie drop-out. Rob and Eliza fall into traditional gender roles, Rob is a 'good' king and Eliza sits around enjoying pretty things. Before the fantasy section, we get snippets of their real lives in the run-up to the traditional Boxing Day childrens' party where their fantasy adventure happens.
[Peter’s Room is a YA book by Antonia Forest – an author beloved by those who know her, but inexplicably unknown by the rest of the world. She has featured on the blog, and also in one of my Guardian articles, on Twelfth Night. And yes, when I read Crowns I understood exactly Ann’s comparison.]

So obviously I had to get hold of the book (justifiable expense – it wasn’t cheap, but came from an Oxfam shop). And, of course, I absolutely loved it. It is a very strange book indeed. The first 90 pages deal with the runup to Xmas among three connected families: it is quite leisurely and detailed. Then the four main children attend the big Xmas party. Hiding in the attic, they find themselves in another world:
“Look , everything has disappeared!” Eliza whispered. “Where are we?”
“This is the place,” Andrew whispered, “to dream dreams into reality.”
- a world where they are kings and queens, an imaginary land where they have wild adventures. Then, 200 pages later, they return to the party for a final wrapup.

The point of view changes with each chapter, and the conversations have the magnificent inconsequentiality of reality – that aspect reminded me of Pamela Brown’s books.

The book is dedicated to Arthur Ransome, of Swallows and Amazons fame: he found the two authors a publisher for the first book they wrote together when they were teenagers (14 and 15!), The Far Distant Oxus. Crowns doesn’t mention the war, which ended 2 years previously, and has a feel of very young authors (like Pamela Brown) – I wonder if they wrote it earlier. For example, there is a very clear lack of understanding of what treacle tart consists of and how long it would take to make (a child is sent out to buy a tin of treacle shortly before a treacle tart is to be served), it is endearingly naïve. I’m also not sure about the sock seams above – that Crowns 3has the feel of having been changed from ‘stockings’, which do have seams to be lined up. Socks have always been knitted in the round, so would not have had a seam along the back… (I checked some knitting patterns of the time to be sure I was correct in saying this).

And I agree with Ann – I would have liked Charlotte when I was a child, but her bossiness and randomness are much less tolerable to an older reader. I did enjoy her answer when asked about the death of her dog:
“I’m flat with grief about her,” said Charlotte, though she had forgotten completely.
Pretty much a character drawn in one line.

The description of the book might be reminding you of CS Lewis’s Narnia booksThe Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe (first in the series) was published in 1950, 3 years later. Four children going to a magical place from their house and becoming kings and queens… the similarities don’t continue to any depth, but on the surface they are quite striking.

The party picture – although outdoors it did resemble the description of the party in the book – is by Thomas Cooper Gotch from The Athenaeum.

The yellow dress, a great favourite picture of mine, is called Woman in Evening Dress by Kees (or Cees) Maks, although it has always looked to me like a child getting ready for a party.


  1. I have never heard of it, though I read 'The Far Distant Oxus', or, at least, some of it....all a bit too horsey for me. It's odd - although I loved 'the countryside' with desperate passion (I longed to live somewhere green and remote), I was barely interested in Arthur Ransome's books, or others of that genre. However, I think if I had stumbled across this, I would have loved it. The title strikes me as unusual, and slightly 'modern' - though maybe only because one-syllable titles are always unusual, particularly in children's books. 'Crowns', incidentally, was one of those regional 'cross-fingers, you can't touch me' playground words, as collected by the Opies. In Surrey, we used 'fanites' ('Feign, Knight' originally, I imagine), and when we moved to the Midlands, it was 'barleys'. I can't remember where 'crowns' was used.

    1. Yes, I read Oxus too, and was meh about it. Never knew they wrote anything else, but feel I would have ADORED Crowns if I'd found it then.
      I was the opposite - a complete townie, did not at all like the countryside in any form (childhood holidays a worry) - but loved the Ransome books, though would have run a mile from camping, sailing and boats. Ponies were a step too far - didn't like them in real life or books.
      Yes, Crowns sounds a most untypical title for the time. We were 'barley' in Liverpool. I remember reading the Opie book when I was about 20 and being astounded by the regional differences they revealed...

  2. Oh, this does sound both unusual and intriguing, Moira. That playing with imagination is fascinating, and just the bit you shared gives a sense of place and time. And that one line from Charlotte - yes, that says it all, I think. Really interesting...

    1. It's a very unusual book, Margot, and I think could find an audience today.. although some would find it too middle-class, very much of its time.

  3. So excited to see you've already read this and blogged it! I'm in the middle of a reread myself. I don't know how young they were when they wrote it, but it does have that feel of young sentiment - especially Charlotte's casual attitude to the death of not just a dog, but her human companions - although I suppose you could argue that they were made-up dogs and people so real grief not necessarily called for. Maybe they'd written bits of it when they were young, and got it published when they were older.
    I love the flights of imagination that imbue the character's daily lives too - Andrew lying in bed hears the milkman's cart and fantasizes that it could be a troop of dancers with castanets.
    The only thing that made me uncomfortable on this reread were the cannibals; the description of them is typical of a book of that era.
    My favourite character has shifted, definitely Andrew, now that I am older and wiser!

    1. Yes the children's thoughts and perceptions as they go about their lives are very well done, it was one of the most striking things about the book. And I liked Andrew too with his slightly odd background - the divorce in the family and his friendship with the porter.
      And thank you very much for the tipoff, a book I am so very glad to have discovered and read. Of course I was thinking I should hold off and not read it till Xmas, as you suggested, but I just couldn't!

  4. Oh, and my favourite poem at the time that this was my favourite book was Walter de la Mare's 'If I were Lord of Tartary' - definitely a theme going on there in my younger mind!

    1. That didn't ring any bells, but when I looked it up it was SO familiar - I had a collection of his poems and although I had completely forgotten it, I think it was a favourite when I was young. And yes, it definitely has the same feel as the fantasy section of Crowns.

  5. From your description, the dedication to Arthur Ransome sounds very appropriate - one of the things that I really love about the Swallows and Amazons books is the way that the real world landscape is overlaid with the children's imaginative landscape and the way that the different characters are more or less immersed in that imaginative world while still dealing with real world challenges, which can in turn be caused by getting too deep in. (Which leads me for the first time to make a connection between Peter's Room and Swallowdale.)

    1. That is a very good point - it is one of the things I loved about the Swallows & Amazons books, the straightforward, matter-of-fact combination of reality and fantasy. And, yes, then a line with Peter's Room. I remember as a teenager reading an overview of the Ransome books, and being terribly surprised to find that most of them are meant to be roughly 'real', but that Peter Duck and Missy Lee (was it?) were meant to be stories the CHILDREN made up sitting round chatting (just as in Crowns and Peter's Room). The distinction had escaped me. My first encounter with literary theory, or post-modernism, one or the other!


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