Guy Fawkes: The Country Child by Alison Uttley

published 1931

Guy Fawkes Country Child 2

Bonfire day passed with the great roaring fire in the corner of the plough field, when potatoes were roasted under the stars and tiny Chinese crackers flew through the air.

Susan had never heard of Guy Fawkes, nor had Tom or Becky, or Joshua. It was a ‘Bun Fire’, when they ate parkin and treacle toffee, and children danced round the fire before winter swept the fields.
As it died they leapt through the low flames and each had a wish. Then they stood in the files to watch the other fires, on the hills in the distance, before they went it to their early bed.

Guy Fawkes Country  Child 1

commentary: Alison Utley is known for her children’s books about Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig, but this one has its devotees too, and it has been much recommended to me. I found it very uneven – chapters of long boring descriptions of the countryside, and the life of an annoying little girl, alternating with moments of lovely joy and descriptions of fascinating and long-gone customs. It describes the life of Susan Garland, probably in approximately the 1890s, in the Derbyshire countryside, and is generally assumed to be based on Uttley’s own life.

It WAS worth reading, for the good bits, but I wasn’t very interested in the nature walks, or in the fears and strange beliefs of a young girl’s life – they seemed to have been better done elsewhere.

This time of year I generally do a Guy Fawkes entry, and explain to my American readers that there are bonfires and fireworks to mark the Gunpowder Plot: an unsuccessful attempt in 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament. For more, see previous years’ entries, with some nice photos…

Interesting that this little girl had never heard of Guy Fawkes.

As it happens I have just been looking at a cookbook first published in the 1950s, and was interested to see an idea for a Guy Fawkes cake (parkin and treacle toffee, as above, are the traditional treats on this night). The cake is covered in chocolate icing then:
Using white icing, cover the top and sides of the cake with drawings of Catherine wheels, rockets and sparklers, using real fireworks as models. Add silver balls and other cake decorations to give the effect of colour and sparks.
I’m sure we all know what they mean, but I just love the idea that you might set off the fireworks in your kitchen in order to do a good job of reproducing them (you can imagine this scene in a certain kind of sitcom). In those days every household would have fireworks, ready for the big night, to copy – nowadays nearly everyone goes to an organized event for safety reasons. Today very few houses would have fireworks ready to hand for copying.

[It is a feature of this old cookbook, by the way, that all the cakes for which you would most need detailed instructions, and maybe step-by-step pictures, are just skimmed over in the manner of the recipe here: what I quoted does constitute the whole plan, without even a picture.]

Guy Fawkes cake 3

The top pictures, from the Athenaeum website, actually show midsummer bonfires in Norway, by Nicolai Astrup. but seemed to look right.

The cake picture (did you think for a moment it was a picture of an actual box of fireworks?) is not connected with my ancient recipe book – it comes from pinterest, and isn’t it lovely?


  1. Fireworks in the kitchen! That is something, Moira. I know what you mean about an uneven book; I've read some of those, too, and it's hard to know whether to recommend some of them (for the great parts) or not (because they have parts that aren't good). I love the way you've laid this one open for us. Penny for the guy? ;-)

    1. I think this is very much a book with its own fans! Many people seem to have read it as a child and loved it. Perhaps I am too much a city person to really enjoy it...

  2. With Nov. 5 coming I had been thinking about Guy Fawkes day and the bonfires. I was trying to figure out which book I had read that had featured a Guy Fawkes bonfire and finally today I figured out it was Funeral in Berlin and the bonfire is near the end (that part I could remember).

    That is a lovely cake. I admire people who can do that, without wanting to do it myself at all.

    Two side notes: (1) I am starting Death Wears Pink Shoes today. (2) I recently read Envious Casca and loved, loved, loved it.

    1. Ha! by complete chance I just read Funeral in Berlin, just too late to make it a Guy Fawkes entry, I was much struck that I was reading it while fireworks went off all around me...
      I feel exactly the same way about the cake. And glad about those two books..

  3. Oh. Ohhhh. I grew up with this book, and re-read it many times and loved it, despite the difficulty of identifying with quiet, watchful, religious Susan, growing up on her isolated Derbyshire farm. There are so many chapters from it imprinted on my brain: her awful first day at school,after her mother made her wear a terrible, old-fashioned dress; the day when she invited THE ENTIRE SCHOOL home to see her Easter Egg; her Christmas stocking, her private terrors and consolations, the pattern of the seasons in a world where little had changed for centuries.. There were beautiful woodcuts in my edition too.

    1. I think I must just have been too old to appreciate it! I probably would have liked it more if I'd read it at the right age - I always liked books with those terrible mountainous child problems of the wrong dress, the disastrous invitation..
      It was probably you who made me read it in fact - I think it was while Christmas books were being discussed last year. Watch out for a Xmas entry too. (Not going to waste reading it!)

  4. The Alison Uttley that I remember is A TRAVELLER IN TIME, which I read when I was a kid. It's one of those books where you can't exactly recall everythihng that happens, but rather the general mood. There's a haunted, poignant quality to it, and it wouldn't surprise me to know that this book is the same. Judging by some of her diary entries she seems to have been a difficult, controlling, unhappy person, which is rather sad.

    I'm not sure that nearly all households don't have fireworks anymore. Where I live everyone seems to be letting them off in their back gardens, and they'll going off at random until the New Year (although how people afford them I don't know!)


    1. Oh my goodness, I was sure Uttley had passed me by, but I'm certain I read Traveller in Time as a child, just didn't know it was the same author. You certainly get the impression that she was at best unhappy, and at worst not very nice. I've now got a fancy to read Traveller again.
      You are right: all the official displays where I am were on Saturday night, and on Sunday there were endless, very loud fireworks from local gardens. I had been taken in by the propaganda about the safe displays!

  5. What a cake! I read The Country Child when I was myself a country child and I think I liked it. But more recently I read a review of a biography which claimed as ggary says that Alison Uttley had been a difficult person, and in particular that she had treated her children very badly. Sad . . .

    1. Oh dear, what a sad idea!
      You bear out my theory that you need to read this book when you are young. Although actually it doesn't read like a children's book, more of a memoir.


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