[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 pattern 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?”- 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.
“This is the place,” Andrew whispered, “to dream dreams into reality.”
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 has 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 books –The 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.