Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Children of Green Knowe

Have I mentioned much that it's rained a lot recently? I think I just might have made fleeting reference. It's got to the point where I am planning to make stew, jacket potatoes and crumble for supper today. I'm going to put the calendar back  a few months and tell myself it's lovely and mild for January and feel cheerful instead of grumping that it's all terribly un-May like.
In light of this decision a proper meaty and nourishing book is called for; and one not short of rain and floods either, in the form of Lucy M. Boston's wonderful 'The Children of Green Knowe'. I read it to Bill in the depths of winter when it was all very dry and mild. It would be much more appropriate now.

This is the first in the series of six Green Knowe books, first published in the 1950s and 60s. I am lucky enough to have them in beautiful first edition hardbacks, complete with extraordinary etched illustrations by the author's son Peter Boston. They are books of rare richness of language and complexity, written with clarity but also a sophistication that pays proper respect to the abilities of their reader. Lucy Boston is able to channel into how it is to be, think and play as a child without patronage and very few authors match that.

Toseland or Tolly  is an only child, whose mother has died and whose father and step mother live in Burma. He is sent from boarding school to spend the Christmas holidays with his great-grandmother in her mysterious and ancient ark-like home Green Knowe, regularly surrounded by the flood waters of the fens and only accessible by boat. As he explores his new home and gardens and gets to know his magical and ageless Granny he becomes aware of the other inhabitants that live there; ghost children and pets of generations past who can compensate for his loneliness.

The 'story' of the book is loose and it is unusual in not being broken into conventional chapters. The discovery and progression of Tolly's friendship with the ghostly Toby, Linnet and Alexander, seventeenth century victims of the Plague is interspersed with their own stories from childhood. The book is I suppose relatively uncontemporary in it's focus on description and evoking atmosphere over plot. It is above all, an eloquent study in how to enjoy being alone. Having said that, there is a terrifying set piece towards the end where a cursed topiary version of Green Noah is brought to life in a thunder storm and Tolly is only rescued by the intervention of a ghostly peacock and a stone statue of St. Christopher. That counts as plot then.

I am going to give you the opening paragraph of the book. Call it my little food parcel of meaty nourishment for you in the rain.

"A little boy was sitting in the corner of a railway carriage looking out at the rain, which was splashing against the windows and blotching downward in an ugly, dirty way. He was not the only person in the carriage, but the others were strangers to him. He was alone as usual. There were two women opposite him, a fat one and a thin one, and they talked without stopping, smacking their lips in between sentences and seeming to enjoy what they said as if it were something to eat. They were knitting all the time, and whenever the train stopped the click-clack of their needles was loud and clear like two clocks. It was a stopping train-more stop than go-and it had been crawling along through flat flooded country for a long time. Everywhere there was water- not sea or rivers or lakes, but senseless flood water with the rain splashing into it. Sometimes the railway lines were covered by it, and then the train-noise was quite different, softer than a boat."

I love the way Lucy Boston has noticed and reproduced what a child notices so accurately. Beautiful books.

'The Children of Green Knowe' by Lucy M. Boston, illustrated by Peter Boston, pub. Faber and Faber
isbn 978-0571231461


  1. I'm sure I remember visiting Green Knowe or at least the house that inspired it and meeting Lucy Boston as a child. I too loved these books as a child and would re read them often. I never know you scored the 1st editions, lucky you! Lucky Bill!

    1. Now none of your recriminations- slim pickings still available to a fourth child pilferer...sniff...

    2. I know you're right Hen because our respected and honoured father told me he'd taken us/you - tho if I really was one of the party then I was certainly too young to remember