Ah, yes, well! Let this be a lesson to me in the follies of revisiting books I loved as a child. For my children’s literature 1949 pick I re-read Enid Blyton’s The Rockingdown Mystery and I would have predicted that that would have irritated me far more than anything I was likely to chose later on. However, I was wrong. The Blyton at least had a fairly decent plot to it and I found it interesting, reading it as an adult, to see how the author was trying to extend her range of possible adventures by introducing a character (Barney) who came from a troubled enough background to be allowed to have the sort of experiences the Famous Five would always have to be denied. Not so Miss Hill.
A Dream of Sadlers Wells is the first in a series of books about young women who have some sort of struggle to be allowed to make their way in the world of dance. For the most part this is not because they lack talent but because, like Veronica Weston, the dreamer in question, their personal circumstances are such that they are denied the opportunity. Forced by the death of her mother to move from London to live with relatives in Northumberland, Veronica is prevented from even mentioning, let alone pursuing, her ambitions by the swift realisation that as far as her aunt is concerned people like ‘us’ simply don’t go on the stage. I suppose I should be pleased that it is clear from the start that Hill has no time for such an attitude and that Veronica’s Northern relatives, with the exception of her cousin Caroline and sort-of-cousin Sebastian, are roundly condemned, but they are such stereotypes, especially cousin Fiona, that it is hard to take that condemnation seriously. And, faced with one such obvious stereotype, I couldn’t help casting around and realising that everyone else, Veronica included, was completely stereotypical too.
But, you will say, that is true of Blyton as well, and that is hard to deny. However at least Blyton’s characters have adventures. Barney got kidnapped and locked in a ruined castle, for goodness sake. The most that happens to Veronica is that she sets up a wayside stall to raise money to hire a pony so that a year later she will have something to ride across the moors on a foggy night in order to catch a train to the audition. (She isn’t clairvoyant, but the reader is. That pony is clearly there for a purpose right from the start.) I’m sorry but the book is just downright dull.
What was I thinking, setting myself up to destroy my childhood memories this way? At least I am no longer wondering whether or not I can afford to buy the rest of the series. (None of my three local library authorities have kept copies – it’s good to know that some sense prevails in the library system.) I shall be much warier about future picks in this category. And yet some of the children’s books coming out in the not too distant future, certainly by the 1960s, were tackling really important issues, albeit often through the means of fantasy. Were the fifties really such a dearth? I notice that the list I had for 1950 didn’t offer me a Chalet School novel. I’m sure there must have been one. Now that was an interesting series which, although it was packed with stereotypes and some very dubious attitudes towards married women, had some quite remarkable things to say about international cooperation. Maybe I can dig out one of them for 1951.