The Children of Green Knowe ~ Lucy M Boston

I had been teaching for about three years, I think, when my headteacher came in one day and told me that I was now in charge of the school library. He wasn’t the sort of person who consulted his staff about their preferences, nor was he the sort of person with whom you argued, so from that day on I was in charge of the school library. Having been an avid reader since before I went to school myself, it wasn’t the onerous task it might have been to someone else, but I was aware that I had stopped reading children’s fiction when I was about eleven or twelve and, other than my forays into Enid Blyton and Lorna Hill, I couldn’t really remember very much about it. So, every Friday evening before I went home I would nip into the library and pick up a couple of books by authors I hadn’t yet encountered for my weekend reading.  Thus began my lifelong love affair with children’s literature.  

The Children of Green Knowe, the first in Lucy M Boston’s sequence based around her own house and garden, was one of the earliest books I took home with me. Published in 1954 and set in the depths of East Anglia, it is very much of its own time and place. Its main character, seven year old Toseland, (and, as promised, that is a picture of Toseland Bear at the head of this post) is going to spend Christmas for the first time with his great-grandmother, Mrs Oldknow, who lives in the eponymous Green Knowe. The surrounding countryside is completely flooded and later in the story the property is cut off yet again by snow and this isolation from the world around it is fundamental to the sense that the house and gardens are trapped in an understanding of time all their own: a time that has no respect for ordinary temporal boundaries but which allows generation after generation to co-mingle in a manner that has nothing to do with haunting but everything to do with knowing who you are, where you have come from and finding your place in the world.

Like Lucy M Boston’s own home, Green Knowe has stood for almost 900 years, always in the hands of the Oldknow family who, in their stead, are always served by a Mr Boggis. When Toseland first arrives he can feel the weight of past generations surrounding him as he explores the house which is to be his new home. Toseland is an old family name, it has come down through the generations and so there will be no confusion, his grandmother shortens it to Tolly (Toseland Bear is never shortened to Tolly) and she tells him about a previous Toseland, known as Toby, and about his brother, Alexander and their sister, Linnet. This generation of Oldknows appears to have lived in the middle of the 17th century because we later discovered that they died in the great plague of 1665. Tolly becomes completely fascinated by them and their lives, especially by the horse which Toby rode, Feste, and as he shows himself to share the same interests as they had, to be subject to the same sensitivities, to be, in fact, a true Oldknow, so gradually the children, whose memories still linger, show themselves to him.

I found myself reading the book much more slowly this time than I suspect I did the first time round. There is some beautiful writing in it.  Here is Tolly, lying in bed on a night when the frost is biting hard.

The owls hooted outside. Their sound seemed to echo from a glassy, frost-hard sky. Tolly could literally hear how wide the meadows were.

I was also much more aware of the underlying concerns rather than simply concentrating on the storyline. This isn’t, as I suspect I thought on my initial reading, a ghost story. It seems to me that what Boston is really interested in is the way in which not only our own past but also the past of those generations that have preceded us forges our identity.  Yes, we are free to make our own decisions, but how we do that will inevitably be influenced by past experiences, even if not our own and even if we only react against them.  Up until this point in his life, Tolly has been pretty much shoved from pillar to post, isolated in a boarding school and, because his father and stepmother are abroad, forced to stay there even during the holidays. Now, for the first time, he has a sense of his own identity, of where he has come from, of his heritage, and this knowledge gives him the strength to grow and to begin to make choices for himself.

I am so glad I went back to this book. If you don’t know it then do you try and pick up a copy and appreciate Boston’s work for yourselves. I seem to remember thinking that the third book in the series, A Stranger at Green Knowe, was even better – a treat for another weekend, perhaps.

21 thoughts on “The Children of Green Knowe ~ Lucy M Boston

  1. alibrarylady September 16, 2020 / 2:20 pm

    Your comment about the influence of previous generations on our identity resonated with me. When I read this over the summer that was an aspect that struck me too. Our links to people long gone can materialise in unexpected ways. This is, I think, a comforting read which reassures in its themes of continuity, the idea of being a small part of a bigger whole if that makes sense. I loved reading your review, thank you. I haven’t read the others in the series but hope to do so.

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    • Café Society September 16, 2020 / 4:12 pm

      Do read the others. As I said I remember being really moved by A Stranger at Green Knowe which I shall definitely re-read fairly soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Laila@BigReadingLife September 16, 2020 / 3:10 pm

    I was unaware of this series but it sounds fantastic. My library system has them. I’ll add the first to my TBR list.

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  3. Julé Cunningham September 16, 2020 / 3:58 pm

    The Lucy M. Boston books sound like wonderfully imaginative stories to discover as a child and a pleasure to turn again when no longer one.

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    • Café Society September 16, 2020 / 4:13 pm

      I’m fascinated by the different ways in which we appreciate a book when we come back to it after many years, Julé. This was definitely worth seeing in a different light.

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  4. Calmgrove September 16, 2020 / 7:07 pm

    I have the River title to read next, but I don’t want to rush it; I found this first title unexpectedly moving, though not in a soppy way, perhaps because the roots of its themes went down to something archaic, even chthonic.

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    • Café Society September 17, 2020 / 9:01 am

      Yes, there is nothing ‘soppy’ about either the subject matter or the writing. It is more elemental than that.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Café Society September 17, 2020 / 9:02 am

      I got so much more out of this on a second reading, Karen so do revisit. Toseland sends his regards.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Jeanne September 18, 2020 / 1:20 am

    I found this first book in a public library at some point, but had no idea there were others or that they’re good! Will have to search.

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  6. smithereens September 18, 2020 / 1:11 pm

    My kids loved the movie, I had no clue it was a book in the first place (shaking my head in shame)

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  7. Jan Hicks September 19, 2020 / 6:41 pm

    I loved these books as a child and am convinced that they played a part in my fascination with history and what it says about who we are now. I loved the time travelling element, as well – I never thought of the historical inhabitants that Tolly encounters as ghosts. I remember The Chimneys of Green Knowe being quite striking in its depiction of the friendship between two children who experience prejudice for different reasons, and An Enemy at Green Knowe being very exciting.

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    • Café Society September 22, 2020 / 5:06 pm

      It isn’t often that a series maintains its quality throughout quite as well as this, Jan. I must re-read the others ar some point.

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  8. Con September 21, 2020 / 4:10 am

    I’ve been thinking of Green Knowe lately myself! A kind librarian listened to what I liked to read and handed book 1 to me when I was about 10 or 11 and I read and reread the whole series several times. I was into crafts so book 2 where there is embroidery with human hair was especially memorable! On my last trip to England, my mother and I went to Cambridge and I knew the real Green Knowe was not far away but I couldn’t figure out a way to get us there.

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    • Café Society September 22, 2020 / 5:08 pm

      Travelling round East Anglia is quite a challenge, Con, especially if you’re using public transport. Very often you have to go into London and start again!

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