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.