A site for the study of twentieth century British children’s books, particularly historical fiction, and their relationship to social change
Clive Barnes

A first blog: Cynthia Harnett, the fascination of the everyday, and didacticism in children’s historical fiction

Harnett-Load-of-Unicorn-001Welcome to the blog which, fingers crossed, should have something regularly to say about what I am reading from now on.

I have been looking at the six historical novels published by Cynthia Harnett between 1949 and 1971. Now out of print, most of her novels were published in the 1950s, and there was a gap of more than a decade between the publication of The Load of Unicorn in 1959 and her last novel, The Writing on the Hearth in 1971. She won the Carnegie Medal for her second book, The Wool-Pack in 1951, and her novels were a continuous presence on public library shelves from the 1950s through to at least the late 1970s. Her books are notable for mixing adventure stories, often involving secrets which children must, for various reasons, keep from adults, and the unmasking of some kind of villainy, with an interest in the details of everyday life in the past: including architecture in the seventeenth century (The Great House, 1949); the medieval wool trade (The Wool-Pack); the life of merchants and apprentices at the time of Henry V (Ring Out Bow Bells,1953); the arrival of the printing press in England (The Load of Unicorn); and medieval life in the Oxfordshire village of Ewelme (The Writing on the Hearth) .

She illustrated all but the last of her novels, which was the work of Gareth Floyd. Her black and white drawings were a crucial part of her stories, mixing illustrations of episodes in the narrative with maps and illustrations of principal locations, domestic scenes and individual domestic objects, modes of transport, and other aspects of social and economic life. Sometimes these were only incidental to the narrative but essential to creating a palpable impression of life in the past. They were often drawn from life or historical documents, with Harnett visiting both the locations of her stories and museums which held the furniture, costume and other artefacts that would figure in the tales. Arguably she was as interested in trying to recreate the everyday experience of living as a young person in the past as she was in telling a story.

This impulse and the style of illustration which she favoured have a great affinity with the work of Marjorie and C.H.B. Quennell, the first volume of whose A History of Everyday Things in England was first published in 1918 and whose subsequent volumes and editions remained on library non-fiction shelves until the 1970s. And, through the Quennells, Harnett’s work connects with the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reflected both in her particular interest in the medieval period, where four of her six books are set, and in her encouragement of children to appreciate the heritage revealed in her stories. Each book features an author’s postscript, in which she separates out fiction from fact, including who are real historical figures (Dick Whittington and William Caxton for instance) and who are not; adds further historical context and cites some historical sources; traces her own exploration of the places associated with the story; and, above all, urges her readers to follow in her footsteps. In the postscript to Ring Out Bow Bells, she guides her readers through the bombed out ruins of the City of London to “find the street plan of old London under your feet, its tiny lanes preserved as passages between what were, before the war, big City buildings (p 214).” In the postscript to The Wool-Pack she urges a visit to London again: “At the Victoria and Albert Museum you can also see the original of the stool on page 33, the spoon and fork on page 80, and jars very like the ones master Antonio brought from Italy full of sweetmeats, as well as many of the other small objects pictured throughout the book (p. 184).”

Her main contributions to children’s historical fiction, I think, were her commitments to historical accuracy, her emphasis on social and economic life rather than the great events of history, and her conviction that the challenges and opportunities of everyday life for young people in the past could be as interesting to her readers as acts of heroism in war or involvement in great political changes. Such major events do sometimes impinge on her stories but are largely experienced from the side-lines and, while her protagonists sometimes have family or professional   connections with the aristocracy, or provide services to them, they are usually themselves from merchant or gentry families; and Stephen in The Writing on the Hearth, favoured by the Earl of Suffolk for his intelligence and who wishes to be a scholar at Oxford, is the step-son of ploughman. For these young people in the past, the adventures that overtake them are incidental to work and family life, and finding their place in the world.

The tenor of Harnett’s work has meant that its intention has sometimes been considered to be didactic, not properly fiction but a way of smuggling historical facts past her audience. This assessment seems to have coloured some of the early appreciative reviews of her work. A review of The Wool Pack from the Times Literary Supplement quoted on the cover of Ring Out Bow Bells spoke of “A wealth of information in a readable form.” More recently (1995), Peter Hollindale, in a review of children’s fiction between 1945 and 1970, wrote “The problem is that Harnett’s books smack of the ‘textbook’, perhaps an estimable overreaction to the lax sensationalism of earlier books.” (Peter Hunt [ed.], Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History, p.266). This kind of assessment may depend on a reader’s tastes and what they find interesting in the past. For some readers, and I include myself among them, the attempt to recreate the life of the past as it might have been lived is as fascinating and exciting as any other literary enterprise. It is interesting, too, that Kevin Crossley Holland chose The Wool Pack as his book to remember in a series in The Guardian in 2001, since his brilliant quartet of books beginning with The Seeing Stone (2001) features the same kind of recreation of everyday life in the past as Harnett’s, this time in a medieval manor, mixed with a re-telling of the Arthurian legend.

But I think this sensitivity to didacticism may also be something peculiar to children’s literature criticism. It doesn’t seem to be part of the discussion of adult books in the same way. I am presently reading the second book in Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy on the nineteenth century opium trade, River of Smoke (2011), which has aspects that remind me very much of Harnett. He, too, is an author who, through assiduous research and detailed description is trying to recreate the illusion of actually experiencing life at the time. His immersion of his readers in the minutiae of, for instance, the clothing, furnishings, food, social behaviour, and topology of the foreign merchant enclave of Canton, means that the city itself becomes a character in the story, enjoying as much prominence as any of the human protagonists. His books, too, feature postscripts that detail many of the historical sources he has used and the historians he has relied on. And while Tessa Hadley’s review in The Guardian (11 June 2011) worries that “the thread of the story can get lost amid the overwhelming interest of its context”; she also accepts that “Ghosh’s novels somehow succeed in taking us back inside the chaos of when ‘then’ was ‘now’”, and that his use of detail can produce its own kind of pleasure: “Every element, no matter how small, in the novel’s world opens up to reveal the further worlds stacked up behind it.”

Harnett’s novels, written fifty years ago for children, don’t have the same density but I would ask whether children might not get the same kind of pleasure in their own reading of historical novels: the pleasure of being immersed in the strangeness of the past and being prompted to explore further themselves, even if they may be learning something at the same time. I am certainly learning about the opium trade from Ghost’s work. This learning, I believe, can also provide a pleasure that is very far away from the drudgery implied in Hollindale’s suggestion of the ‘textbook’. I think the anxiety about didacticism in children’s literature criticism may stem from a conviction that plays little part in adult criticism: that children’s literature should be part of a world of play and leisure in opposition to the world of school. I think this has as much to do with an anxiety about the relationship of adult writer and child reader as it does with the characteristics of the writing. Harvey Darton, a pioneer of British children’s literature criticism argued that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the first true children’s book since it was written to amuse rather than improve its readers, setting it apart from the children’s novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He was writing at a time in the 1930s when the notion of play as the defining characteristic of childhood was very strong and is clearly reflected in the number of books for children at the time about holiday adventures, including those by Arthur Ransome. And there is a feeling still about that children’s literature defines itself, in some respect, against formal education, aiming to provide a different experience. So that work which, like historical fiction, may deploy the kind of information which may feature in history lessons, can open itself to the charge of didacticism, even if its intention is an act of imaginative recreation. This is a charge which is less likely to be levelled at works of fantasy or science fiction where writers are creating worlds that have never existed.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]