When a writer has a centenary accompanied by radio and television coverage, newspaper articles, an exhibition, reprints, and talk of a biography, the time seems ripe to look back at her contribution.
Every year the Children’s Book Circle makes the Eleanor Farjeon Award. It goes to someone who has made as distinguished a contribution to children’s literature as she herself did, though perhaps the word ‘distinguished’ is too polite and dressed up for the warmest, liveliest and most expansive of our storytellers.
Her concern, as a writer, was for the children. ‘Never write down to children,’ she advised would-be writers. ‘Be yourself. Into your work will then go what nobody else could have put into it.’ And into her own work went her experiences, her marvellous originality, her joy in living, a wit and spontaneity I find unequalled.
Any one department of her work would ensure her a place with the best of her craft. The stories in the recently re-issued The Little Bookroom and The Old Nurse’s Stocking Basket give more delight on each reading. Her plays, whether in collaboration with her brother Herbert as in The Glass Slipper or alone as in The Silver Curlew, are theatrically effective and highly professional, their bubbling fun, charm and insight sadly lacking from today’s pantomimes. The essays that introduce collections of her stories, or the poetry of Robert Frost and Edward Thomas are immediately alive: you want to read on because she has inspired you. It is fashionable to deride, often misguidedly, what has been labelled romantic, or gently whimsical, forgetting that such writing, at its best, strikes home unexpectedly, often with subtle delicacy. This was borne out when I recently introduced Eleanor Farjeon’s poetry to a group of eleven-year-old girls preparing for a spoken poetry competition.
One picked ‘Cotton’:
‘My wedding gown’s cotton,
My wedding gown’s cheap,
It’s crisper than sea-foam …’
‘What is he like?
Perhaps a coalman
Perhaps a King
Will he come on a horse
Or a motorbike?… ‘
Both these are from Cherrystones, where the poems are related to the counting rhymes… Tinker, tailor… This year, next year… Silk, satin… In The Mulberry Bush, its companion volume, party games are explored.
‘Blind Man’s Buff:
‘Banter him! befoozle him!
Bewilder him! bamboozle him!
Batter, bait and badger him, and then do a bunk! …’and ‘Seeking’, with its lonely ending:
‘For when she finds them in the game,
They may not be the same… ‘
both caught the ear and the imagination.
The nursery poems still have relevance: the quarrels, the meal-times, going to bed… Everyone’s experience includes the dread of Mother going downstairs, of being left alone, of the shadows…
‘Whatever can I do to bring her back?…
Mother! I want a drink of water, please… ‘
Eleanor Farjeon’s own mother, Maggie, pretty daughter of American actor, Joseph Jefferson, sang to her children. Music, dancing, acting, reading and theatre visits filled the lives of Eleanor and her brothers, Harry, Joe and Bertie. Formal education did not. The governess was told ‘To teach them nothing they did not wish to learn’. Ben Farjeon, himself a writer, made sure they had access to his 8,000 volume library, and each Sunday gave them new books. At eight Eleanor, already acquainted with Longfellow, decided she liked Tennyson even better.
An avid reader, she is immortalised in the short-sighted bookworm of Ardizzone’s illustrations for The Little Bookroom.
‘Let me be, please let me be,
I want to read by the fire.’
Steeped in myths. legends and folklore, unrestricted and encouraged, her own writing was precocious. Stories in exercise books at five and six, and on her seventh birthday her first real poem, a Valentine to Button, her sweetheart!
‘My heart has never beat before
As it did beat just now… ‘
From then, the poetry flowed, reaching its peak with an eleven-year-old attempt at blank verse, ‘Chaos’:
‘… in the midst of all,
His work beginning, Chaos, mighty God,
Repels the darkness, and above his head,
Appears the zodiac, in shining stars… ‘
Growing up for her was painful: she clung to adolescence. Words flowed, but too many, too glibly. But if not yet at ease with her own muse, her late twenties revealed her a valued critic. Her friends included Rupert Brooke, the Meynells, Arnold and Clifford Bax, D.H. Lawrence and in 1913, Edward Thomas. Her love for Thomas brought her maturity and development of her own skills. Her Nursery Rhymes of London Town (1917) are an inventive handling of London place names, with the sort of play on words that appeals to children.
‘King’s Cross! What shall we do?
Leave him alone for a minute or two!’
concludes one, and another tells how
‘Wormwood scrubs the London streets,
Wormwood scrubs St Pauls… ‘
Although, at times, her delight in words carried her away too lightly there are perfectly shaped lyrics amongst the slighter ones to redeem her, like this, which says so much in a short space:
‘The night will never stay,
The night will still go by,
Though with a million stars
You pin it to the sky
Though you bind it with the blowing wind
And buckle it with the moon,
The night will slip away
Like sorrow or a tune.’
The Children’s Bells (OUP, 1957) contains a wide selection. Here the poems spring from her vast store of knowledge. There are verses on kings and heroes, saints and fairy lore, special days and customs. Like the earlier Book of Days, this is a godsend to teachers stuck for an assembly idea. ‘Mrs Malone’ (first published in Silver-sand and Snow) has become almost synonymous with Eleanor Farjeon: the old woman whose ‘heart was so big
She had room for them all… ‘
recalls the writer whose great gift for friendship is still talked about.
In her poem ‘English’ she tells young readers
‘Get while you are young
The gift of English words.’
For nearly all of her 84 years she treasured this gift. Poetry always made her
‘See, hear, and feel something that prose
Cannot: and what it is, who knows?’*
Details of books mentioned and some others of interest.
The Little Bookroom
OUP, 1955, reissued New Oxford Library series, 1979, 0 19 277099 3, £1.80 (ill. Edward Ardizzone)
The Old Nurse’s Stocking Basket
OUP, 1965, reissued new Oxford Library series, 1979, 0 19 277093 4, £1.80 Puffin, reissued 1981, 0 14 03.1220 X, 80p (ill. Edward Ardizzone)
The Silver Curlew
OUP, 1953, reissued New Oxford Library series, 1979, 0 19 277057 8, £1.50 (ill. Ernest Shepard)
Jim at the Corner
OUP, 1958, 0 19 271056 7, £2.00 (ill. Edward Ardizzone)
A Nursery in the Nineties
OUP, 1980, 0 19 281308 0, £3.95 pb
Edward Thomas, the Last Four Years
OUP, 1979, 0 19 281276 9, £2.50 pb
Nursery Rhymes of London Town
Duckworth, 1917, 0 7156 0736 7, £1 .95
The rest are now out of print.
Eleanor Farjeon’s poems are frequently included in anthologies for children such as:
A Puffin Quartet of Poets,
1958, 0 14 03.0121 6, 90p.
A new selection, chosen by her niece Annabel Farjeon and illustrated by Antony Maitland, is to be published this June:
Invitation to a Mouse and other Poems,
Pelham, 07207 1 322 6, £4.95.
The 16th Eleanor Farjeon Award
Each year the Children’s Book Circle gives the Eleanor Farjeon Award to someone `for distinguished services to children’s books’. The award last year went to Dorothy Butler and previous recipients have been, among others, Elaine Moss, Kaye Webb and Margery Fisher. In 1977 Peter Kennerley was given the award for his work for school bookshops.
This year the prize has been increased to £500 with the help of a grant from the Arts Council and the award is shared by two people: Margaret Marshall and Virginia Allen Jensen. Both are involved in working with and for handicapped children so it is appropriate that the award should go to them in the International Year of Disabled People.
Margaret Marshall has been a teacher, a librarian, past chairman of the Youth Libraries Group and was until recently Senior Lecturer in Librarianship at Leeds Polytechnic. Eight years ago she started working with subnormal children, doing a weekly storytelling session. About four years ago she embarked upon deep research into books and the handicapped child which resulted in her book Libraries and the Handicapped Child (Deutsch, 0 233 97299 4, £8.95) published earlier this year. The book lays down clear criteria for ordinary children’s books which are suitable for children with differing handicaps. It also surveys books created specifically for the handicapped child (very few), and books about handicapped children. Appropriately Margaret Marshall commends Dorothy Butler’s Cushla and her Books, a moving and inspiring account of the role books played in helping her multiply handicapped granddaughter to grow and develop as a person. In a recent article Margaret Marshall wrote of the importance of `ensuring that the handicapped child not only has the right to read but has access to the books that will enable him to do so.’
Margaret Marshall has recently moved to Potters Bar where she lives with her second husband and their five children. She helps at a playgroup and does freelance writing, lecturing and reviewing.
Virginia Allen Jensen was born in the Mid-West of the United States, 50 years ago. Her career in writing for children began shortly after her marriage in 1954 to a Dane when she went to live in Denmark. Finding no material suitable for young children learning English, she wrote her own. Her interest in the visually handicapped began on a visit to Stockholm. She asked a young teacher what materials he gave to blind children to introduce them to books, and learned that for young children there was nothing available. Virginia began thinking about how a picture book could be produced for the blind, and in the nine years that followed she strove to find, and then to write it.
At the International Children’s Book Service in Gentofte in Denmark, where Virginia works, she enlisted the help of a colleague – Dorcas Woodbury Haller. The result was What’s That?, a story with shapes for characters. Raised surfaces meant it could be `read’ by feeling. Virginia received tremendous help and encouragement from the blind centres, institutes for the blind throughout the world, from parents, teachers and many others. The printers who produced the raised surface pictures spent four years experimenting with the production and built an entire new machine to print the book – without earning any money at all. The Nordic Cultural Fund and the Nordic Bank paid for the initial printing to produce sample copies for all the institutes throughout the world whose advice had to be sought.
Last year a second book Red Thread Riddles was produced for UNESCO. A combination of braille, raised surface illustration and printed text make this a book which visually handicapped and sighted children can share.
What’s That?, V. Jensen and D. Haller, Collins, 0 00 195910 7, £3.95
Red Thread Riddles, V. Jensen and P. Edman, Collins, 0 00 195655 8, £3.95