When she heard that Naomi Lewis was to be the Authorgraph in BfK‘s Fairy Tale issue, one of our leading publishers said, `That’s perfect! Naomi Lewis is a fairy.’ Plenty of her admirers would agree. No one is more respected in the world of children’s books or more loved – as an author, as an anthologist, as a critic and broadcaster. Yet no one is more mysterious. She’s both a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a recipient of the Eleanor Farjeon Award … and that’s almost the sum total of known facts about her. Her entry in Who’s Who simply states `b. coastal Norfolk’ and goes on to list a few of the journals to which she contributes – the Observer, New Statesman, New York Times, Listener, TLS, TES, etc. – along with a handful or two of her books. That’s all. Well, almost all. Under `Recreation’ it says, `trying in practical ways to alleviate the lot of pigeons, wolves, camels, horses and other ill-used fellow mortals in a human world’. It’s clear from this with whom she identifies.
Does she believe in fairies? `Of course,’ she admits, `but I’m never sure if they believe in me.’ What she’s quite sure about is that private lives should stay private. Ask when she was born and she replies `September’. Try to pin down which, exactly, of the `London women’s colleges’ she attended and she says `the College of Necromancers’. Maybe it was there that she learned to cast her conversational spell – because she’s not in the least unwilling to talk about what matters to her most: books. Better still, she’ll tell you a story. Many stories!
So BfK readers should be on their guard. What follows may fall somewhat short of the circumstantial writerly detail our Authorgraphs are wont to provide – beyond noting that Naomi Lewis lives in a flat in London’s Red Lion Square. The house is instantly recognisable from her bicycle chained to the railings outside, a bicycle that’s almost as famous as she is. Her thinking, she admits, is more orderly than her housekeeping. `I’d far rather people took a walk through my mind than through my home. I sometimes feel I’m the second most untidy person in the world – the first being Princess Margaret, but she doesn’t know it because she’s got servants.’
From her stories and book talk, some information does emerge, nevertheless. Her childhood was indeed spent by the sea (in one direction) and amidst marshes and marigolds (in the other). `There were four children in the family – Maurice, me, Edina and Toby. Toby was the best poet of the lot, actually – though he became a mathematician. But all three in their separate fields deserve something like an Authorgraph. We lived in a house in a terrace, no two of these houses were alike, shaped like a piece of cake. My parents started at the big end, but being poor had to move to the thin part of the slice though nowadays it would be very desirable. It had an attic and a cellar and a small garden at the front – very important for our invented games. Anyone who came to Yarmouth out of the Great Unknown – doctors, teachers and the like – would immediately gravitate to our house because there was always talking, always a piano playing. My father was a dreamy Russian, my mother came from a family that was unusually gifted. But we were very, very hard up. My mother used to make jam, make dresses and design things. She could do anything – paint pictures, lampshades, anything. In the last year of her life, one of Ma’s paintings was sent by my sister to the Royal Academy. It was accepted! Somebody bought it on the first day. The Arts Council wanted it to be in their touring exhibition … though music was probably her greatest love. There was nothing Ma couldn’t turn her hand to.’
The house was also full of books. She has early memories of her elder brother reading aloud from Andersen’s `The Snow Queen’ . . . and of a trip she once made to the attic to look for a book she hadn’t already read many times. `I found a box of musty books and they all smelled of musty bookness … and I came across the Everyman edition of Emerson’s essays.
The one I opened at began, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds!” The word “hobgoblin” was encouraging … but the rest was very boring!’ Other reading was very mixed indeed. `I read anything and everything, being particularly fond of the school stories of Angela Brazil which were rather frowned upon. I’d have read the works of Enid Blyton happily enough if they had come my way. The book I read most, though, was Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book.’ She still has her original copy `with its pages full of sand’.
After her family’s move to London, and college, she taught in Switzerland for a while, was briefly an advertising copy-writer `though not a very good one’ then worked in a variety of state schools. Her literary career came about almost by accident. `I met someone who set New Statesman competitions … so I sent in three entries, all under different names, and they all won prizes. The following week I sent in four more – again using different names – which also all won. It seemed I couldn’t lose. One day I rang them up, very timidly, and asked if they’d consider me as a reviewer – identifying myself by the top name I’d used in the competitions. “Come round straightaway,” they said. And I found the whole editorial staff was there waiting to meet me.’
A new critic had been discovered – a critic, it turned out, of rare distinction and originality. She was among the first to recognise the quality of poets like John Betjeman and Stevie Smith and, in a justly celebrated essay, re-assessed the work of Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Whoever her subject was, she managed to be both acute and generous. Even her asides sparkle – describing J M Barrie’s `The Little White Bird’ as `that urbane masterpiece of cold, unflinching sentimentalism’, for example. Who could possibly put it better? Soon she was an established contributor to leading journals on both sides of the Atlantic and a regular broadcaster on BBC radio. Her much admired first book was a collection of these pieces under the title A Visit to Mrs Wilcox (Cresset 1957). It’s sometimes forgotten nowadays that Naomi Lewis won her F.R.S.L. for her contributions to adult literature.
So when did she begin writing for children?
As usual, almost by chance. `V S Pritchett at the New Statesman said to me one day, “do you think you could do these, I haven’t time” and handed me some children’s books … and I suddenly thought “these are interesting!” ` From so casual a start followed translations like Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales (1981), Arabian Nights (1987), The Snow Queen (1988) along with verse, both other people’s and her own, in such collections as Come With Us (1982), A Footprint on the Air (1983) and Messages (1985). Poetry, in fact, is her preferred literary form and her ability to memorise it is prodigious. She can still recite flawlessly the verses heading each chapter of Tom Brown’s Schooldays which she read when she was seven. Composing verses comes just as easily to her.
`Stay!’ said the child. The bird
My wing has mended, I must go.
I shall come back to see you though,
One night, one day -‘
`How shall I know?’
`Look for my footprint in the snow.’
`The snow soon goes – oh, that’s not
`Don’t grieve. Don’t grieve. I shall
In the bright season of the year,
One night, one day -‘
`But tell me, where?’
`Look for my footprint on the air. ‘
The humour and childlike vision here, combining technical deftness with glorious mimicry, is all the more haunting when the reader knows how its author feels about birds – pigeons, in particular. `Wonderful creatures … they have a great deal of personality, are vegetarian when they’re allowed to be and they have a most beautiful flight: they soar upwards yet come down like a high diver exactly where they want.’ Her talent for catching injured pigeons, and healing them, is as legendary as her caring for cats… and no doubt wolves, camels and horses should any stray into Red Lion Square. It’s hard to believe that the various articles, interviews and at least one television programme which have been devoted to Naomi Lewis, Animal Lover, come anywhere near the unfussy eloquence of her own poem.
She brings the same eloquence to whatever she writes, always reading it aloud to check its sound. She broods a lot, too. When one editor remarked on the time it had taken her to write a piece, she replied, `it was not writing it that took the time.’ If she’s complimented on her style, she tends to shrug dismissively and say `I’ve always been able to write prettily, but I had to learn to be a critic.’ Readers who suspect there’s more to it than that need only compare the vivid economy of Cry Wolf (1988), her re-telling of Aesop’s fables, with the measured stateliness of Proud Knight, Fair Lady (1989), her translation of the lays of Marie de France. The brooding is put to good use.
So is another quality we associate with fairies – those, at any rate, of the godmotherly kind:
The face in the water said
(rather fretfully, I thought):
`Be courteous to crone and spider,
Prudent with keys,
Free the hooked fish and such –
Of course you know all about that.
And do be careful when wishing.
In spite of all the examples
They never learn.
It takes imagination
To start with the fourth guess,
thought of later,
The fourth wish, after the moral.
`We’re given three wishes,’ Naomi Lewis comments, `and we always wish wrong. The third one ends up mending the others. Now, if we could step over that to where the point of wisdom really lies – if we had imagination enough to start with the fourth wish, that would be the right one. Only we don’t. You can never teach experience, you see.’
Experience can be imagined, though. That’s where fairy tales come in. `The Snow Queen in her sleigh is experience … a wonderful image that comes back to you like the glass mountain or the staircase in The Princess and the Goblin at the top of which is a golden-haired creature, both young and old and full of the best magic who gives you a golden thread to hold onto. Your mind is a house, a landscape, you see – it needs furnishing. And the hardest things to get out are the things that are put in early. Fairy tales put in mountains, forests, and castles – a world of distances. They give wonderful possibilities like having a second chance … or being able to fly. I think we all really believe we can fly, don’t we, except we just happen to be people who can’t? Fairy tales give us the illusion, the experience, of being able to fly by ourselves. They keep alive the possibility.’
Imagination, then, can lift us beyond the third wish, beyond the moral, to a condition not just of wisdom but of freedom. Having been brought up, and lived her life, in the belief that `not much was to be gained by being like everybody else,’ Naomi Lewis has made more of the jump than most – though she’d laugh at you for saying so. Or is she laughing at herself? `You can only wish to your own capacity,’ she warns us.
No doubt that’s true. But being so fully of the fairy persuasion, Naomi Lewis seems as likely as anyone to leave a footprint on the air. BfK salutes her.
A selection of Naomi Lewis’s books:
Come With Us, ill. Leo Lionni, Andersen, 0 86264 011 3, £5.95
Cry Wolf and Other Aesop Fables, ill. Barry Castle, Methuen, 0 416 00042 8, £6.95
A Footprint on the Air – a collection of nature verse, ill. Liz Graham-Yooll, Knight, 0 340 37235 4, £1.75 pbk
The Frog Prince, ill. Binette Schroeder, North-South Books, 0 558.58 015 8, £7.50
Hare and Badger Go to Town, ill. Tony Ross, Andersen, 0 905478 94 0, £3.95; Puffin. 0 14 03.3131 X, £l.99 pbk
Messages, Faber, 0 571 13646 X, £7.95; 0 571 13647 8, £3.95 pbk
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ill. Sylvie Monti, Hutchinson, 0 09 173506 8, £5.95
The Nightingale, ill. Josef Palecek, North-South Books, 1 55858 090 5, £7.95
Proud Knight, Fair Lady, ill. Angela Barrett, Hutchinson, 0 09 173511 4, £10.95
The Snow Queen, ill. Angela Barrett, Walker, 0 7445 06212, £9.99