Once upon a time in a Nice White Cottage with a Thatched Roof there lived a little girl. <!–break–>
She was (of course) Milly-Molly-Mandy.
for the three Brisley girls way back in 1914. Dad, a Bexhill pharmacist of unprepossessing character, had kicked them out of the family residence along with Mum (he seems not to have cared for their leanings towards Christian Science) and they were left trying to fend for themselves down Brixton way.
– literally – except for information garnered from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, they got by on their home-grown talents for drawing. Ethel, the eldest, developed a line in portrait miniatures, while Joyce and Nina sold work to magazines. They were even summoned to see that nice Lord Northcliffe (‘he’s not fat, just comfortable’) who handed them on to Miss Brown of Home Chat through whom some regular commissions arrived. (As painters, the three girls together may have established some kind of record by having work exhibited at the Royal Academy in the same year.)
Now one day
Joyce was doodling on a piece of paper, drawing a family group – an extended family, going right across the sheet from Grandpa at one end to a little girl in a striped frock at the other. ‘I want to know more about you,’ said Joyce to herself, and her curiosity about this character led to the first of the stories about Millicent Margaret Amanda, or, more mellifluously, Milly-Molly-Mandy. She sent the tale off to the Christian Science Monitor and a household name was in the making.
seems to have been reader-generated. The Monitor liked the story and asked for more; youthful connoisseurs of its Children’s Page liked the heroine and sent in questions: was she real? could they invite her round to tea? And Joyce liked her too, so that the stories flowed and she decided ‘at a venture’ to submit them to George Harrap to make a book. He accepted them, against some collegial objections, and although Joyce proved unexpectedly determined over the treatment of her illustrations he can hardly have regretted the decision. Volume followed volume – six altogether, plus a collection of plays – fulfilling his forecast (expressed with publisher-like elegance) that the books would be ‘a dripping roast – it drips slowly but goes on for a very long time.’
What on earth was the appeal?
(This may be hard to explain to today’s promoters, for whom belching, farting, and calling for one’s potty are a sine qua non in books for young children.) Our Millicent lives in circumstances of rural tranquillity that must have seemed unreal, or at least unachievable, to her readers from the start. Nothing much happens, and everyone is so confoundedly nice to everyone else that even when a gang appears, knocking people’s hats off, it only takes a bit of peaceful Positive Action to turn them into responsible citizens. What’s more, as supine members of the proletariat, indelibly white, and regrettably over-feminised (what sort of token male is Billy Blunt?) the books fall seriously short in meeting today’s editorial criteria.
the roast is still dripping. The little girl in the nice white cottage has not been expunged from the village-map that forms such an essential adjunct to her stories – even though, by now, it would be cluttered up with executive housing. In a recent classics* edition Shirley Hughes attributes Brisley’s success in part to her skill at ‘giving you exact details’ (something that Shirley has applied to her Alfie books) and of course to the regular feasting on things like fried onions and currant-cake that goes on. For me, though, the clue lies simply in Brisley’s storytelling voice. It’s been called ‘cosy’, but therein lies its quality, for it’s the cosiness that so many parents reach for (usually with less success than JLB) in making up stories for their own children.
Nor is Millicent Miss Brisley’s only child.
If you look the author up in the recently published Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books you will find a typically inadequate entry directing you to a 13-line paragraph on the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories. No mention is made of her other work: the undemonstrative magical tales of Bunchy or The Dawn Shops or the continuous text of Marigold in Godmother’s House; nor yet do we hear of those adventurous dolls, Purl and Plain, while My Bible Book, unsurprisingly, does not make it to the two mingy columns on Bible Stories. These works do not deserve such absolute neglect for they body out a sense of Joyce Lankester Brisley’s integrity as a writer and illustrator for young children – her care for small things and her ingenuous, warm-hearted storytelling.
*Her publisher Harrap is now part of the Kingfisher conglomerate who publish two selections of stories, The Milly-Molly-Mandy Storybook (1 85697 493 6, £9.99 hbk), illustrated here, and More Milly-Molly-Mandy (0 7534 0200 9, £9.99 hbk), alongside an edition of Brisley’s first book Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories with a foreword by Shirley Hughes in the Kingfisher Modern Classics series (0 7534 0593 8, £9.99 hbk). A quarto selection in full colour, The Big Milly-Molly-Mandy Storybook, is illustrated by Shirley Hughes’s daughter, Clara Vulliamy (0 7534 0483 4, £12.99 hbk).
Puffin publish four collections at £3.99 each pbk as well as an omnibus edition, The Adventures of Milly-Molly-Mandy (0 14 034865 4), at £6.99 pbk.
Marigold in Godmother’s House is published by Jane Nissen Books (1 903252 10 5) at £5.99 pbk.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.