A series in which we feature writers and books we think you might like to know better.
Eric Hadley introduces Penelope Farmer
There was a time when I would happily lend books to children, students and parents in the sure knowledge that if they weren’t returned I could easily replace them. Looking at my shelves now I’m beginning to realise that many of my favourite books are no longer in print and that my booklists speak of a happier past time in publishing history. It’s refreshing to be able to report that Bodley Head are launching a new series of reissues in paperback of ‘books to be read again’.
The series is entitled Bodley Bookshelf, and amongst the first six titles are two by Penelope Farmer – The Summer Birds and Charlotte Sometimes. I’m not sure about the publisher’s hyperbole of ‘modern classics of children’s literature’. Penelope Farmer herself was much more modest about The Summer Birds, published in 1962 and her first full length novel for children. For her, going back to revise it for this new edition had been ‘like reading a book written by somebody else’. It’s a book, too, written when she was learning her craft as a writer, written, as she herself says, ‘in total innocence’. Growing out of a short story it still has the feeling of a long short story. Its 108 pages deal with one short summer in which a group of children learn to fly with the aid of a mysterious boy who passes briefly through their lives. Like a true short story, it deals with one crucial phase in the lives of the children and particularly that of the story’s heroine, Charlotte. Nor does it seem to me accidental that the decision to grow up and so refuse the possibility of endless childhood is central to this early novel by a writer who has spoken herself of her books ‘growing up as I grew up’.
It was seven years before Charlotte Sometimes appeared – a real novel not simply because of its extra sixty or so pages. The Charlotte of the title may share the same name as the heroine of the earlier novel, and she may well have a sister called Emma, but all similarities end there in my view. The novel, like its central character, is altogether more ambitiously conceived. In 1969, of course, we were all ‘into fantasy’. Sixteen years on much of it looks a bit threadbare and inconsequential.
For all its time-shift device, Charlotte Sometimes seems to me quite unlike that kind of ‘fantasy’, just as the blurb writer performs a disservice in harping on the ‘hypnotic quality’ of the writing. This is a novel which has held up well precisely because is doesn’t depend on the trick of lulling the reader’s alertness. Unlike the earlier novel it depends less on evocativeness of language and much more on tightness of organisation and plotting. The whole novel is as chilling and sharply realised as is its closing sentence, ‘All the remaining pages were blank’. It’s not hypnotic any more than it is sentimental or nostalgic. The First World War world Charlotte slips back into is as grim and demanding as her life in the present is dull and monotonous. It is too quite simply a very good ghost story – with a ghost that Charlotte knows but never meets and who brilliantly is never present though she dominates the thoughts of the chief characters. Indeed the nearest we come to encountering the ghost is not in some spine-chilling set-piece, but in the sordid and cheapjack seance scene.
These are then both very good children’s books, books to recommend to a new generation of readers. Charlotte Sometimes certainly seems to me a novel to place alongside such other ‘classic’ though rather different ‘time-shift’ novels as Tom’s Midnight Garden or A Traveller in Time. My emphasis on children’s is deliberate. Penelope Farmer’s later novels A Castle of Bone (1972) and Year King (1977) both depend more on the hints, clues and allusions which demand a more sophisticated and experienced reader. This experienced reader still doesn’t understand the significance of the ending of A Castle of Bone. Indeed it’s always struck me that there was a good comic novel here which lots of children would enjoy – a cupboard which transforms objects, animals and people – overlain by psychological and mythic interests of an adult nature.
As for Year King it too has been reissued but this time under the Bodley Head Teenage Fiction imprint. Like the work of many writers whose first books belong in the children’s section of the library it’s hard to place Year King. Its major characters are at university and neither their concerns or their lifestyles relate very sharply to the lives of the teenage readers I know.
This is a point about which Penelope Farmer is keenly aware. Knowing that she has an ‘adult’ novel published by Gollancz this Spring, I asked her if she had any plans for another children’s book. There aren’t at the moment but she did make the point that she wouldn’t try more teenage fiction because of its tendency to ‘spill over into the adult work’. That seems to me exactly what has happened with Year King.
Castle of Bone and Year King which both felt very ‘contemporary’ when they first came out now feel much more ‘historical’ than the two earlier novels. It’s striking how in Charlotte Sometimes the social and domestic detail of the First World War period is vividly presented whereas the ‘modern’ world to which Charlotte belongs is much more sketchily present. In one sense she is of course so much of her own time that she can take it for granted and there is just enough detail – the incessant aircraft noise, her friend’s transistor – to make us feel the distinction between the two periods. It is precisely this lack of detail, the timelessly ‘modern’ quality of Charlotte’s world, which will make it feel less ‘dated’ to new readers and help to guarantee it the ‘classic’ status it deserves.
And now to end on a personal note – could we please see Penelope Farmer’s collection of Creation myths, Beginnings, appear in paperback? It is outstanding among collections of its kind and it deserves to become a standard resource and reference for teachers interested in introducing their pupils to such stories.
Penelope Farmer’s books
The Summer Birds
The Bodley Head, Bodley Bookshelf, 0 370 30822 0 £3.95
The Bodley Head, Bodley Bookshelf, 0 370 30823 9,£3.95 Puffin; 0 14 03.0562 9, £1.25
A Castle of Bone
Puffin, 0 14 03.0692 7, £1.00, An edition in Bodley Bookshelf is scheduled for later this year.
Bodley Head Paperbacks, 0 370 30818 2, £4.95
Saturday by Seven
A story for 5-7’s
Puffin, 014 03.1032 0, 95p
Chatto, 0 70112275 7,£4.95
Heinemann, Long Ago Books, 0 434 94929 9, £2.50