Anne Harvey met Eleanor Farjeon once only, but through researching her life and work and ‘playing’ her in dramatised programmes she finds her a lasting influence and thinks of her especially when the annual award given in her memory occurs…
‘I’ll tell you, shall I, something I remember,
Something that still means a great deal to me,
It was long ago …’
With those lines Eleanor Farjeon leads us immediately into the childhood she cherished as ‘one of the States of Eternity’.
Born in 1881 her earliest memories were of the Hampstead nursery where she and her brothers, Harry, Joe and Bertie, invented games and rules, read avidly, wrote copiously, listened to their American mother’s sweet singing, and went frequently to the theatre but never to school. A governess was warned ‘not to teach them anything they don’t wish to learn’. Nellie filled notebooks with stories, poems and plays, could type at seven, and browsed short-sightedly amongst the 8,000 books in her writer father, B L (Ben) Farjeon’s, library.
‘Magic casements were opened through which I looked out on other worlds and times than those I lived in … It would have been as unnatural not to read as not to eat.’
‘What worlds of wonder are our books
As one opens them and looks,
New ideas and people rise
In our fancies and our eyes …’
Her shelves were crammed with fairy-tales and ‘The Greeks’, and when she was ten Papa gave each child a new book every Sunday after dinner.
‘My first was In Memoriam, bound in real Morocco with gold edges and a red silk marker. I already knew Longfellow; now I knew Tennyson and liked him even better. But in Poetry there was no-one like Shakespeare … Papa never told me I must read anything, but when he had read me a bit out of a new author or poet, he had wound up the watch and it went of itself.’
Eleanor was shy and awkward outside the family; growing up proved painful. TAR, a game of intense play-acting, absorbed her late into adolescence, although looking back she realised that … ‘if it was a harmful check on life itself, I owed to TAR that flow of ease which makes writing a delight’.
At first that delight was mingled with strain. Her early published work was derivative and indulgent. But though uneasy with herself she found a place among a group of writers and musicians that included the Meynell and Bax families, Rupert Brooke, D H Lawrence and Edward Thomas. Her literary knowledge and gift for friendship were valued, and maturity came through her love for Thomas and sadness at his death in Arras in 1917. She was jolted into independence.
When Eleanor was 15 Ben had predicted: ‘I have hopes of you, Nell; I think you’ll make a writer someday.’ He could not have foreseen such a bright future. Eleanor Farjeon’s output of nearly 50 years remains unparalleled in originality, wit, spontaneity and invention. She approached all genres – short stories, plays, poetry, autobiography and journalism – with equal skill and sparkling individuality.
‘Don’t write down to children,’ she advised would-be authors in 1935, ‘don’t try to be on their level. Don’t be afraid of words and things you think they can’t grasp … be yourself; into your work will go then what nobody else could have put into it.’
Early successes were Nursery Rhymes of London Town (1916) and More Nursery Rhymes (1917) which amusingly made play of place-names:
‘Get up, Kensal! Kensal, rise!’
‘Little Boy, Little Boy, eat up the Batter-see!’
‘King’s Cross! What shall we do …? Leave him alone for a minute or two!’
These were equally popular with soldiers at the front and children, and it’s a delightful coincidence that Cassell are re-publishing them in September in time for the Eleanor Farjeon Award to Books for Keeps. An award for ‘Distinguished Services to Children’s Literature’ would have surprised the modest author (winner of several major prizes) who described herself as ‘like a cheerful suet pudding’. This year’s choice of winner would have brought beaming smiles and her famous cushiony hug. ‘Books for Keeps! … but, of course!’
‘Each book is a magic box
Which with a touch a child unlocks.
In between their outside covers
Books hold all things for their lovers.’
‘In my youth,’ she wrote, ‘I dreamed of being a “real” poet, but half-way through my life the dream died, and whatever figments remained went into writing songs and verses for children …’ And there are hundreds of these, funny and serious, many exquisitely shaped, a handful still anthologised.
‘The tide in the river,
The tide in the river,
The tide in the river runs deep.
I saw a shiver
Pass over the river
As the tide turned in its sleep.’
Although children still repeat ‘Cats Sleep Anywhere’ and sing ‘Morning is Broken’ neither her masterpiece The Little Bookroom nor a Selected Poems remains in print. Good news, then, that Walker Books publish her own favourite, Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep, illustrated by Charlotte Voake, next spring; that this autumn, in Japan, Koguma publish Mrs Malone with the Ardizzone illustrations of the Eleanor-like old lady ‘whose heart was so big it had room for us all’; and in February ’97 Sutton Publishing re-issue her fine book on Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years. Her final piece of writing was an introduction to a selection of his poems for young readers, The Green Roads. Reading it, one would not guess that she was ill and tired and 84.
‘In my old age I live forward as well as in a present still teeming with interest: with the excitement of beginning and ending a piece of writing … and I live backwards, too … in my memories.’
Nursery Rhymes of London Town, by Eleanor Farjeon with illustrations by Macdonald Gill is published by Cassell (0 304 34899 6) at £8.99.
Anne Harvey has edited many poetry anthologies and in 1992 won the Signal Poetry Award for Shades of Green. Her book, A Present for Nellie (a story about the childhood of the writer Eleanor Farjeon), is illustrated by Victoria Cooper, published by Pegasus, 0 9520369 0 8, and costs £2.50. Anne Harvey’s Criminal Records is reviewed in this issue.
Photograph of Eleanor Farjeon by Helen Craig.