As he packs up his collection of children’s books to present to Seven Stories, a copy of Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner, causes Brian Alderson to reminisce.
My prentis years among contemporary children’s books during the 1950s were spent taking care of the showrooms of the Enfield bookseller and library supplier, Don Gresswell. It was a job, like many another, that I had come by accidentally, and it had a degree of independence. Don G’s office was across the road over a small book and stationer’s shop while my domain eventually expanded to some four rooms for visiting teachers and librarians. I had an assistant in the mornings at one time, often interrupted by cheerful reps, and the afternoons were devoted to much housekeeping.
Thus it was that round about 1955 I found myself invoicing an order for the local library which included copies of John Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet. It was not a book that we stocked for the good commercial (and indeed principled) reason that the only version in print was available from its original publisher, Edward Arnold, in a bowdlerised, non-net (don’t ask) ‘school edition’. It is likely that the enthusiastic Miss Jones, the local children’s librarian, was ordering copies of the newly published complete edition, now illustrated by Geoffrey Fletcher.
I took a look at it and before moments was absorbed After all, one had to know one’s books and here was a hitherto unknown one whose discovery meant that not much invoicing was done that afternoon. It was a gripping story set in an adapted setting of the coastal village of Moonfleet by Weymouth in the eighteenth century. The orphaned John Trenchard is befriended by the innkeeper Elzvir Block and between them they discover and recover the long missing Mohune Diamond. Thrills abound with an ending sufficiently tragic for a later colleague of mine to break into tears, along with her audience, when reading it to a class of girls.
The romance was first published by Edward Arnold in 1898 and there is no evidence that it was published for children. It is unillustrated and does not appear under Books for the Young in a 32 page Arnold catalogue of the time. Nor is it a common book in trade. Indeed, I cannot recall ever seeing another copy since that which I bought from two lady booksellers down in Old Sarum who had something of a speciality in children’s books. They knew of my interest in Falkner and invited me to come and collect the book and take tea with a nephew of the late author. He was not very forthcoming but had a catalogue of the sale of Falkner’s collection of medieval manuscripts which were a special interest of his. (He was at one time Honorary Librarian to the Bishop and Chapter at Durham Cathedral.)
That role was only part of an unpredictable career, he being brought up in the vicinity of the fictional Moonfleet but schooled at Marlborough and Hertford College, Oxford. Soon after coming down he was appointed tutor to the family of Sir Andrew Noble, the head of Armstrong, Whitworth at Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne, one of the largest armaments manufacturers in the world. He must have impressed for he went on to join the company, eventually becoming Chairman during the First World War.
Alongside this business career he wrote several county or local histories while Moonfleet was the second of three novels: a ghost story, The Lost Stradivarius (1895) and The Nebuly Coat (1903). Of the latter an anecdote has circulated of how he was accompanying a distinguished lady who was to launch one of the Company’s battleships. She was a great reader and, in conversation, recommended that he read The Nebuly Coat. ‘Madam, I wrote it’, he was able to reply.
Brian Alderson is a long-time and much-valued contributor to Books for Keeps, founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His most recent book The 100 Best Children’s Books is published by Galileo Publishing, 978-1903385982, £14.99 hbk.
Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner is published by Vintage Classics, 978-0099541127, £8.99 pbk.