Brian Alderson is saying goodbye to his books as he donates his remarkable collection to Seven Stories. Here he bids farewell to The Far-Distant Oxus.
Katharine Hull & Pamela Whitlock The Far-Distant Oxus. Illustrations by Pamela Whitlock. Introduction by Arthur Ransome. London, Toronto: Jonathan Cape, 1937. 200x130mm. 351pp.incl. 24 full-page line drawings, that on p.307 repeated as frontis, and numerous spot drawings throughout; red inked top. Red linen over boards, separate hand-drawn and coloured maps on front and back endpapers. Dust jacket with front and spine 3-colour drawing by PW.
I suppose the story is still remembered.
Our authors, aged 14 and 15, were pupils at St Mary’s Convent boarding school, Berkshire, in 1936. They were not in the same form and did not know each other well but one day, sheltering together in a rainstorm, they found that they were both keen readers of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books.
This led them to think up the idea of writing their own version of just such a holiday adventure story but with ponies instead of sailing-boats and set on Exmoor rather than in the Lakes. Such was the nature of schooling in those far-distant days they had both been reading Matthew Arnold’s Persian epic Sohrab and Rustum and that became a thematic element in the story whose child characters choose names from it in their adventures (hence Oxus, Peran-Wisa – although Sohrab, the hero, hardly seems suitable for a black piglet won at a coconut shy.) Each chapter is also headed by a quotation chosen from the epic’s 892 verses.
The recasting of a story in Ransome mode but wholly original in its telling is one thing but to sustain the effort over twenty-five chapters is an altogether remarkable achievement recognised by Arthur Ransome himself. For when it was finished, hand-written on both sides of an assemblage of paper such as the girls had been able to gather secretly from school sources (400 sheets!) they sent it to him seeking his advice on what must be done to make it publishable. He was astonished by its storytelling qualities for, as well as a practitioner, he was an authority on storytelling as a craft, and he took it to Jonathan Cape and became midwife to its publication, writing an illuminating Introduction that singled out the history of its making.
While not having the integrated plotting of, say, Swallows and Amazons, the episodic structure of Oxus carries the reader along through its successful blending of the characters with their credible speech patterns and the landscape and its indigenous ponies. An air of mystery presides too over Maurice, a loner of their age but of unknown provenance and richly experienced in country living.
As a child-reader of the story and its successors: Escape to Persia (1938) and Oxus in Summer (1939), borrowed from the Enfield Public Library, I can bear out the generally accepted belief that the attraction of stories in series lies in a friendship that the reader finds with their fictional participants. Although no pony fancier (nor yet a yachtsman) I found that they and the Ransome crowd were good people to have around. (When, as an undergraduate, I first met Valerie I found that she had a like enjoyment in the books but had had them all as presents and had laboured to garnish them faithfully with colour pencils. That is an activity practised on Swallowdale by one of the characters in Oxus.)
By the time that Oxus in Summer was published the War was upon us. The girls had left school and while I know not what became of Kathleen during those fraught years Pamela served in the WAAF. But in 1947, with both now in their twenties, they published a fourth book with Cape: Crowns, dedicated to their old mentor. Its opening chapters introduce us to the children in three families, two in London and one farming just outside, of upper middle-class status the depiction of whose social life would have amused John Betjeman. However, having given us a character reading of four children in particular, our authors take them to a Boxing Day party (‘Indoor Games near Newbury’!) and then, in the midst of a game of ‘Sardines’ deposit them suddenly in an unknown, subtropical land where, though still teenagers, they have become royal rulers; two kings and two queens (did C.S.Lewis ever read this book?).
No explanation is given as to how they came to be rulers in the first place or what sort of history their land may have had and this long central part of the story is devoted to bringing out how the children’s independent royal status enables them to fulfil a future that they had earlier adumbrated for themselves ‘in real life’.
Crowns had no successors and after its publication Katharine Hull disappears from the record but a year after its publication Pamela Whitlock was appointed first editor of Collins’ Magazine for Boys and Girls., giving brief life to what was the last notable periodical for children in a genre that had lasted more than a hundred years. Collins also published her The Open Book (1956) an unusual anthology ‘for boys and girls and members of all Christian families’ with fine drawings by the now forgotten illustrator Marcia Lane Foster. More significant though in more ways than one was All Day Long (1954) an extensive and sensitively edited anthology much praised by Ransome with whom Pamela maintained a regular correspondence. She had sent it to the Oxford University Press whose children’s books editor at that time, the great John Bell, was building a post-war list that was to develop as the most famed of the period. He did the book proud with four full-page colour wood engravings by Joan Hassall. He also fell in love with his author and, reader, he married her.
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.
For this article, Brian acknowledges help from Hazel Sheeky Bird, authority on the Whitlock papers at Seven Stories.