As someone who works with children I am always interested in the way that children are portrayed in literature. These days of course, professionals exist in an atmosphere of heightened awareness for children who could be at risk. It is right of course, that our society strives to protect children and shelter them from influences and experiences that could harm them. Children are both frighteningly robust and heartbreakingly fragile and when I think of how we protect and nurture children now – no longer for instance are children expected to stand up on the bus to allow adults to sit – instead we ensure they have a seat so they don’t get hurt as the bus stops suddenly – I can’t help but reflect on how different were the adult expectations placed upon children of the past – how easily they were dismissed and ignored even endangered. Now, thank heavens we listen to children, we put them first, their opinions and wishes count for something, as they should.
The children of literature haven’t always fared so well, especially I think the children from literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I am thinking particularly of some of my favourite works – novels re-issued by Persephone books. Persephone of course publish books from the literary eras that I particularly love to read, periods which take in, the end of the Victorian age, the dawn of the twentieth century and two world wars. How children grew up, survived and even thrived at these times I find fascinating, often poignant and frankly incredible.
I have no doubt that the majority of children have always been precious to their parents, no matter what generation they were born into, but society’s treatment of them was not always as rigorous as it is now. Some of the children I have met within the pages of Persephone books can’t help but stay in my memory, condemned to the indifference of sour faced authority figures, misunderstood by selfish adults and affected by the tumultuous times in which they live.
I do think we can understand a great deal about the societies of the past – even the fairly recent past, by looking at the lives of its children, even in fiction – because of course fiction does highlight many sharp truths.
In Doreen for example; Persephone book number 60 Doreen a nine year old child during World War Two, is sent away from her London cleaner mother to the safety of the countryside. Living within a very different family, Doreen is shown another way of life, her experiences very different to what they would have been had she stayed at home. Naturally the war will not last for ever, and at some point Doreen will have to return home, but will she be suited now for her London life? The adults begin to disagree what to do about Doreen. Poor little Doreen is torn between her natural mother and the family who have taken her in. This is a time when the class system in some respect was still very much in evidence, there is an obvious difference between these two worlds, and Barbara Noble’s beautiful, insightful novel written just after the war, shows us the effects of these questions on the mind of a child.
At least little Doreen is loved, pulled between two classes the adults at least say they want the best for her, although typically they disagree about what that might be, and they fail, as so often the adults in fiction do fail, to really look at things properly through the child’s eyes. So often the children we fall in love with in fiction are at the mercy of adults, sometimes well meaning, sometimes clueless, and often selfish.
The poor lost child at the centre of Marghanita Laski’s marvellous and deeply poignant novel Little Boy Lost, Persephone book number 28 has no such experiences of being wanted by anyone. He has reached the age of five without any knowledge of his parents, any experience of presents or treats of any kind. Jean, as he has been named by the nuns at the orphanage has haunted me a little ever since I first encountered him. Another child caught up in the turmoil and confusion of war, little Jean was taken in by the orphanage when his mother was killed. With the war at an end, an Englishman arrives to meet the boy who might be his lost son. Hilary Wainwright is a man not even certain he is capable of being a father – the reader has absolutely no confidence in him, he is not entirely likeable. This poor little lost child captures our hearts, and breaks them just a little bit – this beautifully rendered novel is an emotional page turner. Will little Jean find happiness? will Hilary step up to the plate? and is Jean the boy that was lost? these questions keep the reader turning the pages in high anxiety. Certainly Jean represents all the lost children of that terrible conflict. A packet of hankies is a must, and don’t whatever you do read it on the bus – unless you like bawling in front of strangers.
We meet children caught up in the war in several Persephone books – it was naturally, a time of upheaval for society for families; in To Bed with Grand Music another wartime story from Marghanita Laski, Persephone book number 28, Deborah happily lives a life of promiscuity in London, while her child remains at her home in the country cared for by the housekeeper. It seems so often, that as long as someone, somewhere had the responsibility for feeding, watering and clothing the said child all other responsibility was at an end, nothing else was considered.
Noel Streatfeild particularly understands the psychology of children at this time, how their worlds were so terribly altered and effectively destroyed. Her novel Saplings, Persephone book number 16 is essentially about the slow destruction of a once happy family, and it makes for wonderful reading.
Manja by Anna Gmeyner, Persephone book number 39, is an extraordinary novel of childhood, five children in the turbulent Weimar Republic of Germany of the early 1930s. These children, who swear life-long friendship to one another, four boys and one girl, the eponymous Manja, contrast beautifully the inner world of the child with the ever changing, dangerous world of the adults around them. The reader can’t help but read this novel with the knowledge of history at the forefront of their mind, knowledge the author of this beautifully devastating novel didn’t have when she wrote it in the late 1930s.
Books like The Young Pretenders, Persephone book number 73 and The Children who lived in a barn, Persephone book number 27 are similarly novels of childhood. These stories – told very much from the child point of view, demonstrate how children think, and also how their lives are very much in the hands of adults, and how those adults can misunderstand, and let down the children who rely on them. These are children whose spirits often shame the adults in their life. The Young Pretenders originally a nineteenth century novel for children, is surprisingly heart-breaking, two wonderfully imaginative little souls, left in the care of an ancient grandparent and servants, they have no memory of their parents – busy serving the Empire in India. They are farmed out to their childless aunt and uncle in London upon their grandmother’s death. The children who Lived in a Barn are a bunch of siblings from the 1930’s – inexplicably abandoned by their feckless parents, they take care of themselves, time and again proving to be far more capable than the adults of the community to whom they represent an irritating problem which must be solved.
It is definitely the children in these books that make me love them so much, somehow their small earnest faces remain with me long after I have closed the book. Each of these books – and many other Persephone volumes, are absolutely books I will re-read one day.