1954 - The Children of Green Knowe
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
The British Empire is slowly transforming into the Commonwealth of Nations. Several former colonies have already gained independence, but they still feel strongly attached to their British roots.
“I myself prefer my New Zealand eggs for breakfast.” (Queen Elizabeth II)
Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of the Commonwealth, a symbol of the friendship and loyalty these countries feel towards Britain that does not negate their desire for freedom and peace. In November 1953, the queen and her husband Philip, embark on a seven month world tour in which they visit 13 countries and cover over 40,000 miles by land, sea and air.
For Australia and New Zealand, it is the first time a royal reigning monarch visits their nations. The crowds are immense. According to some estimates, over 75% of Australia’s population gets to see their queen during her many public appearances.
These visits, are just the first in the hundreds of state visits the queen, (and later the rest of her family) will make to foreign countries, establishing her as the most widely traveled head of state.
In general, things are pretty good right now for the United Kingdom. The scars from World War II have largely disappeared and with them the costs British society has been forced to bear. On July 4, 1954, fourteen years of food rationing come to an end when the food Minister, Gwilym Lloyd George ends the restrictions on the sale and purchase of meat.
For the first time since World War II, London’s Smithfield market opens at midnight instead of 06:00 am, and butchers are able make a hefty profit, leading some to express concerns that meat prices will soar until the forces of supply and demand settle things down.
However, the house wives are happy and to mark this event they hold a special ceremony at Trafalgar Square. The minister himself, burns a replica of his ration book (while keeping the real thing as a souvenir). And overall, the nation is glad to launch this new era in its history.
1954 isn’t just marked though by a nomadic queen and increased opportunities for carnivorism; it’s also the year in which the glory of an ancient manor is revealed, a manor whose history Lucy M. Boston describes in The Children of Green Knowe.
“The upward course of a nation's history is due in the long run to the soundness of heart of its average men and women.” (Queen Elizabeth II)
Lucy Maria Boston (1892 – 1990) was an English novelist and creator of a magical garden. She wrote for both children and adults, and is best known for her “Green Knowe” series, a series of six low fantasy children’s novels, which she published between 1954 and 1976.
Lucy (because calling her Boston sounds weird) lead a pretty interesting life. During World War I, she left college in order to volunteer as a nurse, and served in a casualty clearing station in Normandy. While there she befriended wounded soldiers and did her best to humanize the hospital experience for them. Her efforts nearly got her dismissed as the head nurse was outraged when she saw Lucy sitting on a patient’s bed.
After the war she married a distant cousin who worked as a tannery director. The marriage lasted eighteen years and ended in a divorce. Lucy then proceeded to take an extensive tour of the musical capitals of Europe before she settled in Vienna to study painting for several years.
In 1937, Lucy, now 45, returned to England and bought a house in the village of Hemingford Grey. The house turned out to be a Norman manor and one of the oldest continually inhabited dwellings in the British Isles. Lucy named her new home “Green Knowe and then spent the next several years restoring the house and creating for it a magical garden consisting of a moat, topiary, old roses and award-winning irises.
Green Knowe and its garden helped inspire Lucy, now aged 62, to launch her writing career. The house became the focus and source of creativity for all of her works. Her first book was Yew Hall (1954), an adult novel which she described as "a poem to celebrate my love of the house". Afterwards she wrote The Children of Green Knowe, the first book in her very famous children’s series.
“She had short curls and her face had so many wrinkles it looked as if someone had been trying to draw her for a very long time and every line put in had made the face more like her.” (The Children of Green Knowe)
The book tells the story of Toseland, Tolly, who has been sent to spend the Christmas holidays with his great grandmother Oldknow at Green Noah, an ancient manor in the country. Mrs. Oldknow is a kind-caring woman who loves telling stories to her great grandson, a lonely child with a very active imagination.
Mrs. Oldknow’s mother was Linnet. She had two older siblings: Alex and Toby. When Tolly arrives at the manor for the first-time, he sees a painting of them as children, and asks his great grandmother to tell him more about them. She proceeds to introduce them to him as the kids they once were, and Tolly imagines them living in the manor.
Throughout the book, Tolly has various adventures in Green Noah in which he uncovers many hidden secrets and treasures, such as the gigantic statue of St. Christopher guarding the house, a cursed yew planted by the gypsy witch Petronella, the ghosts of his ancestors playing in the woods, and the original name of Mrs. Oldknow’s manor house (spoiler: it’s Green Knowe).
“What’s thought cannot be unthought” (Lucy. M. Boston)
I have very mixed feelings about this book. As an adult, Green Knowe is a place I’d like to visit because the place looks beautiful (see images above) and there is a lot of ancient history in the manor that I’d like to soak in. Lucy does an amazing job of bringing the ancient house to life.
As a book, I am very unsure. Tolly’s character strongly reminds of Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables – both are lonely neglected children with hyperactive imaginations living in a beautiful remote corner of western civilization. However, unlike Anne Shirley, Tolly only experiences modest growth. His achievements, while important to him as a child are far from life-changing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that the book doesn’t have as deep an impact as I would have expected.
One of the things I love about classic books is that hundreds of years after they are written they still feel alive and relevant. Lucy does a great job of bringing her manor to life, but I don’t think she does it in a way that is relevant to today’s very urbanized modern children. The odds are that if you were to leave a seven year-old alone in a gigantic house with no planned activity, the house will burn down by the end of the week, and the kid will be bored.
Tolly’s imagination by modern standards is also fairly limited. He doesn’t use it to build worlds or embark on fantastic journeys. He uses it to find friends, and that’s a great thing. I just wish their adventures would have been more adventurous, and the fantasies feel a little more fantastic. However, I also think it’s a matter of taste.
I don’t see myself reading the next book in the series, but that has more to do with my personal taste and less to do with Lucy’s storytelling ability. The book was a runner up for the 1954 Carnegie medal, the BBC adapted it into a television series and lots of people on Goodreads love it. These are all more than sufficient reasons to give this book a shot. If you do, let me know what you think. I’d love to hear other perspectives on Lucy’s work.