Book Stuff, Writing Life

*Ancestors

On Tuesday I started First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton, and I finished it on Wednesday. It was a book I read as a child, and I wondered if I’d still like it and I did–very much–and it also made me think a lot, which I can’t say about most children’s books.

It’s in the boarding school genre; there were many of those in my elementary school library; someone in charge of purchasing books (or a donor) must have liked them and so did I. In this series each novel represents one year of the six that the protagonist, Darrell Rivers, spends at the school. It starts with her boarding the special train that goes to the school from platform 7 at the station. There are four houses, each housed in a tower. The entrances reminds Darrell of a castle. Okay–you’ve got to wonder if J.K. Rowling read these as a kid, too, don’t you?

The adults are scarce, appearing mainly to articulate the social values that permeate the book,  rather like the adults in Louisa May Alcott’s children’s books. The values themselves are much like Alcott’s of a hundred years earlier: character over achievement; honesty, openness, directness as against slyness, shrewdness or manipulation; sympathy but not enabling; courage especially the courage to overcome personal fears; not faultlessness but the open acknowledgment of fault and an effort at curbing and channelling it. As Darrell says of her father, he has a temper like hers but he reserves it for worthwhile things.

What surprised me in reading this book again was first of all, how much I simply enjoyed it–the girls’ different personalities, their antics, their conflicts and what they learn, the sly girl’s true colours revealed, the fearful girl’s surprising bravery.

And it gave me pause to think because the values it espouses, like Alcott’s, are much my own and not what I was raised with, where achievement and appearance trumped other concerns. I wonder whether my own values were innately different from my family’s or whether some other forces were at work. Did I find in these books an articulation of what I felt to be true or did they shape my perception of truth?

I suspect that there was probably a combination of those. It’s strange to think of myself at age 10 or 11 quietly reading and arriving at the values that inform my middle-age life and the way I raise my own children. We are our own ancestors; the lineage runs from me at 10 to me at 54. The lineage runs from Alcott in the mid 1800’s to Blyton in the mid 1900’s to Rowling in the 2000’s. There is more–I can’t remember which blogger I follow mentioned this series recently. (Let me know please!) But that is what spurred me to read it. That post was the predecessor to this one.

Don’t believe all the hype and fear mongering: such a lineage has too great a power. Books in whatever form, stories in whatever form, will carry on.

         My heart leaps up when I behold
              A rainbow in the sky:
          So was it when my life began;
          So is it now I am a man;
          So be it when I shall grow old,
              Or let me die!
          The Child is father of the Man;
             I could wish my days to be
          Bound each to each by natural piety.


               - William Wordsworth

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8 thoughts on “*Ancestors”

  1. Oh, Lilian, you are taking me back! I *adored* the boarding school books when I was a girl – probably for many of the same reasons you did. People who actually attended boarding school tend to give pretty mixed reports of the experience, but to me, during a childhood dominated by dysfunctional and in a real sense quite dangerous adults, NOTHING appealed more than the thought of getting on one of those magical trains.

    I agree we probably both recognised and embraced the values… a big thing when you know you don’t belong where you are.

  2. I recently reread some Malory Towers too (aloud to my team) and was struck by the Harry Potter similarity. I have to say I found the moralising a bit heavy-handed, but my children thought it was spot-on!

  3. Di, yes, that was another reason I enjoyed those books, too, imagining a life away from home. I used to make up my own boarding school stories and tell them to my little sister.

    Charlotte, I found Little Women heavy-handed on re-reading, but I enjoyed the moralizing in Malory Towers, at least the one I read.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this, being taken back to my childhood, but also that of my now grown up daughters and now granddaughters who are reading and being read to with all these books. Powerful connections indeed!

  5. I’ve never read Enid Blyton, but I think I should. I loved those types of stories too, although I never had the slightest desire to go to boarding school, I enjoyed reading about others who did!

    The series I loved best as a girl were Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy Tacy Books. They followed two best friends in the early 1900’s, and took them from childhood into late adolescence. They had such a simple, happy life, and I recall being very envious 🙂

  6. I think I was that blogger! At least I wrote about the Malory Towers books in a post about Reading from the Decades – First Term at Malory Towers was published the year I was born. I wondered if re-reading them would be disappointing and am so glad that you still enjoyed the book. I’m encouraged to re-read them too.

    Alcott was another favourite author from my childhood. As you say they both had the same values, although Alcott was rather more moralising, but I never thought that as a child.

    The Wordsworth poem is one of favourites as well.

  7. I so loved these books when I was a child – what would I think of them now, I wonder? I think the one thing we’ve really lost in a tragic way, is the easy acceptance of fault, alongside the recognition that we can channel it to good. Kids nowadays are scared to make mistakes or to accept anything bad about themselves because it is all so demonised. And yet, we’re no less human than we were.

  8. Marja-Leena, that must be so much fun, to see the love of reading those books in another generation.

    Becca, I haven’t heard of those books. I’m going to see if my library has any.

    Margaret, oh yes! Now I remember your post. Thanks so much for reminding me.

    Litlove, I agree, and that was characteristic of Alcott’s books, too. I remember one of the kids (Nan) in Little Men had a temper, and Jill In Jack and Jill lacked patience. I was fascinated by that because in my family there was no room for fault and no possibility of correction.

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