November 29, 2013 § 1 Comment
Not all writers write well. Yet writers who do not write particularly well may go far, may even win prizes: prizes that are awarded for, amongst other things, literary merit. Such writers distinguish themselves sufficiently by writing a “strong” story. A writer who writes very well, but whose ability to develop a story is less certain will never fare as well as the “storyteller”.
Lucy Boston was not a great storyteller but she was a writer of distinction. Her home Hemingford Grey was the inspiration for the Green Knowe novels. She wrote six, but only the five written in sequence concern us here.
The series begins with The Children of Green Knowe (1954). Tolly visits his great-grandmother Mrs Oldknow in her house Green Knowe for the first time. Green Knowe is 900-years-old. Through his great-grandmother’s storytelling and his own sightings of ghosts (or does he sight ghosts, is it make-believe?) we meet Toby, Alexander, and Linnet who lived at Green Knowe around the time of the Great Plague.
The stories told about Toby, Alexander, and Linnet do not relate to each other particularly. Their stories form a sort of patchwork in which we discern no pattern. They are pleasant stories but not compelling. If the stories had coalesced better, the book would have been a far more powerful one.
The second Green Knowe book The Chimneys of Green Knowe (1958) is a great advance on the first. Toby, Alexander, and Linnet, though deeply involved in the history of Green Knowe, do not appear. We can’t help but feel that Lucy Boston will banish characters from Green Knowe when they can serve no useful purpose in another story.
Susan’s story succeeds better than those of Alexander, Toby and Linnet’s because her story has a beginning, middle, and end. We see her in the beginning, constrained, not so much by her being blind but by the attitudes of her nanny and mother to her blindness. Her world is opened up by Jacob, a small black boy, brought from Barbados to be her companion. Jacob helps Susan to interpret the world around her, and also the world which Susan has not experienced, such as the sea. We are not to like Susan’s frivolous mother or selfish brother Sefton. Neither character cares very much for Green Knowe: generally only good people care for Green Knowe.
In The Chimneys of Green Knowe we are swept along by one main story. What will happen next? What will become of Susan and Jacob? Will Sefton come to a bad end?
Lucy Boston is going from strength to strength, we expect very good things of The River at Green Knowe (1959), but we are most shockingly disappointed. Mrs Oldknow has let Green Knowe to an academic, Dr Maud Biggins and her friend, Sybilla Bun (she is very preoccupied with food) for the summer. Mrs Oldknow’s departure is the first in a series of departures from reality. The letting of Green Knowe is a contrivance to allow “new” children even greater freedom than they would have had with Mrs Oldknow. As Mrs Oldknow is deeply involved in the life and history of her home, it would have been hard to exclude her completely from any adventures: the only thing to do was banish her completely.
Dr Biggins is far too engrossed in her study of giants that once inhabited the earth to bother herself much with the children. The only stricture imposed is that they should turn up to meals on time. It is a wonder that it ever occurred to Dr Biggins to give the refugee children, Ping and Oscar, a holiday. (Ida is related to her.)
The children concern themselves very little with the house, Green Knowe, and are entirely taken up with the river.
Had Mrs Boston a number of story remnants which she wanted to find a receptacle for and thought to unite them all as adventures had on the river? But these adventures are without sufficient bounds. Mrs Boston is not at the helm of her story. As the children drift around on the river, so the story drifts too. We are not even restricted by the 900-year-history but venture back to stone-age people. Neither do we stick to the real world but venture into the fantastical, we have flying horses, and a shrinking Oscar (Or was that a dream?). As Mrs Boston so ably deals with the real world and its phenomena, we cannot quite understand why she had to go on such flights of fantasy. For example, the children’s meeting with a London man turned wild man, one of the realistic phenomena, is more interesting than their meeting giants. (But we do question the wild man’s ability to induce himself to hibernate.)
In The River at Green Knowe we feel that anything and everything could happen but this is a negative rather than a positive feeling.
We do not know what to make of The River at Greene Knowe. It doesn’t seem to belong in the series. What have Green Knowe and Mrs Oldknow to do with the story?
Now if I were just recovering from the “shock” of The River at Green Knowe and Lucy Boston approached me with the idea for her next Green Knowe novel, I should have tried to steer her away from it: hadn’t it been abundantly proved that the further back in time Mrs Boston went, or the further geographically her stories took place from Green Knowe, the more everything failed.
A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961) opens in the Congo in an equatorial forest where we make the acquaintance of a Gorilla family. And yet this book about the Gorilla, Hanno, who is captured and taken to a Zoo in England from which he later escapes to Green Knowe is Mrs Boston’s triumph. Were we to make a line graph of her art, we should, after the sharp descent of The River at Green Knowe, now rapidly ascend to the apex of her achievement.
The ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ did not interest Mrs Boston very much and she certainly did not want to write about them. A writer who risks writing about ‘everyday’ things may write dull stories, and the writer who favours drama may well write of the far-fetched and improbable. The lack of reality which infuses The River at Green Knowe is not present in A Stranger at Green Knowe. In writing of an escaped gorilla, already befriended by Ping who has met him in the zoo, we certainly have our dramatic story.
Readers, even in the very best stories, have to nod at something that is just a little unlikely. It is quite a coincidence that Ping should happen to be staying at Green Knowe when Hanno hides out there. But writers earn our indulgence and Lucy Boston, after conjuring up the Congo and gorilla family life, earned mine.
Lucy Boston’s characters aren’t always compelling. Up until now, apart from Susan and Jacob, we can take or leave them. However, we feel very drawn into the world of Hanno. We too become irresponsible. We approve of Ping’s actions in concealing the presence of the gorilla. We want Hanno to escape detection, to even perhaps make his way back to the Congo. Such is the power of the story that we want and hope for the impossible. But in this story Lucy Boston’s feet are firmly on the ground: the impossible does not happen and the climax is superbly emotional.
Ping’s status as a refugee child, which was really of no importance in The River at Green Knowe, resonates here. Who better to feel for Hanno in his little cement-floored cage in the Zoo than the child who has been displaced too: from one cement-floor to another.
Some writers are content to set out on a story without knowing how the story is going to end. We have, as readers, to wonder if that is the right approach, because when we read a story where the beginning contains the seeds of the end, we have a deeply satisfying experience. We feel A Stranger at Green Knowe took shape in Lucy Boston’s mind and that every incident was contributing to the inevitable end, an end that we wish were otherwise but we know is the right one.
For An Enemy at Green Knowe (1964), we are back in Green Knowe with Mrs Oldknow and Tolly and Ping. The evil Melanie D. Powers makes her appearance. She is trying to unearth some information about, or some of the effects of, a Dr. Vogel who stayed in Green Knowe centuries before. She is deep into black magic and in her efforts to wrest Green Knowe from Mrs Oldknow, she sends plagues of maggots and cats and even resorts to more conventional, if very implausible, legal fraudulence.
Here we feel that Green Knowe’s long memory and history gave Lucy Boston an unmanageable freedom. In 900 years there is little that could not, in theory, have happened in a house.
Maitland Pope, a rather detached scholarly tenant of Mrs Oldknow’s, is hardly to be deflected from his studies by the goings-on of Melanie Powers, but ultimately he does combine with them to defeat her.
This story compares well only to The River at Green Knowe, and is superior because it has a main story which does develop, if on improbable lines. Even the reactions of Tolly, Ping and Mrs Oldknow don’t accord with our notions of realistic behaviour. It is very possible to forget that Green Knowe is very close to civilisation, is in suburbia and there is a police force that might be called upon.
An Enemy at Green Knowe ends on what should be a moving note but we are not moved because Lucy Boston has not prepared us for this closing scene. The book has accustomed us to melodrama, and its echoes are too strident to let the book’s “poignant but happy” ending be felt.
Creating an interesting story with characters that act in a believable way is extremely difficult and, at times, defeats all writers. Most stories are weak in places. We accept that. What is often less acceptable is the way stories are written, the careless use of language, and the use of similes and metaphors that not only fail to illuminate the writer’s meaning but also confuse the reader. Lucy Boston cannot be accused of any such faults. When we read Lucy Boston’s books we receive a masterclass in the art of describing nature in her many different moods. How might a writer, for example, describe a storm, a stone giant on a winter’s night, a gorilla and his family moving through an equatorial forest? Such phenomena present no problem to Lucy Boston. How writers must wish when engaged on that desperate business of description that the spirit of Lucy Boston would hover near and that she would throw to them some description that she never got round to using herself: it is unlikely to be surpassed by anything they will write.