K. M. Peyton: A little hard on her characters?

August 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

K M Peyton is a prolific writer. She has written over 70 novels. I read six of them last week, published in the 1960s and 1970s. K M Peyton writes well. It is a balm to read one of her books, as against many a modern children’s author. Are there equivalents of Philippa Pearce, Margaret Mahy, and Jan Mark today?

Every children’s book today appears to concern itself with fantasy worlds, witchcraft and wizardy, or dystopias. The ordinary world has ceased to interest us.

K M Peyton’s books are, by and large, in the ordinary world. We tend to associate her with ponies and sailboats and aviation. She writes of these with authority. All the same, when K M Peyton writes of the supernatural (A Pattern of Roses), we believe in her ghost world. In addition,  K M Peyton has a feel for “period” language. We will not find modern slang embedded in the speech of a groom in 1911. In a recent BBC radio drama set in 1890s London, in one episode, or maybe two, we heard “I have a lot riding on this” (late 20th century?) and “grow my (the) business” (21st century?). When we hear such modern phrases in a period drama, we lose faith in the author. Why is the author setting a drama in an era that she is unacquainted with?

We don’t lose faith in KM Peyton. I haven’t spotted any sloppiness in the period detail or language. Not, mind, that I am poised to pounce on such mistakes: rather I feel disappointment, and a little resentment that writers who don’t take much trouble are published.

KM Peyton’s prolific output, however, may be responsible for one defect: a distance from her characters. In “Team” I met Ruth Hollis, a pony-loving girl whose pony Fly-by-Night was too small and she needed a replacement. Within a few weeks, she acquires a once familiar, but now broken down Toadhill  Flax (Toad). The pony used to belong to her friend Peter McNair. Peter’s father, a dealer, sold Toad on. Now Peter wants Toad back, but Ruth wants him too. Is she capable of managing a strong pony like Toad? Will she be able to repay her brother the price of Toad? Will she find a new home for Fly? In any event, you can take it that Ruth has a lot on her plate. At some time during the story, a girl who had been a keen rider is reported to have sold her pony (or ponies) because she has now become interested in boys. She is not our sort of girl at all. We are only interested in Ruth who must make great sacrifices to buy and keep Toad. Ruth triumphs at the end of the story. We are satisfied.

But what a shock awaits us in The Beethoven Medal. We know Pennington from Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer. He is a gifted pianist. But to the Hollis family, he is just a surly baker’s boy. However, Ruth, takes a fancy to him and pursues him. Toad has been injured and is recuperating elsewhere. Toad pays one visit.  As far as I can recall, Toad is dismissed from the pages of the book. It is all Pennington. We feel cheated. Ruth was the girl we were interested in; we shared her struggles over Toad but now Ruth has no time for Toad. We feel very let down. We can’t quite believe in the Ruth Hollis of Team. We can only wonder why K M Peyton didn’t make up another character to be Pennington’s girlfriend. Was it her “prolificy” that hardened her to her characters and enabled her to pluck them from their horsy world and throw them into a teenage-romance one?

John Rowe Townsend in Written for Children tells of a similar disappointment.

“The action of K. M. Peyton’s ‘Flambards’ books takes place just before and just after the First World War. Originally there were three novels – Flambards (1967), Edge of the Cloud (1969), and Flambards in Summer (1969) – which for twelve years stood complete as a trilogy.  In the first book, Christina who will be rich when she comes of age, is sent to live with her Uncle Russell and his two sons in a decrepit country house, financially undermined by Uncle’s passion for horses and hunting. The handsome elder son, Mark, would like to marry her and keep what he calls ‘all this’ going; but Christina prefers Will who rejects the family obsession and longs to fly aeroplanes. The second book centres on Will’s perilous life as an aviator; at the start of the third he is dead, and Christina returns to the old run-down house to bear his posthumous child, work the home farm, and marry the ex-groom Dick who loves her. As well as a romantic story there is obviously a social theme- the death of an old way of life and its rebirth in a new form – and the connection between them and the period is organic. It was First World War that broke up the old framework: the trilogy could not be transferred to any other time and retain its force.

In 1981, after the huge success of the television adaptation, Mrs Peyton added a fourth book, Flambards Divided. Inevitably, this changed the meaning of the other three: instead of completing the story they were leading up to a new conclusion. And the new conclusion was very different.

At the end of the third book, Christina had successfully carried Flambards into a new era; the omens, in her own phrase, were good.  In Flambards Divided, these omens turn out to have been misleading. Christina’s marriage to Dick does not work. Dick is reliable and hardworking, but narrow, class-conscious and different to Christina in temperament and interests. Handsome Mark, home from the War, not knowing anything but fighting and hunting, wins her affections after all.  The squire, it could be said, is back in the saddle – even if it is now the driving seat of a motor car. If the author had written the fourth book straight after the other three, my guess is that she would have done it differently and poor Dick would have fared better. In twelve year illusions can be lost. The new ending may be truer to life, but I find it somewhat saddening. “

In my view, the new ending may be truer to life but is not truer to the characters as they have been depicted. That to me seems to be Mrs Peyton’s weakness: she does not love her characters as her readers might and therefore can manipulate their lives in ways that jar with the original story and our expectations.

That being said, K M Peyton has had a long and distinguished career as a writer. She has now no equal.



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