Thursday, 11 July 2013

Is There Chowder Still for Tea? Cathy Butler

Penelope Lively’s career is an interesting one. The first few novels she published – scattered through the 1970s – were for children. They're all good, but three I think of as classics: A Stitch in Time, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, and The House in Norham Gardens. However, from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s she began to write adult novels, and has been doing so successfully ever since without having written another full-length children’s novel.

That isn’t the interesting part, though. It’s not very unusual for female writers of Lively's generation to begin by writing children’s novels and move on to books for adults. (Examining the reasons for this would demand another post.) No, the interesting thing is that when Lively switched from children’s to adult books, she also switched from fantasy to realist writing. The two moves are connected. As a realist writer, her continual theme has been memory: personal memory, communal memory as enshrined in history and popular belief; and the more objective forms of memory etched on the land in the form of geology, fossils and archaeology.

While geology, archaeology and fossils also make their appearances in Lively’s children’s books, the theme of personal memory looms far smaller, and for an obvious reason. Whatever resources children may have at their disposal, one thing they lack is the ability to look far into the past using the tricky fairground mirror of their own memory. This is not to say, as is occasionally claimed, that children are wholly orientated towards the future. Anyone who has heard a five-year-old sigh wistfully about “The good old days” will recognize that as nonsense. However, even though children can be as intensely nostalgic and curious about the past as anyone else, they necessarily have less material to work with, having spent fewer days on the planet. When Lively wrote children’s books, she got around this problem (though I doubt she was thinking of it in quite this way) by introducing fantasy devices – timeslips, ghosts, talismanic artefacts – that would give her child characters access to a more distant past than memory alone could afford them. Once she moved to adult books, the necessity for this receded – hence the change of genre. At any rate, that’s my theory.

Why I am mentioning all this? Largely because by the time you read this post I will be on my way to Boston, whence (after a few days) I will be visiting Martha’s Vineyard. When I was younger I was lucky enough to spend three magical summers in a row on the Vineyard, the last being in 1993 – twenty years ago.  If I were writing my life as a novel (and who isn’t, dear reader?), I’d be trying to conjure up the difference between Now-me and Then-me, as well of course as charting the distance between the Now and Then versions of the Vineyard, and describing the refractions and occlusions of memory rolling in like a fog from Nantucket Sound. But these are very adult-novel subjects, for the reasons I’ve suggested.

So, my question to you, as I eat my in-flight ready meal and settle down to watch Toy Story II, is this. Which children’s books best handle the subject of personal memory, and the differences between past and present? And (given that children, by definition, haven’t been around very long) how do they go about it?


Sue Bursztynski said...

Hmm, I wondered what had happened to this writer. I don't read a lot of adult fiction and the few adult books I do read are genre-based, so as far as I'm concerned, Penelope Lively vanished into nowhere. :) I can't even begin to understand why anyone with the gift of writing for children would want to change, but there you are. Apart from some spec fic, I don't write for adults and never will.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of memory-themed children's books, but my nehew's daughter, whose parents broke up when she was only three, after which she was dragged interstate to live, mourned the loss of the home she had left behind long after you'd think she had forgotten it.

Sue Purkiss said...

What an interesting theory - it's sending me back to Penelope Lively's adult novels; I've read a few, but not recently. Will have to think about children's novels concerned with memory, but of course the standout adult book with a child narrator and a theme of memory is 'The Go-Between'. That bears out your theory, I guess; but there's also something to do with the feelings associated with memory: conflicted feelings involving regret, longing, loss and bitterness - some of which are more commonly experienced by adults, perhaps?

Enjoy Toy Story and your holiday!

Stroppy Author said...

I think you do children a disservice. Memory is relative to the length of time lived (as is all perception of time), so a child can remember fondly something that happend a fifth of their life ago in the same way that an adult can - the fact that it's just two years for the adult and perhaps eight or ten or twelve years ago for the adult might make (some) adults laugh at the child, but the quality is surely the same?

I stronly suspect all experience is relative. That would mean a child can feel as much regret over dropping an ice cream in the dirt as an adult might feel about crashing a new car.

Pippa Goodhart said...

I was once at a talk given by Penelope Lively, and I asked her if she felt she'd served her writing apprenticeship in her children's books before moving on to ones for adults, and that's why she didn't write for children any more? Her answer was emphatic. 'No! I don't write for children any more because it's too bloody hard!!"

Elen C said...

I know it's fantasy and time-slip, but Tom Midnight Garden might serve? I remember feeling the crushing sense of loss that Tom feels once he realises Hatty is growing up. He is living through her nostalgia, no?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Glad to hear that was the reason, Pippa. (It's why I stopped writing poetry) I would hate to have that happen to me, though.
I have to agree with Stroppy. See what I said above about my great-niece.

Emma Barnes said...

I read plenty of time-slip novels growing up (Tom's Midnight Garden, Charlotte Sometimes - more recently Kate Saunder's Beswitched is an excellent contemporary time-switch) but I think they seemed to me straightforward fantasies/adventures. They didn't really inspire an interest in the time "slipped" to (unlike straight historical fiction, which definitely did).

I think memory as a theme is well done in something like Laura Ingall's Little House in the Big Woods - where Pa tells stories about his childhood, as for example when he and his brothers broke the strict Sabbath-keeping and sneaked out to test their new sled. Children are already reading about a past time - Laura's - and suddenly they are going back a generation further, and so the Sundays of Laura as a child are placed in the context of what Sundays were like a generation before. This is similar to the story-telling in real families of the "what was life like when granny was a girl" variety.

I also like Noel Streatfeild's "A Vicarage Family" - essentially her own childhood made into children's fiction, and where as the narrator she provides a kind of bridge for the reader, with reflections and asides about how times have changed.

Catherine Butler said...

Thanks for all your comments!

Stroppy, I quite agree that children are capable of all these feelings - in fact I say as much. My only claim is that they haven't lived as long, and that that is a challenge for those might wish to write about memory using a child's perspective, since the dominant forms for 'memory books' assume an adult perspective (e.g. The Go-Between or the Little House books).

I think Tom's Midnight Garden comes pretty close to a solution, although arguably Tom is 'piggy-backing' on the nostalgia of the adult Hatty. (I hope it's been out long enough for spoilers not to matter!)