Friday, 17 April 2015

Mixing Up Settings: Town, Country and the Books of Lorna Hill

View towards Dunstanburgh Castle
Last week I was in Northumberland. It's only a couple of hours from Leeds, where I live, but it feels like a different world.

Leeds is a big, bustling, ethnically diverse Northern city. The Northumberland coast, with its empty beaches, fishing villages and old-fashioned pubs, feels like a journey away in time as much as space. Even the tourist hot spots – like Lindisfarne – are tranquil, the cars abandoned once the causeway has been crossed, the many visitors wandering the windswept island by foot.


Daffies at Howick

There are some other wonderful aspects of going back in time -  like bookshops! How is it that while most British cities (including Leeds) struggle to support independents bookshops, the market town of Alnwick can offer the stupendous Barter Books: an enormous secondhand bookshop where you can take your dog, eat superb creamed mushrooms, and pick up a copy of Robert Fagles' translation of the Illiad, all in one happy trip. (I mean, who doesn't want to munch mushrooms while reading an Ancient Greek Epic with their dog sitting on their feet?)

A recent edition - published by Girls Gone By

Other aspects of time travel feel a little strange. So many things I take for granted don't seem to have impinged upon this corner of rural England. It made me think (because that's the peculiar way my mind works) of the only children's books I know set in rural Northumberland – those by Lorna Hill. They are undoubtedly of another age – and yet I wondered how much had really changed. (Well, some things certainly have.  Like fifteen-year-old boys waving horse whips at thirteen-year-old girls, and telling them to scrub their face free of makeup AT ONCE.)  But other things remain the same: the lakes, woods, mountains and beaches of Northumberland, in all its beauty, isolation and essential wildness. Hill, a vicar's wife in an isolated parish, knew Northumberland intimately and used it as the setting for many books.  One of her  “Marjorie” series – Stolen Holiday - is set very close to where I was staying, towards Dunstanburgh Castle.



"Mile upon mile of wonderful deeply golden sand and undulating sand-dunes, some of them so lofty that they were like miniature mountains; mile upon mile of deep blue-green sea flecked with white horses (there was a stiffish breeze blowing); and, last but not least, seeming to float in the shimmering water, lay the Farne Islands..."   Stolen Holiday

Her most popular books though, and the ones I remember growing up, were the “Wells” books – a series which combined rural adventures in Northumberland with the unlikely world of the ballet. These books have been reprinted countless times over the years.  And yet, though I never thought about it at the time, it's a very odd mix.

Veronica Weston, the heroine of the first two Wells books, spends her time shuttling between London – where she has grown up in seedy lodgings, and subsequently trains as a dancer – and Northumberland, where she is the “poor relation” to the rich Scott family, who live in a big estate in the Cheviot Hills, complete with lake, boathouse, woods, resident nanny, chauffeur, ponies and a gate lodge – wherein lives the Scotts' intriguing, infuriating, talented cousin Sebastian. The first book, A Dream of Sadler's Wells, begins with Veronica, recently orphaned, on the train north – and ends with a ride through the snow to catch the train south, and to make her audition for the prestigious ballet school Sadler's Wells, in Covent Garden. In the sequel, Veronica at the Wells, half of the book is set in London, in her digs and ballet school – where the mean-spirited Marcia Rutherford is plotting to wreck Veronica's promising dance career – and half at Christmas in Northumberland, where Veronica rides out with her cousins across the moors to visit a fellow dancer and almost gets caught in a storm.

All of the Wells books that I've read feature characters torn between the tranquil, outdoor pleasures of the country, and the stage-paint, bright lights and glitter of London. And they were by far Hill's most popular books – the strange combination of professional ballet and rural adventure chiming with young readers far more than those novels which were simply set in Northumberland.  Maybe it's not so surprising.  Ballet, even more than it is today, was a world of fame, glamour and celebrity - and many young readers must have yearned for these things, yet recognised, like Veronica, that it could have its downsides too.

Often books do need more than one element to take off – in this case, it is an unusual combination of activities (horse riding and ballet) and settings (London and rural Northumberland) that produces a certain magic that lifts these books out of the ordinary. There have been lots of books about ballet, and lots of books about ponies, but few have been as beloved as Lorna Hill's Wells books, which so oddly managed to do both.

Barter Books, Alnwick - geograph.org.uk - 777787
Barter Books - photo credit wfmillar [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I went home reflecting that a bit of mix can be no bad thing for a novel – if you can get the mix right, and save it from turning into an incoherent mess. It made me wonder what diverse settings I might somehow put together in a book. All my children's books have been very firmly set in one locality - maybe that's something I could think about changing. I certainly plan to experiment.  I also felt comforted that if, despite the daffodils, the golden sands and cosy pubs, a little bit of me was craving my local Costa Coffee, a curry and a late-night convenience store (like Veronica hankering for Leicester Square), then perhaps that was OK too.

(Note: Some of Lorna Hill's books are still in print, and second hand copies are widely available - although I forgot to look for them in the excellent children's section at Barter Books.

More information on Lorna Hill here.)

Some more daffies!


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5 comments:

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

'But other things remain the same: the lakes, woods, mountains and beaches of Northumberland, in all its beauty, isolation and essential wildness.'

You've just summed up what I so much loved about the Wells books... that exciting aspect of going on stage in London and the contrast of that countryside. Northumberland seemed just as remote and wonderful as China or Japan for me in those days. I was drawn in and transported. You've reminded me of such happy times with a book from so long ago.

Tess Berry-Hart said...

ah this takes me back! I have to find some of these books and re-read them. I loooove Northumberland!

Sue Purkiss said...

I used to love the Wells books - but I didn't remember that they were partially set in Northumberland. It was the ballet side of it that hooked me. Ironic, because I was at university in Durham and love the north-east coast. Will have to go back and re-read!

Leslie Wilson said...

I also love the north-east, and was at Durham. And I gobbled up the LOrna Hill books when I was young - and have quite a lot of them still on my shelves. Re-reading them, I can see how dreadfully snobbish they are - Ella Rosetti's foster-family are typical of the middle class's view of the working class at that time - and yet I still find them captivating. I do get a bit fed up with the horsy stuff, though, and that's odd, because I like horse books even now. And I found Mariella and Nigel just tiresome - why didn't Mariella just tell Nigel to take a running jump? Oh, I know, because he was highly fanciable..So I both love the books and despise them a bit.. h'mmm.

Leslie Wilson said...

I do wish she didn't use so many exclamation marks, too. I did enjoy reading the blog, though - thanks!