Thursday, 12 January 2017

Monica Edwards - by Ruth Hatfield

In need of some literary Christmas chocolate (tonsillitis having put paid to scoffing much of the real stuff), I’ve been gorging myself on Monica Edwards’ Punchbowl Farm series for the last couple of weeks. It seems a bit mean to write a post about books that aren’t actually in print anymore, and in some cases are quite hard to get hold of, but I remembered loving these as a child, and on rereading they seemed even more worth shouting about. They come under that genre of book which probably gets called nostalgic and cosy these days – and cosy they ultimately are – but I’d probably just call them 1950s Super Fun. 

For anyone not familiar with these books, they’re about the four Thornton children whose parents buy the derelict Punchbowl farm. One of the children, Dion, throws himself into reclaiming the farm and getting it running again, while the sort-of-main character, his sister Lindsey, loves nature more for itself than for what humans can make out of it. Many adventures ensue.

The plots aren’t complex, and although things often don’t go well, disasters are generally mopped up fine. The odd touch of the supernatural doesn’t even raise a sceptical eyebrow – Edwards does it subtly, as if to suggest that spirits may well exist, simply because the history of a land is always alive within it.

Together, the contrasting ideas and mutual affection of Dion and Lindsey give the whole series an extra depth. Monica Edwards also writes beautifully, although I guess it was probably easier to get away with waxing lyrical at a time when rhetorical lace-making was a bit more acceptable to the general reader (and editor). Her characters can be stereotypical, but they’re also strong and credible (even Andrea, the eldest sister, does stray away from being fashionable and moaning about wanting to move to the city for long enough to help fight heath fires and ride horses).

When I moved from the Punchbowl Farm books to reading a biography of Monica Edwards by Brian Parks, I understood more how she made her books so consistently vivid – she actually lived on Punchbowl Farm (though it was called Punch Bowl Farm), having bought it as derelict and done it up, together with her husband and children (though not four of them). Many of the happenings in the books are real life ones, and almost all the animals were real.

In Monica Edwards’ other books – most notably the Romney Marsh series – she does similar things: They’re set in a re-named Rye Harbour, where she once lived, and they’re about the vicar’s daughter, which she was, although the vicar’s daughter’s character is actually based on her own daughter Shelley, not herself (Monica Edwards as a girl was pretty wild, by all accounts). Tons of the other characters are explicitly based on real people, too. I find this idea terrific but terrifying at the same time – what on earth did all those people say when they found themselves written undisguised in bestselling books? I guess it does explain why there’s a lot of laughter and humour about the books, and very few characters who are depicted negatively…

These books are high on my list of Books I Wish I’d Written, but I do wonder if they would be published now. Obviously I think they stand tall on their own merits, but do publishers still put out these sorts of poetically-written but ultimately cosy books? Or do we have enough of them already, and children’s books have moved on? At a gathering recently, somebody asked which modern children’s books were just pleasure to read, and I could only think of the Harry Potter books. Does anyone know of any more out there? I’d love to read some modern equivalents to the Punchbowl Farm books – rhetorical lace-making and all. Any recommendations?


Mystica said...

Thanks for the reviews, whether books unavailable or not, nice to even know about them.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I read two of the Romney Marsh ones - the first two, backwards, after I discovered Summer Of The Great Secret in a bookshop as a child. I hear they continued on afterwards. Lovely stuff!

Lydia Syson said...

How lovely to read this, and how sad that even the early republications by Girls Gone By are now also out of print. But more Punchbowl ones are coming:

I think I read every one as a child, as my mother's godmother was Monica Edward's neighbour, and the ones she didn't have, I used to go and borrow from Monica Edwards herself when we were staying in the Punchbowl. She had moved out of the farm by then, and lived nearby in a bungalow with two beautiful Abyssinian cats. (Possibly called Haile and Selassie?) She was the only children's author I knew in that way. I've never been to Romney Marsh when I read the Tamsin/Rissa/Meryon books, but they fed into my own writing hugely when I was working on 'That Burning Summer' - of course there had to be a Looker in that!

Funnily enough, I couldn't get any of my children interested in the books. But I think Hilary McKay perhaps fulfilled a similar role in my daughter's reading, and Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries miraculously hit the spot for all four of mine, despite very different tastes generally.

Ruth Hatfield said...

Thanks very much all for your comments - Lydia, I absolutely loved That Burning Summer! I've cycled across Romney Marsh in rain and gales, and the atmosphere around there has stuck with me since - it's a wild, wild place. Also fantastic to hear (so envious!) that you knew Monica Edwards - the biography by Brian Parks is a really interesting read if you haven't come across it. Apparently Paul & Linda Macartney nearly bought the farm... Will have a look at Hilary McKay and see if she fulfills my now empty chocolate box needs!

Linda Newbery said...

Really enjoyed reading this. I loved Monica Edwards' books as a child, and devoured all of them - starting with WISH FOR A PONY when I was eight, and staying with them over the next few years. And I often mention her as she was without doubt the author who made me want to be a writer. Thank you, Ruth - and Lydia, how interesting to read about your connection! I met her once, too - at Punchbowl Farm!

Lily said...

I was named after Lindsey in this series!