Saturday, 11 March 2017

Bles in a Time of Narnia - Catherine Butler

My 92-year-old mother fell and broke her leg a couple of weeks ago, and in the interim I’ve been more occupied with running back and forth from my home in Bristol to her hospital bed in Southampton than with thinking about children’s literature. I’m glad to say that, as I write, she’s making a good recovery, but her never-less-than-voracious appetite for thrillers and murder mysteries is hard to satisfy when she has so few distractions – and she’s a quick reader.

Anyway, rather than give you my own thoughts about children’s books, this seems a good moment to share one my mother’s experiences. Some 67 years ago, she was a young employee at the London publisher, Geoffrey Bles. Bles was a small firm, with twin specialisations in crime and theology, and my mother reports that she and her colleagues were often asked to invent titles for forthcoming books. The same titles would often serve for both categories: Through a Glass Darkly, Tomorrow Never Comes, Suffer the Little Children. Crime fiction, or theological tome – who can say?

Amongst Bles’s most celebrated theological authors was C. S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters and others. Lewis would appear in a pall of pipe smoke on occasion, and chat to Geoffrey Bles in ancient Greek, in which they were both fluent. In those pre-Clean-Air-Act days every room had an open fire, which meant that in winter seven fires burned continually in the Bles offices, adding to the general smokiness.

One day, Lewis brought in a children’s book he had just written, which he had given the working title, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He asked for suggestions for a better title, thinking that a mere list of heterogeneous objects wouldn’t cut the mustard. It was only with difficulty that the Bles staff persuaded him that, honestly, the title was fine. (I’m currently trying to read the book in Japanese, in which language the wardrobe has been amputated, and the book is known simply as The Lion and the Witch: ライオンと魔女. Is that an improvement?)

Bles went on to publish the first five of the seven Narnia books. At that point Bles himself retired, and Lewis was “poached” by Bles’s secretary, Mollie Waters, who had left at the same time to work for the agents Curtis Brown. Waters signed Lewis to The Bodley Head, and it was they who published the last two books in the series, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle. This didn’t go down well among the remaining staff at Geoffrey Bles, of course, and Waters’s name was a byword for perfidy for a while.

In the noble tradition of blood feud, I may as well my mention my private belief that it was this act of poaching that ultimately led (by indirect crook’d ways) to the reordering that installed The Magician’s Nephew as Book One of the series – thus boosting its sales, though at considerable artistic cost. (Yes, of course it comes first in Narnian chronology, but telling things out of order is part of the in media res tradition Lewis inherited from Homer and Virgil, dammit!)

My mother’s immediate boss was Bles's partner, Jocelyn Gibb – a man I vaguely remember meeting when she took my brother and me to London in about 1969. (He was kind enough to look at some stories we had written - officially I suppose my first professional submission.) When she left to get married in the late '50s, her colleagues held an office party, and on running out of booze my mother mentioned that she’d seen a case of champagne in Gibb’s office. She suggested they start in on it (Gibb himself being away at the time), and she’d replace it when she got back from honeymoon. Inevitably, when she returned it turned out to have been the last existing case of some very rare vintage, which Gibb had just bought at enormous expense. She tremblingly confessed, but he laughed until his face was like a wet cloak ill laid up.

Publishing was a different profession in those days.


Saviour Pirotta said...

What an incredible piece, Catherine. Who'd have thought that even someone so exhaulted as CS Lewish would struggle with book titles. Hope your mum' leg heals quickly. She sounds incredible.

Catherine Butler said...

Thanks, Saviour - she's doing well!

Chitra Soundar said...

Great article and I think mine next week in some way will also have the theme of "publishing in those days..."