Sunday, 13 August 2017

Honor Arundel, YA Pioneer by Sheena Wilkinson

There’s a received wisdom that YA didn’t really exist until the last few decades, at least not in the UK. I don’t agree. I was a teenager in the eighties, and while there certainly wasn’t the choice of YA that there is today, nor is it true that we all went straight from the Famous Five to Margaret Drabble (via Jilly Cooper and Virginia Andrews).

In my local library in east Belfast there was a whole section labelled Young Adult. It wasn’t a large section, about five shelves, but it wasn’t all ‘Sweet Dreams’ romances. That’s where I encountered S.E. Hinton, Deborah Hautzig and early Jacqueline Wilson titles such as Waiting For The Sky To Fall. Many of K.M. Peyton’s books were there too – A Midsummer Night’s Death; Prove Yourself A Hero and of course the Pennington books.

my much-loved Honor Arundel books 

 K.M. Peyton was/is my absolute favourite, but there was another author whose books I returned to over and over again, which had a special resonance for me. Their settings – usually Edinburgh and the Scottish islands – felt much more familiar to me than the English or American settings which were more usual. They weren’t exactly contemporary: Honor Arundel died in 1973, aged only 54, and her novels dated from the mid-sixties to the very early seventies. Which means that not only was she writing YA, but doing so, like me, in her forties, not as a bright young thing.

The first time I visited Edinburgh I looked up at the impossibly tall old stone houses in the Old Town, and wondered which of them was the ‘high house’ where Emma lived with her artist aunt Patsy in the Emma series, probably Arundel’s best-known books.  On a recent visit I had exactly the same experience and came home and reread all my Honor Arundels. Hence this post. 

Keren David, another YA author who grew up with Arundel’s books, says, ‘I loved Honor Arundel because she wrote about a world that was outside my experience, but so interesting. In her 'Emma' books, Emma goes from a very conventional middle class home (much like my own) to live with her boho artist Aunt Patsy in Edinburgh. Every detail - food, clothes, art student parties, school - was memorable. And every time I get a well-timed cheque for freelance work I remember Aunt Patsy, and want to buy flowers and sparkling wine and chicken.’

As film critic for the communist Daily Worker, and married to a Scottish actor, the Welsh-born Arundel knew all about the freelance, artistic life, a world she explores most tellingly in A Family Failing.  A Family Failing isn’t an altogether successful book. Its structure is clumsy and it wears its earnestness just a bit too self-consciously (though as it is supposed to be ‘written’ by 18-year-old Joanna, perhaps this is Arundel being extra-clever?) But as the child of divorced parents I loved the way it dissected a family breakup, with the parents as real and vital as the teenagers, and actually, on a reread, much more nuanced.

Likeability is something that’s bandied round a lot in the teen book world. Is your main character likeable enough? Is she (I hate the word) relatable? And if she’s not, what dark trauma is she suppressing that gives her permission to be a bitch – it had better be tragic, and uncovered by a crushworthy love interest.  In 1971, with The Terrible Temptation, Arundel was much less squeamish and a great deal more original. Jan, the narrator, isn’t especially likeable at all: she is selfish, superior, determined to eschew messy personal involvements. And when she does fall in love with a crushworthy fellow student, she loses him because of how she is. And at the end of the book she does not get him back. There is a sequel, The Blanket Word, which is even darker – Jan is called home to her dying mother and is forced to reconnect with her family and her role in it. There are no easy solutions; no character transformations, but as a teen and again as an adult I was struck by the honesty, the bravery in presenting a character so unconventional and refreshing. And so self-aware. Lee Weatherly is another Arundel fan, who says, 'I especially love The Terrible Temptation and The Blanket Word, which show a young woman shifting from self-involvement to compassion. Yet there's nothing the least bit preachy in Arundel's work, and no easy answers are offered. Funny, touching and real, she portrays family relationships in all their messy, complex glory.' 

Jan is a student at Edinburgh University, and Eileen, in The Longest Weekend, a twenty-year-old single mother. Arundel’s books were genuinely young adult. In the last Emma book, Emma In Love, she is still at school but living in a flat with her brother, coping more or less alone with housekeeping and heartbreak. The scene where she sinks into depression, and thinks of ending her life, chilled me as a teen and still strikes a chord now. It was written in 1972.

For me as a teen reader, Arundel's books were profoundly aspirational. I didn’t want to be suicidal, but I did yearn to study in a beautiful old city (I chose Durham rather than Edinburgh), and to sit around philosophizing and to mix with artists and writers. And then to become one. Which I did, of course. I can’t give Honor Arundel all the credit, but she is certainly one of the authors who helped me on my way.  She’s also proof that YA was alive and well over forty years ago.


What other forgotten writers would people champion?


catdownunder said...

John Rowe Townsend? John Verney?

Abbeybufo said...

'Young Adult' as a category in public libraries was certainly around in the 1970s. One of the first things I did, on becoming 'Senior Assistant Librarian' [as it was then termed] at Ringwood in 1972 was to introduce a Young adult bay at the end of the Junior Library, into which I would put appropriate books by such people as Arundel, Peyton, Gordon Cooper, Brinsmead - quite a few of the Oxford authors, actually, on reflection ...! - and as they were pblished, Judy Blume. I'd also randomly seed it with a few 'adult fiction' titles by people such as Heyer, Buchan, George Macdonald Fraser, the odd Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh, to give a taste of such authors that teenage readers might move on to.

Helen Larder said...

Really interesting! Thanks. I think I missed this YA stage. I jumped from children's books to adults. I never saw many YA books in our small local library and didn't have a librarian who prompted me to order them. Now I put in orders all the time. xxxx