Sunday, 11 March 2018

No! Time, Thou Shalt Not Boast That I Do Change - Catherine Butler

Children’s books are among the most likely to be “updated” to reflected current social mores. Many of us can probably cite books that have been changed in this way, for example to remove racist language or change words now seen as unacceptable for other reasons. Even Enid Blyton’s unintentionally risqué Dick and Fanny from The Magic Faraway Tree were muted to Rick and Frannie; and poor Titty Walker from Swallows and Amazons was unceremoniously renamed after a root vegetable in the 2016 film version.  It happens.

Other kinds of updating, though, are differently motivated. It sometimes happens that I’ll be reading a modern edition of a book first published in, say, the 1940s or ’50s and clearly set in that period, only to hit my shins on a reference to someone spending “10p” on  a snack. “Why are they using decimal currency in a pre-1971 world?” I wonder, startled by the fictional world’s sudden incoherence, before realising that of course it’s the work of some modern editor, smoothing the path of young readers as assiduously as any sweeper in an Olympic curling squad by ensuring that they never bump into unfamiliar terms or concepts. If a child today were to read a reference to “two shillings” they might not know what it means – and this, apparently, would be a disaster. The thought of children not understanding is strangely unsettling to some publishers; but as Diana Wynne Jones once noted, “children are used to not knowing”. Coming across new information in a book is neither an unusual event for a child, nor something likely to ruin the experience. They might even learn something that way.

Not all inconsistencies of this kind are introduced by publishers, though. What about the ones that come from writers themselves? It happens most often with long-running series. William Brown remained the same age for decades, even as the world around him changed – much like Bart Simpson more recent years. Of course, I understand the reasons – being ten years old is the essence of both characters, but their authors didn’t want their surroundings to look old fashioned to contemporary readers. Still, am I the only one who finds it a little hard to process? Who gets the occasional bout of existential vertigo?

Perhaps we can make a special case for the Williams, Barts and Dennis the Menaces (or Dennises the Menace?) of this world. But what about series that have a real forward movement, in which characters get older, but that still introduce changes of this kind? Take Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe books, which I’ve just been rereading with great pleasure. In the first, The Children of Green Knowe (1954), the protagonist, Tolly, is seven years old. In the second, The Chimneys of Green Knowe (1958), set just a few months later, he is mysteriously nine. Whether other people have noticed this “error” I don’t know, but I think it may have something to do with the four-year gap between the two books: Tolly’s age is running to catch up with that of his readers.

The series was concluded by The Stones of Green Knowe in 1976, some 22 years after it began. In that book Tolly is still a child, but he is described in a way that suggests he is dressed in the 1970s standard of jeans (it’s hard to be sure because the point of view is that of a boy from the house’s Norman past): “He was dressed in tight trousers of something like blue linen but very faded and patched in different colours.” I can see why Boston might have wanted to make the book feel contemporary, but especially in a story about time slips it’s disconcerting to find that we have segued unannounced from the 1950s to the ’70s, but that the main child character has not aged – or, at any rate, not by 20 years.

Some school writers keep their characters the same age perpetually: Billy Bunter is always the Fat Owl of the Remove, for example. Others, from Elinor Brent-Dyer to Enid Blyton, made their characters get older, by following them through their school careers. This was also of course the route taken by J. K. Rowling, but Rowling arguably innovated in keeping pace with her target audience in the style of her writing: the first Potter book may be suitable for 11-year-olds, but the last is very much YA. One golden generation at least, born around 1986, was coaeval with Harry Potter and was able to read about him more or less in “real time”. (True, Harry’s seven years at Hogwarts took ten years to appear in print, but let’s not split hairs.) An even more hardcore application of the same technique is Alan Garner’s Boneland (2012), the final book in his Alderley trilogy about siblings Colin and Susan, begun more than half a century earlier with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960). Just as J. K. Rowling made her Harry Potter books grow ‘older’ with the ageing of her protagonist, so Garner too – but to a far more extreme degree – had Colin grow, into a man in late middle age, the protagonist of a book unlikely to enjoyed by anyone but adults. If you were the right age for the Weirdstone when it came out, you may have been the right age for Boneland too, 52 years later. But it’s an extreme solution.

An alternative strategy is to let the calendar run, and to move the story’s focus from one fictional generation of children to the next. For example, Susan Cooper’s The Boggart (1993) and The Boggart and the Monster (1998) told of the eponymous creature’s adventures with a family of Canadian visitors to Scotland. In her recent and very enjoyable The Boggart Fights Back (2018), however, the child protagonists of the earlier books, Emily and Jess Volnik, have grown up, and the adventure introduces a new pair of children, Allie and Jay. The antagonist of The Boggart Fights Back is a vulgar, self-praising American tycoon called Trout, who wants to build a golf resort on the Scottish coast, which makes it feel quite contemporary in ways that for the moment I can’t quite put my finger on… There is no sign that Mr Trout has presidential ambitions, so perhaps after all this book is just a little bit behind the times – but it must have been very cathartic to write!


Sue Bursztynski said...

A friend of mine once did some calculations and suggested that the Famous Five should have been well into their twenties by the last book in the series. I guess when you are writing a popular series it can work out that way. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series begins in May 1928 and goes till some time in January 1929. There are, so far, 20 novels in the series. It has led to some VERY odd bits of chronology. The author says she simply hadn’t expected it to be so popular. She didn’t want to go beyond 1928, the year she knew a lot about. But by the end of Murder In The Dark, the 16th novel in the series, it was New Year’s Eve and there was a TV series and demand for more books. So, sheer popularity can do weird things to the timing of a series, whether it’s The Simpsons or Phryne Fisher!

Catherine Butler said...

In similar vein, as a snotty teen I had a letter printed in the Radio Times complaining that there was insufficient time between VE and VJ days for all the events of It Ain't Half Hot Mum to have taken place. These things rankle with the literal-minded among us!

Daniel Blythe said...

Anthony Buckeridge's "Jennings" books, which I used to read over and over, kept the protagonist at the same time-warped age throughout the entire series. Because they were set in a boarding school, Jennings and his friends remained in Form 3 (or "Form III", as it was sometimes written), for ever. Each book spanned the length of a term, with arrivals and end-of-term events book-ending the action - so with 24 books in the series, Jennings spent approximately 8 years in the same school year! (It's been so long since I read them that I can't remember whether Buckeridge distinguished between autumn, spring and summer terms or had them occurring in the right order. I do know that I had a long conversation with my wife, an ardent "Chalet School" fan, about the differences in approach!)

Katherine Langrish said...

Antonia Forest's series of school stories about the Marlowes (written between 1945 and 1982) begins chronologically shortly after the Second World War and ends some time in the 1970s or 80s, with a similarly strange effect for the reader. The books cover, I think, three complete years at school! They're wonderful books, still.