Sunday 6 September 2020

Walter de la Mare wins the Carnegie by Paul May

 In 1947 the Carnegie Medal was awarded to Walter de la Mare for his Collected Stories for Children. This marked the start of the second decade of the Carnegie and was the first winning book since 1940 to have nothing to do with the Second World War. It has nothing to do with the war because all the stories were written during the 1920s and 1930s and this is another of those awards which were made, not for the book itself, but in recognition of the author’s contribution to children’s literature.

Walter de la Mare c.1924


However, even had Walter de la Mare composed all of these stories in wartime it is doubtful whether the war would have had any influence on their content. Current affairs do not find their way into de la Mare’s work. What interests him is the boundary between this world and the various alternate realities of his imagination. Or, to put it another way, de la Mare believes there is something more than this material world; something just glimpsed on the edges of our perception; a spectre, a fairy, a land beneath the sea. He likes places and times where the borders are permeable—empty and abandoned houses, graveyards, twilight. These stories are complex – always more so than they at first appear, and I would have had no trouble devoting this whole post to any single one of them. 


It would, in particular, be worth giving lengthy consideration to the story Sambo and the White Mountains, a story about a black servant boy who is desperate to turn his skin white and which was excluded from the later editions of Collected Stories. There are many odd things about this story, which appears to be set half-way between an English country town and the deep south of the USA. Although there are many examples of racial stereotyping within it, I don’t think the story is intentionally racist but, in its attempt not to be so, it reveals how deeply the ideas of white purity and superiority ran unnoticed at the time, and no doubt still do. To illustrate: the old lady in the story makes a death bed speech in which she says ‘a black man whose mind is free from darkness and his mind from cruelty is in truth whiter than any one whose soul is in the shade.’ That’s to say, white is good, and black can be good too, but is likely to be tainted with darkness and cruelty. I don’t think there’s much doubt that this is de la Mare speaking, and it seems he feels he’s saying something enlightened. The Carnegie judges didn’t see a problem here either. It’s because of this embedded assumption of white superiority that I wouldn’t give this to a child to read today, but I think it’s valuable to an adult reader as a snapshot of English attitudes at this moment when the Empire was starting to crumble.



Sambo and the White Mountains is not a typical de la Mare story—if indeed there is such a thing, given that the stories in this collection vary greatly both in length and in setting—but ‘The Scarecrow’ is much more typical. This was the title story of a collection of four stories published in 1945, but it had originally been published in the miscellany ‘Number Three Joy Street’ in 1923 as ‘Old Joe’.  The stories are far more digestible in small collections. I can’t imagine that many children managed to read the Collected Stories straight though in one go. At the end of ‘The Scarecrow’ Letitia asks her uncle: 


‘And . . . and you never saw the – the fairy again?’

            ‘In a way of speaking,’ old Mr Bolsover replied, ‘I have never, Letitia, really seen anything else. It’s a question of what one means exactly by “seeing”, I suppose. Words are no use. It can’t be done, can it?’


This is the kind of uncertain territory we are in, and de la Mare believed that these boundaries between worlds were faintest, more like a transparent veil, in childhood, which was for him a kind of ideal state. He hated the books of E Nesbit because, as his biographer Theresa Whistler remarks, ‘he bitterly resented any portrayal of children which snipped off the trailing clouds of glory and presented them as little schemers, scoring off their elders.’


‘The Scarecrow’ tells us a lot about de la Mare. Letitia is a small girl visiting her Uncle Tim, Mr Bolsover, and at her prompting he tells her a story which he had started to tell her the year before about the old scarecrow in his garden. This is a technique de la Mare also uses in the story ‘Miss Jemima’ and it achieves several effects at the same time. It allows a reader to identify with either the young girl or with the boy who Mr Bolsover once was. And Letitia is uncomfortably aware of growing older herself: 


‘. . .to think it is exactly a whole year since I was here before! Yet you wouldn’t believe a single pink was different. Isn’t that funny, Uncle Tim? We are. And why, yes,’ she went on hastily, twisting her head on her slender neck, ‘there’s that curious old Guy Fawkes creature over there by the willows. He’s not changed a single bit either.’


This ‘story within a story’ technique also allows the author to impersonate himself, or perhaps even to mock himself a little. Either way, the avuncular tone is directed to the little girl, rather than to us, the readers. And when, after a paragraph dedicated to a lengthy description of landscape, Uncle Tim says: ‘But I hate descriptions, don’t you, Letitia?’ we know that de la Mare is having rather a good joke with us. Because this story is full of description, as are most of his stories, since another of his techniques is to be very particular. Every detail is described, to the extent that settings seem almost hyper-real.


I think it’s also reasonable to believe that Uncle Tim’s is a fair approximation to Walter de la Mare’s own storytelling style. De la Mare did not read aloud to his own four children, rather choosing to tell them stories that he made up. No one in the family helped the children to learn to read. The following passage from Theresa Whistler’s biography is revealing:


Over the next few years his habit of telling them stories at bedtime, or in his chair after Sunday dinner, developed more than one imaginary companion, as important to their childhoods as Tatta had been to his own. One such was ‘Peter’. For this de la Mare would ‘go to sleep’ in his armchair after the meal, and then soon the voice of a little boy would begin. Another compelling person, who came through in a similar way, like a spirit possessing a medium, was ‘the Waterman’, whose business was to go from room to room saying goodnight to the children in their beds and offer them a drink of water. He spoke in a wheedling, drawling, broken English, and in old age de la Mare could still summon up his tone and accent. He was a good actor as well as inventive, and no one else could transport the children as completely into a world of fantasy . . . The game hovered on the edge of the alarming and sinister, nicely judged not to overstep the border.


Illustration by Irene Hawkins

This last sentence would be a good summing up of Walter de la Mare’s stories for children. He always hovers on the edge—between the seen and the unseen, the describable and the indescribable. And who actually is the narrator of this story, de la Mare or his mouthpiece Uncle Tim? There is so much detailed description in the story but then we have this:


‘And the odd thing is that I can’t – can’t possibly describe [the fairy]. This is perhaps partly because the light wasn’t very good, and partly because my eyes were strained with watching. But mostly for other reasons. I seemed, you see, to be seeing her as if I were imagining her, even though I knew quite well she was there.’


What would a child make of this? I really don’t know. I was originally going to write a very different piece about the sheer wordiness and indigestibility of these stories, but I changed my mind. By the time I had read all the stories, two of the novels, the biography and the poems for children I had decided that de la Mare is not easy, but worth the effort. These are not attributes likely to endear him to most children however, and others before me have found de la Mare difficult. James Campbell remarked in 2006 that de la Mare ‘fitted himself out in velvet jacket and foppish cap during the later years of Victoria’s reign, and refused to take them off again.’


This is amusing but a little harsh. One might equally say that de la Mare remained true to himself and his vision. But I do think he was fond of the sound of his own voice, or voices. The length of many of the short stories in this collection can be daunting and as for the novels . . . But we should remember that Angela Carter said of his Memoirs of a Midget (1921) that it ‘sticks like a splinter in the mind.’ And despite its arcane language and its oddness The Three Mulla-Mulgars (1910) must surely have influenced Tolkien and all who came after. I noticed particularly de la Mare's use of songs and poems in this book, and here he has the advantage over Tolkien that he is a far better poet. I always ignore the songs in Tolkien but I actually read these. 


Originally published in 1910 as The Three Mulla-Mulgars

De la Mare’s occasionally circumlocutory prose style can also be a problem. He caught this habit from his youthful admiration for Henry James and never quite shook it off. His poems are quite a different matter and have survived much better than his prose. No one who had only read that prose would ever suspect this talent for brevity. Only the other day someone on the radio selected The Listeners as the poem that helped them through lockdown.  De la Mare and James only met twice and my favourite story from the biography concerns the second of these encounters, which took place on the Thames Embankment:


As de la Mare and Naomi were walking one dark wintry day along the Embankment that portly presence loomed suddenly out of the twilight mist . . . Naomi recollected listening for a pious ten minutes to the conversation of ‘two variously labyrinthine minds’. Not much real contact was achieved.


Paul May’s website is here.


Walter de la Mare’s Short Stories for Children edited by Giles de la Mare includes all the stories and a bibliography.


1 comment:

Penny Dolan said...

Totally fascinating,Paul!

That De La Mare collection sounds as if it offers some good winter evening reading for nostalgic adults.