Wednesday 6 April 2022

The Stronghold - Mollie Hunter and the Walls of Charles Keeping by Paul May

One of Charles Keeping's many fine walls graces the cover of the 1974 winner of the Carnegie Medal, Mollie Hunter's The Stronghold. The wall in question is the wall of a broch, and the invention and purpose of these still somewhat mysterious structures, which are found only in the highlands and islands of Scotland, is the subject of Mollie Hunter's novel. 

A broch is a tall, tapering tower, built using drystone walling techniques with galleries and staircases built into the massive walls. Any account you read of the opinions and suppositions of archaeologists about brochs is peppered with the words perhaps and possibly. Possibly there were hundreds of these structures and probably they were all built between 100BCE and 100CE. Anything Mollie Hunter could imagine could possibly be true, but in order to write her book she had to create a complete, complex society with its religion, its power-struggles and its vividly realized setting. I found The Stronghold completely compelling, both gripping and moving. 

I'm ashamed to say that I had never read any of Mollie Hunter's books before I read this one, which is the first by a Scottish author to win the Carnegie, and I suspect that she remains better known in both Scotland and in the USA than she does in England. For almost the last time in this series about Carnegie winners I'm able to turn to Chosen for Children, the Library Association's review of winners from the beginning until 1975. This book has been especially invaluable for the insights it often gives into the creative processes of the authors. So, here is Mollie Hunter on The Stronghold:

"Everyone has some capacity for atavism; and to stand alone in a deserted place where once was centred all the superstitions belief and custom of an early people can bring fearful awareness of this. The dead heart of that place may revive suddenly loud in one's own pulses, and to startle to those pulse-beats is momentarily to have acute perception of the force created by the intersection of superstition with all the other features of that people's life. This, one lonely night at the centre of the island's huge ring of standing stones, was the experience which finally gave me the insight needed to present my characters credibly in written form; but even so, in the year of writing that followed, there was many a time when I almost gave up on the task."

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney, 2015

The book's central character is Coll, a young man who was lamed as a child during an attack by the Roman slave traders he has grown to hate and fear. Hunter says: 

"For him I had evoked the dream of building the defence tower he called the stronghold. This was his obsession; and to realise the dream would be his victory over all the odds stacked against him. We built together, keeping faith with that first impulse of imagination through stone stubbornly set on stone, word as stubbornly set on word until a book was made, and for both of us at last, the dream became reality."

The action never lets up in this book, the suspense is constant, right to the end, and it's all supported by the brilliant realisation of everyday Iron Age life in Orkney. This is yet another Carnegie winner that should really never have been allowed to go out of print. What's more it is a beautifully produced book with that very fine cover by Charles Keeping.

And speaking of beautifully produced books, I can't help envying Mollie Hunter for the way that her very first novel was handled by her publisher. Patrick Kentigern Keenan was published by Blackie in 1963 with a cover in five colours and 20 line illustrations by Charles Keeping. I could hardly believe my eyes when my copy arrived in the post the other day, the edges of the pages only very slightly browning and the cover as bright and clean as the day it was placed on the shelves of Manchester High School for Girls. 

But Mollie Hunter deserved these great illustrations because she was a writer of genius. Patrick Kentigern Keenan claims to be 'the smartest man in Ireland' and despite a series of reverses in his adventures with the leprechauns his good heart and irrepressible nature bring him through. It's a very different book to The Stronghold but in one respect at least it's the same: it's beautifully written and is without a doubt a tribute to her Irish father.

Illustration by Charles Keeping

I'm not sure Mollie Hunter is much read nowadays, south of the border at least. Certainly almost all her work is out of print and that's a great shame. Also published in 1963 was the first of her many historical novels, The Spanish Letters. Although the plot of this early work might be criticised for being slightly over-complicated, and despite the fact that the reader sometimes longs to be allowed to pause for breath for a moment, there are many really tremendous action sequences amid a vivid recreation of Edinburgh at the end of the sixteenth century. It is always clear that we are in the hands of a very fine writer, who went on to produce, the year before The Stronghold won the Carnegie, another truly remarkable book. 

Mollie Hunter's semi-autobiographical novel A Sound of Chariots was published in 1973, but it wasn't until 1992 that it won the Phoenix Award from the Children's Literature Association. This award is given to a book published twenty years earlier which didn't win any of the major prizes for an English language children's book. Set in a village near Edinburgh in the 1920s A Sound of Chariots contains some of the most harrowing, moving and realistic descriptions of the effects of war that I've ever read. The depiction of the grief of a child at the death of her father, and of a mother losing her husband, is detailed, truthful and poetic. I really can't praise it highly enough. 

The book is also a wonderful evocation of working-class life in Scotland in the period, and a portrait of the writer as a young girl. At one point the young Bridie has her carefully and passionately written essay about the sea defaced by her teacher with a forest of red ink. The teacher has the effrontery to correct the order of the words in her sentences, but Bridie isn't putting up with that, and after a violent confrontation with the teacher she's called upon by the headteacher to explain herself:

"And the waves like green broken glass fell jaggedly down." (the headteacher says)

She looked up. "That is what you wrote, Bridie," she said quietly. "I see the phrase "green broken glass" has been changed to read "Broken green glass." Is there any difference? And if so can you tell me where it lies?"

She could see it all right, but it was hard to explain. She tried, haltingly. "Broken green glass, it's just ordinary, just what it says. "Broken green glass. A bottle, a dish, anything ordinary.

"Go on." . . .

"Well, the other way," she tried again, "It's not ordinary any more because the sound has a sort of pattern to it. You know, like the words of a song, rising and falling."

This reminded me very much of something James Joyce said in conversation with Frank Budgen as reported in Budgen's book James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses:

I enquired about Ulysses. Was it progressing?

"I have been working hard on it all day," said Joyce.

"Does that mean that you have written a great deal?" I said.

"Two sentences," said Joyce.

I looked sideways, but Joyce was not smiling. I thought of Flaubert.

"You have been seeking the mot juste?" I said.

"No," said Joyce. "I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentence.There is an order in every way appropriate. I think I have it."

Who knows if Mollie Hunter knew this story? Maybe the events happened to her just as she described them. Either way, A Sound of Chariots is yet another book that should never be out of print. 

Mollie Hunter wrote a great many books, largely historical and fantasy, and also wrote about writing for children in Talent is Not Enough. According to her obituary in The Scotsman she 'spent a great deal of her time touring schools and libraries and was made particularly welcome in the United States.' I have a 1995 publication from the USA called Children's Books and their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey which devotes most of a double page spread to Mollie Hunter. In the Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Hunter merits only one short paragraph. It seems odd to me. 

Oxford Companion 15 lines
Children's Books and their Creators 2 pages

And so, back to Charles Keeping. He was the perfect choice to draw the broch in The Stronghold and I have a few more of his walls to show you. First there is this unpublished lithograph which forms the endpapers of Charles Keeping, An Illustrator's Life by Douglas Martin. 

Unpublished and undated lithograph used as 
endpapers in Charles Keeping, an Illustrator's Life

This lithograph was also featured in the Keeping exhibition a couple of years ago at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner and it reminded me of a story a friend of mine used to tell about his uncle, a bricklayer. Whenever this uncle walked past a truly vast wall of bricks he sank into gloom at the though of 'the poor b**** who had to lay them all.' Well, Keeping drew them all, but he seems to have enjoyed it because he drew a lot of walls. 

The next one comes from a book called Reflections - an English Course for students aged 14-18. This was published in 1963 by OUP and is a great example of the cutting-edge curriculum materials produced during this period - I'm thinking of the Voices and Young Voices anthologies, the Penguin English Project and the Jackdaw folders of facsimile historical documents. Reflections was produced by teachers from Walworth Comprehensive School and as well as the Keeping illustrations it featured many photographs by Roger Mayne who had become well known for his photographs of Southam Street in London in the early 1960s. Both Keeping and Mayne were adventurous choices which worked perfectly with the extracts from a wide range of written material.

From Reflections

Keeping was also the perfect illustrator for Dickens. Between 1978 and 1986 he re-illustrated 16 volumes of Dickens' novels for the Folio Society. Here are some walls from Nicholas Nickleby.

From Nicholas Nickleby (Folio Society)

And here, just because I can, is one of the earliest Keeping illustrations I have. It's from a publication called 'The Commonwealth and Empire Annual' and this 1955 edition contains three stories illustrated by Keeping at a time when he was doing a wide variety of commercial work and had yet to begin his long association with Oxford University Press. The stories are not memorable, but the illustrations are.

From the Commonwealth and Empire Annual 1955

Paul May's website


Maureen Farrell said...

I cannot tell you how delighted I am to read this piece. My husband is a vastly underrated writer sadly as you say not well known in England. Only a few of her books the well-known ones are stranger came ashore and the kelpies perils are still in print. It’s a shame that many of her other books are now out of print because they’re all good. And Molly Hunter also wrote a number of articles about being a writer and being particularly a Scottish writer these are all well worth reading. Thank you for this blog I really enjoyed reading it.

Susan Price said...

Love Mollie Hunter. Love Charles Keeping. Love brochs --

Paul May said...

Thanks, Maureen. Do please tell us your husband's name so he can gain at least one more reader! And thanks for that link, Susan. Anyone who wants to know more about brochs should follow the link. A visit to Orkney's amazing archaeology is all that is needed to flip any Anglo-centric view of history on its head. I'm off to Lewis on my bike next month for some brochs, stone circles and fresh air.

Susan Price said...

Oh, you lucky devil! The landscape of Lewis is drear tundra and the wind never stops blowing. (It feels like being continually cuffed round the head.) But the beaches are breath-taking, the wildlife wonderful and Callanish... well, older than Stonehenge. Dun Carloway too.