Some sense of history, however vague or inaccurate, has always been an important factor in helping young people define their hopes and fantasies about their eventual place in the world. The story of Dick Whittington, fabled Lord Mayor of London, has for centuries helped underpin a belief that extreme social mobility always remains a strong possibility for everyone, however illusory the idea may often be in practice. Later, 19th-century adventure novels set in the past, such as Kingsley’s Westward Ho! or Hereward the Wake, helped to foster the imperial ideal by suggesting that it was natural for Britains to seek an outlet overseas for all the manly endeavour that would otherwise be unbearably cooped up in one little island. The effect of such novels lasted well into our own century: Graham Greene has written that the stories of Rider Haggard were responsible for his lifelong interest in Africa. But for most children today, James Stephen’s prophecy of a time when ‘The Rudyards cease from kipling, and the Haggards ride no more’ has now come true. If these older historical novels are no longer read, is a new generation of writers getting over an equally vivid sense of the past?
The answer to this question is a mixed one. There are good historical novelists writing for modern children, but in most cases the vision of history they convey is pallid by comparison with that of their 19th-century forebears. Their books show few signs of any great popularity, though here other factors, such as a general decline of interest in any sort of history among younger people, may be to blame. In his autobiography Grace Before Ploughing, John Masefield – himself an excellent historical writer for children – recalls that he was early made aware ‘of a Civil War feeling, that Hereford and the Welsh had stood for the King, and that across the Severn to the East of us were others who had taken another side. I was to hear much about this business in my early youth, for its passions still ran high.’ Very few children in Hereford can be aware of such passions some hundred years later, and when one considers the murderous uses to which an active and passionate feeling for history is now being put in Northern Ireland, one should perhaps be glad about this type of ignorance. But it also makes it more difficult for modern historical novelists to write with any real sense of shared emotion – which could be one reason why too many of their novels read like weaker, discontinuous and uncertain versions of a once vigorous 19th-century model.
Juliet Dymoke’s The Lord of Greenwich, the kind of Georgette Heyer novel that might be intended equally for children and for adults, is the fifth in a series of novels about the Plantagenets. There is no doubting the quality of her research, but the final picture conveyed is as flat and falsely picturesque as one of those antique illustrations reproduced on cut-price table mats. History here tends to mean the exclusive company of top 15th-century nobles who spend their time eating interesting food (‘he helped himself to some salmon poached in almond milk’) and quaffing equally exotic drinks. After the meal, there may be lute-playing or general acrobatics, and on the way home there will always be time for the sort of female company that leans out of casements in the hope of catching ‘my Lord’ trotting through the streets on his steed. The evening will be rounded off in a way satisfying to all concerned: ‘ “Oh, lully, lully,” she muttered, “I never had so lusty a lover as you, my princeling.” ’
What is chiefly wrong with this picture is not the truth of the incidental detail, but its selectivity. A vision of the past where the major disease seems to consist of fierce hangovers mocks the reality that would have affected most people. At the same time, though Cambridge may once have plotted against York, and held troops in readiness outside Southampton, this sort of political intrigue is described as one might report today on a group of self-interested businessmen seeking to further their own fortunes by a little shady dealing. There is no hint of the tribal passions, near-paranoia and volatile emotions that would once have made 15th-century politics seem sometimes closer to the court life of General Amin than to, say, in-fighting in County Councils after a local election.
The lord of Greenwich resembles the sort of escapist film made by British studios just after the last war – all sword fights, low-cut dresses and swaggering heroes. Barbara Willard’s A Flight of Swans, the latest novel in her ‘Mantlemass’ series, is closer in mood to today’s popular television serial featuring a prosperous middle-class family living at some time in the past. This is a better-written, more solid piece of work, rooted in regional rather than national history – among the iron-workers of the Ashdown Forest during the 15th and 16th centuries. There is a careful avoidance of the most common clichés of historical writing: the speech of the main characters, far from indulging in the usual ‘avaunts’ and ‘quothas’, is sometimes so determinedly local that it is not easy to follow. The unquestioned chauvinism once found in British historical novels is also played down: there is, for example, a restrained description of the defeat of the Armada. (In certain history textbooks written for Spanish school-children, by contrast, there used to be no mention of any British intervention, and the entire disaster was blamed on the weather.) Yet even with these recommendations, the sense of history suggested by this novel is a limited one, relying for its effects more upon descriptions of antique props and scenery than on any real idea of a once very different order of things. The type of evidence from the past that most shocks and surprises modern children is nearly always played down in favour of a more romantic view. There is little mention, for example, of high mortality rates, loveless, arranged marriages, harsh parent-children relationships, constant, wasting disease, or of the back-breaking, everyday labour still vividly remembered and resented by the older agricultural workers who were interviewed by Ronald Blythe when he was writing Akenfield.
Oral history should have much to teach contemporary historical novelists, though it may be more difficult to write a good, escapist story if every sordid truth about the past is to be borne in mind. If the intention is merely to entertain in an avowedly lightweight work, as in Penelope Lively’s Fanny and the Battle of Potter’s Piece, only a pedant would insist that it is always necessary to include glimpses of less pleasant aspects of the past as well. But although it is fun to read about Victorian family games in large gardens, and little else, the result can never be anything more than charmingly superficial. For a more rounded view of late 19th-century family life, readers should turn to Philippa Pearce’s The Children of the House, written over ten years ago in collaboration with Brian Fairfax-Lucy, whose own memoirs of a childhood spent in the Big House, surrounded by servants, convey a much darker view of things.
A corrective to any over-nostalgic view of history can always be found in the novels of Leon Garfield – probably the most consistently rewarding author writing for children today. His latest book, John Diamond, is well up to form, and concerns a 12-year-old boy from the country who becomes almost fatally embroiled in the slums and rookeries of early 19th-century London. Here, murderous gangs wait down dark alleys which seem to have ‘a running cold in their bricks’ – and if anyone wishes to accuse the author of melodrama, let him read Mayhew or the slum novels of Arthur Morrison. The plot revolves around a mysterious crime committed by a dead father, and the pervasive sense of danger is at times so great that if the story were not told in the first person, few readers would give the young hero any reasonable chance of surviving to its end. He does, though, and if the last few pages are frankly sentimental, the author – like his obvious model, Dickens – has perhaps earned the right to this because of the honesty he has shown in his depiction of things.
Leon Garfield has always stood out, not like a sore thumb, but more like a magisterial, warning finger upraised against anyone taking too soft an attitude towards the past. Such strictures are still necessary: despite the work of anti-Establishment novelists in the Thirties, like Geoffrey Trease and Alfred Duggan, there is still a tendency to glorify history, sometimes in the most uncritical way. It seems a dubious practice to suggest to young readers that what is best must necessarily have gone before. But encouraging modern children to acknowledge some of the enormous advantages that have been won for most of them this century, whatever its other drawbacks, does not seem to be fashionable.
It is interesting to compare this situation with the attitudes of German children’s authors towards their past, especially now there are some novels published for the young that fully describe the horrors of the inter-war years. One good example of this genre is the trilogy written by Hans Peter Richter: Friedrich, I was there and The Time of the Young Soldiers. Here, little is spared the reader by way of scenes depicting Jew-baiting, political thuggery and human degradation.
With a past like this, it is not surprising that German writers do not commonly go in for the silly escapism that characterises some contemporary British light fiction about the last war. Heroic, omnipotent British Tommies can still be found outwitting whole German armies in weekly comics. Far less has been written about immediate post-war history, so there is every reason to welcome Penelope Farmer’s slight but very pleasing story, The Runaway Train. This describes the first day-trip taken by a working-class family after the war in 1947. The lovely black and white illustrations of LMS steam trains, old-fashioned signals and family picnics on the beach soon disarm criticism, leaving readers to enjoy the whole day off as much as everyone in the story does. Not that everything is idealised: a solitary orange, there to serve the whole family, is tragically lost, and the engine-driver father is relegated to goods trains after failing to stop at the right amount of stations on the way home.