Tuesday, 22 April 2014

PBOTD 22nd April: Monica Dickens - The House at World's End

Monica Dickens was expelled from St Paul’s School for Girls for throwing her school uniform over Hammersmith Bridge. Her children's books saw a similar dislike for convention. Not for her the comfort of carefree holiday adventure: her children meet real, and awful problems. Her Follyfoot series left its readers in little doubt about the cruelties man could, and did, visit upon horses. Her World's End books don't have quite the strident confrontation with reality as Follyfoot, but these are children who have real problems. 
World’s End, had its initial premise in that hoary chestnut of children’s book plots: the absent adults. In most books using this device, any adult who might control what will happen disappears for some convenient reason in the first few pages of the book, leaving the child heroes with the length of the summer holidays for adventure. In most cases, we know that adults are hovering on the edge, just in case: Uncle Quentin is not too far away from Enid Blyton’s Famous FiveThe pony book does not tend to enter this world. There are any amount of unaccompanied treks (Ann Stafford’s Five Proud Riders, innumerable Jackie stories by J M Berrisford), and the occasional  journey to escape from an unpleasant situation to a better one: Sheila Chapman’s Ride to Freedom has her heroine leaving her foster family, and riding to find her family with her pony, but survival on one’s own for any length of time with animals is such an implausible task it is almost never attempted in fiction. One of the very few exceptions is the World’s End series. The first, The House at World’s End (1970), opens with the Fielding family, Tom, Em, Carrie and Michael and their animals, living with their Uncle Rudolph and Aunt Valentina. Their father is trying to sail round the world; their mother is in hospital after being severely burned.

Heinemann, 1st edition, 1970
The Fieldings are initially agog with excitement when their Uncle Rudolph, only too glad to get rid of the children, allows them to live in an old pub he has bought,  and be supported by the teenage brother Tom, as long as he can find a job. Carrie, whose love of horses means she has a dream world peopled by horses that talk, is delighted by the move. At last she will be able to have a horse, she thinks. And the animals do appear, rescued from cruelty by the children, but life for the family is a constant, and at times desperate, struggle. Social workers pursue them, and the family being taken into care is only averted by the last-minute appearance of Mrs Fielding, spirited too early out of hospital by Tom.  In only one book of the succeeding three are the Fielding parents present, though in World’s End in Winter (1972) Mr Fielding is shut away in his study, writing a book about the unsuccessful attempts to sail round the world that took them away in Summer at World’s End (1971). They are off sailing again in the last book of the series, Spring Comes to World’s End (1973), crewing yachts to try and earn enough money to buy World’s End.

This series is peopled by a cast of characters often larger than life; Mr Mismo and his fat, much- boasted- of cob, Princess Margaret Rose, Carrie’s friend Lester, completely unbound by rules. Uncle Rudolph and Aunt Valentina are at times almost cartoonishly awful; virtually every appearance offers a new opportunity to smile at their towny pretensions. There is a sly humour that makes the exaggeration bearable: Aunt Valentina has some finer feelings, though she does an excellent job of suppressing them, in the interests of maintaining her own lifestyle:

“That boy sounds wheezy,” Valentina said. “Are you sure you’re all right here on your own?” Her painted face was twisted with the struggle between feeling she ought to say, ‘You must come back with us,’ and dreading they might say, ‘Yes.’”

The series is not depressing. The children’s passion for animals, and their ability to carry on despite dreadful setbacks is cheering, and underlying it all is Monica Dickens’ sly observational humour. Carrie and Michael make money for the horses’ keep over winter by selling manure. They smell all the time, and their sister Em will not sit in the same room with them.  A London friend of Aunt Valentina, tottering in her London heels, has a close encounter with a sheep:

“Rose Arbuckle side-stepped the weed with a faint scream. She was almost at the car when Henry, who loved new people, tore himself loose from Michael and bounded at her over the grass with his wool wobbling like a fat lady.

She made a dash for the car, tore open the car door and got in. But Henry was right behind her, shoving, and before she could shut the door, he had pushed in with her. Tom and Carrie and Em and Michael doubled up with laughter as the door on the opposite side flew open, and Rose Arbuckle fell out, with all her scarves flying, and Henry after her.” The House at World’s End

Most children are aware that the holiday adventures they love will never happen to them. The attraction of the World’s End series is that were your own circumstances to be a little different, you might perhaps be like the Fieldings; with animals everywhere; struggling but ultimately surviving. The series has considerable charm, appealing as it does to what critic Nicholas Tucker calls “a host of pre-adolescent fantasies and prejudices.” He goes on to say that this is “at a uniformly undemanding and facile level;” most children I think knew perfectly well it was a fantasy: the charm of the books is that they bring that fantasy almost within reach. Alison Flood, writing in The Guardian on the books’ reissue, said: “in this case it felt like the loving, but scatty and selfish, Fielding parents' departure on a sailing trip could actually have happened.”

Pan, paperback, 1972
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The above is an extract from the earliest version of my book, Heroines on Horseback


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