A Review of The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
When I was growing up, there was nothing more magical than the season before Christmas. I loved everything about it, and I believed in Santa Claus far longer than any of my friends. After my two sons were born, I happily read Christmas books to them, sharing the joy and sense of magic I’ve always felt during this time of year. (However, I should add that, as for anyone, joy is mixed with sadness as loved ones die or life’s circumstances change. Magic, mystery, and the feeling that there is something greater than myself and that almost anything can happen, especially on Christmas Eve, is a belief that I hold.)
During this holiday season, I re-read stories and books that I’ve collected over the years, each having something to do with Christmas or the spirit thereof. One of these books is Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, one of six books that she wrote after the age of 60. All of them were inspired by an ancient Norman manor she bought in Cambridgeshire later in her life.
Lucy Boston was born in 1892, the fifth of six children living with their parents, “committed Wesleyans,” in Southport, Lancashire. After her father’s death when she was six years old, Lucy then moved with her mother and siblings to the countryside in Arnside, on the estuary of the River Kent. “The children were free to wander woods and fields, explore the cliffs and coves of the river. In Lucy’s case, the return of Spring, with primroses and fields of wild daffodils, was especially thrilling as in Southport the only signs of Spring were the red and white hawthorns along the streets and her mother never had a single flower in the house.”
She was unhappy to return to the town of Southport after a year in the country, but subsequently attended a boarding school and a finishing school in Paris after that. (Lucy’s father left each child a “small fortune” for their education.) Although Lucy was admitted to Somerville College of Oxford, she quit after her first year to become a volunteer nurse at the start of WWI.
Lucy married a distant cousin, Harold Boston, in 1917, and had one son, Peter. After Lucy and Harold’s marriage ended in 1935, she toured Europe and studied painting in Vienna. When she returned to England in 1937, she began house hunting and showed up at a house she thought was for sale in the village of Hemingford Grey. She learned that it was not the house she had seen in an ad, but the owner had decided to put it up for sale only that morning. Thus, did she buy the Norman Manor House, built in 1130, one of the oldest and “continually inhabited houses in Britain.” This manor house, and the gardens she created, became the inspiration for her Green Knowe books, which her architect son Peter then illustrated.
The Children of Green Knowe begins with young seven-year-old Toseland Oldknow, alone and anxious in the corner of a railway carriage, rain pouring outside. His father has arranged for his son to stay with a previously unknown great-grandmother over the boy’s Christmas break from boarding school.
Lucy Boston sets the scene concisely, giving us all the information we need. There are two other passengers in his car, a “fat woman and a thin one.”
“‘What’s your name, son?’ asked the fat woman suddenly…
‘Toseland,’ he said.
‘Toseland! That’s a real old-fashioned name in these parts…
Do your mum and dad live round here, son?’
‘No, they live in Burma.’
‘Where are you going, then?’
‘I don’t know. That is, I’m going to my great-grandmother Oldknow at Green Noah. The station is Penny Soaky.’
‘That’s the next station after this. Don’t forget – the next station. And make sure there’s some dry land before you get out of the train. The floods are bad there. Bye-bye-cheerio.’”
True to the women’s words, there is flooding as he arrives at the Penny Soaky station. The taxi driver takes him as far as he can, and then the boy has to be rowed by boat to reach his great-grandmother’s house, which is surrounded by the river on all sides.
“The windows were all lit up, but it was too dark to see what kind of house it was, only that it was high and narrow like a tower…The entrance hall was a strange place. As they slipped in, a similar door opened at the far end of the house and another man and boy entered there.
Then Toseland saw that it was only themselves in a big mirror. The stones round him were partly rough stone and partly plaster, but hung all over with mirrors and pictures and china. There were three big old mirrors all reflecting each other so that at first Toseland was puzzled to find what was real…He almost wondered which was really himself.
There were vases everywhere filled with queer flowers…
They had an exciting smell, and they looked as though they had been produced by magic. ‘What if my great-grandmother is a witch!’ he thought.
Above the vases, wherever there was a beam or an odd corner or a door post out of which they could, as it were, grow, there were children carved in dark oak, leaning out over the flowers.”
Boggis, the old man who has rowed Toseland to the house, then nudges the little boy into the room where his great-grandmother awaits by the fire,
“The room seemed to be the ground floor of a castle, much like the ruined castles that he had explored on school picnics, only this was not a ruin. It looked as if it never possibly could be. Its thick stone walls were strong, warm and lively. It was furnished with comfortable polished old-fashioned things as though living in castles was quite ordinary…His great-grandmother was sitting by a huge open fireplace where logs and peat were burning. The room smelled of woods and wood-smoke.
He forgot about her being frighteningly old. She had short silver curls and her face had so many wrinkles it looked as if someone had been trying to draw her for a very long time and every line put in had made the face more like her…The room was full of candles in glass candlesticks, and there was candlelight in her ring when she held out her hand to him.
‘So you’ve come back!’ she said, smiling, as he came forward, and he found himself leaning against her shoulder as if he knew her quite well.
‘Why did you say, “Come back”?’ he asked, not at all shy.
‘I wondered whose face it would be of all the faces I knew,’ she said. ‘They always come back. You are like another Toseland, your grandfather. What a good thing you have the right name, because I should always be calling you Tolly anyway. I used to call him Tolly.’
‘I like it. It’s what my mother used to call me. What shall I call you?’
‘Granny,’ she said. ‘What does one generation more or less matter? I’m glad you have come. It will seem lovely to me. How many years have I wasted?’
‘Seven years,’ said Tolly, watching the flames tugging loose from the log and leaping up the black chimney.
Tolly hesitated, then asked in a very little voice because he hardly dared, ‘Is it my house – I mean partly?’
‘Of course it is – partly, as you say.’
‘Why do you live in a castle?’ he said, looking round.
‘Why not? Castles are meant to be lived in.’
‘I thought that was only in fairy tales. Is it a real castle? I mean, do things happen in it, like the castles in books?’
‘Oh, yes, things happen in it.’
‘What sorts of things?’
‘Wait and see! I’m waiting too, to see what happens now you’re here. Something will, I’m sure… And now you must come and see your own room, and you must go to bed early tonight.’”
I love that hint that something magical may happen. And I imagine that most children would love to have the bedroom described below!
“She led him up winding stairs and through a high, arched room like a knight’s hall, that she called the Music Room, and up more stairs to the very top of the house.
Here there was a room under the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof and all the beams showing. It was a long room with a triangle of wall at each end and no walls at the sides, because the sloping ceiling came down to the floor, like a tent…(there was) a little low wooden bed in the middle covered with a patchwork quilt, as unlike a school bed as anything could be…At one side there was a beautiful old rocking-horse – not a “safety” rocking-horse…but a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.
On the other side was a doll’s house. By the bed was a wooden box painted vermillion with bright patterns all over it. A wicker bird cage hung from one of the beams. On the only side that had no window there hung a big mirror reflecting all the rest – the rafters, the wicker cage, the rocking-horse, the doll’s house, the painted box, the bed.”
The rest of the book is even more magical than this beginning is. Three children from long ago who used to live at Green Noah also, but who died from the Plague, come and go, sometimes playing with Tolly, sometimes lingering out of sight, teasing him. Great-grandmother has told Tolly that they visit her, too. As in their portrait in the room with the fire, Toby, the oldest, has a sword; Alexander, the middle son, plays the flute; and Linnet, the little girl – friend to all the animals – laughs constantly and teases Tolly. However, they never stay for very long, and Tolly never quite knows when to expect them.
“‘Linnet!’ he called suddenly. ‘Where are you? Come out into the moonlight.’
There was a laugh just where he wasn’t looking, and when he turned there was, a patter of feet, and the whispering was where he had been looking a moment before.
‘Are you just teasing me?’ he asked, and was answered by such an infectious little laugh that he couldn’t help laughing too. After that there was silence, but it was a companionable, happy one in which presently he smiled and settled himself into sleep.”
There is so much more in the book: a large St, Christopher’s statue made of stone who may have come to life one night; Feste, who had been Toby’s horse, and who still has his name on an empty stall; Green Noah, a topiary which has been left to grow unchecked and was said to have been cursed by a “gypsy woman”; and the painted box, for which Tolly finds the key. And then it snows.
“The yew trees had disappeared. In their place were white hills with folds and creases in their side. Tolly picked up a handful of snow and found it was made up of tiny violet stars. He could hardly eat his breakfast for excitement.”
On Christmas Eve, after Tolly and Great-grandmother trim their Christmas tree, they sit by the fire:
“As they rested there, tired and dreamy and content, he thought he heard the rocking-horse gently moving, but the sound came from Mrs. Oldknow’s room, which opened out of the music room. A woman’s voice began to sing very softly a cradle song that Tolly had learnt and dearly loved:
Lully Lullay, Thou little tiny child
By by, Lully, Lullay.
O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling
For whom we sing
By by, Lully, Lullay.
‘Who is it?’ he whispered.
‘It’s the grandmother rocking the cradle,’ said Mrs. Oldknow, and her eyes were full of tears.
‘Why are you crying, Granny? It’s lovely.’
‘It is lovely, only it is such a long time ago. I don’t know why that should be sad, but it sometimes seems so.’
The singing began again.
‘Granny,’ whispered Tolly again with his arm through hers, ‘whose cradle is it? Linnet is as big as I am.’
‘My darling, this voice is much older than that. I hardly know whose it is. I heard it once before at Christmas.’
It was queer to hear the baby’s sleepy whimper only in the next room, now, and so long ago.”
I love the above passage. Magic. As for the rest, you need to read it yourself. It’s a book meant for adults as well as children. Diana Boston, Lucy’s daughter-in-law, sums up the allure of the books in these words:
“Lucy consciously wrote to give a sense of place and sense of continuity… as if it were the same family being there from the day the house was built in 1130 right through to the day she died. I don’t know how consciously people think about that but I think they do like continuity and that sense of place. That is possibly one of the things people love about the books; because less and less people are having that experience. I suppose there are not many books that are so much about a place that you can come and recognise it all.”
Along with her books, Boston became well-known for her patchwork quilts. “The existence of the patchworks was scarcely known until 1976, when the celebrated conductor and keyboard player, Christopher Hogwood who was a close friend, arranged an exhibition of them at the King’s Lynn Festival.” (See the photo of Lucy Boston and two of her patchwork quilts.) Lucy lived to be 97, dying after suffering two strokes in 1990. Peter and his wife Diana lived at the manor until Peter’s death in 1999. Diana Boston still lives there, with home and gardens open to the public to help defray expenses. Fans of Lucy Boston’s books from around the world visit the manor every year.
Links to photos of Boston’s manor home and an interview with Diana Boston (with more photos from the manor) are just below.
Lucinda “Cindy” Knox, raised in Illinois, is a retired social worker who also worked as an English teacher and a legal assistant. A member of OLLI-USF since 2007, Cindy has taken numerous courses in literature, writing, theater, poetry, science, humanities, history and politics. She is a regular Great Books course participant.