Jill Paton Walsh
Jill Paton Walsh
(Born Gillian Bliss) English novelist, short-story writer, and author of picture books and juvenile novels.
The following entry presents an overview of Paton Walsh's career through 2004. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volumes 2 and 65.
Paton Walsh is best known as an author of award-winning historical fiction for older primary graders and young adults. In works set in various periods of English history, including the Middle Ages, the Victorian Era, and, most frequently, the period surrounding World War II, Paton Walsh examines such themes as the nature of heroism, the meaning of community, and the effects of war. In addition, she has also written contemporary realistic fiction, science fiction, and picture books for children, as well as short stories, novels, and mysteries for adults. The winner of the 1974 Whitbread Award for best children's book for The Emperor's Winding Sheet (1974), Paton Walsh has composed thirty-one books for children, which cross over several different literary formats. A prolific researcher—particularly in regard to her works of historical fiction—Paton Walsh learned Greek to properly research the background for The Emperor's Winding Sheet, a process which took three years. However, since 1997, following the release of her picture book When I Was Little Like You (1997), Paton Walsh has exclusively concentrated on penning adult works, including Knowledge of Angels (1994), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Paton Walsh was born on April 29, 1937, in London, England. The daughter of John Llewellyn and Patricia Bliss, she was a breach birth whose right arm was permanently injured during her delivery. Part of an intellectual family, her father was an engineer who was best known for his experimentation with prototype telecommunications. When the World War II Blitz of London began in September 1940, Paton Walsh was only three, although the experience left her with indelible memories of the hardships and suffering that her family endured. Her family initially remained in the London area, however, as the protracted bombing continued, Paton Walsh eventually travelled with her mother and siblings to her grandparents' home in Cornwall, where she would remain until she was eight years old. As a young student, Paton Walsh attended St. Michael's Convent in North Finchley until she was admitted into St. Anne's College at Oxford. Graduating with honors in English, she married Antony Edmund Paton Walsh in 1961, whom she had met while studying at Oxford. She worked as a teacher until the birth of the couple's first child, following which she became a housewife and began writing as a creative outlet. After Macmillian editor Kevin Crossley Holland rejected Paton Walsh's first manuscript, he offered her a chance at adapting the story of one of the minor characters from the classic Old English poem Beowulf. The subsequent book, Hengest's Tale (1966), became her first published work. She followed the volume with a series of juvenile novels ranging from science fiction to historical fiction. Separating from her husband in the early 1990s, Paton Walsh also began focusing on picture books during that period, publishing four such works in her "Can I Play?" series. While she had written several volumes of adult fiction previously, following the publication of her picture book When I Was Little Like You, Paton Walsh publicly stated that she was, for the time being, writing exclusively for adult readers. She has since published a number of novels, including Thrones, Dominations (1998), A Presumption of Death (2003), and several installments in her "Imogen Quy" mystery series. In 1996 she received the Commander of the British Empire Award for services to literature and has been elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. More recently, she relocated to Cambridge, where she co-manages a small publishing business called Green Bay Publications.
In several of her juvenile works, Paton Walsh has utilized turbulent historical settings as catalysts for the emotional growth of her characters. Through extensive research, she is able to present a variety of authentic period details, which help her texts evoke a true sense of time and place. Paton Walsh based her first novel, Hengest's Tale, on a character from Old English myth. The suspenseful narrative concerns the maturation of Hengest, a fifth-century Jute, torn between honor in battle and loyalty to a childhood friend. Her second novel, The Dolphin Crossing (1967), is set along the English coast as two teenage boys, one wealthy and one a Cockney evacuee, join together in the evacuation of British troops from the Battle of Dunkirk. In Fireweed (1969) Paton Walsh again portrayed the struggle of two teenagers during World War II. Bill and Julie, who meet in an underground shelter during the Nazi bombing of London, grow to care deeply for each other as they struggle against grave circumstances. Ultimately, they are separated by the English class system, which Paton Walsh depicts with her trademark lack of sentimentality alongside the chaos and destruction of London. Two of Paton Walsh's best-known works, Goldengrove (1972) and its sequel, Unleaving (1976), are set in an isolated seaside landscape. In both novels, she investigates the often painful experience of maturing from adolescence to adulthood. The titles are both taken from the opening of the poem "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child" by Gerard Manley Hopkins ("Margaret are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?"). The novels focus on a sensitive teenager, Margaret Fielding—called Madge—who spends her summer holidays at her grandmother's house on the Cornish coast. The tone of each work is bittersweet; the characters experience disillusionment as they lose the innocence of childhood, but they ultimately gain a greater appreciation for life.
Between Goldengrove and its sequel, Paton Walsh completed The Emperor's Winding Sheet, a tale set during the fall of Constantinople in 1453. To ensure the authenticity of the novel, she embarked on a research trip to Greece, an experience which also figured in the development of Children of the Fox (1978), a trilogy set during the Greek-Persian wars. Paton Walsh later visited a coal mine to accurately portray mining conditions in another of her historical novels, A Chance Child (1978). In that story, Paton Walsh depicts the exploitation of child labor in Victorian England through the story of "Creep," an abused child of the twentieth century who, through time travel, begins a new life in the Victorian Era. Set during the Great Plague of 1665, A Parcel of Patterns (1983) addresses themes of faith, courage, and the meaning of community through Paton Walsh's dramatization of the isolation of a village that has contracted the plague when infected dress patterns arrive from London. Based on the true story of the village of Eyam, the story portrays the heroism of ordinary people who voluntarily quarantined themselves in order not to spread the fatal disease to their neighbors. Paton Walsh achieved a sense of authenticity in these works through her use of carefully researched facts and colloquial language. Inspired by her move to a little cottage near Cambridge, which she shares with author and critic John Rowe Townsend, Paton Walsh composed Gaffer Samson's Luck (1984), a story for primary graders about a young boy who has moved to a new village and befriends a dying man. Through his quest for the old man's fabled good luck charm, the boy gains courage and the acceptance of his new acquaintances.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Paton Walsh moved in a new direction as a children's writer, focusing on picture books for young readers. Among these works are the folktales Birdy and the Ghosties (1989) and Matthew and the Sea Singer (1993), and the picture books When Grandma Came (1992) and When I Was Little Like You. The two folktales center on Birdy, a generous young girl gifted with second sight and the ability to communicate with ghosts and sea creatures. Paton Walsh's picture books, alternately, are concerned with describing satisfying intergenerational relationships. In When Grandma Came, Paton Walsh portrays a globe-trotting grandmother who greets her granddaughter with compliments that compare her favorably to the wondrous places she has visited and the amazing things she has seen. In When I Was Little Like You, little Rosie and her Gran stroll through the seaside village of St. Ives remarking on the things they see.
Paton Walsh has been repeatedly praised for the level of detail and moral complexity that she brings to her juvenile novels, though some have questioned whether certain of her plot elements are too dark for young readers. Alethea Helbig has called The Emperor's Winding Sheet "a powerful novel that puts the facts of past times in a human context to which we can all relate and refracts them through a prism of many years." Similarly, Anita Tarr has characterized A Chance Child as "the story of the common person, the lost detail swept aside in traditional accounts of the great events of history. Because [Creep] can write, he makes an indelible mark, however small it is. He has a voice, he no longer must rely on another to tell his story, he is no longer invisible." However, Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris have countered this assessment, arguing that, in A Chance Child, "Walsh's attempt to explore the evils of child labor through a time-travel fantasy is only moderately successful. The abrupt moves from one vignette to another and the use of an elusive, insubstantial central character have a distracting rather than a unifying effect." Baskin and Harris have taken even further issue with Paton Walsh's characterization of the handicapped in Unleaving, asserting that the text reflects a "callousness toward disabled persons [which] is, fortunately, unique in contemporary adolescent fiction." Paton Walsh's supporters, however, have countered such claims by arguing that many of the more uncomfortable and gritty scenarios in the author's texts are based on fact and are, in reality, the result of Paton Walsh's stringent adherence to accurate historical detail.
Hengest's Tale [illustrations by Janet Margrie] (juvenile novel) 1966
The Dolphin Crossing (juvenile novel) 1967
Fireweed (juvenile novel) 1969
Goldengrove (juvenile novel) 1972
The Dawnstone [illustrations by Mary Dinsdale] (juvenile novel) 1973
Toolmaker [illustrations by Jeroo Roy] (juvenile novel) 1973
The Emperor's Winding Sheet (juvenile novel) 1974
The Huffler (juvenile novel) 1975; also published as The Butty Boy, illustrations by Juliette Palmer, 1975
Unleaving (juvenile novel) 1976
Crossing to Salamis [illustrations by David Smee] (juvenile novel) 1977
The Walls of Athens [illustrations by David Smee] (juvenile novel) 1977
A Chance Child (juvenile novel) 1978
Persian Gold [illustrations by David Smee] (juvenile novel) 1978
*Children of the Fox [illustrations by Robin Eaton] (juvenile novels) 1978
The Green Book [illustrations by Joanna Stubbs] (juvenile novel) 1981; revision edition, illustrations by Lloyd Bloom, 1982; republished in 1988 as Shine
Babylon [illustrations by Jenny Northway] (juvenile novel) 1982
A Parcel of Patterns (juvenile novel) 1983
Gaffer Samson's Luck [illustrations by Brock Cole] (juvenile novel) 1984
Lost and Found [illustrations by Mary Rayner] (juvenile novel) 1984
Torch (juvenile novel) 1987
Birdy and the Ghosties [illustrations by Alan Marks] (juvenile novel) 1989
Can I Play Farmer, Farmer? [illustrations by Jolyne Knox] (picture book) 1990
Can I Play Jenny Jones? [illustrations by Jolyne Knox] (picture book) 1990
Can I Play Wolf? [illustrations by Jolyne Knox] (picture book) 1990
Can I Play Queenie? [illustrations by Jolyne Knox] (picture book) 1991
Grace (juvenile novel) 1992
When Grandma Came [illustrations by Sophie Williams] (picture book) 1992
Matthew and the Sea Singer [illustrations by Alan Marks] (juvenile novel) 1993
Pepi and the Secret Names [illustrations by Fiona French] (picture book) 1994
Thomas and the Tinners [illustrations by Alan Marks] (juvenile novel) 1995
Connie Came to Play [illustrations by Stephen Lambert] (picture book) 1995
When I Was Little Like You [illustrations by Stephen Lambert] (picture book) 1997
Selected Other Works
Farewell, Great King (novel) 1972
Five Tides (short stories) 1986
Lapsing (novel) 1986
A School for Lovers (novel) 1989
The Wyndham Case (novel) 1993
Knowledge of Angels (novel) 1994
A Piece of Justice: An Imogen Quy Mystery (novel) 1995
The Serpentine Cave (novel) 1997
Thrones, Dominations [with Dorothy L. Sayers] (novel) 1998
A Desert in Bohemia (novel) 2000
A Presumption of Death [with Dorothy L. Sayers] (novel) 2003
Debts of Dishonor: An Imogen Quy Mystery (novel) 2006
The Bad Quarto: An Imogen Quy Mystery (novel) 2007
*Includes Crossing to Salamis, The Walls of Athens, and Persian Gold.
Jill Paton Walsh (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Paton Walsh, Jill. "The Masks of the Narrator." In Voices Off: Texts, Contexts, and Readers, edited by Morag Styles, Eve Bearne, and Victor Watson, pp. 281-90. London, England: Cassell, 1996.
[In the following essay, Paton Walsh discusses the difficulty of managing narrative voice in young adult literature and comments that, "[t]he anxiety to control the content of children's books is fundamentally, of course, a desire to control children, and make sure that they do not think for themselves; or rather, that when they think for themselves they come to the conclusions we wish them to come to."]
My title is ‘The Masks of the Narrator’ and a good deal of my script is a writer's eye view of some technical aspects of what is usually called ‘voice’ in fiction. My reason for wishing to explore it is that it has a strong bearing on a controversy that is never very far from our working lives as friends of children's books, and often right in the forefront. The controversy is about the effects on the beliefs and, more remotely, on the conduct of readers, of the moral content of the books they read. People who become steamed up about this are nearly always advocates of censorship, although the authors subjected to the inquisitions that ensue get pretty steamed up about it too.
The defenders of literature find themselves in a tight corner. All too often those who defend freedom of speech, and find nothing wrong with a book which is under attack, sound as though they are defending racism or sexism or violence themselves, rather than saying that such things may have a place in a book that is not sexist or racist, or glorifying violence. Many people do not understand us when we object to a request that books should show an idealized world, or when we say that showing the world as it is, and teaching that the way it is is the way it should be, are not the same.
The anxiety to control the content of children's books is fundamentally, of course, a desire to control children, and make sure that they do not think for themselves; or rather, that when they think for themselves they come to the conclusions we wish them to come to. Too often, we see the desire of a section of society to limit the influence of the opinions of another section of society on future generations. The objections raised against particular books often have an air of wild implausibility about them, as though nursery copies of Little Black Sambo could create racism in an otherwise innocent society, or one reading of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could make children cruel.
It is not only those who attack children's books who ascribe this powerful moral influence to them. Zena Sutherland's book, The Best in Children's Books,1 published in 1973, and rightly still in widespread use, because it is an excellent source of information, actually has an index described as a ‘Developmental Values Index’. Some of the headings in this index are as follows: Adaptability—Aesthetic discrimination—Age—mate relations—Animals, kindness to—Appreciation of beauty—Baby, adjustment to—Boy-girl relations—Bravery—Brothers—Community life—Consideration for others—Co-operation—Courage—Cousins—Creativity—Cultural awareness—Death, adjustment to—Democratic understanding—Devotion to a cause—Divorce, adjustment to—Economic differences, understanding—Education, valuing and seeking. It is not clear to me why, if children's books are stuffed with wholesome moral nutrition like this, adult fiction also should not be full of moral goodness. With the aid of this bibliotherapists' pharmacopoeia, let us try it.
Adaptability?—Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Animals, kindness to?—Moby Dick
Brothers—well, Karamazov, obviously
Community life—The Rule of St Benedict
Death, adjustment to—Hamlet
Divorce, adjustment to—Anna Karenina
Economic differences, understanding—Adam Smith,
The Wealth of Nations
Education, valuing and seeking—Jude the Obscure
We may well laugh; and yet we do not want to assert that children do not learn from reading fiction. Far from it—we would rather wish to assert that they can learn supremely important and morally valuable things from reading fiction, things which cannot easily be learnt at all in other ways.
The unavoidable conclusion is that many people do not understand how fiction works. And the element in fiction that seems to be confusing is the nature of the storytelling voice.
From a writer's point of view, what is commonly called ‘voice’ has two elements, a voluntary and an involuntary one. A narrative voice might mean the strategy deliberately adopted by the writer, fully self-aware, for telling a story, and it might mean that indefinable quality which makes it possible to recognize small fragments of a writer's work, and which distinguishes it, even in dialogue, where it mimics the voices of characters, from the work of other writers. Just as with one's real voice, one can control what one says, and many aspects of utterance—how loud, how fast, whether angry, loving, authoritative—but yet one cannot control what one sounds like, or easily sound like someone else, and voices, once known, are intensely recognizable and identifiable, even if they are those of actors speaking in dialects or accents different from those in use the last time one heard them.
It is obviously easiest to discuss the consciously controllable aspects of narrative voices. And the first thing to realize is that none of the voices audible in a work of fiction is simply that of the author. When we open a book and start to read, it is natural to think that it must be the author whose words we read, the author who is telling us the story. This natural assumption, which is wholly untrue, is a booby-trap for writers as much as for readers, and is made much worse by that lethal phrase ‘self-expression’ so often applied to literary art. But it is not as themselves that authors enter their works, and those who wish to express themselves require the services of a lover, or a psychiatrist; the services of a reader have to be otherwise earned.
To illustrate my meaning I would like to refer to Thackeray's Vanity Fair,2 in which the author introduces himself to us on the first page as a puppeteer, and keeps jumping up and down apostrophizing the reader and making comments on the ‘puppets’ as the story progresses. Is the puppeteer Thackeray himself? Is it his voice which tells us in the opening paragraphs that ‘the famous little Becky puppet has been pronounced to be uncommonly flexible in the joints’ and if so, whose is the voice which opens Chapter 1, ‘While the present century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall, a large family coach’? Is this second voice, which tells us the vast majority of the story, also Thackeray's? When the puppeteer pops up, and makes a comment—‘in a word, everybody went to wait upon this great man—everybody who was asked, as you, the reader (do not say nay), or I the writer, would go if we had an invitation’—is Thackeray interrupting himself?
I think it is rather obvious that the puppeteer, though presented to us as the author, is simply another character in the book. Detached, cynical, Olympian, and often making comments to guide the reader's reaction, and to produce a particular ‘shrinking’ effect, constantly nudging us into remembering how insignificant human lives are, he is part of the apparatus for telling the story. Perhaps in some ways he does resemble the real-life Thackeray. But there is no need for him to do so. Even if one of the characters in the book is actually called the author, the author is not on oath to be sincere, or to speak in his own voice. If the real-life Thackeray was not a cynic at all, but a sentimental old duffer (and we might feel free to think that he was, in the light of his portrayal of Amelia, his heroine), it is very obvious that he presents himself within the book as just what the book requires him to be. Within the book the author is a ‘persona’, not a person.
It is only one step less obvious that the other voice, the anonymous disembodied one which tells the bulk of the tale, is also a character in the book, however nebulous, and not the author. The narrative voice is not the voice of the author in private life, it is a professional ‘stance’. And much the clearest way to think about this is to think in terms of masks. The mask of the narrator is worn while the utterance which forms the words on the page is not being spoken through the mask of any of the characters, though we must not forget that characters too are narrators. The author's self must be set aside, or be concealed by the masks. It is a story which is being expressed through the speaking masks, not a self.
Very many otherwise promising books have been wrecked by the intrusion of the author—the real-life one whom you can invite to dinner, or ask to speak at your conference—because the anonymous nature of the narrative voice has not been understood. It is simply that if you are wearing a mask your own face is covered and unseen. To understand this is to grasp a fundamental truth about literary technique.
Of course, people often think that whereas writing for adults may require a sophisticated understanding of technique, writing for children requires only a simple kit of tools. They think this because they are focusing on the children, not on the task of writing fiction. And children are usually thought of as needing simple books. I don't think this idea can have originated among people who know a lot about children, but even if children were simple, it would not follow that simple literary technique would be all that you needed to please them. An understanding of narrative voice is in fact very complicated, but there is nothing we would call a story which does not involve this voice, so that thinking about it is lesson one, whoever you are writing for.
Before we go any further I need to make another point. A good deal of talk about literary works contrives to consider author and reader, while forgetting about the subject. Now books tend to be about something. And all literary devices stand or fall by their usefulness in getting the reader to think and feel about that something. Because the subjects of fiction tend to be rather grand and shapeless—‘the human predicament’, ‘time and change’, ‘love’, ‘growth’ and so on—the subject and the setting can get confused and the subject overlooked. This produces a rather unpractical and eerie feel to discussions, as though one were taking a course on how to be a museum guide, without ever learning, or asking, what is in the museum around which one will conduct people.
It is important to remember the central position of the subject in our minds while the book is being written, and, if the strategies are working well, in the reader's mind while the book is being read, because once you see that we are involved in a triangle, you see why mask-dropping is so disastrous. Quite simply, if the real author pops out from behind the mask, and starts showing his or her own feelings, then the reader's attention is distracted from the subject.
Three different temptations make authors want to drop the mask for a few sentences, or pages, and get into the act as themselves.
One is a little touch of megalomania; the author is deeply interested in his or her own feelings or opinions, and in writing fiction is chiefly motivated by a desire for self-expression. If it's getting rather difficult to manœuvre the story into voicing the great me, then perhaps the author thinks ‘If I get on stage myself, and just say a few words….’ Even more frequent than mask-dropping of the mask of the narrator is mask-dropping from the face of one of the characters in the story, to allow the character to express the author's views and feelings. We have probably all had a wince and a giggle at modern liberal opinions suddenly voiced by characters in historical novels—by ancient Romans expressing detestation of slavery, by Vikings who are opposed to violence, by feudal lords in favour of equality for women—but this mistake comes in many shades of obviousness, and less obviousness. The opinion gets expressed at the cost of revealing the character as a cardboard cutout; and although I risk being thought whimsical in saying that there is a morality which governs, or should govern, the way an author treats his or her characters, I know that I can make that claim and be understood by the readership of this book. It is brutally inconsiderate to the created characters to reveal them as cardboard placeholders for one's own views.
The second temptation, and it particularly afflicts writers for children, is a lack of trust in the audience, a terrible anxiety that they won't understand art. If you show them something cruel happening, you are afraid that they will think you are in favour of cruelty. Just in case you are misunderstood, you had better get just a word in here, speaking in your own voice … but the problem is that masks are magic, and if you drop them you break the spell. The problem is that the aim of fiction is to arouse emotion and understanding in the reader, and you do that by showing them the subject. Once you make yourself into the subject of the book, you are guaranteed to bore everyone!
Writing is actually a very self-abnegating activity, in which you subordinate yourself to the job in hand. If an ugly, cruel mask is the best one for the story you are telling, then you must wear it, and not be vaingloriously concerned in case someone thinks you are cruel in your real, personal opinions.
I will try to illustrate what I mean with an example. In A Chance Child, 3 a book of mine published some years ago, I wrote about cruelty to children in the English Industrial Revolution. I found myself reading, while researching for this book, personal testimonies from little children of the early nineteenth century which were harrowing and heart-breaking in the extreme. In fact I found the reading so upsetting that I could do it only for quite short periods at a time, and then I had to rest from the emotional battering I was getting. For the purposes of fiction, how I felt was useless. Can I move the reader to tears by explaining that I, J. P. W., upwards of 140 years later, am bitterly opposed to the practice of sending little girls of five down coal mines for 12-hour shifts, with only a tallow candle for comfort in the dark? So what? Who doesn't disapprove of that? Who cares what I disapprove of? The disapproval must be kept well out of sight, behind the mask, and I must simply tell the reader about the subject—what it was like then, how people lived. The subject will move many to sorrow and anger, as it has done me. That's what the narrative mask is for—to get the author out of the way, and allow the reader, unpestered and unobstructed, to experience the subject.
The third of my three temptations to mask-dropping is what one might call instrumentality. While you have the audience mesmerized, you might as well take the opportunity to put in a plug for some right attitude or other—people sometimes simply cannot see why the children's author is unwilling to be a teacher in disguise. If you say that it spoils the story, you find that they can see no value in stories for their own sake, but only as instruments for inculcating values. I am seldom opposed to the inculcation of the values which pressure groups want inculcated; but the only value I personally wish to instill is a love of literature, and I can best do that when safely behind a narrative mask.
But once one has learned that one's book is not going to be a platform for one's personal opinions and feelings, that one must go masked, there is then a choice of masks. There are many to choose from. There are a number of different first-person masks, for example; any of the characters in a story can serve as a mask for the narrative voice. An older or wiser version of one of the characters is a much-used mask—both interesting and easy, that one, but hard to make sympathetic to very young readers. Then there is the mask marked ‘author’ which Thackeray was wearing in the passages from Vanity Fair referred to above. There are a number of invisible-man masks, allowing the storytelling character to follow along, closely observing the characters, but not be among them so as to be observed by them, and playing no part in the action. And then there are the masks of gods, who know and see everything, unlimited by time and space. The advantages and disadvantages of these masks are very well known, and, in the higher reaches of literature, form the subject of a good deal of critical analysis. My own strong preference is for simply choosing a mask and wearing it to tell a story—a fictional use—rather than messing about with the very fact that masks are being worn—a metafictional use.
I will return now to the more shadowy meaning of ‘voice’ and consider the meaning which ‘narrative voice’ has when we recognize a passage as being by a certain author, or feel that the whole effect of a work is recognizably that of a personality we know from other books. For in one sense an author's voice is not designed or chosen, and cannot be altered any more than a speaking voice can, or a fingerprint, or a time in which to be born or die. You might think, after what I have been saying about masks, that the mask would entirely eliminate this personal aura. But an intention to go masked is only partly achievable. Nobody need be afraid that a mask will reduce them to a nonentity. We worry too much about lacking originality, about getting confused with another writer who uses the same masks. That part of one's personality which is still present when one goes masked, may, rather, like it or not, be more distinctive than the full-face version.
For mask-wearing has some wonderful effects. The masks put the author in touch with things which the flesh-and-blood author did not know he or she knew; sometimes they give extra stature, extra understanding, in a way which astonishes everyone.
Somewhere here is the source of that mysterious sense of the spiritual benefit that fiction confers on its participants. Readers too must go masked. For the duration of the reading of a book they must agree to be the reader that the book requires; they too must stand themselves, their prejudices, their private point of view, their specialized knowledge and ignorance aside. A wonderful party is in progress, music is audible through the open windows of the house; everyone is invited, but at the door stands a servant who hands you a mask and will not let you in unless you put it on. I am sure we have all heard someone say that they refused to wear the mask for some author's party. ‘I can't read D. H. Lawrence,’ they say, or ‘I don't find P. G. Wodehouse funny,’ or ‘I never read romances, I hate all science fiction, I'm afraid I haven't read your books, my children are grown-up.’ There are even some people who can't read fiction at all, either because they are so insecure that any mask threatens them intolerably, or because they are so snooty that they think any party involving mask-wearing is too frivolous for them.
But when the reader accepts the invitation, puts on the mask designed for the reader of a book, and leaves for the moment his or her own personality, and when the writer stands aside from personal utterance, and masks every aspect of self that the story does not require, they each act unselfishly. And each receives a sense of grace, almost like the glow which follows an unselfish deed in ordinary life, a glow which seems so like virtue that some people have thought that literature could fill the moral vacuum left by the decay of religion.
I wouldn't go that far myself; and yet I do say that the beneficent effects of fiction, writing it or reading it, are connected with the fact that the need to go masked while we write, while we read, paroles us briefly from what is otherwise an absolute prison, the prison of the self.
I need an example here, and I shall take a children's book—The Nature of the Beast, by Janni Howker.4 The whole trajectory of this book brings us round to total sympathy with an outcast, with a character who is going to wage war on society with all his force. We are almost caught approving of extreme antisocial and criminal conduct. Whatever the boy does now, we have been made to feel, he is justified. He is not the kind of character with whom the predominantly middle-class readers of books habitually sympathize—sympathizing with him enlarges our range of understanding. And that enlargement is a grace conferred by the process of fiction—the process of reading, but also, and earlier, the process of writing, which is also a learning process.
For the process of writing, when you stand yourself out of the way, sometimes allows the mask to speak with a better, wiser, finer voice than your own. But alas! There are limits. For one thing, not everyone can wear every mask. Some are too heavy, too difficult, too light, too small, somehow outside one's range. Even masked, a brilliant elderly male actor would have trouble playing Miranda; the most wonderful schoolgirl actress, however masked, would have trouble with Prospero.
And however professionally you have laid aside your personal, conscious feelings and opinions, the things you don't know you think, the feelings you wish you did not feel, somehow get into the utterance through the mask. These uncontrollable things are part of the impression you give as a mask-wearer; they are nearly impossible to pin down, yet hallmark every paragraph you write. This penumbra is what we love, like and hate in the writers that we read, as it is in the people that we know. If you dislike someone, it may be for something they cannot help; if you don't like a writer's work, it may be just the same thing, and you may not be able to help this either!
And here we have reached a matter which is at the heart of writing for children. Some adults don't like children much. Many more think they like children but they cannot bring themselves to take them very seriously. The only mask they think appropriate for telling stories to children is a cheap and vulgar one. Children like fooling, and will watch a clown for an hour or two. The pretend friend, who wears a vulgar mask because they assume you would be baffled by a finer one, is not much liked. And most tiresome of all is the person who is only pretending to be a storyteller, who dodges round the mask all the time, telling you what to do and what to think and spoiling the show.
The masked narrator and the masked reader are engaged in a potent transaction, an ancient dance of feeling and meaning with very unpredictable effects. Children love dressing up, trying on roles and pretending, and once they get the hang of it they love wearing one after another the masks for readers implicit in the books they read. The mask-wearers are disguised, and disguises liberate people. Being in their unmasked lives remarkably powerless, and at the disposal of other people, children are more in need of this escapism, this empowerment, than many, perhaps most, adult readers. Those who prefer their children meek, obedient and pliable would do well to fear literature. The proponents of fixed and authoritarian systems of belief have always feared literature; that is why the Catholic church has an index of prohibited books, why there was a Gulag in Russia, and why Salman Rushdie is in imminent danger.
Are we then caught out in an indefensible position, saying that literature can do immense good, but can never do any harm? That you can learn adaptability, age-mate relations, animals, kindness to, appreciation of beauty, etc., all the way to truthfulness, uncle-nephew relations, value building and visual perception, from books which never teach animosity, bigotry, cruelty, deception, envy, greed, hatred, licentiousness or narrow-mindedness, all the way to woolly-mindedness and xenophobia? Are we claiming that fiction is the only one-way pendulum in the wide world?
Yes, I am saying that; and my defence would be to repeat that I believe that the very process of writing and reading fiction confers a grace; paroles us from the prison of self. And this self-expanding, self-multiplying, self-dethroning process can only be good for us; it is unambiguously good in the way that sight is better than blindness when you have to make your way in the world.
I will make one final point. The narrative masks we have available to choose from are almost all very ancient, and were first made in societies which did not divide the audience into young and old, educated and ignorant. They do not adapt very well to talking down to people. They sit most comfortably, and work best, when they are used to enable the author to claim—just for a while, while the story is told—equality with the audience. There are masks for enacting superiority to an audience—the masks of preachers, and teachers, and visionaries. But the narrative masks are all apt to fall off if you look down with them, leaving you bare-faced. You must find an audience you can look level at, or leave the masks on the wall.
1. Zena Sutherland, The Best in Children's Books, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1973.
2. William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (first published 1847-48).
3. Jill Paton Walsh, A Chance Child, Macmillan, London, 1978.
4. Janni Howker, The Nature of the Beast, Julia MacRae, London, 1985.
Jill Paton Walsh (essay date May-June 2004)
SOURCE: Paton Walsh, Jill. "The Ghostly Quartet." Horn Book Magazine 80, no. 3 (May-June 2004): 245-52.
[In the following essay, Paton Walsh discusses the nature of literary inspiration and the differences between writing for adult and child readers.]
Western European literature begins with these words, commonly attributed to Homer:
Sing, Muse, the wrath of Achilles …
You might be inclined to remind me that Western European literature is like a river with two headwaters, and assert that the first words are:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light …
Over both these great points of origin there are questions of authorship; and about the authorship of either great work there hovers a numinous question, the question of divine inspiration.
The pagan idea of the inspiration of poets and storytellers by a galaxy of Muses was obviously very hospitable to the idea of literary works as the word of God, since both ideas involve exogenous authorship. The general picture permits a claim for the status of the work of art greatly in excess of the status of the poet. One might think that in claiming to be only a conduit for the utterance of a god the poet was belittling himself, downsizing his glory. But it doesn't work like that. Although a piano is not a source of music, but only a means, we cannot help feeling reverence when we discover that the piano in the room we are standing in was played on by Mozart. In just such a way the claim to be inspired is not a claim to be only a humble hollow flute, breathed through by a god; it is a claim to have had an experience out of the common run. To have been touched by powers which others have no knowledge of. Rightly or wrongly, some of the glory rubs off on the conduit through which the sacred message flowed.
But the idea of authors as divine instruments is not the only idea of them available. "The life so short, the craft so long to learn"—which is Geoffrey Chaucer's rendering of Hippocrates's Ars longa, vita brevis—encapsulates a very different picture. Why would a long apprenticeship be required to be the hollow flute through which the music played? The long apprenticeship suggests a need for mastery; and the mastery is that of a person—the person of the author. The association of the word author with the word authority gives its own message. In this very different vision of the creative process the art is not an inspiration, indeed not necessarily original at all, but simply "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed," which sounds like the very opposite. Something which has often been thought does not sound as if it required godhead to enunciate it.
The idea of authorship as a learned profession, entailing control rather than inspiration, fidelity to source rather than originality, was dominant for hundreds of years. But eventually it was swept aside by the Romantic movement, to be replaced by a new vision of inspiration, a wellspring not external, but interior, flowing up from the secret innermost sentiments of the poet's heart. In this version of authorship, the authority derives not from any suprapersonal divinity, nor from the learning and craft of the author, but precisely from the personal, unique vision of someone whose qualifications are the capacity for fresh feeling, for experience more sensitively undergone than the ordinary, issuing in language seen as artless, like a good untrained singing voice. Self-expression is the name of the game.
The Romantic idea of authorship is not quite dead, but the twentieth century saw the ascendancy of critics. That authors do not know what they are doing is among the more comprehensible conclusions of twentieth-century literary theory. Nearly all the theories of literature that have been developed in recent times have the effect of downgrading authorship and elevating literary theory. Criticism has become entrenched in the academy, in an expanded arena in which it is conflated with anthropology and sociology, hence structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and post-deconstruction.
In the forest of isms, torn by internecine strife as impassioned as wars of religion, I cannot guide you, because I am lost myself. I am lost because I do not have time to find my way through these brambles. Each day I have a choice: to work at writing, or to try to understand what the intelligentsia of my day takes me to be doing when I write. Professional writers cannot contrive, even if they would, to be theorists. Writing is no longer a learned profession.
For most of the working lives of many of us, writing or reading children's literature has been problematic. It has been a long struggle to persuade the adult world that there is anything in our field that could be of interest to them. There have been many crossover authors, of whom I am one, who have written in both fields, but crossover books, written for children and read also by adults, have until very recently been few. I think that the problematic nature of writing for children, or reading the books written for them in adult life, arises in part because the theories of authorship I have been describing seem to fit very uncomfortably with work for children.
The idea of authorship as self-expression certainly makes a misfit. An adult person who is pouring forth their soul abroad, when the expressed self is just right for a nine-year-old, must be an odd fish, surely. A bit immature themselves? What's with a reader who seriously prefers Harry Potter to George Eliot? The source of the disdain which has so often surrounded us is surely the result of the idea that both the authorship and the readership of children's books must be half-baked.
The idea of art and craft fits better. As a tailor can make a garment for a ten-year-old, as a carpenter can make a chair for a toddler, so an author can make a story sized to fit a small imagination, a limited understanding. This view is about equally ignorant of children's literature and actual children. The conclusion is that a children's author must be a craftsperson. Admirable, no doubt, clever, no doubt, but producing work of no interest to people with developed minds, adult stature, and wide bottoms. This view will allow us skill, but entails the adult public in bowing out at once, excluding themselves—this stuff was not written for the likes of them, and there is something a little odd about adults who immerse themselves in it for their own satisfaction. Of course, if they work as teachers or librarians, that's different. That would be a professional concern of teachers and librarians, and nobody else would need to bother with it. This was the cultural ghetto from which, some twenty years ago, proponents of children's literature as part of literature as a whole strove to break free. J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman and a posthumous burst of glory for Tolkien, thanks to the cinema, have transformed that situation, but you will notice that all three are writers of fantasy. Perhaps the idea of the inspired author fits fantasy writing better than it could ever fit realistic writing directed at children. So could children's writers be inspired?
I am coming round full circle now, to resume discussion of inspiration. An idea of such long duration and such persistence as the idea that authors are inspired is likely to have a nugget of truth in it. I find it quite hard to acknowledge in public that, in my experience, it does. But the process of writing a novel does not feel like an autonomous act, fully under conscious control. I am not alone in feeling this, or I could not bear to admit it to you; I hate the word inspired for the mumbo-jumbo claim it seems to make. But others, too, feel something like this. I have very often heard, for example, an author say that the characters came alive as he worked, and would not do as he expected them to do, and he had to change the plot. I have heard several authors claim to be listening to the characters, and writing down what they say. Although obviously a second draft employs critical faculties that are probably self-aware, a first draft is very mysterious. You start out with a ream of plain paper, and finish with a novel. Who has written it? When it is done, one often feels that it was not oneself. Not one's unaided self; not the self one is now.
Writing a novel is not something one is in a position to decide to do. The snow child (in my adult novel Knowledge of Angels ) had been crawling round on mountains in the back of my mind for more than a decade before I suddenly saw the castaway atheist who made her story tellable. Where was he all that time? He came suddenly, like a flash of light, swimming into view in water golden with the light of dawn. "Sing, Muse, the dilemma of Palinor"? I suppose one might describe such an insight as an inspiration.
Receiving an inspiration, however, and working with it, is far from passive. It would be far easier for an empty flute than it can be for a real person with ideas of their own and heavy cultural baggage. It involves an abdication of conscious control; a sort of personal set-aside, to allow the process to have its head. The process is a far better novelist than I am myself. It allows things I did not know I felt, things I did not know I knew, to inform the unfolding story. Writing a novel is a process of discovery; as you work you find things out—things you did not know before, or did not know in this precise situation. To specify a situation you imagine detail, and from the details flow consequences and illuminations not available to conscious reflection when not writing. I do not think this semi-autonomous mode of experience is confined to novel writing; I expect sailing a little boat in wind and current might be similar. Both dreaming and remembering are very like it.
But what is it that takes over when the author stands aside? Not, I think, a God. The Muses surely are long dead, and the Christian God hit writer's block after the Book of Revelation. Nor yet a craft—craft is what one uses consciously to patch and polish and cover over the lacunae. Not self-expression—expressed selves are of interest only to lovers and psychiatrists. I think what takes over is subliminal knowledge of the intractable complexity of the world. We have experienced far more than we can remember. Our conscious minds are great system builders, great simplifiers. Our conscious minds need rules and habits to live by. But in all the discarded details a more precise knowledge of the world is implicit, and has accumulated in the deeps of memory. The flux that makes it available is emotion, and speculation. What would happen to a person like this imaginary character? you ask with an urgency generated in you by your emotion about the situation you are narrating. You ask not yet knowing the answer, thus giving scope for an answer that arises freshly from the hidden experiences you have accumulated, and not a priori from the knowledge in your head. You set aside the known patterns and revisit the inchoate sources of your beliefs and make the patterns afresh. So in the end my understanding of inspiration is this. What is involved is a standing-down of the conscious, controlling intellect; that is why uncritical admiration of authors is very dangerous to them. It may maim the process. The process makes authorship feel like walking in an unknown country, a place in which you yourself are a stranger. In each book you must learn the customs of the country you have entered; and your ignorance demands humility of you.
I am coming now to the question most often asked of me these days—what difference is there between writing for adults and writing for children? This is a tough question because the answer that springs to my lips is that there isn't one. There is no difference in difficulty, although some things are harder in the one case and some things in the other. Both forms of writing require a sharp and focused sense of audience—being blurry about what sort of reader one is enticing is a grave fault in either case. The actual audience envisioned is younger and less experienced when one is writing a children's book—that is blindingly obvious; but writing for adults is not a question of addressing the entire population of the world aged over sixteen. I have written crime as well as straight novels, and crime readers are a different audience, too. Much sharper about dates and times and forensic process than general readers; much less likely to pick up allusions to Henry James and James Joyce. The adjustment to different audiences is not uniquely associated with a shift from children's literature to adult literature; there is nothing special about a sense of the appropriate audience, it is just what authors need always to have. It doesn't take so long to write a much shorter book, though it probably takes as long to think of it. Children's books are shorter.
This is trivial stuff.
Is there a serious difference, then, between writing for adults and writing for children? Yes, at the profoundest level, there is. When one writes for adults, there are two people involved in the literary transaction—just writer and reader. But when one writes for children, there are four people involved, and even that is a simplification. The four are the adult writer, then the child that writer used to be, without whose subliminal remembered presence the story will not carry to the present child. That child reading in the present is the third person involved; the fourth is the adult the child reader will become.
When all the people in this ghostly quartet play together in the narrative music, a music of meaning, it makes magical connections between present, past, and future. What carries the adult back carries the child forward. And human life is so deeply immersed in the tides of time and change, so impinged upon by natural duration, that we cannot understand ourselves at all unless we understand ourselves longways. This is the mode of understanding that stories promote.
In the past, when I used to say that there was no difference between writing for adults and writing for children, and I did often so say, it was really to make the implicit claim that children's writing was as difficult, and as important, as adult writing. When I say it now, I mean to say that adult writing can be as important as writing for children. That is because our sense of ourselves is not fixed throughout adult life. There is always room for better understanding, deeper feeling, moral growth. If it were not so, adult fiction would be nothing more than a branch of the entertainment industry. In many ways, you may well think, it comes close; but it can be, and fairly often is, the nearest an adult can come to the thrilling growth in capacity for thought and feeling that flowers in childhood.
Somewhere here is the source of that mysterious sense of the spiritual benefit that fiction confers on its participants. Readers must consent to be led. For the duration of the reading of a book, they must agree to be the reader that the book requires; they too must stand themselves, their prejudices, their private point of view, their specialized knowledge and ignorance aside. They must agree to be directed by a force outside themselves—not the author, but the impetus of the story. The whole process is like walking without a map, but with a friend. What will happen next "should not depend," as Henry Green put it, "on anything which either of them already know."
It isn't what, if anything, may have inspired the novelist that matters; it is not the point of origin of the work of art that matters. The product of the creative process, its fruitfulness if it comes to good, is not glory or special standing for an author; it is what a good enough novel might inspire in readers. It might demonstrate to you the difficulty and strangeness of the world. It might win your attention, your laughter and your tears; it might rouse your pity and your terror; it might corrode your settled certainties, and make you think afresh. I know that if anything inspirational is going to happen, it will be in the mind and heart of a reader. And I know that the goodness in a good novel has nothing to do with the Muses and that crowd. It has what John Milton called a "human face divine."
Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (review date 1977)
SOURCE: Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of Goldengrove, by Jill Paton Walsh. In More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, pp. 331-32. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977.
Each summer Madge and Paul return to Goldengrove, their grandmother's Cornwall home near the sea [in Goldengrove ]. They play happily as always until they meet Ralph, a blind professor, who has rented a cottage nearby, ostensibly to finish a manuscript. Madge is strangely drawn to the man, to Paul's dismay and, in a heavy emotional scene, the professor tells Madge about the life of the poet, Milton, and about his own wife who left him, concluding that one must adjust to life's vicissitudes. Overwhelmed, Madge, in a gush of self-sacrifice, proposes that she stay with him. However, she perceives that she has been rejected by the professor, echoing her father's abandonment of her at the time of her parents' divorce. Madge becomes ill and when Paul comes to cheer her up, their closeness is reestablished. Madge learns that Paul, whom she thought was her cousin, is really her brother. Recalling Ralph's philosophy, she is able to accept this traumatic revelation. But the blind man, totally self-absorbed, is trapped by inertia; unable to profit from his own advice, he is estranged from life, withdraws and waits.
Analysis: Although Goldengrove is initially conceived of as a child's paradise, the setting soon projects a brooding sense of peril and near tragedy. Patterns of abandonment are pervasive. The story is essentially a mood piece examining the barriers, real or contrived, that interfere with personal relationships. The slow-paced, reflective novel recounts approaches and retreats from relationships and how these are perceived differently from various perspectives.
THE EMPEROR'S WINDING SHEET (1974)
Alethea Helbig (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Helbig, Alethea. "Displacement and Assimilation: Jill Paton Walsh's The Emperor's Winding Sheet." In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1995-1999, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 173-79. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001.
[In the following essay, Helbig examines displacement and assimilation in juvenile historical fiction, specifically, in Paton Walsh's The Emperor's Winding Sheet.]
The deracinated or other-culturally assimilated character is probably as old as literature itself. The element appears frequently in stories from oral tradition, from ancient days with, for example, Enkidu in the Sumero-Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, the Roman Romulus, Remus, and Aeneas, the Greek Oedipus, and, from much later times, with the English Robin Hood, to name just a few. In fiction, the aspect occurs widely with emigration and pioneer novels, slave and captivity narratives, and accounts of abandoned or kidnaped children. Perhaps most famous of all, the story of Mowgli revolves around it. More pertinently, it forms the crux of Jill Paton Walsh's Phoenix Award-winning A Chance Child and of her most often honored book, The Emperor's Winding Sheet, a solidly conceived historical fiction about the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.
Displacement followed by acculturation is an advantageous literary tool, since it produces a more fully fleshed and convincing protagonist than the bystander-narrator or observer-reporter types. The result, as can be seen in The Emperor's Winding Sheet, is a more effectively realized plot. The author also has greater latitude for commenting on the social and political milieu.
Piers Barber, an English boy of eleven or twelve on a ship from Bristow, is captured by Turkish pirates and so horribly mistreated that his conscious mind rejects the memory. After somehow surviving the ordeal and making his way over the Taygetus Mountains, he becomes by chance an unwilling member of the imperial household, tied to emperor Constantine as the ruler's Vrethiki, or lucky find, a sort of human protective talisman, whose presence the Emperor requires to mollify his superstitious people and solidify his position. Thus party to the city's traumatic last days, by default one of its greatly outnumbered defenders, the once unhappy outsider becomes a dedicated insider and the vehicle by which the novel's socio-political commentary is revealed.
As this story of character as well as of incident unfolds, Vrethiki's perception of events fades in and out as though he were viewing this alien world of "fantastical foreigners" (11), as he thinks of them, through binoculars at times in adjustment and at others out of alignment. Since he does not know the language, Greek, he can understand speech only when Latin is used, except for the few occasions when he associates with English mercenaries. When things are linguistically out of focus, so to speak, he relies on observation, body language, and his reason.
Vrethiki and the reader also gain insights into matters when the boy, isolated as he is, reminisces about or recollects the life he left behind, experiences that are sometimes unpleasant, as are those he currently undergoes, and that counterpoint the current ones. All was not well at home either. Some critics and reviewers have complained about Paton Walsh's uses of conversation to convey background information about the Turko-East Roman situation, but since the point of view is the boy's in limited third person, the information transmitted is reasonably obtained and plausible and sets events, characters, and themes in greater relief. The screening produced by the linguistic problem enhances the displacement and deracination.
Homesick, feeble with hunger, afraid, Vrethiki sullenly nurses his anger against the Emperor, of course ignorant of what the discerning reader sees—that the cruelty with which the Turks have treated him foreshadows what will happen to the city. Gradually and grudgingly, he accepts the city and the people as his own. Given the opportunity during the siege to leave on a ship, he refuses, having come to admire the man whom first he regards as a cruel captor but later serves with willing devotion, his acculturation complete. At the end, on his way home, he knows that inside he is a different person, that he will be able to explain to his mother only with difficulty what his life has been like, and that his native tongue will fall haltingly from his lips, so complete has his acculturation been. Language, then, is again symbolic of displacement and assimilation.
Not unexpectedly in this polyglot city, Vrethiki associates with central characters who are also in varying degrees displaced and acculturated and who like him illuminate themes. Literally displaced like Vrethiki, but of his own volition, is John Inglis, the English captain of the Emperor's Varangian Guard, an elite fighting force made up of mercenaries from many nationalities.
From John, Vrethiki learns the stark political and military realities and is introduced to a certain moral code as well. Astute politically and militarily and free with his tongue, John readily acquaints the boy with his opinions of both East Romans and Turks. He is well aware of the tremendous odds that face the East Romans as the siege advances. Displaced but never assimilated, John can leave the Emperor's service if his wishes, unlike Vrethiki, but he has promised to serve the Emperor, whose cause he sees as morally right, and when the city falls, he will go down with it. Because Vrethiki is displaced, he is drawn to John, whose language enables him to understand more of what is going on and whose brash, objective nature helps the boy accommodate somewhat to circumstances. Instead of prolonging the displacement, the association between the two ironically accelerates Vrethiki's assimilation.
The given name of Stephanos Bulgaricos means "crown" in Greek; he becomes a kind of king in the boy's eyes. Stephanos is the eunuch of the emperor's bedchamber and the ruler's loyal slave. Since Stephanos knows Latin as well as Greek, Vrethiki can converse with him from the beginning and from the plump, shrewd, smooth-faced attendant, Vrethiki learns much of the historical background and the significance of what is happening at court. Separated not only from his native culture but from a man's usual life, Stephanos represents the ultimate in acculturation, of acceptance and dedication to a new environment.
In one of the last bombardments, Stephanos throws himself in front of the Emperor, taking the cannon shot intended for his master. Vrethiki can barely comprehend the fact of his friend's death, so great is his personal loss. Realizing that the Emperor needs someone to do the personal and morally supportive things for him that Stephanos has long done, the boy willingly takes the eunuch's place, an action that represents the final phase of his assimilation. Vrethiki realizes that his fate is now irrevocably linked to that of the Emperor and the city and is reconciled to it.
Justiniani Longo, a Genoese soldier of fortune who becomes commander of the land walls and whose capability and valor are respected even by his city's traditional rivals, the Venetians, is the figure Vrethiki most admires as the epitome of valor and soldierliness. The boy gratefully and proudly accepts the gift of a dagger from his hero. Frank and outspoken, Justiniani warns the defenders that they cannot expect help from Venice, the Pope, or his own city. When, however, wounded at a critical point in the final siege, Justiniani wishes to reenter the city for treatment and the Emperor begs him to stay at his post as an example for the other men, the boy contemptuously throws the dagger at Justiniani's feet. As it happens, the door through which Justiniani returns to the city is left open, and the Turks enter and overrun the place. Later, having survived the sack by hiding in a dry well, Vrethiki is picked up by Justiniani's ship, and the man expresses regret for his behavior. Justiniani remains displaced to the end. He avoids the sack but dies ignominiously of his wounds.
Pivotal to the story is the Emperor Constantine, who has not come to the throne by choice and seems as mixed a combination of character traits as his city is of nationalities, classes, and occupations. The reader sees the ruler as cruel, inept at exploiting realities, lacking in good political and social sense, and unable or unwilling to make expedient decisions. He is also seen as exceptionally kind to his servants, fair in settling quarrels, pious to a fault, generous, and especially gentle to the common people, the lowly, and the humble. He seems on the whole to be a good man and worthy soldier, a man of action, but a ruler of dubious quality. He refuses to leave the doomed city, although urged by his nobles, and repeats a saying that, if he must die, the empire will make a splendid winding sheet, a sadly ironic prediction.
The novel is, of course, bound by the tragic facts of history. Constantinople fell; Constantine died in battle; the Turks sacked the place; many people died—all this is history. It is axiomatic that writers of historical fiction not alter fundamental historical happenings. They may not change history, however much they might like. They may, however, and I believe should, since they are fashioning fiction, manage events and characters in such ways as to comment implicitly on the period and happenings. This Paton Walsh has accomplished, and with great skill.
Through the characters, those whom the readers know will become the victims of historical circumstances, the novel exposes the ugliness of the times, the falsity of heroics, the brutality and wastefulness of war and its futility as a problem-solving mechanism, and the perversity of organized religion, particularly as controlled by unscrupulous and self-promoting leaders. Vrethiki has had a hard life in spite of his few years, but he has not been corrupted, and his essential innocence serves as the standard for judging the period as presented. His interactions with the other figures bring out the importance of compassion in a cruel, warhardened world.
For many, the Emperor Constantine is the most memorable and admirable figure in the book. Tragically, he has the power to affect events for the better but fails to use it. Well aware of the tremendous odds facing the city, he refuses to leave when urged by his nobles, or to consider the Sultan's terms of surrender. Either course might have saved lives, and the former might have saved his own as well. He chooses to die, and with that choice, to doom many others with him. It is hard not to see his behavior as anything but empty heroics.
John Inglis's "for the hell of it" approach to life and declaration of the rightness of cause do nothing to make things better. His actions merely expose the emptiness of more seemingly heroic but essentially vain behavior. Justiniani's actions also underscore the falsity of bravado.
Stephanos, who is despised by the fighting men as no man at all, who seems to see in the boy the son he can never have, who is powerless to affect events and yet not free to leave, who reaches out to hold Vrethiki's hand during the boy's nightmares—Stephanos is the most generous and giving figure in the novel, and hence the most admirable. The boy, loving the emperor and not wanting him to be degraded in death, removes from the lifeless body the purple shoes that mark him as the emperor. Together with Stephanos's action, these are two small but significant signs of basic human compassion in the midst of the inhumanity of the war.
While these figures serve variously as windows to the period, ultimately it is Vrethiki, the reluctant outsider become insider, who is the mechanism by which the reader assesses the social institutions of religion, here presented as pretentious and politically entangled, and of war.
The book shocks and startles with views of the city just before the fall. The metropolis is decaying, and with it the eastern empire. This youth, who often cannot understand what is being said, apprehends what is happening through sensibilities that are less biased, even when he is sullen and resentful. Through him the reader sees a city devastated by the Crusaders, the wretched hovels, the lusterless palace, the patched garments and faded vestments, deliberately maimed malefactors, the degradation that results when human life has no value, and as the siege wears on, the lack of the most basic of items to sustain life. There is an ironic facade of elegance, and a pretense of power and glory persists.
Through Vrethiki, the reader sees the bitter infighting and intrigue at court and among those from outside the court, for example, Genoese and Venetians, who jockey for power and strike postures, as though the war were merely a game of sport. Through Vrethiki, the reader perceives the utter wastefulness and horror of the conflict—sees thousands die, both Turks and East Roman partisans, the torture and impalements of living men, the ships laid waste; smells the piles of rotting bodies, the stench of sweat and excrement; hears the ceaselessly pounding guns and the cries of the wounded, the terrified, and the hungry—for a cause never fully comprehended by the boy nor by the reader. The reader wonders: Could any cause justify such utter waste of life and resources?
Pointing up the seeming waste of the conflict, and setting it in ghastly relief, is the boy's vague comprehension that the emperor is caught over what seems a minuscule matter of religious belief. The emperor has refused to sign a version of the Christian creed that contains the work "Filioque," one word in Latin, four short words in English (the phrase indicates that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father). Unless he signs the creed containing that word, Constantine cannot expect help from the Pope, the ruler of the western arm of the Christian Church. The emperor's religious advisers are divided over the matter and vie for support among the people and the court, like populist politicians bullheadedly pushing their opinions without compromise or regard to the total picture, self-righteously adamant in the name of God as they view God. And how much can Constantine do with fewer than 10,000 men, limited firepower, and a starving populace in a city politically and religiously divided, where tongues wag to convey strategic secrets, the walls seem porous beyond belief, and the siege and bombardment last fifty-seven days? A thinking reader cannot help but wonder at the irrationality of the situation. Such petty rivalries and posturing for power persist to the very end.
The book is uncompromising in its presentation of the war, which is so vividly depicted it becomes almost a character in its own right, of the shallowness and selfishness of the leaders, and of the apparent ethic of the age. Paton Walsh indicts a cruel period in a powerful story that touches both emotions and intellect. What she says transcends didacticism, imparts wisdom, and awakens compassion. The author manages this by allying the reader with the brutalized but never degraded boy, displaced from home and family, incorporated into another world with no immediate hope of ever returning home, but who, when beyond all expectation he does return, goes back bearing one faded purple slipper—the symbol of one young man's compassion for the unfortunate, misguided, misused master whom he has come to love, and with it hope for a better future, one in which compassion, not greed and vanity, rules.
Those of us who teach literature have for years lamented how little history our students know, have begrudged the time spent teaching the facts of the past so that our students can understand the stories we are examining. We long for better-prepared students, ones who are ready to engage in proper literary study, whatever that is. Yet what better way to learn history, and at the same time to consider ourselves and our own day with greater insights and broadened perspectives than through historical fictions such as this one? The Emperor's Winding Sheet is a powerful novel that puts the facts of past times in a human context to which we can all relate and refracts them through a prism of many years. Living with Vrethiki and his unfortunate situation brings home the Fall of Constantinople with unrelenting realism. The thinker George Santayana said, in A Sense of Beauty (1896), and I paraphrase, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat its mistakes. Books of the nature and stature of The Emperor's Winding Sheet might help to keep that sad eventuality from occurring.
Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (review date 1977)
SOURCE: Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of Unleaving, by Jill Paton Walsh. In More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, pp. 453-55. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977.
[In the following review, Baskin and Harris criticize the lack of sensitivity towards the handicapped in Paton Walsh's Unleaving, commenting that, "[s]uch callousness toward disabled persons is, fortunately, unique in contemporary adolescent fiction."]
Madge Fielding inherited Goldengrove, her grandmother's home by the sea [in Unleaving ]. She is persuaded to rent it for the summer to a philosophy professor and his students, who intend to use it as a retreat where they will combine seminars and recreation. Professor and Mrs. Tregeagle arrive, accompanied by Patrick, their adolescent son, and their young daughter, Molly. As their youthful hostess prepares to greet them,
the child looks up. Its face is very ruddy, with almond-shaped pale blue eyes and hardly any lashes. It smiles, and as it does so the smile fills with spittle, which overflows and oozes down its chin. The eyes swim inward into a squint. Madge sickens for an instant, then realizes, then covers up and steadies her smile.
Patrick does not bother to conceal his contempt for his father's endless philosophical jousting. The professor considers his son's musical interest trivial, observing with asperity that the boy prefers the romantic Chopin to the more intellectual Bach. He comments, with bitter resignation, that the main focus of his life, the refinement of thinking, is beyond the ability of his younger child and outside the interest of the other.
When Molly wanders off, momentarily unwatched, the household begins an anxious search. She is found sleeping among the rocks, oblivious to the pandemonium she has caused. Soon after, her father confides to a friend: "You know, Hugh, quite a lot of time I wish she were dead. All the time. It seems the only way out for any of us. Have you seen an adult mongol? Or the kind of home we could put her in when she gets too much for us?" Then he recalls, with some surprise, the anguish he felt when she was lost.
Madge is alternately interested, confused, and repelled by the endless metaphysical discussions that overflow her home. One of the students engages her brother, Paul, and Patrick in an impromptu exploration of the moral dilemmas concerning means and ends. Patrick, to Madge's horror, proposes they consider the behavior of the doctor who cured Molly when he could have easily let her die—an outcome Patrick asserts would have been preferable. He is then challenged to consider whether some acts are unequivocably morally wrong: "Is there anything we must not do, regardless of the consequences? Are there absolute moral values?" It is a proposition the boy rejects.
To mock his father, Patrick teaches Molly to recite "Cogito ergo sum," which she articulates during an argument on the primacy of intellect just after Professor Tregeagle has asked his students to consider Wittgenstein's observation that "the human body is the perfect image of the human soul." While the assembled group tries to cover its embarrassment, Molly is led off by her brother to search for flowers. Madge, worried about her new friend's state of mind, persuades Paul to help look for him. They finally catch sight of them just as Molly tumbles over the edge of the cliff, falling into the turbulent sea below. Paul assumes that Patrick reached out too late to save his sister, but Madge realizes that the boy deliberately pushed Molly to her death. Help is summoned and a boat launched in the choppy waters to recover the body. One of the men, known to the three youngsters, drowns—and Patrick is horrified at this unintended consequence of his act. He is wracked by feelings of guilt and despair, comforted at last by Madge's assertion that she knows what he has done and, despite this knowledge, loves him. Mrs. Tregeagle grieves for three days, "But then she is tranquil, and more than tranquil … she is slowly unfurling like a florist's rose freed from cellophane. She is more herself—well, more like somebody…. A great burden has rolled from her, and the future no longer hangs over her like death."
Interwoven within the main narrative is a parallel tale of Madge as an old woman, surrounded by her grandchildren. She reflects with satisfaction on her past and particularly her years as Patrick's wife.
Analysis: Molly is first introduced by the impersonal pronoun "it." Her demeanor and behavior are repellent, inspiring disgust in strangers, malicious imitation in children, guilt and hopelessness in her family. The child's very existence calls into question her father's obsessive rationality and mocks his passionately pursued petty arguments. Ironically, only Patrick seems to feel any deep affection, but this is mixed with pity, anger, and finally despair. Molly's family wishes her dead—for her sake and theirs. Her life is a burden to them, and they cannot refrain from gloomily speculating on her inevitably bleak future. Mrs. Tregeagle, at last relieved of responsibility, recovers quickly from her daughter's death. She grieved, "but grieving for Molly is a good deal easier than living with the thought of her there forever." Patrick is filled with guilt over the unexpected, unplanned death of the man who tried to recover his sister's body. Madge tries to help him put aside his feeling: "You didn't mean to hurt Jeremy…. And people usually feel guilty only about what they meant, don't they?"
The narrative never suggests that there is anything admirable, likable, or even tolerable about the retarded child. Her murder is important because of its impact on others; tragic because a more valuable life was lost in its aftermath. Patrick's guilt is quickly assuaged, and judging from the serenity of Madge's later life, she has hardly been haunted by feelings of remorse. The defining of a human life in terms of its inconvenience to others and the rationalizing of a killing as an acceptable means to obviate a painful future reflect an offensive, inhumane, intolerable value system. Such callousness toward disabled persons is, fortunately, unique in contemporary adolescent fiction.
Millicent Lenz (essay date winter 1988)
SOURCE: Lenz, Millicent. "Through Blight to Bliss: Jill Paton Walsh's Unleaving." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 13, no. 4 (winter 1988): 194-97.
[In the following essay, Lenz explores Paton Walsh's usage of love and relationships in Unleaving by concentrating on four thematic motifs present throughout the text.]
Unleaving, Jill Paton Walsh's novel for young adults, is rich in its presentation of psychological and spiritual growth, as seen in the heroine's progress from sensitive child to wise, warm, life-embracing grandmother. Paton Walsh exhibits remarkable artistry in weaving together certain thematic motifs to highlight Madge's growth towards a holistic vision of life's beauty and joy set against its harsher realities. My concern will be to illuminate these motifs as they signify Madge's progress through the blights and limitations of the human condition towards a celebratory vision of life, of the sheer bliss of being.
The first blight in Madge's life is the fact of her family's being broken by divorce. As Paton Walsh's earlier book Goldengrove relates, Madge has been brought up by her mother and a stepfather; her "cousin" Paul—revealed to be in truth her brother—has been raised by their father and his second wife. Madge's deepest sense of family has come from her grandmother, who has bequeathed to Madge her home by the sea, Goldengrove. Unleaving, the sequel to Goldengrove, tells of the summer when Madge returns to bury her grandmother and is drawn into a tragedy and a romance that shape her subsequent life. During the summer of Unleaving, Madge discovers the meaning of love and commitment, experiences the loss of innocence, and—through flash-forwards to the time when she is herself a grandmother, gives expression to a mature vision of the value of life.
Unleaving is remarkable in a number of respects—its highly vivid, metaphorical language, its allusive quality, and the author's artful handling of time. The title alludes to Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child," with its opening "Margaret are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?" and it sets the stage for the book's revelation of the paradoxical truth that we mourn our own mortality in our grief for the deaths of others: "It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for" (Hopkins 94). The story encompasses Madge's life-span, reflecting back to the times when she came to Goldengrove as a baby, and flowing forward to the time when she is herself "Gran" to a beguiling set of youngsters.
The book relates the events of the particular summer when Madge returns to take possession of Goldengrove, which she has agreed to share with two philosophy professors, their families, and their students who are here for a "reading party." Through coming to know the Tregeagles, a troubled, star-crossed family, Madge becomes aware of the pains of human connectedness, the sometimes sorrowful inadequacies of human relationships. Through her dawning love of Patrick Tregeagle, she also becomes aware of the mixed joys and complexities of love. She is initiated, one might say, into the consciousness of what the Romans called the lacrimae rerum, the undercurrent of pathos present in all of life. The ultimate vision of life presented in the book, however, goes beyond this, as shall be seen.
The events of the novel may be briefly summarized. Madge quickly perceives Professor Tregeagle's lack of empathy for his four-year-old daughter Molly, a victim of Downs' syndrome. He values intellect above all else and cannot bear to face the emotions that hover around his severely retarded daughter, whom he perceives as an embarrassment and a burden. Patrick Tregeagle, Molly's brother and Madge's contemporary in age, feels a frustrated empathy for Molly mingled with fear for her future and shame over his father's lack of sensitivity to her feelings. The other children, with the cruelty of childhood, taunt Molly and exclude her from their play, to Patrick's torment. Madge shows kindness to Molly, and nurtures a bittersweet love for Patrick (against the warnings of her brother Paul, who fears Patrick will bring her no happiness). It is Madge who keeps Patrick from despair and possibly madness after he does or does not—his responsibility is left open to interpretation—bring about Molly's death in a fall from a cliff into the rugged sea below. Patrick must also live with guilt over the drowning of Jeremy—a retired sailor and life-long friend of Madge and her brother—when Jeremy falls from the lifeboat while attempting to retrieve Molly's body.
The fluidity of narrative time in the book, with flashes between the summer of Madge's grandmother's death and a summer years later when she herself is "Gran," has the effect of blurring the identities of the two Grans—Madge's grandmother and Madge herself. Only at the end of the book does the text confirm the Gran/Madge identity, which serves artistically to establish continuity and a sense of family bonding that transcends time and death. Madge, whom we have known primarily as a teenager quivering on the brink of adulthood, is suddenly revealed to us as a wise and spirited grandmother. In her grandchildren, she sees tracings of her young self as well as echoes of her now-dead husband Patrick. Subtly, Paton Walsh establishes a kinship that transcends the intervening years and their losses, and makes it possible for Gran/Madge to speak from the perspective of a lifetime rich in experiences. Throughout the book Paton Walsh has woven into the narrative a keen sense of the interrelatedness of "now" and timelessness, as in the passage early in the text where Gran/Madge sees rain as "an element of eternity, showing in its brilliant light-catching instant of fall the eternal aspect of the momentary now." She meditates on the paradox of the "immortal brevity" sensed in privileged moments of our lives, recalling Traherne's image of "orient and immortal wheat, which knew no seed and yet no harvest time" (Unleaving 70-71).
There is a quality to Madge's love for Patrick that partakes, at least superficially, of perhaps too much self-sacrifice. Madge's willingness to entwine her life with Patrick's, knowing full well (as clear-eyed Paul sees) that she offers him more in the way of emotional support than he will give her in return, is open to question. Patrick does nevertheless enrich her life experience by drawing her with him into what one might call, applying traditional religious terms, the dark night of the soul. Without such a descent to the spiritual depths, Madge would remain, in William Blake's paradigm, in a kind of spiritual infancy, the period of "single vision" that cannot see into the essence of things. Through her love for Patrick, Madge shares in his guilt. She reflects, after she lies to protect him, "Patrick is a murderer, and I am his next of kin" (116). The text leaves Patrick's culpability in Molly's death unresolved (even he is not sure whether he precipitated her fall or tried to prevent it). What can be established is Madge's ability to see Patrick (‘murderer’ or not) as lovable. She reflects back to him a vision of himself as loved; he gives to her a recognition of her own capacity to see into the beauty deep within things that may appear unlovely to a more superficial eye. Paton Walsh portrays this capacity to see the beauty in the seemingly unlovable as essential to self-forgetting love (e.g. Patrick's love for Molly, which sees beyond her "clumsy gait" and "dribble"). Ultimately the novel affirms this kind of beauty-perceiving vision as the basis for love of creation itself on a cosmic scale: this vision comes to Gran/Madge towards the end of her life.
As for loving human relationships within the context of family, Paton Walsh poses and answers these questions in the novel: (1) What is the nature of love and what does a loving relationship entail? (2) How can a person find meaning and joy in life, given the inevitability of pain and death? Madge's grandson Peter puts it more colorfully: "‘Gran, you see, first we grow up and have a lot of worries. And then we die, and I don't see the point’" (138). The answers lie to some extent in direct statements made by several characters, but several key thematic motifs carry much of the weight of the meanings Gran/Madge brings to expression. I will center my discussion on four basic images and thematic motifs that I find especially significant: first, the Lifeboat in the Storm; second, the Web; third, the Secret Self; and fourth, Singing. I shall relate these motifs to statements made through characters to arrive at a number of conclusions about Paton Walsh's views on love and life.
The Lifeboat is introduced early in the book, when the funeral procession for Madge's Gran is interrupted by the bell signalling seafarers in distress. A number of the pallbearers, members of the lifeboat rescue squad, set down the casket and rush to offer aid, leaving the others to see Gran's remains safely to the grave. The implications are evident: saving life takes priority over attending to the dead, and the endangered lives at sea can be saved only through risk of other lives. It is largely through Jeremy, the seasoned old sailor, that this theme is further developed; Jeremy, who fears drowning more than any other fate, cannot refuse help when the bell tolls. His fear foreshadows his eventual fate, for it is his life that the sea claims in exchange for giving up Molly's corpse. So it seems, at any rate, to Madge and Paul, for whom Jeremy has been a mentor and father figure.
Throughout the book the repeated images of the child lost to the sea or stolen by Merfolk have a dual function: they foreshadow Molly's fate, and they also show by contrast the pity and terror of being torn away from the human family. Jeremy prefaces his story of Matthew Trewhella with a warning to Madge not to sing near the sea, for the Merrymaid steals human children with sweet voices and forces them to sing "below the waves" (54). While Madge combs through books of folklore to find the derivation of Patrick's last name, "Tregeagle," she encounters the story of the Lady with the Lantern, "looking all night among the wavewashed rocks for her shipwrecked child" (38). In a flash-forward to the "present" of Gran/Madge, her son-in-law Tom reads the pathetic newspaper story of a child lost through a fall down a mine shaft. All of these lost-child images stand in contrast to the Lifeboat as an image of the interrelatedness of human lives.
Similarly, Patrick's ambivalent thoughts on the occupation of a lighthouse keeper underscore the tension between human apartness and connectedness. He knows lighthouse-keeping would be a lonely life, yet it would have purpose: "One would keep a light that other men find their way by" (79). In direct contrast to Patrick's felt need for relatedness is the aloofness of Andrew, another student in the reading party. Andrew says at one point, "I prefer to climb alone … One can concentrate better. One has only oneself to worry about … you can stop when you feel like it" (49). The barrenness of his "go-it-alone" approach to life is brought out late in the book when he reappears as a philosophy professor who cherishes the memory of one summer when life seemed to offer something more than chilly intellectual self-absorption. Andrew is cut from the same cloth as Professor Tregeagle.
The images and characters thus far described underscore the thematic contrast between life-sustaining relationship and life-threatening isolation. The Lifeboat is a primary image of human relatedness and interdependence.
The Web (or Net) relates closely to the Lifeboat, though it has certain more negative connotations. It enters the story as an important image when Patrick throws a torn fishing net over Madge, exclaiming, "I fish for survival. And I've got her tangled" (77). The implications of the relationship he thus defines are, clearly, more positive for Patrick (his life will be saved by the Net) than for Madge (she is restrained by it). Yet the two seem fatefully to complement each other, as in Paton Walsh's description of their polar views on life: Patrick cannot see the glorious aspect of life, whereas Madge cannot (yet) see its misery. They successfully illuminate each other's blind spots, each supplying the vision the other lacks.
The Secret Self is another major motif, growing out of Patrick's recognition of a truth about his parents' relationship. As Patrick and Madge commiserate over the prospect of becoming adults and puzzle about how adult life could possibly be bearable, Patrick observes that there is a "secret consolation" in adult life: "The lucky ones have love for someone. And it makes a private world nobody else can see at all. Then they're all right." He believes his father, by loving his mother and seeing in her "a carefree pretty person"—not just a drudge whose life is ground down by the frustrations of caring for Molly—"makes her a kind of secret self, to be for him … whatever she may have to be for anybody else" (87). This is Patrick's perception of the identity-affirming and transforming aspect of love. Madge elaborates on his idea, saying she believes real happiness means having "one's favorite self, the person one most likes to be, loved by someone." But Patrick corrects one's "favorite" self to one's "nearest self—the self one truly is." Further, he says, one cannot be loved by just "any" person; it takes "a special person" to value and bring to life this true Secret Self.
Madge realizes, with an astuteness beyond her years, that to be loved like this, by someone with the intensity of Patrick, is not all joy. She feels discomfort over Patrick's "churned-up" nature, his tendency to fuss about things: "everything matters too much to him. But then everything includes me—I feel that I matter too. He pays such searchlight attention to one" (64). She decides such "searchlight attention" is nonetheless preferable to the chill engendered by Andrew—even though Andrew is better-looking! Better too intense an attention, she decides, than so much sang-froid.
The final motif of Singing brings together a complex of meanings from the entire book. It is interwoven with Gran/Madge's thoughts on immortality and the meaning of life, triggered by her grandson Peter's puzzlement about death, and his blunt question, will she "mind" dying? Unruffled, she replies, "I shouldn't think so, dear … It isn't our own death that troubles us. We have enough to do surviving other people's" (138). A chain of associated memories arises before her mind's eye, and she remembers being twice unshakably convinced of the soul's immortality—both times in the presence of death, first during her vigil at the coffin of Gran, then seeing Patrick dead. "It's an odd thing, but it's not the romantic opinion about the departing soul that is shaken in the actual presence of death;" rather, "in the actual presence of death it is the rational belief in mortality that is shattered" (136).
Yet it is not an intuition of immortality that gives life "point" in Gran/Madge's view. Rather, as she explains to Peter, life's meaning is found in "things on the way"—small experiences to be treasured, fragments to be shored against our ruin—such as her memory of Patrick asleep beside her "in rumpled sheets, every muscle in his body slack, and on his face that shining serenity that never came to him awake" (139). Her intuition of the part she plays in his serenity is one of the "things on the way" that give "point" to her life. She does not try to explain this to Peter, who translates "things on the way" into terms he can understand—"birthdays," times that to his youthful imagination correspond with his grandmother's exclamation: "What shall we clap? … The lifeboat in the storm. What shall we sing? The beauty of the world!" (140). Gran/Madge, like William Butler Yeats, is sailing to her own city of Byzantium. The soul, however tattered its mortal dress, rejoices in its aliveness to the wonders of existence itself. This apprehension of the wonder and beauty of all creation becomes, finally, the basis for the connectedness of all humankind, and the underlying source of all love. Unleaving culminates in Gran/Madge's personal "Ode to Joy." Madge, like the tree that moves Hopkins' Margaret to tears, has gone though the process of unleaving—the process by which life pares one down to the essentials of being. Madge is fortunate to have the clarity of vision to see much to celebrate in life so simplified. She rejoices in what Hopkins would call "the dearest freshness deep down things," the "pied beauty" of things in their infinite variety (Hopkins 70, 74).
Gardner, W. H., ed. Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.
Walsh, Jill Paton. Goldengrove. London: Macmillan, 1972.
———. Unleaving. New York: Avon, 1977 (1976).
A CHANCE CHILD (1978)
Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (review date 1977)
SOURCE: Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of A Chance Child, by Jill Paton Walsh. In More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, pp. 452-53. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977.
[In the following review, Baskin and Harris offer a mixed critical assessment of A Chance Child, arguing that the novel "is only moderately successful."]
A child, known only as "Creep," escapes from the closet where his ashamed and neglectful mother has hidden him, seeking refuge in a boat that journeys back through time to the Industrial Revolution [in A Chance Child ]. He pulls to shore near a coal mine, where he rescues Tom, a young coal carrier who is regularly beaten by the miner for whom he works. The two youngsters drift down the canal, returning to land near a forge. Tom finds temporary work at a bellows, replacing a girl named Blackie, who then works on the anvil. One side of the girl's face had been badly burned when she fell into the fire: "A huge crinkled pink and black scar lay across her visage; her mouth was pulled crooked at the corner, her eye was drawn tight and half shut, and her eyelashes were gone."
In the meantime, Creep's brother, Christopher, has started to search for him, accompanied intermittently and reluctantly by his weary younger sister, who, echoing their mother's sentiments, sometimes feels it would be best if the missing youth were never found.
Tom finds the labor at the forge exhausting and the treatment no improvement over what he just escaped, so the boys, now accompanied by Blackie, continue their odyssey. The girl envisions a permanent future with Tom, but he tells her: "I'm not going to marry thee, Blackie…. Doubt if anyone'll marry thee; but I know I won't." He later explains to Creep: "When I get a girl … she'll have a lovely kind face." Creep moves wraithlike among people, unseen by them, never eating, and surreptitiously helping his friends. There is work for the other two at a pottery yard, but when Tom breaks some plates, he is peremptorily fired. Blackie, loyal to her new friend, quits her job to return to the boat. Tom locates work once again in a mine, and the others sail on without him to a mill town. Hungry and desolate, Blackie insists she look for employment immediately and is taken on in the deafeningly noisy spinning room. Cotton lint fills the air and the lungs of the weary, ill-used laborers. Many children are employed to help keep the insatiable machines turning at full speed. Creep slips in, unnoticed as usual. Although beatings are common, one youngster is abused more than the others. After a particularly brutal whipping, the victim's outraged mother appears and sets upon her son's overseer. As she forces the big man to retreat before her blows, Creep begins to laugh, leading a wave of sound that sweeps through the room. With this, he takes on substance and is seen for the first time by the other factory hands.
Christopher's tenacious search leads him finally to the library, where he pores over rare old volumes containing interviews collected by commissions investigating working conditions in England during the Industrial Revolution. He comes across an account by a Nathaniel Creep, who reports he was injured working on the canals: "I fell beneath a barrow and had my hip and my back broken. They got a doctor for me after three days, but he could do nothing for me. The other men put a hat round for me, and got up a guinea to support me. From the day of this accident I have needed a crutch and stick." Creep worked thereafter for a printer and returned to the mill town to marry Blackie. Christopher is convinced that this is his half-brother's true story.
Analysis: Walsh's attempt to explore the evils of child labor through a time-travel fantasy is only moderately successful. The abrupt moves from one vignette to another and the use of an elusive, insubstantial central character have a distracting rather than a unifying effect. Although hampered by a slow and confusing opening, the story gathers momentum, plunging tenacious readers into scenes that are vivid and gripping. The judicious employment of eloquent primary source material, the juxtaposition of varying language patterns, and the vivid evocation of oppressive working conditions of the period all contribute to make setting the most powerful element in this literate and demanding novel. The permanent injuries suffered by the two children were not unusual penalties paid by exploited youth during the nineteenth century. In this novel, the importance and function of the two disabled youngsters are primarily symbolic, as they give visible form to the iniquities of a system that exploited children.
Anita Tarr (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Tarr, Anita. "Jill Paton Walsh's A Chance Child and the Invisible Children of the Twentieth Century." In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1995-1999, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 159-63. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001.
[In the following essay, Tarr focuses on Paton Walsh's characterization of Creep in A Chance Child and how his invisibility and subsequent manifestation are indicative of the author's desire to draw attention to the often-unheralded working class of the Industrial Revolution.]
Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century subtly brings to the forefront the vileness of our own century by telling the fascinating stories of events that touch on Enguerrand de Coucy VII of France, "last of a great dynasty and ‘the most experienced and skillful of all the knights of France’" (xv). In Tuchman we are told about the cavalier acts of violence perpetrated by knights and soldiers, the decimation of the population by the Black Death, the foolhardiness of kings and knights in their effort to take more land and wield more power. By reading about the fourteenth century, we are better able to see in our own twentieth century the calamitous acts of violence, which are becoming increasingly cavalier, our own ravages of bacterial and viral plagues, and our own many wars, big and small, that change borders, only to be changed again by a new war. When reading Tuchman's book, we see our own century's problems reflected; we can only wonder what happened to the so-called progress humans have made in the last 600 years.
Similarly, Jill Paton Walsh's A Chance Child is a painful look at the plight of children in the twentieth century, brought about through her unflinching portrait of child labor in the early nineteenth century. An illegitimate child, with no other name than Creep, the "chance child" has been kept locked in a cupboard under the stairs, fed only scraps of food by his half-brother and sister. He is a victim of neglect and physical and emotional abuse. The social service agencies do not even know of his existence; for all purposes, he is invisible. He does know how to escape when the opportunity presents itself, although he has nowhere to go. Happening upon a small boat on a canal, seemingly with a mind of its own, he is led backwards in time to the Industrial Revolution. Along this canal follows Creep's brother, Christopher, tracing Creep's route, but never finding him, because they are separated by 150 years of time. The fetid water of the canal, reflecting both the fire and soot of the factories and the still hopeful green leaves, is presented as "a mirror world" (12), so that present-day time and the time of the Industrial Revolution are mirrored images of each other.
On his journey on the canal, Creep meets two other children. They travel from workplace to place, enduring long hours, hunger, physical hardship, and abuse. Creep's life is not much different from his life in the twentieth century, for he is still invisible to all but other children, although now he has friends. He never eats and only occasionally smiles. Finally, in a cotton mill, he laughs; a young boy has been beaten savagely by the overseer, and when the boy's mother pushes her way into the factory and begins beating the overseer herself, Creep laughs at the sight and suddenly has corporeal being. He is no longer invisible. Years later, after being disabled (he broke his back and hip during work), he educates himself, becomes a printer's apprentice, and leaves a written record of his life. His brother, Christopher, eventually finds this and knows that his brother born in the twentieth century, abused and neglected, found a better life in the nineteenth century, as a man with a purpose who is loved by his wife and family.
By presenting the early nineteenth century as a mirror world of our late twentieth century, Paton Walsh comments most cynically on the role of children as victims. The Industrial Revolution, though supposedly providing better goods at cheaper prices, also solidified class hierarchies. Children, the ultimate minority, are at the bottom of the hierarchy, and thus receive the blows from the many others who stand over them: the factory owner oppresses the manager, who oppresses the overseer, who oppresses the adult worker, who beats the child laborers. The children are beaten for not working hard enough, or beaten by their own parents so they will not fall asleep and fall into the machinery. They are easily replaced by other starving children, eager to work for bread. These children are expendable, virtually invisible to society. During his time in the twentieth century, Creep, living under the stairs, is also invisible. Creep and his half-brother and sister have been abandoned by their father, so their mother takes out her anger on Creep, the result of adultery, by starving and abusing him into a skeleton of his existence. Creep does not become real until he escapes into the nineteenth century and witnesses a child's mother striking back at an overseer; this is an act of an uprising of the lower class. As an adult Creep continues this class rebellion by educating himself and promoting the rights of all people.
If Creep is an extreme case of a child of the twentieth century, his half-brother, Christopher, is more typical; he, too, in effect is invisible. Dependent upon social services, except for Creep, the family is poor but clean. But because they are poor, Paton Walsh states plainly that Christopher is receiving an inferior education, being treated as if he is stupid. Desperate to find out about Creep, Christopher must travel to a school reserved for the upper class to talk with a history teacher, who instructs him on how to find old parish papers in the public library that might include information about a common laborer of 150 years ago. The teacher tells Christopher not to be intimidated by the impressive appearance of the library: "‘You've a right to read there.’" (124). Nevertheless, when he enters the library and makes his request, the librarians distrust him. Because he is obviously poor, they assume he is dirty: "‘Are your hands clean?’" they ask him. When Christopher finally discovers Creep's—now Nathaniel Creep's—brief autobiography he is elated, not just because he knows the end of Creep's story, and it is a happy one, but because Creep, though abused and disabled, has left his mark on history. A common laborer, he has not risen to prominence in society, but he has nonetheless made an impression. Nor only has he inscribed his name on a bridge that is still visible to Christopher, but he has left his printed record, his own words in his own voice—both are timeless and ageless messages to anyone who cares to look for them: I was alive and I mattered.
Because Paton Walsh has told a story of children, and poor children at that, she has taken Barbara Tuchman's premise at least one step farther. Tuchman focused on de Coucy, a knight of much wealth and power. He had a reputation of having unimpeachable integrity; still, he was aristocracy. Paton Walsh looks at not one notable person whose presence made a huge impact on world affairs, but on one insignificant person whose presence affected very few; she individualizes a representative of the masses. I would propose that A Chance Child is a feminist revision of history. In the manner of Virginia Woolf's theories of history, A Chance Child probes "the lives of the obscure—in those unlit corridors of history where the figures of generations of women are so dimly, so fitfully perceived" (quoted in Booth 94). Instead of lauding the advancements in technology the Industrial Revolution made possible, Paton Walsh looks at the lives of the common people—and not just the adult workers, not just the women, but the ones at the lowest rung of the hierarchy—the child laborers. They are the ones who, like Tom, are small enough to creep through orifices in the coal mines, left in the dark to dream nightmares or to suffocate. They are the ones like Blackie, Creep's future wife, who at age eight are small enough not to complain when they are forced to work fourteen hours a day at the iron forge and must sing to keep themselves awake. They are the ones who cannot defend themselves, and yet who supply the labor to keep the machines running. The life of Creep is redolent of all children's lives. He is literally brought out of the closet of the twentieth century where he has been pocketed away, in shame for his existence. He has no life, no name. Paton Walsh allows him to escape—into what we would consider an even worse time of uncontrolled child abuse, but it is here that Creep finds corporeal existence and gives himself a name.
The child Blackie, whose face has one side pink and pretty and the other side scarred and soot-encrusted, because she could not stay awake and fell into the fire, represents the dual nature of our view of history. The pink and pretty side tells us the conventional story, how the Industrial Revolution helped humankind to progress, to master machines, to be more comfortable, to have more leisure time. This pink and pretty side tells the story of what Christopher calls the "‘special people … rich, and that. Inventors and all’" (122). The scarred and blackened side tells us the other story, of the pain and suffering of those upon whose backs the machines were run. These are in Christopher's words "‘just poor and ordinary’" people, those who, as the teacher explains, were "‘born, labored, and died without leaving any trace, without anyone noting them’" (123). Christopher's discovery of Creep's life comes amidst his study of Parliamentary records, an important record of interviews of common laborers. But even Christopher could see that "‘the questions were being asked by some important sort of person, … [but] answered by ordinary people….’" (140). Although the information is jarring in its horrifying detail, the interviewers were also noticeably separate, callous, and uninformed; one interviewer laments that in the factories the children "seldom lose a hand … it only takes off a finger at the first or second joint … [caused by] sheer carelessness … not looking about them … sheer carelessness…." (141), shockingly oblivious to the real reasons for such accidents—utter fatigue after running perhaps twenty miles a day in the factory, lack of sleep, lack of nutrition. These parish records are important but still biased. Because Creep has taught himself to read and write (accomplished through a generous friend), he can create a place for himself in history. His is the story of the common person, the lost detail swept aside in traditional accounts of the great events of history. Because he can write, he makes an indelible mark, however small it is. He has a voice, he no longer must rely on another to tell his story, he is no longer invisible.
Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.
THE GREEN BOOK 1981)
Gregory Maguire (review date November-December 2000)
SOURCE: Maguire, Gregory. Review of The Green Book, by Jill Paton Walsh. Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 6 (November-December 2000): 682-83.
[In the following review, Maguire praises the relevance and vitality of Paton Walsh's The Green Book, almost adecade after its initial release, calling the book a "masterpiece."]
For this exercise, we'll assume the classics will survive, or they don't deserve to be called classics. In a hundred years, Meg Murry will still be tessering, Madeline still pooh-poohing the tigers, and Max still riding herd on the wild rumpus. M. C. Higgins will still be great; Wilbur, radiant. But much will be lost because times move on. Though groaning scales of judgment weigh for enduring merit, the calipers of personal taste always pinch for freshness. So I propose Jill Paton Walsh's small masterpiece, The Green Book —as fresh now as when it was published eighteen years ago, and getting fresher daily.
Of all the science fiction and space travel stories I know, The Green Book travels best, and may travel furthest, in part because its author understands that science fiction is fiction first and science a distant second. The Green Book isn't a computer manual but a human manual, a child's first Robinsonade. "And the next day we all went away, Father and Joe, and Sarah, and Pattie, and lots of other families, and left the Earth far behind." This reads with the heartbreaking directness of Governor Bradford doing his Puritan history of the Plimoth Plantation—remember Bradford's section called "Preparation to This Weighty Voyage"?
The Green Book 's initial paragraph winches the tension through neatly sprung and simple sentences, culminating in the challenge that opens the novel.
"Father said, ‘We can take very little with us.’ The list was in his hand. ‘Spade, saw, file, ax, for each family. Seeds, etc., will be provided. Iron rations will be provided. For each voyager a change of clothing, a pair of boots, one or two personal items only; e.g., a favorite cooking pan, a musical instrument (small and light), a picture (unframed). Nothing under this heading will be taken if it is bulky or heavy, fragile or perishable. One book per voyager.’"
The choosing of books that the voyagers must struggle over—Desert Island Discs for bibliophiles—is what we're doing in this exercise of nominating children's books for posterity. Father dutifully forgoes his Oxford Complete Shakespeare for the more useful Dictionary of Intermediate Technology. Poignantly, there are several Robinson Crusoes on board, as well as a Homer. (There seems to be no Max or Madeline, but there is Grimm.) Pattie, the youngest, is considered to have squandered her choice: she brings a green buckram-clad book with empty pages. But when the colonists turn to write in it, after a harrowing first year, they find she has already filled the book with a scribbled history of their efforts. She has already become their Governor Bradford, their Crusoe with a journal.
To a reader, an unread new book is much like a whole new world. And child readers one hundred years from now will find their worlds as new as ours ever were. Or newer.
Latimer, Karen. Review of Debts of Dishonor: An Imogen Quy Mystery, by Jill Paton Walsh. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5377 (21 April 2006): 23.
Offers a positive assessment of Debts of Dishonor.
O'Brien, Jill. Review of The Bad Quarto, by Jill Paton Walsh. Booklist 103, no. 14 (15 March 2007): 31.
Notes that Paton Walsh's narrative in The Bad Quarto combines "elements of two subgenres: the academic mystery and the backstage mystery."
Review of Debts of Dishonor: An Imogen Quy Mystery, by Jill Paton Walsh. Publishers Weekly 253, no. 8 (20 February 2006): 139.
Comments that, "except for one genuine surprise," the plot of Debts of Dishonor is "largely unengaging."
Additional coverage of Paton Walsh's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 11; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 2, 65; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 38, 83, 158; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 35; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 161; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 4, 72, 109; Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 3.