Week 82: Books for Mother’s Day

f35d6cd0736332b538c7db6ced199285I first had motherhood thrust upon me at the age of about four, when I was given a sinister-looking doll with eyes that clicked unnervingly open and shut, a hard bald skull with curls moulded onto its implacable surface, and a harsh voice like a carrion crow, wailing ‘Mama! Mama!’ whenever it was tipped forward. Unsurprising, then, that I was always a teddy-bear and Lego little girl and regarded dolls with a mistrust bordering on straightforward dislike. With a start like that, it came as a considerable surprise when KatePonders came into my life to discover that being a mother is great. We were aided in this discovery by KatePonders herself, a baby of consummate grace and charm who had the good manners to sleep right through the night from eight weeks’ old (a skill she stills possesses). Unprepared by what we laughingly call real life, I needed – and still need – mothers in books to show me the way.

Of course now I look properly it actually IS Joan Crawford

Of course now I look properly it actually IS Joan Crawford

Lady Macbeth, Cinderella’s stepmother, Snow White’s ditto (tell me, Dr Freud, were the Brothers Grimm trying to tell us something?), Joan Crawford: there is no shortage of role models for how not to do it. It would be pleasing to believe, now that stepmothers are quite thick on the ground, that the shelves would be heavy with books that show her in a more positive light, but if we avoid the overly worthy sort of children’s book (you know the sort of thing: Kylie has a lot of Daddies – not at present a real title but I offer it to anyone at a loose end), a lurking edginess remains, especially should the children be girls. Ungrateful little beasts, really: as my own mother once famously pointed out, when my then very young sister shouted (as four-year-olds are capable of doing at moments of disagreement), ‘You’re not my mummy!’, ‘You think I’m doing this for kicks?’. The step-mother I would most like to have been, had chance offered me that role in life, is Topaz Mortmain in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Come to think of it, Dodie Smith is particularly good on the warm inclusiveness of not being overly hung up about biological parenting: look at the cheerful collectivism shown by dogs and people alike in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Mrs Walker and Mrs Blackett are warm, supportive and kind mothers in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons sagas, reminding parents everywhere that one of our principal jobs in life is to stand back and let our children get on with it. Think how different those highly enjoyable adventures would have been had the children’s mothers been in the vanguard of today’s hysterically risk-adverse culture. ‘Can we, aged ten to seven, take a really quite heavy little sailing boat out on the deep and wind-swept waters of one of the northern Lakes, Mother?’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Roger. Of course you can’t. Now stay safely indoors and do some colouring.’ And that would have been that. The Railway Children’s mother is a thoroughly good egg, too, striking a perfect balance between protecting her children from life’s unbearable sorrows but letting them fly free. Those were the days. My own childhood – not all that long ago in the scale of things but beginning to feel as if it took place on another planet – was rich with solitary wanderings through the nearby woods, and my husband, whose mother was categorically not the most laid-back person I have ever met, spent many a happy hour when very small indeed playing out on the moors with his equally tiny friends: moors, I might add, not all that far from the favoured killing fields of Brady and Hindley. Were our parents crazily irresponsible, indifferent, or lacking in imagination? Or did they just have a firmer grasp of statistical probability than we are encouraged to have these days?

Blame-Shifting-our-BlundersWhat of the art of mothering once your offspring are adults (using the term loosely) themselves? Best, I think, to avoid emulating Mrs Morel in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Goodness me. Another prize specimen from Dr Freud’s own bookshelf, I suspect. Lawrence, always quite a difficult chap when it came to relationships with women, rarely misses an opportunity in his novels and short stories to Blame the Mother. To read him is to be reminded of Adam, pointing the finger at Eve and crying out, ‘It’s all her fault!’. Not the action of a gentleman, I would have said. But he hit upon a popular theme: how revealing it is to Google the term ‘mothers with adult children in literature’ (oh, come on: you knew that I’d be the sort of person who even googles in correct syntax) and find yourself bombarded with jolly little articles on ‘adult children of narcissistic mothers’, ‘adult children of bipolar mothers’ and so on.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, just as contented marriages make poor fiction, so good mothers are hard to write about without coming across as terminally dull. How very much more fun to read and judge the parenting skills of Mrs Bennett or Lady Catherine de Bourgh. But there are some perfectly lovely mothers out there. Mrs March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a trouper whose saintliness is saved from schmaltziness by her calm, dry wit. Calmness in the face of threat is also the key to Kanga’s character: yes, that’s right, Kanga the only xx chromosome in Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. I know and admire mothers like her, serenely gliding through the mayhem to ensure that bedtimes, bathtimes and extract of malt all happen at the right moment. And Calvin’s mother in Bill Watterson’s insightful and utterly unmissable Calvin and Hobbes books is an almost unique poster-girl for real mothers everywhere: doing the best she can, learning on the job (that never stops), trying to focus on a few simple principles and, although she (mercifully) never bangs on about it, always holding on, no matter what the provocation, to her unconditional love for her child. Happy Mother’s Day, girls. b639647bece4e2553967976ecce2e0d7

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Week 56: Books for Broken Hearts

My great-great grandparents saw eight of their ten children set out from their Aberdeenshire home to every corner of the earth, never to return: and I don’t know how they did it. The lovely KatePonders left yesterday for a year, and, should you be wondering, this is how it feels:aztecs40(it does just cross my mind that the Aztecs were perhaps sweeties who worked with metaphor and were, as so often happens, completely misunderstood by their less imaginative conquerors). Anyway this week’s bookshelf needs either to console or to encourage wallowing. All you parents whose chicks are off to school/university/the other side of the world/another planet for the first time, take heed, and heart. And there is hope, too, for the dumped, the jilted, the just-come-to-my-senses-and-realised-everyone-was-right-about-him. Broken hearts mend of their own accord, but books help.

We could start with Boethius and The Consolations of Philosophy, not least because it serves as a useful reminder that, if he could come up with such warm, gentle acceptance of life’s little tribulations while awaiting execution, we could probably get a grip and find some sort of perspective. We are, to be sure, living in a time of turmoil, when rubbing along together on this one shared earth seems to be slipping out of reach. Now is exactly the moment, therefore, to be reading Boethius, who firmly maintains that people are essentially good, that evil is a choice, and that no-one and nothing can take away from us our ability to be good. I think that by ‘good’ I usually mean ‘kind’, and I promise to vote for the political party that promises – without crossing its fingers – to be kind at all times. Alain de Botton, by the way, has borrowed Boethius’s title for his own Consolations of Philosophy, a well-meaning if a bit facile introduction to a history of philosophy.

Three children’s books that have to be on everyone’s comfort-bookshelf. The full version of this blog’s strapline could well be ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get reading The Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children and The House at Pooh Corner.’ Kenneth Grahame because animals come and go, and set out on great adventures, but they come home safely to eat their suppers in great joy and contentment before retiring to rest between clean sheets: as fine a prescription for a good life as you are ever likely to find. Edith Nesbit is there, of course, because at the end, Father comes home, the family is reunited, Bobbie gets to cry out, ‘Oh! my Daddy! my Daddy!’ before she tells her mother that ‘the sorrow and the struggle and the parting are over and done’. And we cannot be without Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh, who remind us, just when we most need to be reminded, that ‘wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way’ ….. oh, you know the rest: I’ve made myself all teary.winnie

So perhaps my best course is to indulge in the miseries of others. How about some Graham Greene? I’m not sure he was ever exactly a laugh-a-minute, but the all-out crushing unhappiness of The End of the Affair might be just the thing today. Strangely cheering, other people’s heart-ache, don’t you find (please don’t tell me it’s just me)? And there is little in literature more guaranteed to make you pull yourself together, I have found, than the faint suspicion that others might compare you to Cathy Earnshaw, so a long soak in all the shenanigans of Wuthering Heights might be just the ticket. We could revel in the sheer nastiness of most of Evelyn Waugh’s blighted and benighted lovers – whoever you’ve idiotically lost your heart to, he or she is probably not as bad as that – and recognise every aching moment of longing that Cassandra experiences in Dodie Smith’s gorgeous I Capture the Castle.

But enough. I must comfort myself with the hope that KatePonders does not feel about her doting mother as Selima Hill does about hers, if her wonderful poem ‘The Fowlers of the Marshes’ is to be believed:

Three thousand years ago
they were fowling in the marshes
around Thebes – men in knotted skirts
and tiered faïence collars,
who avoided the brown crocodile,
and loved the ibis, which they stalked
with long striped cats on strings,
under the eye of Nut, the goddess of the sky.

My mother’s hushed peculiar world’s the same:
she haunts it like the fowlers of the marshes,
tiptoeing gaily into history, sustained by gods
as strange to me as Lady Nut, and Anubis,
the oracular, the jackal-masked.
When I meet her at the station, I say
Hello, Mum! and think Hello, Thoth,
This is the Weighing of the Heart.

Don’t you love that ‘hushed peculiar world’? So much more dignified than the noisy scrabble I more usually achieve. For the time being, at least, KatePonders and her parents will be exchanging ideas and thoughts and have-you-reads by email and Skype, and our hearts will lighten.

OMG!  They're reading Stuwwelpeter!  Another blighted childhood ...

OMG! They’re reading Stuwwelpeter! Another blighted childhood …

PS  Scotland, this is not the week to break my heart even further.  Please don’t go.

Week 55: Country Pursuits

realclay4Had you sidled up to me to impart the information, possibly in a whisper, that spending a morning trying to shoot little saucers made of clay out of the sky would be such fun, I just might have looked askance at you. But you would have been right, and I would have been …. less right than usual. Clay shooting is great, not least because it is a precious addition to my little fund of Sports You Can Chat While Doing. Companionable, only madly competitive if you do it in the company of madly competitive people (the very nice Peter Wilson, Olympic gold medallist, for example), and the tiniest bit silly: what could be more fun? My new addiction is fed by Alan Hawkings at Northumberland Clays (that’s what to do when next you are in this neck of the woods sorted, then. You can thank me later).

All this country living had already introduced me to the joys of fly-fishing. I think I should tell you that the first time a fishing trip was proposed to me, I did not thrill. Fishing was right up there with golf and bridge as hobbies I hoped I would reach my desired quota of 103 years without ever having experienced. And then Finlay The Ghillie From Heaven showed me how to cast my first fly ….. Now I have a secret nagging doubt. What if I’m …. less right than usual about golf and bridge as well? It is in this reflective frame of mind that I turn to books for guidance

I have three indispensable bedside books for fishing. They are Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, Jeremy Paxman’s Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life and Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots, which I recommended to you in Week 30. Paxman may be famous in legend and song for the worthwhile pursuit of politician-baiting (and pompous-student-deflating on University Challenge), but his heart clearly lies out on the river and his fishing anthology is an abiding pleasure. Walton is one of those Ur-books that are more talked about than read, I suspect, and yet another pretender to the title of the most-reprinted book in the galaxy. The fly-fishing chapters were added by his chum, Charles Cotton, and remain perfectly practical and sound advice. Norman Thelwell’s Compleat Tangler, on the other hand, is probably less useful as a manual, but it is heaven fthelwell 1or those of us who adore his inimitable illustrations of English country life. To be completely honest, his fishing cartoons lag behind his glorious pony pictures – but then, what doesn’t? They have to be the most perfect commentary on the horsey life ever published.

Shooting, and the perils thereof, is covered by Isabel Colegate’s atmospheric The Shooting Party, which has something of the suspenseful atmosphere of LP Hartley’s mesmerising The Go-Between about it. They are both completely successful in evoking the pre-Great War world in which they are set, and both somehow feel as if that world is holding its breath in anticipation of what is to come. Chekhov also wrote a novel called The Shooting Party, which I have not read and truth to tell, had not heard of until I spotted a copy at Barter Books last week. I will immediately get reading, not only in a spirit of topic-based enquiry but because I am a fully paid-up member of the ‘Chekhov was a genius’ society. It is the only novel he ever wrote, and – hurray! – it is a detective story, so I think I am in for a splendid time.

I never could resist a good profile

I never could resist a good profile

The Mitford sisters –or the speakable-of ones, at any rate – proved adept at chronicling country pursuits, both traditional – Lord Redesdale was an indefatigable rider to hounds, courser of hares and bagger of pheasant, partridge and grouse – and less so – the invention of the child-hunt, when foxes were thin on the ground, being one his more notable achievements. He appears as himself, more or less, in Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which is as good an account as you’ll get of (eccentric, I grant you) country life among the upper classes in the Thirties; and as Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s affecting The Pursuit of Love, which, with its sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, is howlingly funny as well as tragically sad.

The thought of the Mitford children being pursued by a pack of hounds reminds me of the hound in the red jersey in Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children. The children, Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis are actually exemplary incomers to the countryside, scampering about out of doors and making their own entertainment – although the bitter truth is probably that, given today’s technology and half a chance, they’d have been stewing indoors glued to a console. Beware romanticising the past, in other words, and always remember that Bobbie and Phyllis were wearing those terribly useful red flannel petticoats because it was bloody cold out of doors.Unlike, I am delighted to report, here. After a brief encounter with Hurricane Bertha, we have pleasingly reverted to our customary glorious weather. Time to get outside. If not with fishing-rod, shotgun or dog-leash in hand, how about with a book?

There are more literary, and less literal, country pursuits.  Spotted the film-of-the-book?

There are more literary, and less literal, country pursuits. Spotted the film-of-the-book?

Week 27: Books for a Marriage

sonnet 116The daughter of our dear friends got married yesterday.  To Louise and James, therefore, we NorthernReaders send every possible ounce of love and congratulations and welcome to the wonderful and slightly strange world of being married.  What books should we give you?

1 snowdropsThe truth is that poets, playwrights and novelists get more inspiration from the unmarried state which you have just left.  As everyone will point out to you, Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding in the air and his tragedies begin shortly afterwards.  Don’t be put off: think of Lord and Lady Macbeth and General and Mrs Othello as helpful what-not-to-do guides and you’ll be fine.  And stick like glue to every wise word of Shakespeare’s sonnet.  If you minds are as one, and open to each other, yours will be the best and happiest of marriages.

Asta_in_Shadow_of_The_Thin_Man_trailerThe problem with happy marriages is that they do not provide useful material for fiction, because stories, unlike people, thrive on conflict.  Good marriages can be found in books, but – just as in what we laughingly call real life – you may need to pick and choose to select the aspects you would like to copy.  Nick and Nora Charles, for example – the couple at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man:  happy, certainly; devoted, even – but I’m not sure that all that alcohol is a very helpful ingredient in our recipe for a long and contented marriage (Asta, on the other hand, is a good reminder that dogs and marriages go together very well indeed).  But detective fiction, strangely, does provide us with some well-matched couples.  Not Poirot, obviously, nor Miss Marple, although Agatha Christie did have a married pair of detectives, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  But Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey embody Shakespeare’s invaluable advice to be a marriage of true minds.  We shall give our newly-married couple, not only Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon,.but also the sequels developed by Jill Paton Walsh. We can add Ngaio Marsh’s really rather nice Roderick Alleyn and his splendid wife Troy.  Best of all are Commissario Guido Brunetti and his clever academic wife, Paola, in Donna Leon’s absorbing series of detective novels set in Venice.  It is true that Paola is a fabulous cook, but, if you are not, do not despair that a great marriage will elude you: the Brunetti household is forged by love, patience, understanding, a shared sense of humour and – hurray – books.  The couple that reads together, stays together.

Sticking together through the tough bits might be a useful role model, so hats off to Mother in The Railway Children who quite properly never doubts her husband’s innocence for a second.  Married couples in children’s books almost inevitably – and appropriately – appear as parents rather than lovers, but there are some that stand out as couples  Sadly, Mr and Mrs Bear, parents of  Rupert, make it very clear where he gets his outstanding dullness from.  Much more enjoyably, Mr and Mrs Pig of Evening Out fame, although a bit slapdash in their choice of baby-sitter (and which cabin-fevered parent wouldn’t joyfully accept any offer of child-care?), are clearly fond of each other and can still face the idea of an evening in each other’s company with equanimity.  Richmal Crompton’s Mr and Mrs Brown stoically present a united front in the face of the adversity which is their youngest child, William.  There is, incidentally, an emerging trend for weddings to include readings from children’s books – the more toe-curlingly and vapidly sugary the better.  I suspect that the reason for this is straightforward and two-fold: first, because, consciously or not, the happy couple are thinking about children, and secondly because under the strain of arranging a wedding, which nowadays has to be of a pomp and splendour formerly restricted to the court at Versailles, the bride has lost her marbles and the groom is too afraid to put his foot down.  I may, of course, be wrong

Snowdrops-bouquet-wallpaper_7017Let us turn to the poets for help and guidance.  Once again, we hit the problem that it is far more fun to write about the awful agonies of unrequited love and broken romance than the glorious mundanities of lasting happiness, but here are two who step up to the mark.  Although Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion is, strictly speaking, ineligible for our bookshelf of marriage guidance because it speaks only of the wedding day itself, it is definitely having a place for its very clear standard-setting on how to praise your wife.  Read it, chaps, and take notes.  You will never fall far out of favour with your wife as the years roll by if you can keep up this level of admiration.  Pay special attention to his celebration of her intelligence, charm, kindness and wit.  Practise in the car on the way home if necessary.

Our second teacher is of course the utterly wonderful John Donne.   Read ‘The Anniversary’. If you don’t feel like that, don’t marry.  There we are.  Simple really.

Now is not the time to indulge the NorthernReader’s sense of humour by presenting our happy couple with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Julian Barnes’ Before She Met Me.  We could give them Wodehouse, though.  Not Bingo Little’s marriage to the popular novelist Rosie M Banks, perhaps, and the fireplace with ‘Two Lovebirds Built This Nest’ – although there is something rather marvellous about such squirm-making horror – but Aunt Dahlia and Uncle Tom rub along together pretty well through umpteen years of marriage and despite the depradations of her nephew Bertie.  Best of all, let’s make sure that all newly-married couples embark upon their life together with the complete works of Jane Austen tucked into their trousseaux.  Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley, Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars: they are all highly unusual romantic couples, because we can imagine them settling into long contented marriages (for contrast, try picturing Romeo and Juliet’s silver wedding anniversary.  You see? It was never going to work).  And Jane Bennett, of course – like our own dear Louise – has the great good sense to marry a man from the North of England.  Good on you, petheavenfield

Week 26: Books for a Train Journey

Ta-ta-dee-dah.  Ta-ta-dee-dah.  Trains haven’t actually sounded like that for ages, or possibly for ever, but they do when we imagine them: which is all my dear readers in the benighted and line-less West Country can do at present.  So, time to curl up with a good book and transport ourselves back to a golden age of travel.‘Northumberland Coast’, BR (NER) poster, 1948-1965.

Almost as much as I like the fact that time only had to shape up and get accurate across Britain when the railways were invented (timetables meant that one couldn’t really say, ‘well, the train from London will be along at half past two.  Ish’: although of course as it turned out, 2.30-ish would be a utopian paradise of prompt arrival compared to the sadly current ‘well, the train from London should pitch up some time in the next six months when we’ve finished thinking about improving the line’) – almost as much as that, I like the impact that the railway had on fiction.  While I treasure a letter from my great-great-great grandfather to his beloved, casually and really rather thrillingly letting her know that he was planning to drive down for the weekend, in reality what he was showing off about (this was 1809) was that he was a young man about town with a gig, and his nipping off to darkest Berkshire was going to take quite a chunk of the weekend – up to and including the following Wednesday, in fact, the idea of the weekend being at least as much in its infancy as was the steam engine – and rather more planning than invading France.  His was the world of Jane Austen, who was only nine years his senior: a world of Colonel Brandon rushing off  hither and yon on horseback (which, now I think about it, he does have a bit of a tendency to do) and frightful aunts pitching up in carriages.  A single generation later, and the train had arrived in fiction.

Perhaps its single most dramatic effect was, as in life, to bring people together.  Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (not, I should add, the Hardy to embark upon if you’re on your own and feeling a bit low: it’s not the cheeriest book ever written) relies heavily upon the Great Western Railway to bring its tragic characters together and, this being Hardy, to tear them apart.  Dickens was also on the despondent side when it came  to trains, long before he was himself involved in a ghastly railway accident  – and the moral of that particular story, dearest reader, is do not travel with someone you would be embarrassed to be in an accident with – and trains figure in Dombey and Son entirely as agents of disaster.   Trains, and of course stations, figure quite prominently in the life and work of Tolstoy, too: not only does a train provide a most useful plot device in Anna Karenina, but Tolstoy himself had a tendency to flit about the vastness of Russia by locomotive and even managed a highly theatrical death-scene at a railway station which you can’t help suspecting the master story-teller must have hugely enjoyed.

We haven't had a non-gratuitous picture for a while

We haven’t had a non-gratuitous picture for a while

But where train travel really seems to come into its own is in crime fiction.  We begin with Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, who swoops down to solve the mystery of The Moonstone thanks to the speed and reliability of the railways.  Where Wilkie Collins (a good friend of Dickens, incidentally) led, Conan Doyle was happy to follow, and Sherlock Holmes constantly gads about the place by train (and let’s not talk about errors in Tube journeys or whatever it was that made some of the more concrete watchers of BBC’s jolly enjoyable Sherlock get themselves into a flutter).  Holmes and Watson, who once would have taken several days and a series of stage coaches to get anywhere, spend most of the canon whooshing off from London to further-flung parts of England (although, sadly, they missed out on the glorious North-East – no doubt a tribute to the low crime rates in this part of the world).  By the twentieth century, a really avid reader might well start to feel a trifle uneasy about hopping onto a train lest the worst befall her.  The most pessimistic about your chances of getting through a journey unscathed is of course Agatha Christie.  What with The 4.50 from Paddington, The Mystery of the Blue Train and Murder on the Orient Express, it’s a wonder we don’t all catch the bus.  But think what interestingly deranged people we would miss out on meeting: surely no-one is immune to reading Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train without murmuring ‘what fun’?  And there is always the chance of romance, although do not be bamboozled by the truly splendid Hitchcock film of The Thirty Nine Steps to expect love to blossom on the Flying Scotsman: Richard Hannay is indeed at least as much a man-on-a-train as a man-on-the-run, but he is never diverted by mere females from single-handedly saving Britain’s secrets in 1914.

trainTalking of desperate heroes fleeing their pursuers, all this talk of trains lets us realise that Kenneth Grahame got there first: Mr Toad, among his many achievements, must figure as one of the very earliest men – well, alright, toads, but you know what I mean – on the run in literature, even if his disguise as a washer-woman is somewhat less suave than Hannay’s.  Children’s books abound with trains and we should probably acknowledge the Reverend Awdry’s  Thomas the Tank Engine, although for me they were always a bit too trainspotty (in the sense of appealing to the inner anorak rather than the inner heroin-user from Leith).  No, let’s end by celebrating that power of the railway to offer new hope.  Michael Bond – another Reverend – did a gentle interest in trains supersede the botany and palaeontology of their Victorian precursors? – recognised that a railway station might be a very possible place for different worlds to collide, and so a small bear from darkest Peru became Paddington and lived happily ever after.  And, greatest of all (and I defy you to watch Jenny Agutter at the end of the perfectly lovely film without sobbing your socks off), who can forget Bobbie, running down the station platform with the heart-breaking cry, ‘Daddy! My Daddy!’

Week 14: Bringing Up Baby

We are trying to persuade our lovely neighbours to use us as baby-sitters so that they go out together for the first time in more than a year.  Better not give their darling children a copy of Mary Rayner’s Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out then.  Even better than Mr Pig wondering why his best shirt no longer seems to fit so well is the sinister image of the baby-sitter’s long, hairy legs as she goes upstairs to the children.  I don’t want to give the plot away, but the fact that she is called Mrs Wolf should give you some idea (and for those of you who love to ponder these things, it is the NorthernReader’s contention that this is a book about the Holocaust.  No, really it is).

I can see that this would work splendidly

I can see that this would work splendidly

Looking after children has tended to get a bad press in books.  Yes, I know Jane Eyre ends up marrying the boss, but you must admit she has to jump through an awful lot of hoops to do so.  And, in Emma, Jane Fairfax (you don’t have to be called Jane to be a governess, but it helps) is pretty clear-sighted about how soul-destroying, character-eroding and fraught with sexual and social danger the job can be.  Agnes Grey also has a loathsome time at the hands of her horrible little charges (let’s face it, the Brontë sisters did not gush about children.  There is, in fact, no compelling evidence that they could stand the little poppets). Elizabeth Gaskell, famously the friend of Charlotte Brontë (and how infuriating to go down in history as someone else’s chum) very cleverly has it both ways in the altogether enjoyable Wives and Daughters, which features both an unscrupulous and husband-hunting governess and a sweet loving nursery-maid who is not only French (gasp!) but Catholic (gasp! Gasp!). At the head of all her tribe, of course, stands the governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Un-named and of uncertain temperamental stability, I would have thought that the Situations Vacant columns in The Lady might have seen a bit of a lull after publication, but perhaps the nanny-hiring set and the Henry James-reading set never did overlap very much.  Still, it might not be a coincidence that a few years after The Turn of the Screw was published, Mr Darling preferred to employ a Newfoundland dog as nanny for Wendy, Michael and John.

PL Travers’ Mary Poppins was a pleasingly cantankerous old bat, with more than a little in common with her progenitor, and not much like Julie Andrews – although it must be acknowledged that Miss Andrews’ great strength, whether as M Poppins or as the – don’t you think? –  exploited child-minder Maria in The Sound of Music is that she notably lacks the saccharine touch.  The line between servile doormat and monstrous tyrant can be a thin one, with, if we are to believe the world of fiction, not much in the way of between-ground.  So one is either brought up by Christopher Robin’s nanny, who sounds a bit of a sap, frankly, or by Miss Havisham, which must have had its exhilarating moments but also more in common than you might like with Mowgli’s child-care arrangements.

Being brought up by wolves, as it happens, has had its moments in the sun.  The poster-boys for this experiment in trans-species nurturing are of course Romulus and Remus, who, let me remind you, are fictional (and therefore grist to our mill).  Tarzan, too, is raised in the jungle (and let me tell, you, it took me years and years to realise that ‘jungle’ and ‘rain-forest’ are the same thing: a moment of realisation, I might add, in which my world got suddenly a bit smaller and a bit less colourful).  But I doubt there are many takers for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books these days, not least because all that white-supremacist stuff makes uneasy reading  (try the film Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, which avoids that while being otherwise quite close to the original and also stars Ralph Richardson’s memorable eyebrows).

So, child-rearing is far from easy and we need help.  ‘How-to’ books on parenting have come and gone and shaped generations: were you a Dr Spock baby (quite different from being a Mr Spock baby)?  Or a Penelope Leach alumna? No, better perhaps to get our tips on good parenting from such joys as the mothers in The Railway Children and Swallows and Amazons, who trust their children and treat them with respect, or from Mr Bennett, who has his faults but does at least let Lizzie know that he loves her.  A cheer or two for the parent in Martin Waddell’s Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? Because he is – well, a he – and caring and nurturing and all those other good role models for little boys.  But perhaps the best child-minder of them all, as he waltzes in, stirs their little minds up like scrambled eggs and whooshes off again, is the splendid, anarchic lexiphile – here he comes now, to a bedtime near you – ladies and gentlemen, the purveyor of Green Eggs and Ham, it’s ol’ Black-Dots-for-Eyes himself……. The Cat in the Hat.  It’s enough to make you glad you never grew up.

cat in the hat