Trease (1909 - 1998)
Geoffrey Trease died in January 1998 after a writing career spanning more than sixty years and over a hundred books. Novelist, biographer, critic and sometime schoolmaster, he was a defining force in 20th century children's historical fiction, plucking the genre from the post-Henty doldrums and casting historical writing into a new shape altogether.
Robert Geoffrey Trease was born and grew up in Nottingham, the son of a wine- merchant and a doctor's daughter, and was the youngest of three brothers. He was an avid reader, working through all the classic adventure stories (The Coral Island, The Swiss Family Robinson) and large doses of The Boy's Own Paper from an early age, as well as Shakespeare. This mixture later influenced his own writing:
"I acquired as a reader....the bias which was to determine my direction long afterwards as a writer". (A Whiff of Burnt Boats)
After attending a small private school he was a pupil at Nottingham High School. Here, History was his best subject, though he was drawn somewhat unwillingly into Classics. In 1928 he went up to Queen's College, Oxford to read Classics, and seemed set on a brilliant academic career. He made many friends in Oxford but his studies were not so satisfactory; Trease found his tutor uncongenial and his subject dry. After his first year he realised that with the formal study of Classics, he was following the wrong path, and in 1929 he left Oxford, uncertain of his future plans. A friend's offer of social work in an East End Settlement provided a temporary solution; during these months Trease decided that writing was what he really wanted to do, and then followed a series of London jobs as he tried to break into journalism. He worked for a few months as a literary assistant in one of the first mail-order book clubs; then spent two years doing hack work on a Bloomsbury "puff-paper", while his spare time was given to his own first attempts at a novel. This was followed by a brief year teaching History and English at a private school in Essex - still pursuing his writing in his own time. Here he met his wife Marian Boyer, herself a teacher. In 1933 they married, moving to Bath where friends had offered them accommodation, and gambling on Trease now being able to earn a living through full-time writing. Finances were shaky as Trease sold short articles and worked on a novel - then came a breakthrough. He approached a left-wing publisher, Lawrence & Wishart, with an idea for a children's historical novel, to be written in everyday language and from the points of view of ordinary people. This fresh idea was immediately accepted, and the book about Robin Hood which drew on his own knowledge of Nottingham was published as Bows Against the Barons in 1934. The modern style and egalitarian approach was very different from the sort of historical writing for children that had appeared until now, and received some favourable reviews. Other books soon followed, and almost by accident, Geoffrey Trease's career as a children's writer was launched.
I first encountered Geoffrey Trease in the late 1970s, through a well-thumbed school copy of Cue for Treason, which we were reading in class; I remember enjoying the lively characterisation and briskly moving story. There must be thousands who had a similar experience at school, and who owe most of their knowledge of a particular historical period to a Geoffrey Trease book read as a teenager. His books have the happy combination of meticulous research and accessible, exciting stories, with believable characters and, unusual for the time, strong female roles. All these features distinguished him when his first children's book was published in 1934. Prior to this, children's historical fiction had tended towards the romantically sentimental for girls (such as Dorothea Moore, Cecily's Highwayman ,1914, and In the Reign of the Red Cap,1924), or the empire-building potboiler for boys (such as the works of Percy F Westerman and G A Henty); ill-researched, stereotypical and with gadzookery abounding. Kings and cavaliers were always right, there were duels and pirates in every other chapter, the British were top nation, and there was a great deal of "ho, varlet" and "verily, madam". Trease changed all that, particularly the language; his characters speak in ordinary modern English (though avoiding any out-of-period slang) and there is a thread of equality strongly felt in all his writing, both in terms of male/female roles, and in a pressing towards social justice and a fight against the abuse of power and privilege. He was aiming to move right away from a romanticised type of what he called "false history"; trying to combine historical truth with the best elements of the adventure yarns he had enjoyed as a boy:
"...at one level, Bows Against the Barons was written because I wanted to expose even to children the falsity of the romantic Merrie England image. But when I sent my hero stealing shadowlike through the bracken, creeping disguised into the villain's castle.....I was reliving the fantasies of my own boyhood and enjoying the work on this level, as much as the conscious fulfillment of my social purpose. I was certainly not deliberately sugaring a political pill". (A Whiff of Burnt Boats, autobiography)
Although not written as political messages, his earliest books were strongly left wing and egalitarian in tone; Bows Against the Barons and Comrades for the Charter were published by Lawrence & Wishart, who were known at the time for their specialist left-wing interests. In 1935 Trease found that Bows Against the Barons was being published in Communist Russia, which did not recognise international copyright laws. Fees were available but frozen in roubles, and the only way to benefit from this was via a visit to Russia. Through his publishers, Geoffrey and Marian Trease were able to obtain visas and in 1935 spent five months travelling in Russia. Geoffrey Trease was an active member of his local Labour Party at the time, and the trip to Russia fuelled some speculation that the Treases had Communist interests, but in his autobiography A Whiff of Burnt Boats, Geoffrey Trease makes his own position clear:
"I myself never seriously considered joining the Communist Party.....Ingenuous I might be, but I noticed early what happened to individuals who left the Party on a sincere difference of opinion....It is fair to say that no one, either in England or in Russia, ever asked me to join. Left-wing idealists, I came to realise, were of more use outside..."
After his first few books he took a much more objective approach, though he always tried to portray historical events as they were experienced by ordinary people, and as they related to modern life. He had a strong sense of the historical continuum; history for him was not something packaged tidily away in the past, but a living thing whose themes and influence were felt in the contemporary world. He was a man of liberal and left-wing sympathies, and his writing reflects this; his early books must have been a refreshing (or alarming, depending on your point of view!) antidote to the "duty and empire" type of writing which preceded him. In this way Geoffrey Trease was a little ahead of his time; social changes were coming, with the war and its aftermath, but in the mid 1930s much of the world map was still pink and the British Empire still a reality. Children's books often tend to reflect social trends sometime after they happen, rather than setting new directions, but Geoffrey Trease was a writer in the vanguard of exploring a less anglocentric and class-ridden view of the world.
Objectivity and accuracy have come to be expected now of any good writer of historical fiction; when Geoffrey Trease started writing, these features had not yet become norms. His unsentimental, meticulous approach did much to change this; he aimed for realism and plausibility and generally achieved both. Anachronisms and other errors of detail were rare; occasionally in earlier books such as The Grey Adventurer (1942), which deals with the 17th century settlement of North Carolina, he wrote about places he had not visited,but later he resolved only to write about countries he had some personal experience of. This approach to research added colour and depth to his work, allowing him to draw on his memories of travels abroad, as well as his love of the countryside nearer to home.
Although his main success was with historical fiction, Trease was a versatile author, who also wrote biographies for adults and children, literary criticism, school stories, adult novels, detective/adventure stories, and plays. Some of these, such as his four adult novels and his set of children's mystery/detective stories, are largely forgotten nowadays except by collectors; but they met with moderate success on publication, and indeed all his work is distinguished by a competent, well-crafted approach. In assessing his significance as an innovative writer however, there are three areas of particular interest. One of these was his invention of a new form of the school story, starting with No Boats on Bannermere (1949). There were five Bannerdale books; they are readable and realistic stories about a group of friends, and their lives at home and school. They are also historically significant, being the first modern school stories set in a day school, where home is also important and school is not the centre of the characters' lives. The characters grow older and develop, and more adult emotions are touched upon. This was an important step in the development of the school story, moving from the boarding school/enclosed community environment, towards an approach which saw school as one aspect of life rather than the stage on which all activity took place. Another key development was that they were about ordinary children leading fairly ordinary lives; a step away from princesses in disguise, difficult new girls, clifftop rescues, form cricket matches and other stock ingredients of earlier school stories. Unlike most school stories, they included boys and girls. Prior to Bannerdale the attitude of publishers had rather been that no-one would want to read about day schools, and about ordinary children in a mixed-sex group; Geoffrey Trease showed that realism was both readable and marketable.
A second particularly significant aspect of Trease's writing is that of literary criticism. His survey of children's writers, Tales out of School (1949) was ground-breaking; before this there had been no wide-ranging survey of 20th century children's literature, and this single volume paved the way for what has today become the mini-industry of children's literary criticism. Geoffrey Trease had a discerning eye for children's books likely to stand the test of time and many of those he mentions in Tales out of School are still in print and have become classics. He is less than complimentary about formulaic fiction and sloppy writing; in other authors he valued the qualities also to be found in his own writing, such as a precision of style, coupled with an approach which combined realism with imagination.
He found his greatest success, however, in historical fiction. He had a love of the theatre, was involved in amateur dramatics, and had long cherished an ambition to be a playwright but this was not to be; after a successful one-act play, After the Tempest, was produced in 1938, his next play Colony, showing at the Unity Theatre in Kings Cross in 1939 and due to transfer to the West End, was suspended due to the outbreak of war, and this interrupted an embryo theatrical career, although he did go on to write five plays for radio in the 1940s and 50s. While waiting to be called up for army service, Trease briefly returned to teaching in a private school, before joining the Army Education Corps for the duration of the war. His time was spend in England and then in India, lecturing to army units; while his parallel career as a children's writer continued to flourish. Several books were written during quiet periods on duty; Trumpets in the West (1942) was written during his time in India, with minimal access to textbooks for research.
His lifelong love of theatre and the arts did however find an outlet through his books, many, such as Cue for Treason , and The Crown of Violet have a theatrical setting; other topics include the retrieving of a valuable manuscript (The Hills of Varna) or the development of music in a particular period (Trumpets in the West, which features the composer Henry Purcell) . These titles where theatre and the arts are central, are in my estimation his best writing, and are among my personal favourites; Trease's love and knowledge of his subject shines through, there is plenty of interesting detail about the development of theatre and culture in different settings, and his boy and girl protagonists are spirited creations. If pressed to pick one favourite it would have to be Cue for Treason, which was the first Geoffrey Trease book I read, and in my teenage years prompted my interest in historical fiction and social history Also very enjoyable are the many titles which used well-known historical characters, military and otherwise; Samuel Pepys is a major character in Popinjay Stairs , while Follow My Black Plume and Thunder of Valmy cover the Garibaldi campaigns.
His books ranged widely through different periods and settings, from Rome in the second century A.D. (Word to Caesar), to the Channel Islands under wartime occupation (Tomorrow is a Stranger), to 1980s Romania (Song for a Tattered Flag) to Russia in the perestroika period (Shadow under the Sea). The central character is usually an older boy or young man, encountering the difficulties of the adult world for the first time. Geoffrey Trease also usually cast a girl or young woman in a strong supporting role. Typically the plot involves conflicting loyalties and a fight against some sort of injustice; the main characters have to make decisions about allegiances and priorities, and in doing so they mature. Along the way there is plenty of action; fight, flight, acting and espionage, conflict military and political. We also see the characters being introduced to new ideas and challenges, whether artistic or idealistic. Endings are positive but not idealised; the main characters are generally on the brink of the adult world so there is a sense of new complexities and responsibilities as well as new opportunities. There's often a sense of the characters' lives continuing "off- stage", after we have read the last page. Keen to get away from the traditional division of "boys' books and girls' books", Trease found that by using this structure and including both male and female characters, he could produce books which appealed to both sexes. His heroines are strong and adventurous, often highly educated, and within the limits of what was plausible for the period, they are independent. In a time before it was usual to do so in children's writing, he explored the roles of girls and women in different ages and societies; no doubt many a schoolgirl reader was thus encouraged to expect that adventures were not only for boys.
Always supportive of other writers, as chairman of the Society of Authors he steered it through the dispute over public lending rights in the 1970s. He had many friends among children's writers and publishers, and wrote a book of very practical advice to aspiring young authors, The Young Writer (1961).
Geoffrey Trease never retired as a writer; he continued to write new books at regular intervals until a few months before the end of his life; in 1997 he had four books waiting for publication. In his eighties he was very much in touch with contemporary politics, choosing recent periods of political instability, such as Romania under Ceaucescu, as settings for his later books. Whilst some of his books are long out of print, others are still available in paperback, several of course quite recently published, and still receive favourable critical attention. His books are a pleasure to collectors too, with sixty years worth of titles to choose from; though some titles are hard to find, early editions have remained relatively inexpensive. Some of the earlier, pre- 1960 works have very attractive covers, whilst paperback editions and wide distribution in libraries have ensured the availability of some of his most popular titles to this generation.
Geoffrey Trease's distinctive contribution to historical fiction included paving the way for other writers, by establishing standards. If there is a criticism to be made of his writing I would say that it lacks emotional depth; intensity wasn't his style, and his understated approach has its own strengths. However, his passion for accuracy and good style, and his objective approach, helped to set standards of what was expected of historical fiction, and meant that authors such as Rosemary Sutcliff, Cynthia Harnett, and Barbara Willard, were enabled to explore characters in other ways, within a framework of historical truth.
Geoffrey Trease's career was set against the background of a long and happy marriage to Marian Boyer. Visits to his publishers, lectures and research trips were interspersed with periods writing at home, and long walks on the Malvern Hills which he loved. After some years in Bath and Abingdon, the Treases lived in Malvern for over thirty years; in later years they moved back to Bath to be nearer their daughter, Jocelyn. For more about his life and work, I can heartily recommend his excellent autobiographies, A Whiff of Burnt Boats (1971), and Laughter at the Door (1974). These are very readable, humorous accounts of his development and career as a writer, his friends and interests and the factors which influenced and encouraged his work. These two volumes are out of print but are still available through libraries. A third volume of memoirs, Farewell the Hills, was published privately in 1998 for his family and friends; it is not available for public sale but copies are being donated to reference libraries for research. This last volume deals mainly with his later years and is a worthy companion to the previous two.
Special thanks to Geoffrey Trease's daughter Jocelyn Payne, who so kindly sent me a copy of his final memoirs Farewell the Hills; a lovely memento of a writer who will be long remembered.
It is rare that I ever feel like starting a campaign for the republishing of a book. This idea has not come to me purely in spirit of altruism; it is a case of practical necessity. As a teacher I want this book back in the classroom in all schools in Britain. The relatively new National Curriculum for English demands that the younger students get to know about Shakespeare and his background. I cant think of a better book than Geoffrey Treases marvellous Elizabethan adventure as a way of taking bright young minds into the world of acting and Shakespeares plays. As if that were not enough the story, the characters, the settings, the political intrigue, and the moral dilemmas all cry out for a new audience. It is a tale of ordinary people and of lords, ladies, actors, courtiers, traitors, loyalists, country farmers and town dwellers, puritans and libertines. It is a spy story; it is a love story; it is an escape story; it is a mountain climbing story; it is a river story. I could go on and probably will.
Above all it is the story of Peter Brownrigg, an ordinary boy from the Lake District, and what happens one night when he joins his father and their neighbours in an act of rebellion against a local greedy landowner. After a night of high drama and adventure it becomes the story of two runaways, Peter and Kit, one of whom is definitely not quite what we first expect. From the wilds of Cumberland we are taken the length of England in the company of strolling actors and see the precarious and sometimes downright unpleasant life that they led. The scenes in Elizabethan London are particularly engrossing and a certain William Shakespeare enters the plot. Chapter fourteen opens with the words,
"That was how I entered the Secret Service of the Queen."
How and why Peter did so you will have to read for yourself. You will also learn how to climb a vertical wooden wall overlooking the Thames and what the man in the yellow suit was getting up to in his riverside assignations. We can also puzzle over a hidden cipher in a passage of bogus verse.
The return to Cumbria brings a new set of dangers for Peter and Kit and a new set of delights for the reader. We get to know the mountains, the lakes and islands. Like the young people in the book, the reader does not know where treachery will rear its ugly head next. The death of a friend, the kidnap and escape and the horseback race to London to save the life of the Virgin Queen follow pell-mell to an unusual but highly satisfying climax.
The story is made all the more appealing because the young central characters are depicted "warts and all". Peter, the narrator figure, reveals his own weaknesses and short-comings. Kit, his companion, suffers from both pride and vanity. The picture given of Queen Elizabeth is also not idealised and some of the villains can be respected for the cause they support in total conviction.
The energy of the book is undeniable. If you have never read it and you have grown to adult years, it is still possible to enjoy the uncluttered plot, the marvellous pace and the brilliantly sketched scenes of countryside adventure and London squalour.
Now, about that letter to the publishers .
CHRIS examines the first two 'Bannermere' novels.
NO BOATS ON BANNERMERE.
If you take the bare bones of the book's plot, brother and sister move to the Lake District, form a gang and find buried treasure, then you have the basics of a typical post war children's adventure story. In the hands of Geoffrey Trease instead you have fairly radical reworking of the holiday/school story. Prior to it children's contemporary fiction, featuring 'children just like us', usually meant term time spent at boarding school, catching diamond smugglers etc. and the holidays catching more diamond smugglers etc.! In No Boats, Trease introduces characters that go to normal state schools and whose lives involve the ordinary, rather than the extraordinary. When I first read it in early 1970s, many of the books available either to buy or in libraries were of the same era as the Bannerdale series. Even then they stood out to me as being something out of the ordinary. A single parent family, which did not rely on the missing parent being dead on away on an expedition to the Amazon and a main character with a disability which was covered in a matter of fact manner, and did not get miraculously cured at the end of the book. Children who went off to school every day and did not have the time to spend every waking minute doing the impossible. They must have been almost as much as a revelation when they arrived as Trease's Bows against Barons was in the 1930s.
The setting of the Lake District for the story has a nice irony. Ever since Arthur Ransome it has been the place to set the holiday adventure. Whilst I suspect it was chosen because Trease's love of the area, it was an interesting choice.
The plot itself is not the greatest, but for me it is not the reason why the book is read and re-read. Rather it is for the characters, their lives and the sense of place, that Trease writes about. This is what attracted me to the book when I first read it and why good many years later I can still read it with the same enjoyment, whilst many other children's author seemed to have lost the magic in the intervening years.
The four main characters, Bill, Sue, Tim and Penny are realistically drawn. They are not the super children of mystery fiction, they have to fit the 'adventure' around every day life. They also have faults, and the jealousies and general effects of growing up, mean they do not always have the pure single-mindedness found in other children's books. The world of school and home is an integral part of the book and often the treasure-hunting plot takes second place to this.
Whilst the plot is treasure hunting, which has been constant theme in dozens of children's books, most of the time it keeps close enough to reality to not stray away from the feeling that it is grounded in the real world.Much as I enjoyed it, I do not think it was the best in the series, however even if it had been a `one-off', it still would be an important book, purely because even if it did not break the mould, it put a large crack in it and showed that `real' children's stories could be successful.
UNDER BLACK BANNER
In the second book, Trease, abandons the mystery plot line totally. The campaign to return the farm to the Nelson relies on none of the usual children's plotlines. It could almost be called a political novel, in that Trease puts across the need for vigilance by the public to ensure that democracy continues to work. This probably makes the book sound very much heavier than it really is. Trease had a light touch with his `messages' and the reader is never preached to.
There is a strong opening of the book with the four lost on the hills. Trease gets a gentle dig in against the mystery story. Debating whether to investigate a light in the derelict farmhouse. Bill says that it if they were fictional characters then they would be itching to see what was there and to be tied up gagged, but it was only tiredness that stopped them running away.In this book the relationship between the characters begins to develop. There is a definite time scale for the series and as they grow older so Trease explores this.
This is especially noticeable in the relationship betweeen Bill and Penny. This is developed more in the later books, but the seeds of it begin to come out in Under Black Banner. Few books that I read as a child even attempted to show that there could be any childhood relationships between the sexes, beyond that of the usual stereotypes.There are number of good set pieces in the book, which stand out as being able to be read in their own right, the night on the hills and the Cadet Corps training day. It is not a long book, but a lot seems to happen. I put this down to Trease's skill as an author, he has the ability to covey scenes in a few paragraphs, but leave a lasting image.
Again the book's strength is that it portrays a real world, rather than the usual mythical children's one produced by so many writers. Whilst I feel it is better book than the first, and probably the one I have read most, the series does get stronger as it goes one.
If you can get hold of a copy of any of the books in the series (the latter ones are harder to find though), then do try them.#
The Mantlemass novels
Barbara Mary Willard was born in Brighton, Sussex in 1909, and was educated at a convent school in Southampton. Her father was a Shakespearean actor; she absorbed Shakespeare from childhood and language was always important to her. Before the war she worked briefly as an actress and a playreader, before starting to write fiction. Barbara Willard wrote many adult novels before venturing into children's fiction; late in her writing career came the historical series known as the Mantlemass novels, and it is for these that she is now chiefly remembered. In 1967 she published A Grove of Green Holly (not one of the series) about a group of 17th century travelling players, hiding from Cromwell's soldiers in Ashdown Forest in Sussex, encountering iron workers and forest ways. From this root came the idea of writing about the same place and its development and change through earlier periods of history; a concept which was to evolve into the Mantlemass books. This series has received much critical acclaim and has ensured Barbara Willard a place in the mainstream of children's historical fiction, along with writers such as Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliff and Cynthia Harnett. Two early volumes were runners up for the Guardian award for children's fiction, which she won with The Iron Lily in 1974.
I first encountered the Mantlemass books as a teenager; I grew up in mid-Sussex only a few miles from Ashdown forest, and knowing the local geography gave the series an added interest. (My copy of Keys of Mantlemass is a review copy acquired by my father, at that time editor of a local Sussex newspaper). I have read them many times since; they do stand up very well to rereading as an adult. Whilst they are written in a way that is accessible to children and young adults, the universal themes of change and continuity, the political and personal, ensure their appeal to a wider audience.
The Mantlemass series, set in the heart of Sussex in Ashdown Forest, follows two families, the Mallorys and Medleys, through nearly one hundred and sixty years of history, starting in 1485 just after the Wars of the Roses, and ending in 1644 with the events of the English Civil War. The books are strong family stories with a well-developed sense of history and place. Barbara Willard lived in Nutley, Sussex on the edge of Ashdown Forest for many years; she loved the area, having known it from childhood, and her books reflect this affection, being imbued with Sussex history and customs and forest dialect.
The Mantlemass novels deal with the effects of national politics on local concerns; this is shown through successive family generations during turbulent periods of history, when even a remote area in the heart of Ashdown forest was not immune from change and the influence of the wider world. Each book can be read as a stand-alone tale, but the complete story of the house of Mantlemass unfolds through the series, which is best appreciated read as a whole, in correct reading order.
The publication order of the Mantlemass books differs from the chronological reading order - some were written retrospectively, but this is not apparent when reading them, and unlike some series, I don't feel that the retrospective books are in any way weaker than the rest. For ease of reference I have listed and discussed the books in correct reading order, with original publication dates in brackets.
The Miller's Boy (1976) is not the most powerful of the series, but is well worth reading as a study of friendship. It also sets the scene by introducing some of the important characters. In 1479 the eponymous Thomas Welfare makes friends with Lewis Mallory, lately come to live at Ghylls Hatch, a horsebreeding farm not far from Mantlemass. They have very different stations in life but their friendship is strong. Lewis has been exiled from his family for reasons he does not understand; Thomas is a staunch friend, enabling Lewis to adjust to and accept his new life in the forest. For their friendship to endure however, Thomas must leave, rather than change the nature of their relationship by staying on as a servant to Lewis. As they part, Lewis gives Thomas his horse, and Thomas gives Lewis his old red cap which is to become Lewis's trademark.
The Lark and the Laurel (1970) opens in 1485 at the end of the Wars of the Roses. Cecily Jolland has been gently raised in London, and is sent to her aunt Elizabeth's house of Mantlemass, to be conveniently out of the way while her father flees abroad.
Cecily has to learn a very different way of life and amid the small details of daily life at Mantlemass, she grows from a cloistered girl into a stronger and more independent person. Lewis Mallory of Ghylls Hatch is her first and only love, but a half-remembered connection with a lark-and-laurel ring and a childhood betrothal must be resolved before they can marry. Cecily and Lewis will generate the Mantlemass dynasty, and the story of their childhood as political pawns is one of the most enjoyable in the series.
The Sprig of Broom (1971) is the story of Medley Plashet and his search for his father, Dick Plashet. Medley's birth is a mystery; who exactly is his father? What is the meaning of the sprig of broom (Latin name of planta genista) and the old book which hints at a connection with royalty? In 1506 Medley is taken into the household of Lewis and Cecily Mallory and their children when his father vanishes; he learns to love their daughter Catherine, but must unravel the secret of his ancestry before he can win her.
A Cold Wind Blowing (1972) is set in the 1530s, and the Mallory and Medley families are affected indirectly and personally by the effects of the dissolution of the monasteries. Plans for a new church have to be abandoned, the local community of Priors is disbanded - and into Piers Medley's life comes a strange silent girl, Isabella. Who is she, and what is her secret? This is a disturbing and powerful story, with twin themes of loss and continuity.
The Eldest Son (1977) tells of illness and disaster at Ghylls Hatch, and a quarrel which splits the Medleys. Medley Plashet's eldest son Harry is set on being his own master, and is more interested in ironworking than horsebreeding. After a quarrel with his father, Harry and his young family leave the forest for a new life as an ironmaster at his wife's family home in Gloucestershire. Piers Medley will take Harry's place as the eldest son at home, and the secret of the sprig of broom will be passed down to him.
The Iron Lily (1973) introduces Lilias Forstal. With no inheritance but a crooked shoulder and an iron will, Lilias is a strong and independent woman. She struggles to find her place in the world and to solve the mystery of her birth and identity. Running from home on her mother's death, she has only the lark-and-laurel ring inherited from her mother, as a clue to finding her unknown father. She finds her way to the forest and makes a respected place for herself as head of the iron workings at Plashets, and is known as Master to her workmen. The ring eventually identifies her as a Medley, illegitimate daughter to Piers, though this can never be publicly acknowledged. This link to the Mallory and Medley families connects her more securely to her place and her work, and to old secrets; whilst plans for the future are unfolding for her daughter, Ursula.
A Flight of Swans (1980) opens as the Spanish Armada sails on England, and contrasts the fortunes of Humfrey and Roger Jolland, guests and kinsmen of the Medleys of Mantlemass. Humfrey rides off, hoping for battle, while Roger stays at home, becoming an ironworker, Master of Plashets. For political reasons and personal gain, Humfrey turns traitor; while for family reasons, Roger betrays a trust. This is also Ursula Medley's story; unhappily married, she stays at Mantlemass watching the seasons, and the changes brought by war and politics.
Harrow and Harvest (1974) is the last Mantlemass novel. In the 1640s, Mantlemass is in decline, and there is uncertainty over who the heir will be. With the advent of the Civil War, the time comes for the Mantlemass household and tenants to declare allegiance to Crown or Parliament. In consequence, the household is bitterly divided; but out of fire and disaster will come new beginnings for some, both at home and in the New World.
The Keys of Mantlemass (1981) is a collection of short stories, bridging some gaps between the novels, and relating some incidents in more detail. The collection enhances the unity of the series and answers questions about some of the minor characters. The final story provides the finishing touch, bringing the Mantlemass story up to date, with a young woman from the American branch of the Medleys returning to the forest in search of her family history.
The appeal of the series is not just the plots and characters, well-developed though these are; the independent-minded heroines such as Dame Elizabeth, Cecily, and Lilias are a delight, and the interplay of one character with another is convincing. There are no simply good or bad characters; Barbara Willard allows her characters to be both complex and flawed. Throughout the series though, there is a thread of large themes being played out on a small stage; the reader can access this approach at a variety of levels. It is possible just to enjoy the localised story, appreciating the small homely details and gaining a vivid sense of what it was like to live at that time; but an enquiring reader will also want to know something about the backdrop of history which drives the plots. This is the best sort of historical fiction, combining the sweep of history with a focussed imagination in a way which will leave many readers curious and wanting to find out more.
A sense of place is central to the series; the particular blend of ironworking and horsebreeding in a forest setting are specific to Sussex, and this is quietly reinforced by Barbara Willard's use of Sussex dialect and forest idioms. Sussex bred, she had heard and absorbed the Sussex dialect all her life. Her use of authentic forest language and sentence structure effectively overcomes the historical writer's dilemma of how to present period dialogue; the result sounds natural and unlaboured, and convincingly of its time and place. The sense of location is reinforced by the isolation of Mantlemass in winter; as well as contact with the wider world at other times of the year. There are guests from London, kinsmen paying visits; children sent to live in the country from other environments. Their different customs and ways of speaking are a contrast to the forest talk and manners; those who come to stay tend to adapt their customs and speech to the local ways, in time. Also reinforcing a sense of place and stability is the continuity of Mallory and Medley names; as the families intermingle, names and their variants are repeated down the generations. Lewis, Simon, Harry, Roger, Cecily, Catherine, Cecilia, Susannah, Susan, Ursula. The names of Mallory and Medley, sometimes surnames, are also given as first names to boys as well as girls. In one of the stories in The Keys of Mantlemass, the continuity of names is one factor in enabling a modern American Celia to identify her Medley family history. The name Richard, too, has a significance linked to the sprig of broom. The lark-and-laurel emblem also continues through the series, though by the end, its meaning has been lost. Again and again, down the generations, themes of identity, maturing and belonging emerge; some characters have to leave the forest to find their own path in life, whilst others find their true place is at Mantlemass.
This is a highly enjoyable series with much to recommend it, and I feel it should be better known whilst copies are still relatively easy to acquire. All the Mantlemass books are currently out of print, so the would-be reader has a choice of libraries or secondhand sources. I was surprised to find that in my local area, the Hertfordshire library service does not hold a Mantlemass set anywhere in the county. I hope that other libraries may be better served. Some titles were originally published by Longman, (later Kestrel); some titles were reprinted as Puffin paperbacks in the 1970s, and to the best of my knowledge all titles appeared under the Macdonald imprint, in simultaneous hardback and paperback editions, in the 1980s. However, The Eldest Son, Flight of Swans and Keys of Mantlemass did not appear in Puffin and so are rather harder to find. The Macdonald editions seem difficult to find so I wonder if these perhaps went mainly into library stocks.
Some titles, but not the whole series, also appeared in American editions; several in hardback editions by Harcourt Brace/Dutton in the 1970s, and all except The Millers Boy and Keys of Mantlemass in Dell Laurel Leaf paperbacks in 1989, under a series heading "The Mantlemass Chronicles". These are also now out of print. Secondhand hardbacks - frequently ex library copies - do turn up reasonably often in dealers' catalogues; they are inexpensive, around £5.00. The Puffin paperbacks were reprinted and should not be too difficult to find.
Barbara Willard was a very private person; little was written about her during her lifetime. She was single, and for years shared her home in Ashdown Forest with a friend; while writing the Mantlemass novels she wrote one long book each year, and pursued interests such as gardening and motoring when she could. She wrote other successful children's books including historical novels for younger children, but the Mantlemass books will be remembered as her major achievement. She died in 1994.
Barbara Willard: entry in "Twentieth Century Children's Writers"
Elaine Moss "Part of the Pattern" Bodley Head 1985; interview with Barbara Willard, originally published in Signal in 1972, "Barbara Willard and the Springs of Mantlemass".
Copyright Belinda Copson 1999. This article first appeared in Folly Magazine No 27, July 1999.