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An Exploration of Green Knowe

by Maureen Kincaid Speller

"In this house ... everything is twice."

So says Tolly, diminutive hero of The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, on the night he arrives at his great-grandmother Oldknow’s house. He’s referring to the mirrors which are hung all over the house, and most particularly to the one in his own bedroom, reflecting “the rafters, the wicker cage, the rocking-horse, the doll’s house, the painted box, the bed” but the comment turns out to even more apt than he might have realised.

Tolly is a bright, imaginative child, in some ways very old for his seven years. His father and step-mother are away in Burma, and his great-grandmother’s invitation to her house, Green Knowe, or Green Noah, as everyone calls it, has rescued him from another lonely holiday at boarding school. It’s not unnatural, perhaps, that he should be interested in the three children he sees in a portrait hanging on his grandmother’s wall. They are, Mrs Oldknow tells him, Toby, Alexander and Linnet, and they once lived in the house. And in the days to come, as he explores Green Knowe, Tolly will realise that they’ve not yet left it. Indeed, if his grandmother is to be believed, he himself is not so much exploring the place as becoming re-acquainted with it; he is, she informs him, like his grandfather Toseland, whom she always called Tolly, and yet it’s clear that to her he is also someone else for she often calls him Toby, as though he is the boy in the picture, brought back to life. She and Boggis, the gardener, agree that “he seems to belong here. … He has it all hidden in him somewhere.”

In some ways, this seems to be true, for Tolly has an unerring ability to ferret out the secrets of his grandmother’s house, finding the children’s old hiding-places, discovering their toys, solving the small mysteries posed by the stories told to him by his grandmother. And gradually he comes to know the children themselves. At first he only hears their voices and the noises they make as they play with their toys. To Tolly this is tremendously frustrating for he so wants to see them and to be able to play with them. “They’re like shy animals. They don’t come just at first till they are sure.” Mrs Oldknow reassures him, and so it proves to be. Through glimpses in the many mirrors … and perhaps this is why they are all over the house … and then in the secret house under the yew tree, Tolly comes face to face with the three children and solves the biggest mystery of the house, its peculiar name.

The Children of Green Knowe is undoubtedly one of the most charming ghost stories ever written for children. The magical and the mystical are skilfully blended with the everyday, to the point where it’s difficult to tell what is real and what might be Tolly’s imagination. It’s so difficult to resist a book where the protagonists firmly believe that the statue of St Christopher attends Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and that the topiary figure of Noah in the garden was cursed by gypsies, where long-dead children play in the house and garden, with the many birds and animals which seem to congregate there (or are some of them really just topiary figures; one can never be sure) and where there are so many tempting little mysteries to be resolved.

On one level, it’s a child’s ultimate dream of wish-fulfilment. Mrs Oldknow tells Tolly that he can do anything he wants, and so the house and grounds are a blank canvas for his games and exploration. He’s undoubtedly an old-fashioned child with a great love of the past. He enjoys the stories his grandmother tells him, stories which have a strange habit of intruding into the present, often with the discovery of the artefacts involved, or another crumb of knowledge. And the house itself is remarkable. Frequently described as an Ark, and thus it appears when surrounded by flood waters, it’s very old, almost a medieval castle to Tolly’s eye and filled with wonders, from the vases of mysterious flowers which seemingly appear on bare twigs to the mirrors, the carvings. It’s a house where magic cries out to happen, where adventures simply have to take place. As for Mrs Oldknow, she’s the perfect grandmother … understanding, sensitive to a child’s needs, knowing just what to do and say and the right moment at which to do it. Could a child want anything more? And could the adult reader, in search of the perfect delightful childhood possibly want anything more? Indeed not; there’s almost too much already.

And as if that weren’t enough, the book itself is exquisitely written. Lucy Boston trained as an artist and her descriptive vignettes show a skilful observer at work. Take the scene in which Tolly arrives at Green Knowe, and the description of the journey from the station in the taxi, along flooded roads, with his view confined to what he can see through “the two clear fans on the windscreen” made by the windscreen wipers, or the magical description of the first fall of snow before Christmas, “like millions of tiny white birds circling home to roost”. She also has a sense of what will most delight a child. Who can forget the scene where the chaffinch finds the key to the children’s toybox, giving Tolly the wonderful opportunity to unpack the chest, piece by piece, revelling in the rediscovery of their toys. And what about Tolly’s conviction that the Japanese carved mouse is real? Or that Toby’s horse, Feste, is still in the stables, awaiting his master?

Green Knowe book coverAnd as if this were not enough, she reprises the whole thing in a second book, far less well-known but equally attractive. The Chimneys of Green Knowe tells of the hunt for the Oldknow fortune, which mysteriously went missing during the late eighteenth century, and tells it through the medium of Tolly’s discovery of Susan Oldknow, another child of the house. Susan is blind, at a time when it was not considered worth encouraging those who were handicapped to make anything of their lives and is in the care of a nanny, aptly named Softly, who smothers her charge and refuses to allow her to do anything for herself. Worse, Susan’s mother has no interest in her child, beyond regarding her as an animated doll to be dressed and played with, and taken away when she is bored. Susan, though, is intelligent and has an independent spirit, as her father recognises, and he does his best to encourage her, providing her with a tutor and also with a servant, the irrepressible Jacob, a freed black slave boy. As Tolly searches the house for the treasure, he uncovers Susan’s possessions, the boxes of shells and seeds she liked to handle, and as he plays in the garden, he retraces the adventures into which Jacob led her. And in the evenings, as she repairs her patchwork, Mrs Oldknow tells him the story of the house, of Susan’s mother, vain and silly Maria; of her brother Sefton, a sly, deceitful wastrel, and Caxton, the butler and an out-and-out scoundrel, and of Jacob himself, rescued by Captain Oldknow, a gentle and humane man, but away from home for much of the time. Tolly, meanwhile, discovers more about the history of the house and its construction (the high point of this story is a fire which destroys the elegant eighteenth century house, revealing once again the original Norman house it had enclosed, and which Captain Oldknow had always preferred).

Both stories are tremendously appealing, from beginning to end, well-paced, well-told, and filled with many little pleasures. One longs to see the house, to handle the many choice possessions, to meet the child ghosts and to share adventures with them and Tolly; in short, one longs to be Tolly, heir to this remarkable domain, and to experience the extraordinary world in which the commonplace and the mystical rub shoulders. But with The Chimneys of Green Knowe, one can begin to see other preoccupations surfacing. There are the domestic concerns, for example; Mrs Oldknow’s interest in her birds, her old roses and her patchwork, Lucy Boston’s own particular domestic interests (she was a considerable needlewoman, making beautiful patchwork quilts, a feat all the more remarkable because her eyesight was so very poor in her final years and she refused to wear glasses).

There is also a great deal of the child in Lucy Boston’s stories, reflecting, I suspect, the child in Boston herself. Whether Boston liked children, I’m not sure. Her love for her son and her grandchildren is not, I think, in doubt, as shown in published letters and the patchwork quilts she made for them, but one often wonders whether she really liked children as a species. Her fictional children are by no means conventional — Tolly comments in The Chimneys of Green Knowe that when he and his grandmother were together, he forgot about being a schoolboy; they were just two people, and this could be also said of Mrs Oldknow’s relationship with Ping. But even when Mrs Oldknow herself is not present, those adults who are in the story treat the child protagonists in an entirely unorthodox and adult way. This is particularly so in The River at Green Knowe, the most whimsical (and in some ways, most improbable) of the novels. Indeed, I tend to think of it as a story devised by the children themselves, rather as the Blackett and Walker children devised a story in Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck. Oskar and Ping (both refugees) and Ida, great-niece of the bizarre Dr Maud Biggin, almost a child herself except where her academic studies are concerned, undergo a remarkable series of adventures, centring on the river flowing past Green Knowe (one cannot help but think that without the presence of Mrs Oldknow, adventures in the house itself are not possible). Sailing on the river at all hours of the day and night, they meet a giant, flying horses, a mysterious hermit, while Oskar is inadvertently shrunk to the size of a harvest mouse. Ironically, the only truly plausible event occurs in the garden of Green Knowe itself when, after discovering a mysterious bottle containing a message written in Latin, the children witness a Stone Age ceremony in a wickerwork building on the site of the house, thus confirming it as an ancient and religious site, while also pulling the focus of the book away from the frivolous once again. Even so, one cannot help but think of Boston revelling in the fictional freedom denied her in her own strict Weslayan upbringing, when all pleasures were considered wicked and sinful. I think it does come through in Boston’s writing, for the pleasures she recalls are those of the adult remembering childhood, the nostalgic joys rather than the immediacy of real childhood experience, where everything is so transitory, so very much of the moment.

And there is also a feeling for outsiders of all kinds. Tolly is, as we’ve seen, something of a misfit, while Susan has been excluded from society by virtue of her blindness and Jacob by virtue of his colour. However, this theme becomes particularly evident in the fourth book of the series, A Stranger at Green Knowe. Anyone expecting another joyous romp through the world of Green Knowe is likely to be disappointed, for the story revolves as much around a gorilla as around the familiar characters of earlier stories. Indeed, the novel opens with a long sequence describing the early life of a gorilla, Hanno, who is captured and brought to live in London Zoo. Here he is seen by Ping, a young Burmese boy who is a refugee in London, and who has already paid a visit to Green Knowe (in The River at Green Knowe), thanks to the well-intentioned but haphazard hospitality of a temporary tenant. Ping recognises a kindred spirit in Hanno and, before leaving the zoo, asks the keeper to give Hanno a gift of fruit, significantly fruit that a complete stranger had earlier insisted on giving to Ping. Such is the nature of fictional coincidence that Ping finds himself returning to Green Knowe, where this time he meets Mrs Oldknow, and that Hanno, when he fortuitously escapes from the zoo, also makes his way to Green Knowe, taking up residence in the garden’s bamboo thicket (though one is inclined to think that Boston has here muddled pandas and gorillas). Here, of course, he is discovered by Ping, whom he remembers because of his scent on the fruit, and most of the second half of the book is taken up with Ping’s efforts to conceal Hanno’s whereabouts, and Mrs Oldknow’s efforts to stop hunters invading her sanctuary. The ending is, inevitably, tragic. The story is regarded by many critics as Boston’s finest work; certainly, her evocation of the life of a young gorilla in the forest is admired for its accuracy.

Ping also figures in An Enemy at Green Knowe, written by Boston’s own acknowledgement as a form of catharsis after a particular unspecified battle involving the Manor House at Hemingford Grey, the model for Green Knowe, and Boston’s own home. This is quite the nastiest and most powerful of the Green Knowe stories, and also the most serious in its examination of ideas of right and wrong. Here, Ping, Tolly and Mrs Oldknow find themselves under siege from Dr Melanie D. Powers, a witch searching for the magical books of Dr Vogel, who once taught young Roger Oldknow, but who also studied alchemy. Melanie D. Powers unleashes numerous magical plagues upon Green Knowe, all of them thwarted by the boys, by Ping in particular. He possesses the mystical quality that Tolly, practical and down-to-earth, seems slightly to lack, although it has been noted previously that Ping is old beyond his years, and certainly this book comes nearest to overtly examining exactly who or what Mrs Oldknow might be. Melanie D. Powers considers her to be a witch, though clearly not a practitioner of the black arts, while Mrs Oldknow herself employs a prayerbook to counter one particularly unpleasant piece of magic. Her house, of course, is guarded by a full-size statue of St Christopher, anathema to Melanie D. Powers, as well as by a witch-ball and an old Persian mirror, while Mrs Oldknow herself is protected by what she and the boys whimsically consider to be a druid’s stone that she wears on a cord round her neck. And for sure, Boston herself seems to be remarkably knowledgeable about certain aspects of witchcraft, although one should bear in mind that the Folk Museum in Cambridge has a collection of witchcraft artefacts.

There is also her deep involvement with her house and its surrounding area, and her concern for its preservation, a concern which informs all the stories, of course, but which surfaces again particularly in An Enemy of Green Knowe and The Stones of Green Knowe, by which time it is clear that Tolly, now older and wiser, will endeavour to continue the Oldknow tradition of care for the house. Lucy Boston’s love of her house is most explicit in The Stones of Green Knowe, the final book of the series, written much later than the others, describing as it does the story of Roger d’Aulneaux, the first boy to live in the house, who watched it being built. We also read of his adventures travelling through time to meet the other children, Linnet, Toby and Alexander, Susan and Jacob, and of course Tolly, to reassure himself that the house he loves will endure. The theme of continuity through the ages is impossible to miss as the different children move backwards and forwards in time. Admittedly, it’s clumsily done, relying on the use of two standing stones, and strictly unnecessary considering that the ghostly children have never before shown any difficulty in meeting Tolly or, indeed, one another, but one cannot doubt that Boston’s message is clear.

And of course, Boston’s signature figure, the wise, all-seeing, all-knowing grandmother figure appears again, this time in the guise of Roger d’Aulneaux’s grandmother, as mystical and secure in her faith as her future counterpart. This time, though, Boston throws in a surprise, with Tolly’s great-grandmother, though apparently still alive, appearing as a teenage girl. Tolly, of course, recognises her:

“I know you,” he said, taking her hand. “I’d know you anywhere, any time. You’re my grandmother. There’s only one of you.”

“Dear Tolly! I’ve always lived here you know. I’ve seen and heard them all often.”

And that, I feel, is the key to the series, that Mrs Oldknow is always there, in one guise or another, as the genius locii, the spirit of the place. While the stories may be about the children of the house, the uniting influence is almost always the grandmother, and she is often referred to as “the grandmother”, as though there were only the one. (That she is Tolly’s great-grandmother is irrelevant, for she says herself, “What does one generation more or less matter?”) Indeed, it’s surely significant that Ping always calls her Grand Mother, perhaps echoing the archetypal Great Mother.

What puzzles me is the relationship between Boston and her fictional counterpart, Mrs Oldknow, for I feel sure that there undoubtedly is one, given that Boston herself is so very much a part of the real Green Knowe. Having put so much of her house into her stories, it seems inconceivable to me that she wouldn’t put herself in. Whether Boston saw herself as being the saintly Mrs Oldknow, I have no idea (and grandmotherly figures feature in many of her stories, as indeed does a certain house) but her autobiographical writings (gathered in Memories, published by Colt Books) suggest that she was often anything but a kindly grandmother figure. Irascible, at war with anything and anyone vaguely representing authority or posing a threat to her beloved home, feeling ever more out of step with the times, a stickler for etiquette and propriety, and also very conscious of her own dignity, she and Mrs Oldknow seem to be as diametrically opposed in their behaviour as it’s possible to be. I’m inclined to think, though, that Boston wouldn’t have seen this dichotomy, not to judge from the way she gleefully recounted her battles through the years. And if the Green Knowe books have wish-fulfilment at the heart of their being, isn’t it the greatest wish-fulfilment of all to write yourself into your own books as the person you believe yourself to be? But whether or not Lucy M. Boston was the embodiment of her creations is really beside the point, though it certainly adds an extra frisson if you do happen to know the circumstances of her life. The books themselves are the most important things, and it would be difficult to find a set of books more magical, more exciting, more beautifully written than those about the children of Green Knowe.


edited and unless otherwise indicated, written by Meredith

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