In time for Hallowe’en, I’m recommending a gentle ghost story – `The Children of Green Knowe’ by Lucy Boston. Published in 1954, this was the first in a series of six children’s novels about an ancient house set in a magical riverside garden. The fictional Green Knowe was based on Boston’s own home, the Manor House at Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire, which is one of the oldest inhabited houses in England. An ebook edition of `The Children of Green Knowe’ is now available but I’d advise you to find an old hardback or paperback copy in order to get the full benefit of Peter Boston’s atmospheric illustrations. This is a book I loved as a child but interpret rather differently now that I have re-read it as an adult.
The story opens with an unhappy seven year-old boy travelling to stay with a great-grandmother whom he has never met. Tolly has been sent to an English boarding school because his mother is dead and his father has remarried and is living in Malaysia. Now Tolly has been invited to spend the Christmas holiday at the isolated home of Mrs Oldknow. After a disorienting journey through the flooded East Anglian countryside he arrives at the ancient house known as Green Noah or Green Knowe. Tolly is warmly welcomed by Mr Boggis the gardener and by Mrs Oldknow but he soon notices that Green Knowe is a house full of strange shadows and noises. The rocking horse in his attic bedroom moves when no-one is touching it and Tolly starts to hear music and children’s voices.
When the floods recede Tolly is able to explore the gardens with their wonderful topiary figures in the form of animals. Mrs Oldknow tells him stories about three children who lived in the house during the 17th century, Toby, Alexander and Linnet Oldknow and about Toby’s horse, Feste who is said to haunt the stables. Tolly longs to see Feste and to meet these ghostly children whom he can hear whispering and laughing. Mrs Oldknow promises that he will find them soon but she also tells him a darker tale of the gypsy curse on Green Knowe. When the garden wakes into life, Tolly must beware of the evil fingers of the Demon Tree called Green Noah…
This is a shorter plot summary than usual because `The Children of Green Knowe’ is more about atmosphere than plot. Essentially, the house and garden are the main characters. The story simply follows Tolly as he gets to know the living and dead inhabitants of the house and the natural and supernatural creatures to be found in the gardens. Green Knowe is a mysterious place where there are no firm divisions between past and present, yet it seems far more solid and believable than most fictional houses. It is very obvious that Lucy Boston was writing about somewhere she knew and loved. Even the toys that Tolly finds in the nursery, such as the rocking horse and a carved ebony mouse, are based on objects played with by her real-life son, Peter. Lucy Boston, who died in 1990 at the age of 98, was a remarkable woman. She restored the semi-derelict Manor House, created a beautiful wildlife-friendly garden, sewed intricate American-style patchwork quilts, and published her first novel when she was 62. She’s definitely one of my role-models.
Lucy Boston was a newcomer to her ancient house, so perhaps it was a desire for a deeper connection that led her to invent the Oldknow family, who are supposed to have lived at Green Knowe for centuries. The theme of finding a place where you truly belong runs through all her fiction. In `The Children of Green Knowe’ Tolly aches to be part of family again while in later books in the series Green Knowe becomes a sanctuary for outsiders such as a black ex-slave (`The Chimmneys of Green Knowe’), displaced children from Poland and Burma (`The River at Green Knowe’) and even an escaped gorilla (`A Stranger at Green Knowe’). The author seems to extend the same invitation to her readers, asking us to make ourselves at home at Green Knowe and gradually discover its secrets.
As a child I gladly accepted her invitation. I loved to imagine myself sitting by a flickering fire in the Knights Hall or playing hide and seek amongst the yew trees. I thought that Mrs Oldknow was an ideal granny when she let Tolly wander by himself or made him do half-crazy things like covering his hands in butter to attract small birds to come and feed. I envied Toby, Alexander and Linnet as they walked in their paradise garden with their tame deer, hare and squirrel. Now though Mrs Oldknow’s treatment of her great-grandson seems rather sinister to me. Instead of trying to find real friends for this lonely child, she encourages Tolly to see and interact with `the others’ – children who sometimes remember that they died horribly three hundred years in the past but seem unable to leave Green Knowe. Taken out of cosy context, there are many passages in this book which read as if they are from a far more chilling ghost story – `in the stillness he thought he heard little bare feet running across the floor, then laughter and whispering, and a sound like the pages of a big book being turned over.’ Tolly feels that the house `is full of shiny black eyes all looking at me’ and on another occasion `he could feel breathing beside his ear. He put his hands up and felt two very little ones and some curls, soft little cobwebs.’ Cobwebs – a very M.R. James moment (see my October 2013 post on his ghost stories).
This darker view is undoubtedly influenced by my own experience when visiting the house on which which Green Knowe is based with a group of children’s authors. I had greatly looked forward to being shown round by Lucy Boston’s daughter-in-law but by the time we got to the Knights Hall I could hardly bear to stay in the house. Normally, I do not find old buildings spooky. I have been in numerous Ancient Egyptian tombs without feeling a flutter of fear but on a beautiful summer afternoon at Hemingford Grey I was overwhelmed by horror and dread. Perhaps there is some truth in the story of the gypsy’s curse after all. Have a haunting Hallowe’en.