Every now and then a child will ask me, “Have you got any adventure stories?” A simple question, but surprisingly difficult to answer. I could recommend Alex Rider or Artemis Fowl – brilliantly written books full of thrilling action sequences, gadgets and larger-than-life situations in exotic places. But a gut feeling tells me that isn’t what they want. I think that, even if they don’t know it, they hanker after an old-fashioned adventure story of children being allowed a degree of freedom and independence rarely seen in our risk-averse society, and if those boxes are ticked the setting can be relatively ordinary.
By ordinary I don’t mean the social realism of a Jacqueline Wilson tale – not that I’m knocking JW, far from it. She is phenomenally successful and deserves to be. I mean the kind of rural holiday location where children get to sleep in barns, camp out on islands and cycle, walk or even hitch-hike long miles through country lanes, relieved by picnics packed up by friendly adults who know when to back off and when to interfere. Optional but highly desirable elements are caves, horses, dogs (actually, I’m not sure the dog is optional, I think it’s essential) and the frisson of danger provided by a treasure hunt or an odd character lurking around, clearly up to something fishy.
The Famous Five come to mind, and still have their following. But I think a strong contender for that place in the collective juvenile consciousness would be the Lone Pine novels by Malcolm Saville. The Lone Pine Club is a group of around eight children, the bonds between them forged on exactly the kind of holidays described above. Similar to the Arthur Ransome novels, the precise line-up of characters varies according to location, but the heart of their adventures might truly be said to be the remote Shropshire countryside between Shrewsbury in the north and Ludlow in the south, and specifically the country around the mountains of the Long Mynd and the Sliperstones.
This week I read one of the Saville books (The Neglected Mountain, 1953) to see how it stood up. My husband claimed it was “throbbing with UST” and certainly Saville doesn’t ignore the – ahem – emotional development of fifteen and sixteen year olds. There are two boy/girl pairings – David, very much the leader of the group, and Petronella (known as Peter), an independent local girl who loves to ride her pony around the country lanes when she’s not away “at boarding school in Shrewsbury”, a statement that neatly conveys the all-important 1950s identifier of social class.
Jenny, from a village post office/general store and Tom, who works on a farm, make up the second couple. It is implicit, though never openly stated, that Jenny has something of a crush on David, but he’s out of her league, and she pairs off comfortably with Tom. Again, class is critical here. Gender stereotyping is often mentioned in critiques of the children’s fiction of this period, but in fact there seems to be far more scope for girls to assume a male persona, right down to their names, than for them to step outside their social class (Boys making the reverse journey is another matter, of course).
Why do these adventures continue to be appealing? I think it’s because the issues that tend to worry adults now – premature sexualisation, social diversity and the degree of freedom it is appropriate to offer older children – are addressed quite differently. That is not to say they are ignored. Far from it. Here is Saville on the subject of gypsies:
The gypsies and Mr Cantor respected each other. The detective knew how honest and trustworthy they were. Gypsies are often accused of many things unjustly, but in their wanderings they pick up a lot of information: and when Miranda handed the detective a cup of tea she knew at once that there were questions he wanted to ask them.
The Neglected Mountain, p 180
No need to labour the point, but it’s there. Another example is the villain of the piece, who is undoubtedly a rather odd sort, and owes more than a little to the mad scientist stereotype of the period, but is partly redeemed in the end when he turns himself in by summoning help when one of the children is injured
What counts in the Saville universe is character. The baddie mentioned above is distinguished from the real crook who is exploiting him:
He pretended to be clever and to have some culture, but when he lost his temper as he had just now, his background was obvious.
The isn’t so much snobbery, more the very British distaste for someone trying to be what they’re not. And the key point about the appeal of these books, one closely related to Saville’s unassuming but strong and sincere Christian faith, is that adventures develop character. The children discover loyalty through their fellowship – they make club rules and take them very seriously, respecting the authority of their self-appointed leaders. But authority has to be earned, and with it comes responsibility. Peter risks her life to protect the youngest girl in the group and this action is thoroughly endorsed by adults, though she could have ended up paraplegic. Yet these adults are in no way irresponsible; they are loving and caring, but they do know when to stand back and let the children work things out.
Sometimes these negotiations with the adult world can be complex. The question of when to accept that adults know best, and when to put the needs of the group first, is hammered out in situations that contemporary children could well identify with. Their independence is not forced upon them by inadequate adult carers, as is often the case in Jacqueline Wilson’s books. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that children are reading books like Lily Alone, in which an 11 year old girl is left to look after her small siblings when her irresponsible mother goes away on holiday with her new bloke. But there is also a place for these negotiations with the adult world of independence and responsibility to be offered to young readers in the context of a reassuring framework of loving adult support and a functioning social order where adults met in the course of daily life are, as a default setting, trustworthy rather than not.
Towards the end of Saville’s narrative, the children feel that one of the adults they rely on has let them down. However, the way they discuss these feelings of abandonment are remarkably nuanced:
“Yesterday I think that as a club we were feeble. Instead of making up our minds what we were going to do and sticking to it, we kept on being influenced by Charles, who wasn’t interested in us or our problems until we got back here and he had fixed up the business which had been worrying him for some time…”
This is not the “me-generation” speaking. The children value their friendship with Charles; they regret that he wasn’t more concerned about a problem that seems overwhelming to them (the disappearance of a little girl’s dog), but they understand the pressures on him. Significantly, Peter (the speaker) has arrived at her conclusion by talking with Mary, the younger girl who is most emotionally involved, since the dog is her special pet. Peter has taken Mary’s concerns seriously and regards them as valid. There is an atmosphere of mutual respect here that colours the group’s subsequent decision to proceed unilaterally into danger from now on, without waiting for adult sanction and protection.
The youngest children feel validated by this support. As they point out,
“Mary and me don’t want to be in it if Mackie [the dog] isn’t a member, too,” Dickie interrupted. “That’s just how it is.”
Authority, and the acceptance of it, flows from character revealed in adversity. This is rather different from a blind endorsement of the social order. Within the social constraints of the time, which are likely to bother 21st century adults rather more than children, moral values are worked out in a context that values what children themselves value most. It is interesting that the adults accept this democracy in action rather than condemning the children’s disobedience. They have delegated authority to the older members of the group. Adults are shown to be fallible; the dog is stolen because a busy farmer’s wife hadn’t had time to keep an eye on him as she’d promised, Charles admits he had things on his mind, and Robens, the scientist stealing the dogs, is shown to be a basically good man who had made mistakes and fallen in with a bad companion.
None of this is laboured, any more than is David’s growing romantic attraction to Peter/Petronella, which again grows out of an admiration for her attitudes and behaviour. David recognises that he hasn’t always been as good a friend to Peter as he might have been. He’s physically attracted to her but what matters most to him is the depth and quality of her relationship:
She was certainly very pretty…and he had never been so aware of this before, but even as he looked at her he suddenly knew that the best thing about Peter was that she was entirely natural…You knew where you were with her…If she made a mistake, she admitted it. She was grand!
We can mock such understated physical desire, just as we can allow our jaws to drop at the idea of Peter entering a cave wearing a dress, or always being the one to make the sandwiches, or saying things are “beastly.” But I’ve known nine-year-old girls – some of them from devout Muslim homes – who were repelled by the open descriptions of a big sister’s boob job or mum’s smelly new boy friend in more recent children’s books. It seems to me that in its restraint, its emphasis on friendship, character and affection, Saville’s account of the growth of desire between two young people has plenty to offer the children of the confused early 21st century.
I’ve gone on long enough. I’d like to end with a short tribute to the excellent independent publisher “Girls Gone By”. Their name betrays their original focus on vintage school stories, but they are now venturing into the related field of the adventure novel and, thanks to them, several of Saville’s books are now available in attractive editions that combine the original artwork with interesting and helpful introductions. Jolly good show, GGB!