Lucy Boston, The Children of Green Knowe

This is not a Rasa of Yearniness post, or not really, Kip.

From this week’s column.

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The haunted house is such a classic (and effective) trope in literature because we believe that places matter. Ghosts wherever they are, mean history; that a place is supposed to be haunted is a constant reminder that it has had a past. Things have happened here. Quite apart from the inherent uncanniness of spirits that can move things around, the idea of ghosts is a reminder that we cannot entirely control our surroundings. We will never be the first to experience a place.

One house that can lay claim to a long history is The Manor, in Cambridgeshire, England. It is supposed to be one of the oldest continually-habited houses in the country, having been built almost a thousand years ago. The Manor was also home for many years to the author Lucy Boston, who used it as the setting for the six books in her “Green Knowe” series.

I don’t know if there are any stories of ghosts that haunt The Manor, but its fictional counterpart certainly has them in abundance. The first book, The Children of Green Knowe, has seven year old Toseland (“Tolly” for short) arriving for the first time at his great-grandmother’s ancestral home. Almost immediately he begins to sense the presence of other children, though he cannot yet see them.  Green Knowe continues to be the home of three children who lived during the 1600s; Anthony, Linnet and Toby (another Toseland). As Tolly learns to see these distant relatives in more definite ways than out of the corner of his eye, he also learns more about the history of this house and of his own family.

Some of my favourite books, particularly children’s books, have as their background a feeling of quiet yearning. It’s in invoking this feeling that Boston’s great achievement lies. Not much actually happens in The Children of Green Knowe, but something about this book is pure, distilled childhood. It’s in Tolly’s immediate acceptance of the very strange world he has come to live in, in the elusiveness of companions who cannot always be directly looked at, the equal parts of fear and longing. Death exists in this world, and so do curses, and sadness and fear are inevitable even for adults. But above and around them exists a sense of safety, of being in the right place.  To read The Children of Green Knowe is to remember that “nostalgia” is from the Greek for homecoming—Tolly comes home to family, history, even to his own name. For this alone it might just be the perfect children’s book.

There’s also something rather special happening with time. Play that involves companions who might disappear at any moment may seem transient; and read from my (now) adult perspective so may this whole business of childhood itself. But on a larger scale things stay remarkably unchanged in this little world. Children’s play appears to have stayed constant across centuries so that Tolly is able to communicate immediately with these distant relatives. The house is unchanged. Even the faithful retainer is the descendant of his predecessor in the position—apparently the Boggis family have been content to be loyal servants for centuries. (One wonders if the Boggis children get to have similarly nostalgic adventures). Green Knowe is also known as “Green Noah”; the house is surrounded by a moat and we first see it during a flood. It’s tempting to see Green Knowe as a sort of time-ark, carrying within it the past, and preserving it into the future. Is it even really a haunted house when the past, present and future exist together in this protected space? I’m not sure.

As a child I was terrified of ghosts—to the point that a single nightmare could have me in tears regularly for months after. But as a child I had not yet read The Children of Green Knowe, and I wonder if that could have changed things.

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