Spring 2002

ISSN 1473-219X





Lucy M Boston's The River at Greene Knowe (1959) or How to 'Dip Happily' Between Reality and Fantasy

Karen Sayer,
University of Leeds


This article explores the representation of the Other and issues of hybridity within Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe children’s books, focusing in particular on The River at Green Knowe (1959). These books draw on common-place models of Englishness and childhood, but also ‘alien’ and ‘non-native’ cultures to create a fantastical setting and series of adventures. Within her books we find multiple boundary crossings and an implicit questioning of adult/colonial mapping that enable her to tackle complex and often threatening issues of displacement. It is the contention of this paper that in this way, domestic Englishness and whiteness are (at least implicitly) thrown into question. Far from being a haven from colonialism and its collapse, the countryside becomes the focus of pagan celebrations and abysmal fears:

Newly invented worlds and talking animals are obviously in the realms of fantasy; but there are other subjects that are barely inside the frontiers. Much fiction that is essentially naturalistic, concerned with what actual people do in the actual world, puts a foot across the border into fantasy in search of some degree of freedom that realism, strictly interpreted, would not allow. The border in any case is an elusive one. There is fantasy so minimal that the reader is left in doubt whether anything outside the bounds of possibility has happened at all. (Townsend: 238)
Green Knowe is let for the summer, and installed are two cheerful, batty grown-ups and three interesting children. One of these is English, one Polish and one Chinese. Their adventures stem from exploration of the river near the house and dip happily each side of the line between reality and fantasy. (Times Literary Supplement)

The Green Knowe books are aimed at pre-teenage children, and all contain elements of the fantastic within them, a fantastic which is not generally threatening but which is often strange and destabilising. The fantastic here is supernatural, grounded in (English) nature. As Jane Langton says, 'for most British writers of fantasy for young people, the landscape and its wild creatures are not enough. Britain is old, and its countryside is fertile with history, with myth and legend... in the work of many. . . British writers there is [a]... thick intertwining of field and forest with myth and history – in the stories of Kenneth Grahame, E. Nesbit, Lucy Boston, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, William Mayne'. (Langton: 171)

Boston's texts consistently draw on common British folkloric elements such as the green man or Pan, dip into ancient British history and take nature for their inspiration. Thus Englishness is embedded within the Green Knowe stories while the English countryside in particular, drawing on idyllic constructions of both Nature and childhood, is assumed to be a haven for children. This is a common enough admixture, as Owain Jones explains, ‘notions of both country and childhood are massively and intricately present within our culture(s). Where they intersect in ideas of ‘country childhoods’ they often become a vision of considerable potency’. (Jones, 1997: 158) In Boston’s case, this Englishness also relies on an audience at least partially versed in the Classics – otherwise the touching assumption that Pegasus is just as likely to touch down in the Halcyon fields of East Anglia as in those of Ancient Greece would lose its effect – and Romantic expectations. However, in the Green Knowe books generally and in The River at Green Knowe in particular, we also find mythological and fabulous material drawn from Eastern European and Oriental legend, not just Olde England, Greece or Rome. In The River at Green Knowe this is thanks to the introduction of two child protagonists who bring in/project their own displaced demons onto the alien – for them – English landscape. It is this tension between ‘authentic’ if fantastical Englishness and the use of the culturally displaced that this paper explores.

Boston's children’s stories are all centred on one place: Green Knowe. They all play with the hybridity of that place and the idea of an ever-expanding process of exploration from its centre. Hence, as Eleanor Cameron notes, 'Lucy Boston has lived in her cherished Norman manor house – Green Knowe – and gone on writing about it ever since she first bought it and had all the later excrescences torn away to reveal the ancient, original structure.' (Cameron: 33) This is a process that was as literary as it was architectural, as each text stripped away another layer of the house's, and English, history. That history is the guarantor of adventure and narrative pleasure in Boston’s books. The River at Green Knowe (1959) is one of a series, the other titles are: The Children of Green Knowe (1954), The Chimneys of Green Knowe (1958), A Stranger at Green Knowe, (1961) An Enemy at Green Knowe (1964) and The Stones of Green Knowe (1976). In the early stories, Tolly, a young boy, visits his great-grandmother, Mrs Oldknow. Mrs Oldknow is an old and wise woman who lives in the ancient manor house of Green Knowe and tells him about the children who used the live there: Toby, Alexander and Linnet, who died in the plague of 1665, and, in the late C18th, blind Susan and Jacob, a black boy. The River at Green Knowe sits in the middle of the series and is followed by A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961). The stranger is an escaped gorilla called Hanno, befriended by the Chinese boy Ping/Hsu we first meet in The River at Green Knowe. In the end, Hanno is shot after making a choice, according to Ping/Hsu, between captivity and death. The final book, The Stones of Green Knowe (1976) goes back to the building of the manor in 1120. A boy called Roger watches the process of construction and there is extensive play with time as the story self-referentially moves back and forth across the different generations of children introduced in the earlier books.

Stylistically, Lucy Boston's writing is precise, clear and flowing; her work is so carefully crafted, especially when she is describing the house or its garden, that Townsend suggests her technique 'is unsurpassed by that of any other British children's writer, and rivalled by very few.' (Townsend: 239) Indeed, she once said herself, that 'I believe children, even the youngest, love good language, and that they see, feel, understand and communicate more, not less, than grownups. Therefore, I never write down to them, but try to evoke that new, brilliant awareness that is their world.' (cited in Cameron) This is a strikingly Romantic conception of childhood, and was a philosophy that had as big an impact on her work as the Green Knowe books’ homeliness. Beyond this stylistic surety and centredness, however, as examples of marginal fantasy her texts ask the reader to remain uncertain. For example, it is unclear whether or not Tolly 'really' meets the children Mrs Oldknow tells him about, or whether he just has an over-active imagination stimulated by her stories and the house. Thus Boston’s stories play with ambiguity; she encourages us to simultaneously entertain both the naturalistic and the super-naturalistic possibilities of the narrative.

Throughout the series, the uncertainties of the Green Knowe books are reflected in their representation of the (super/un)natural, and this use of English Nature alone makes Boston very much an author of her time. Whereas Nature was generally depicted as tamed and limited – especially in gardens – in the children's literature of the early part of the 20th century, by the time the Green Knowe books were written it had broken out again. It’s therefore quite telling that though Mrs Oldknow and her gardener Boggis work hard at tending and taming the garden at Green Knowe, spring floods overwhelm it every year, and the river is figured as having a life of its own that pays little attention to the needs or desires of humanity. As Mrs Oldknow and Boggis interfere with or try to tame Nature: ie, try to disturb the natural balance, so Nature, in the form of the River, in turn disturbs and overturns their efforts at control. There is never any getting back to a moment before this cycle of turn-and-turn-about disturbance began. Here, the play of Nature vs Culture across boundaries such as the riverbank is very much about the fleeting and inherently transitional state of childhood itself. In Boston's books, drawing on the Romantics, childhood must inevitably be disrupted and dismantled by the growth into adulthood. However, what we can also see here is a characteristic tension in the Green Knowe books between continuity and change, conservative and radical.

This tension is present at the outset of the story. As noted by the Times Literary Supplement, The River at Green Knowe begins when ‘two cheerful, batty grown-ups’ are installed in the house – Dr Maud Biggin, an archaeologist who has a passion for books, and Miss Sybilla Bun, who has a passion for food. Representing respectively the traditional division between the mental and the physical, they nonetheless bypass the norms of marriage and childbearing by acquiring two children, Oskar (aged 11) and Ping/Hsu (aged 9) from The Society for the Promotion of Summer Holidays for Displaced Children. And they invite Dr. Biggin's great-niece, Ida (aged 11) to stay with them. This venture is inspired by the 'Grimm's fairy-tale quality' and spaciousness of Green Knowe itself, which Dr. Biggin has rented from Mrs Oldknow in order to write a book about prehistoric giant men, A Reconstruction of the Habits and Diet of the Oguru; A Summary of Recent Discoveries. Having brought the children to Green Knowe, however, the adults then become bystanders, occasionally subject to and objectified by the children’s scrutiny.

Once the children have been introduced, the two 'batty' grown ups remain peripheral to a narrative that is consistently told from the children’s point of view. Structured cyclically, the children’s encounters with Green Knowe, the River and its surroundings become ever more fantastical until they finally travel back in time to a stone-age/pagan celebration – pre-dating the building of the house -- to confront English Nature as abysmal mortality. After which it is noted, '[m]any pleasant ordinary things can be done a second time, though they are never twice alike. The really extraordinary things can never be repeated.' (131) Up until this point, the circular pattern of the narrative, the English imagery of a summer country has added to the timelessness of childhood, but now the children must recognise all good things must come to an end:

They were standing at midnight, alone, under a sky that was there before either earth or moon had been, and would be there long after. In this agonising second of revelation that ALL passes, the bark of a disturbed heron caused them clutch each other, and jerked loose their tongues.
'Where can we go?' asked Ida. 'Where is there for us to go to, now?' (128-129)

This question works on both a literal and metaphysical level. The adventure itself is prompted by the discovery of a 17th century letter in a bottle, left by a cleric who has been shattered by his own experience of the event which the children now witness. In this way there is an unspoken stress on the question of resurrection in the children’s – and the cleric’s – discovery that there may be nowhere else to go. As Oskar says 'We are really displaced now.' (128-129) It is striking within this context that though this is a singularly wondrous and indeed climactic experience for all of the children, both Oskar and Ping/Hsu are exiles from nascent atheistic Communist states. Though Oskar’s father is said to have been shot for thinking his own thoughts the text does not work simply or comfortably as a piece of liberal propaganda framed by cold war anti-communism, or attempts to integrate the demonised Other into the British society of the 1950s. It is the case that any progress within the text is focused on the growth and development of the rational individual – the children step over the boundary of reality into a fantasy realm wherein they learn a variety of lessons equipping them for adulthood – however, it is also at this moment of epiphany that the children meet the uncivilised, un-Christian Other lying at the very heart of the decaying British empire, in the depths of its pre-colonial past. This destabilises its ability to act as a haven for the individual in either a colonial or postcolonial world.

Similarly, the close of the book apparently returns the children to the innocence of an English childhood, domesticity and the normalising influence of 'civilisation'. As they go to the circus to see a giant they have befriended, the gap between adult and child, reality and fantasy, is made certain. Despite all of her research, Dr Biggin cannot believe that a giant really exists, because she, like all adults, lacks the requisite imagination. The metaphysical is reduced to the comic in this scene and the uncertainties of the past are closed over. However, again, this closure is not, and cannot be, as fixed as it might at first seem, given the uncertainties of the (super/un)natural that remain unresolved and the marginalised status of the protagonists. Ping/Hsu and Oskar are doubly marginalised because they are displaced children, Ida because she is a girl. They may no longer be displaced in time, but Ping/Hsu and Oskar at least will always already be exiles.

It is, as noted, the concept of hybridity – the multiple identities and stories that can be associated with a place, the many narratives that condense onto one spot – which will provide us with the most useful reading of this text. To begin with, the house is figured at the outset of The River as belonging to the realms of both fantasy and reality, the location/site of many stories. Though Green Knowe is undeniably present, it is, as Dr. Biggin says, 'a house you can hardly believe in.' (11) The house and garden are seen by her to be just right for children because of this. It is a 'natural' environment for them, a place they will inevitably play in. In a sense the house itself demands/requires of the two adults that there also be children living in it. And, the first thing the children do when they arrive is to fulfil this expectation; the three of them see the house respectively and simultaneously as a Buddhist monastery, a Crusader's castle, and the site of Rapunzel's imprisonment. The very next thing the children do is to look out at the river and figure that it is also, like the house, just right for some real and imaginary adventuring, such as finding singing fish; ‘"I'm in a hurry to begin," said Ida. 'I want the river. I could eat it.’ (17) Thus, the children, though they are displaced, somehow organically belong to Green Knowe, while the river speaks to and reveals their deepest desires.

The river then takes them on a journey that encompasses both time and space and that river too, they find, has an essential hybridity. Like the house it can be both mysterious and enchanting, but though uncharted, hiding mysteries and treasures, it is also a place where adults come and play, it becomes full of boats, dogs and swimmers. To search out 'their' river the children must leave this too populous and public/adult place behind. They begin to go out at dawn and so start their real explorations.

Dawn is, of course, a liminal time of day, a time of day that seems to allow access to a whole new world, a world dominated by Nature rather than Culture, one that hovers on the margins of night and day:

Very early next morning, creeping down through a curtained house, they came into a world that Ida hardly recognised. It felt tilted, with the moon in the unexpected side of the sky, because it was setting, and the growing light of dawn was farther east than she had ever seen it before, as if the points of the compass had been displaced. The bullocks were asleep, so were the swans. No smoke came from any cottage chimney, no birds moved. A vivid red fox cantered across the field with a moorhen in his mouth. Only the water was loud. The fall at the watergates shouted carelessly to the dawn as if certain no one was listening.
The children loosed the canoe and set off, paddling expertly and swiftly because they were half afraid of such an empty world. (34-5)

This passage has echoes of Wordsworth's Prelude – echoes that are repeated throughout the book, every time the children set out on the river – yet, when they see a derelict building looming out of the sunrise, decayed and ivy-clad, reclaimed by Nature, they do not run off home, rather, they go to look for Ping/Hsu's displaced demons – he is always looking for demons. It is only at the end of the book after their final journey out on the river and back in time that they are cowered by Nature in all her power. Only then do they have to hold hands and creep into the same bed out of fear.

These children are allowed to run wild. Fed and turned out daily like cats, their bedroom is never checked and fills up with incense, water-lilies and anti-Communist imagery. As part of (savage) Nature, they rarely seem to be fearful of what they will find within its realms. They initially seem oblivious to or shrug off the sublime and often gothic figures and devices that they run across. It is as if, as displaced Others, as 'a parcel of fairy-tale kids' (48) they firmly belong not only to Nature, but also to that which would normally be uncanny/abysmal. Indeed, Ping/Hsu finds that his real name, ‘Hsu’, is a word of power, one that comes from the river itself, and one with which he can control winged horses. Rather than being named as a colonised, or even Communist, Other, he gains semiotic power over the Classical myth so beloved of the Centre.

So the children begin to map out the land around Green Knowe thereby providing themselves, the displaced, with a sense of place, a centre for a miniature/backyard empire where they are the colonisers. In this sense the book echoes earlier English colonial children's literature in which the protagonists are figured as explorers. Though in the third person, Ida, Oskar and Ping/Hsu’s map-making, like older narratives of first-person adventuring, acts as discovery, documentation and an apprenticeship in imperialism, as echoed by Dr Biggin's expert archaeological colonisation of the past. These older adventure narratives functioned pedagogically and in this case many of Oskar's, Ping/Hsu's and Ida's adventures can also be seen as teaching them about nature/wildlife. But, as Jacqueline Rose argues, this process of learning is so embedded within the process/narrative of adventure that it has become almost invisible. The slide between nature study and adventure is concealed by the text’s deployment of verisimilitude at the most fantastical of moments – Oskar, for example, makes a beautiful little field-mouse's nest by becoming a field-mouse.

Fantasy, according to Bruno Bettleheim, works in a similar way by helping the child learn how to ‘master’ the real world. So, both supernatural and explorative narratives could be read in this instance as helping the child reader's development and education. This may help us to understand the uncertainties of the text, the constant slide between the natural and the supernatural and erasure of borders and boundaries between the two as, within this thesis, supernatural and adventure narratives both equate to an ever-expanding discovery of the real world. Both insist on the reality of what they describe and both educate the child, and so enable it to control its environment. The 'factual' details of the children's origins add to this colonial reading. Their explorations, however, can also be read less conventionally. What the children find comes to defy the ability of an ordinary map to referentially represent the world based on a singular, empirically discovered 'truth'/'reality'. In the end, they do not colonise/civilise/master the past at all, despite their previous successes. There is a potentially resistant reading here that runs against and sits alongside the colonial project, generated by the fact that the children are not English, but Other. As they set out during the day, then at dawn and then at midnight, repeating their earlier departures, so the children make multiple, overlapping and contingent and sometimes contradictory discoveries about their hybrid environment. Each time they venture out, whether it be onto the river or into the garden, they find something new, even where they expect to find what they already know. In the end, little empirical certainty remains, little is fixed by their map-making and naming of place, their imperial project, if such it is, ultimately fails as they travel beyond their own map in time, and beyond what any map can encompass.

In the process of adventure, the children also find that their identities are equally hybrid, fluid and shaped by exclusion. As noted, Ping/Hsu finds out that his real name is performative, that he has power embedded within his identity, despite being a displaced person, as signified by the erasure of his real name in everyday life. While Oskar – who knows that 'there isn't anything real except thoughts... [n]othing is there at all unless somebody's thinking it.' (17) – discovers that he is polymorphic. By thinking in new ways he can alter his shape to squeeze through the narrow gaps between doors and jambs, and can shrink to the size of a mouse. His identity is his own, to shape at will. This in part feeds into the dominant construction of the individual self, but it is equally framed by his resistant/subversive politics and displaced identity. Most of the characters they meet are also displaced like themselves and are given identity in/by their exile. Promises to these people must never be broken, especially promises of silence. These Others do not threaten, they are threatened. ‘They don't send Displaced Persons home. They put them in camps.’ says Ping/Hsu. (106) In this way, this is a text that moves beyond the colonial to the post-colonial, from certainty to hybridity.

This is because as a fantasy that is marginal it relies on uncertainty for its effects. Also, though formally rooted in Romanticism and nineteenth-century adventure narratives, it was, none-the-less, written subsequent to the collapse of the British Empire and contains resistant readings centred on notions of ‘displacement’ that were thrown up by World War Two. The early Green Knowe books therefore draw on a newly constituted 'feminine Englishness' – to borrow Alison Light’s phrase, ‘an Englishness at once less imperial and more inward-looking, more domestic and more private’. (Taylor, 1994: 123) But, written in the 1950s, they also unsettle its complacency. So, although The River at Green Knowe certainly contains traces of the domestic and the colonial, it also demonstrates a fascination with emergent postcolonial concerns such as anti-Communism, the formation of identity and Diaspora. This does not necessarily make this a radical text; the development of the individual is a common theme within children's literature, a theme that is as liberal as they come, but in this case identity and the celebration of individualism are to some extent destabilised by the essential Otherness of the children who seem to construct themselves within and through exile and to claim both England and its past for their own uses. What it does seem to take on board, though, is the necessity of dropping what Iain Chambers has referred to as ‘blind cultural conceits’ in order to ‘fruitfully fragment and remake [English and Englishness] under the weight of a multiple inheritance.’ (Chambers, 1994: 71) Boston’s books may be centred on hearth and home, and be set in a specific place in the heart of the English countryside, but they do not seek to retreat from modernity or mobility, nor do they attempt to create a timeless haven, a world apart from change, nor the elevation of ‘‘authentic’ habits and ‘genuine’ communities.’ (Chambers, 1994: 71)


Lucy M Boston (1954) The Children of Green Knowe, Faber: London.
Lucy M Boston (1958) The Chimneys of Green Knowe, Faber: London.
Lucy M Boston (1959) The River at Greene Knowe, Faber: London.
Lucy M Boston (1961) A Stranger at Green Knowe, Faber: London.
Lucy M Boston (1964) An Enemy at Green Knowe, Faber: London.
Lucy M Boston (1976) The Stones of Green Knowe, Bodley Head: London.
Bettleheim, Bruno (1991) The Uses of Enchantment, Penguin: London.
Cameron, Eleanor (1987) 'A Writer's Journey', in Harrison, B & Maguire, G (ed.) Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature, Lothrop, Lee and Shepard. London.
Chambers, Iain (1994) Migrancy, Culture, Identity, Routledge: London and New York.
Jones, Owain (1997) ‘Little Figures, Big Shadows: Country Childhood Stories’ in Cloke, Paul & Little, Jo (ed.) Contested Countryside Cultures: Otherness, Marginalisation and Rurality, Routledge: London and New York.
Langton, Jane in Harrison, B & Maguire, G (ed.) Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature, Lothrop, Lee and Shepard: London.
Rose, Jacqueline (1992) The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, Macmillan: London.
Taylor, John (1994) A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourist’s Imagination, Manchester University Press: Manchester and New York.
Townsend, John Rowe (1990) Written For Children, Bodley Head: London.

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