Monday, 30 April 2018

Before Hermione

There are many good things about the Harry Potter books by J K Rowling. I always think she's a bit like a modern day Dickens with her fast paced, intricate plots and her distinctive characters. Both authors know how to balance tension with a good ear for speech and humour; their books work very well when read aloud. As for the names ... Dumbledore, Voldemort, Lovegood, Malfoy, Longbottom - these could all be characters in Dickens and both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are definitely Dickensian.

But it's the character of Hermione Grainger that I want to talk about here. Hermione isn't pretty and she doesn't fit in easily at school because she's clever (something that clever girls will still recognise). In the first book she's seen as a 'know all' by her classmates and doesn't really have friends until battling a troll with Harry and Ron forces them together (as it would). As the books progress, her intelligence often saves them but she also shows herself to be brave and passionate. By the last book she has gone from being the rather geeky, awkward girl to the one person who sees what Harry has to do when he walks into the forest alone.

Hermione is a beacon to girls who are clever, girls who aren't pretty, girls who never know what to say in a group, girls who just don't fit in. She makes it cool to read all the time, to like Maths (what else is Arithomancy?), to not be good at or even interested in sports ... just to be different.

So, who was there before Hermione?

When I think about the books I loved as a child in the 1960s and 70s, they all had strong girls in them and none of them were new books. The characters that I identified with (and still do) were all created in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, at least fifty years before I was born.

First there was Mary Lennox. Mary appears at the start of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett as a plain, disagreeable and lonely child with no understanding of others. Gradually, she opens out and, as she helps the neglected garden back to life, so she too grows. From feeling out of place in a strange and alien world, she comes to belong there, both in the house and garden and with the people she meets.

I always pictured Mary with long, dark hair because that's what I had and was surprised when illustrators gave her fair hair but she is fair - I'd obviously ignored that bit every time I read it. This was my copy of the book as a child.

Many of my childhood books were Puffins. The cover illustration is by the wonderful Shirley Hughes who also illustrated this lovely edition.

I always liked the part where Martha shows Mary how to skip and, as for Dickon, he was just the perfect hero. Although Mary gains so much from the people she meets at Misselthwaite Manor, she is the one who has the courage and determination to force them to challenge what they've always accepted. It's not only the garden that she brings back to life.

There are many lovely editions of this book. This one, published by Walker Books, has beautiful illustrations by Inga Moore.

When I'm clearing weeds to let plants breathe I think of Mary, when I enjoy fresh air I think of Dickon and I've still got a fondness for a walled garden.

Recently I've read a sequel to 'The Secret Garden', written by Holly WebbReturn to the Secret Garden is set during the Second World War when an orphanage is evacuated to Misselthwaite Manor. I'm normally wary of sequels to classic books but this one works well. It would be a good read even if you didn't know the original book but, if you do, then it's really quite special.

I think I read A Little Princess, also by Frances Hodgson Burnett, even more times than 'The Secret Garden'. So much so that my original copy (another Puffin) is falling apart.

Sara Crewe does indeed start the book as something of a princess, coming to boarding school in Edwardian London with rich clothes and expensive toys. But then her father dies and she is forced to work as a servant in the school. Much of the book is taken up with her attempts to turn her cold attic room and bleak life into something bearable, helped only by her imagination. 

Yes, the message of 'kindness is more important than wealth' may seem a little heavy-handed now but I loved Sara and especially the way she could turn the everyday into the magical.

Holly Webb has written a sequel to this book too, The Princess and the Suffragette, featuring Sara's friend Lottie. I haven't read this one yet but am hoping it will be as good as 'Return to the Secret Garden'.

The power of the imagination is at the heart of another of my much-loved books, Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery

Anne Shirley is a plain and outspoken girl who arrives at Green Gables from the orphanage by mistake and then proceeds to shake the staid little community with her wild ways. There are dark memories in Anne's past and, like Sara Crewe, she has dealt with these with the help of her imagination. Now she throws herself into her new life with a wholehearted enthusiasm that leads her into scrapes but also wins her many friends.

Anne lives by extremes, she looks for 'kindred spirits' among her new classmates and hates with a passion too. She lives in her own world of books and stories and argues with anyone and everyone. As the book goes on and Anne grows up she does learn to control her temper and behave more 'appropriately' but she's still the clever, tough girl that she always was.

I re-read 'Anne of Green Gables' recently and was surprised at how revolutionary Anne still seems as a character. If you haven't met her yet, you've got a treat in store.

Just for a change, the girl in the next book isn't an orphan. In fact, Jo March in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is very much part of a loving family. 

Another Puffin illustrated by Shirley Hughes

It wasn't the story that appealed to me so much as the character of Jo. She reads books, she's loud and she wants to break out and do things, rather than be a 'little woman'. And what does this wonderful girl get as her reward? A boring husband. Ah well, I shall just remember her in the attic with her russets and her books ...

The last of my girls is another American from the second half of the nineteenth century, although her life is very different from Jo's. Laura Ingalls Wilder's series of Little House books are based on her own childhood as part of a pioneer family.

I read the Laura books as they were published in this country as Puffin books in the 1960s. I remember the excitement of waiting for the next one, shared with my Mum who was reading them too.

I loved the detailed descriptions of Ma making cheese or Pa building their log cabin on the prairie.

After reading about this, you feel that you too would be able to build a log cabin - should the need ever arise. 

In the early books Laura is a bit of a tomboy (always a good thing) but, as she grows older, you also see how strong she has to be to overcome her own natural shyness and the trials that the family face.

I think my favourite book is The Long Winter which recounts the hard months of 1880 -81 when the town of De Smet was snowed in and the Ingalls family nearly starved. The writing becomes almost dream-like as they grow more and more malnourished and everyday existence gets harder and slower. Even in this book though there are warm moments of shared family time; Laura's often mixed feelings about her sister Mary are always touching.

By the time we get to These Happy Golden Years Laura is sixteen and teaching school miles from home. She doesn't want to teach and she doesn't want to leave her family; the strength she finds to do both is inspiring. She's so much more than just a tomboy now.

If you are interested in the facts behind these books, I can recommend Pioneer Girl, her annotated autobiography which also has a wealth of pictures. Anyone want to see what Cap Garland really looked like? I'm also looking forward to reading Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser which has won the 2018 Pulitzer prize for Biography.

Thinking about it now, I realise how much the girls in these books have meant to me. Whether it's putting books first, looking for kindred spirits or trying to play the violin like Pa, they've become part of my life. 

Mind you, I still haven't built that log cabin.


  1. Thank you for that lovely stroll down memory lane. I am thrilled to learn that there are sequels which I have yet to read, and there are still a number of Anne and Jo sequels by the original authors that are still on my list. If you have yet to become acquainted with Pippi Longstockings, I highly recommend her energetic and outlandish independence as another source of inspiration.

    1. I'm glad you liked it and hope you enjoy the sequels. I did love the Pippi books too, I remember being particularly impressed by the way she slept with her feet on her pillow. My Mum wasn't too impressed when I tried it but I did used to lie upside down in chairs (with my head on the floor) to read.

  2. We have such similar tastes and thoughts! I have been sharing these books with my goddaughter. The magic is still there for this generation!

    1. Yes, good books don't really date, do they? Also, reading out loud shows you how well written something is. I remember the magic of reading the first chapter of 'The Hobbit' to my two.