Let me introduce you to a piece of artwork by Frances Thomas aged twelve-and-three-quarters. As you can see there is a lot going on in this picture, and I can assure you that all the detail is accurate. I was obsessive about detail, and still am to a certain extent. I can’t move on until I know what my character is wearing, is seeing and how they’re going to get about. Luckily it’s so much easier when you can find stuff out in ten minutes on the internet rather than spending a morning in the library. In those days, my bible was the Quennell’s marvellous History of Everyday Things in England, which I still consult. I was also obsessed at that time with the Middle Ages – it must have been a particular book which triggered the obsession but I can’t remember now which one.
As you can also see from the painting, I was more of a story teller than an artist, though in those days, I longed to be both. There was always a story or seven running through my head, though I didn’t start writing them down till much much later. And of course it’s obvious that without books, I wouldn’t have been either. As a slightly nerdish only child, the trip to the library was one of the high points of my week. I read anything that attracted me- not so easy as in those days library books were stripped of their dust jackets and blurbs and bound in drab library bindings, so finding out what you were reading was always a bit hit-or-miss. I’ve put what I can remember of my favourite childhood reading list below. I also read historical fiction as an older teenager, where it filled the gap between childhood reading and the more difficult world of adult books – then I devoured Mary Renault, and Robert Graves’s Claudius books. I also read a lot of romantic stuff by people like Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer, though I was aware that these weren’t quite, er, top-class.
Anyway, though I shall probably wake up screaming in the middle of the night as I remember the really really important book I’ve just left out, here are my top ten childhood historical books:
Rosemary Sutcliff – anything and everything by. But if I have to single out:
The Eagle of the Ninth
The Armourer’s House
Geoffrey Trease – again anything and everything by. But let’s go for:
Cue For Treason
Crown of Violet.
Barbara Leonie Picard – Ransom For a Knight A beautifully written story by a writer whose translation of The Odyssey was one of the seminal books of my youth.
R.D.Blackmore -Lorna Doone Oh, how many of those stories-in-my-head involved wild moonlight rides over the moors and fearful blood feuds and beautiful maidens.
Dorothy M Stuart – A Child’s Day Through the Ages. Probably a little dry. But I loved these stories, especially the one about the little priestess, of which I was reminded when I later read Ursula le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan.
Henry Garnett (not Henry Treece, as I misremembered, though I enjoyed Henry Treece too) Thirteen Banners. Set in the days of Simon De Montfort. The usual brave children escaping with a message. Can’t remember much about it now but I know it was good fun.
Meriol Trevor Sun Faster, Sun Slower. Time travel. Re-reading it recently, I realised how very Catholic it is, which I was then too, though am no longer. But the story of the escaping Jesuit priest is still very exciting. Meriol Trevor wrote fine poetry too, which I’ll try to post on this blog some day.
Some historical stuff, like Flambards and Barbara Willard’s lovely Mantelmass series didn’t come out until I was too old to read them as a child. But I reckon that we children of the fifties lived through a golden age of children’s historical fiction. Do let me have more of your own lists of favourites – I’ve loved reading your comments.