A couple of weeks ago I went to see ‘From Time to Time’, a movie based on a children’s novel by L.M. Boston. I was eager to see it, and I suppose it’s always a danger, seeing the film of a beloved book…and yes, I was disappointed and left wondering, how could they get it so wrong? But then the film is not the book, and will be soon forgotten while the spell of those Green Knowe novels is still strong for me. In fact, I immediately re-read the first couple of them – ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ and ‘The Chimneys of Green Knowe’. Green Knowe is a strange old house, part Norman, part Elizabethan, part Georgian, where the past is alive in the objects and pictures and furnishings of the house, the trees and plants in the garden, the stones and beams of the place. Ghosts are part of everyday life, but so are meals and gardening and the weather. It is both real and un-real, enchanted, magical and also down to earth. I still enjoyed the stories, but I found even more than that, I was gob-smacked by the writing. As a teenager, first reading these books, I never realised just how beautifully written they are, how ‘literary’, and I suppose that the beauty of the writing must always have been part of the spell. Here’s the section of ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ where little Toseland – later called just Tolly – first enters his great-grandmother’s house.
The entrance hall was a strange place. As they stepped in, a similar door opened at the far end of the house and another man and boy entered there. Then Toseland saw that it was only themselves in a big mirror. The walls round him were partly rough stone and partly plaster, but hung all over with mirrors and pictures and china. There were three big old mirrors all reflecting each other so that at first Toseland was puzzled to find out what was real, and which door one could go through straight, the way one wanted to, not sideways to somewhere else. He almost wondered which was really himself.
There were vases everywhere filled with queer flowers- branches of dry winter twigs out of which little tassels and rosettes of flower petals were bursting, some yellow, somw white, some purple. They had an exciting smell, almost lieks oemthing to eat, and they looked as if they had been produced by magic, as if someone had said ‘Abracadabra! Let these sticks burst into flower.’
“What if my great-grandmother is a witch!” he thought. Above the vases, wherever there was a beam or an odd corner or a doorpost out of which they could, as it were, grow, there were children carved in dark oak leaning out over the flowers. Most of them had wings, one had a real bird’s nest on its head and all of them had such round polished cheeks they seemed to be laughing and welcoming him.
(The illustration that goes along with this – of the carved angel with a nest in its arms – is also very beautiful. All the illustrations for the books were done by Lucy Boston’s son, Peter.)
I think ‘entranced’ is the right word, back then when I first read the book, and now, re-reading after many years. I had remembered the story – stories, really, for layered along with the story of Tolly discovering the house are the stories that Mrs Oldknowe tells about the 17th century family of Linnet, Alexander and Toby – and the atmosphere. Books do form part of your understanding and experience of the world, and I realise that whenever I visit old houses I am primed to seek that sense of past lives she created at Green Knowe.
I also read L. M. Boston’s memoir about the model for Green Knowe (the Manor at Hemingford Grey) called ‘Memory in a House’ and started another memoir ‘Perverse and Foolish’ but oddly found that I didn’t like Lucy Boston very much. Or rather, found her prickly and a bit cranky and thought if I had met her, I probably would have been a bit afraid of her. And last, but most interesting in this Lucy Boston jag, I read her novel for adults, ‘Yew Hall’, which is, frankly, weird – but I read it all in one go. Again, I was astonished – or enchanted, or amazed; taken right out of myself is what I am trying to say – by the beauty of the writing. Really really good ‘nature’ writers, like Annie Dillard , do this to me too. Here’s a description of roses.
One was a single rose of an open splendour like an assembly of planets. The other was the Painted Damask, which opens as a cup packed with cream petals in concave whorls, every one edged with crimson; then with the engaging habit of many roses it turns itself inside out and takes the shape of a bubbling spring, one curled dome above another, pearl in the centre and arabesques of crimson lines around the circumference… I imagined the raiser who first found or hybridized it, perhaps in the seventeenth century, and the gardens in which it grew, the novelty of the day. It went well with the looped and ribboned clothes of the time. It was obviously once a sophisticated rose, but now encased in the density of time like moss in amber. The single rose was one that I wished had never grown in any garden but this, it seemed to have sprung from the necessity to be here, the mark of the house. These were too precious for picking. I left them on their trees and browsed round the better established treasures, trying to see each one for the first time, and amazed at the stupidity and blindness of my habit-dulled eyes.
After reading that, when I went out into my garden, I was so – sorry, but there’s another extravagant word coming – intoxicated that I was quite crazy with seeing. And was rewarded with a plum tree full of white blossom and birds. A flock of greyish-green silver-eyes was chirping and hopping from branch to branch among the flowers and petals were falling all around them. I wish I had Lucy Boston’s pen to describe it.