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Two books by Eleanor Farjeon [Mar. 25th, 2017|09:53 pm]
shewhomust
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sovay has been re-reading The Silver Curlew, and, as a result, so have I. I say "re-reading", but sovay had the odd experience of finding the book almost entirely unfamiliar, except for one thing, and so being unsure whether she was re-reading or reading for the first time; whereas I know that I have read the book before, and yet somehow I had managed to blank the passage sovay quotes, which ends with the words "Saw young Charlee this maarnin', pipin' to them puffins."

The puffins are almost entirely incidental, but still, how could I have forgotten the puffins? They are Charlee's particular friends, dancing to his piping, coming to be fed or to have their wet feet dried, but just as they seem destined to be cute and quirky and nothing more, they join Charlee and Polly in rescuing the Silver Curlew from the Horrid Thing. After this they vanish from the narrative, but not without trace, for they feature in one of E.H. Shepard's illustrations:

Charlee Loon and the puffins, © E.H. Shepard


The text, without the illustrations, is available on Gutenberg Canada (Canadian copyright extending only 50 years after the death of the author: non-Canadians, at your own discretion!). Eleanor Farjeon originally wrote The Silver Curlew as a musical play (there are three pictures of the 1949 production here) and later adapted it as a novel. The story weaves together the folk tale of Tom Tit Tot (a variant of Rumpelstiltskin) and a nursery rhyme whose presence isn't revealed until the end of the story, but which provides, among other things, a rationale for the Norfolk setting.

I can't find any actual connection of Eleanor Farjeon with Norfolk, and all I know about the dialect of Norfolk is the voice of a friend's childhood in King's Lynn, carefully discarded but occasionally resumed to make a point - but that accent is entirely consistent with the voices in The Silver Curlew. Then again, there's no evidence that puffins nest on the Norfolk coast. As for the idiom that kickstarts the whole narrative, Mother Codling's assertion that "dumplings'll always come agen in half an hour". it sounds authentic, and although it is never explained, I assumed it referred to the dough rising (while the dumplings bake in the oven? research reveals that Norfolk dumplings are definitely A Thing, but not a baked thing - as Keith Floyd demonstrates here). But the tale as recorded by Joseph Jacobs begins:
Once upon a time there was a woman, and she baked five pies. And when they came out of the oven, they were that overbaked the crusts were too hard to eat. So she says to her daughter:

"Darter," says she, "put you them there pies on the shelf, and leave 'em there a little, and they'll come again."–She meant, you know, the crust would get soft.
In other words, the phrase is authentic in that it comes from the original folk tale, but in substituting dumplings for pies, Farjeon has removed it from its meaning. What she gains by this is the local association of the dumpling with her Norfolk setting, but also the even more local associationS: of a food made almost entirely of flour with the mill where the family live, and of the soft white lightness of the dumplings with Doll's strawberries and cream complection and soft lazy good nature. "Dumplings aren't dreamy," says Poll, but these dumplings are.

That combination of the the magical and the prosaic, the dumplings and the dream, the Silver Curlew (why a curlew? I have no idea, though they are very distinctive birds) and the Horrid Thing (which, despite the infantilising name, is authentically nasty), the dumplings and the dream, gives the book its flavour. I had moments of unease about the broad humour: there's enough of a regional slur on East Anglia (the abbreviation NFN, standing for 'Normal for Norfolk', alludes to the supposed results of generations of rural inbreeding) that the stupidity of the Codling family, all bar the youngest, is to some degree problematic. Does it reduce the problem that the King is no brighter? King Nollekens (I want this to be a diminutive of Oliver, emphasising his childishness, but can't find any evidence for this reading) has two natures, good and bad, both extreme, and can only be managed, up to a point, by his old nurse. He reminded me of A. A. Milme's The King's Breakfast, and I don't think that's just the result of the Shepard illustrations:
The King sobbed, 'Oh, deary me!'
And went back to bed.
'Nobody,'
He whimpered,
'Could call me
A fussy man;
I only want
A little bit
Of butter for
My bread!'
Nollekens is genuinely sorry for his bad behavious, if not quite sorry enough to mend it. He loves his Nan, and he comes to love Doll; he spars with Poll as if the two of them were of an age; he is a real person, if not quite an adult.

What does all this tell us? That it's a book full of distracting interest, that its whole is rather less than the sum of its parts, that if it's the kind of thing you like, you will probably like it. Which I do, though if you hadn't read any Eleanor Farjeon, I'd probably tell you to start with the Martin Pippin books.

But the book of my earliest memories is none of these, but Perkin the Pedlar. It was first published in 1932, but reissued in 1956 (perhaps because she had won the 1955 Carnegie medal for her collection, The Little Bookroom) and that's probably when it came into the house. I don't think I could have read it myself then, but it could have been read to me...

I remembered Perkin the Pedlar as a collection of short stories within a loose framing device, like so many of her other books. It starts with a wizard, who brings into being the village of Zeal Monachorum (it's a real place, in Devon, not far from Dartmoor). A couple settle there, and have 26 children, whose one fault is that they can never learn their alphabet. Luckily, a pedlar turns up, his stock in trade is alphabets, and he has just completed an alphabet of places. So he stays to tell the children a story for each letter of the alphabet, explaining how a place earned its name and ending with a poem which reiterates the narrative. Re-reading it, I thought at first these stories are barely stories... and then, no, the stories are only there to introduce the poems.

They would make fine bedtime stories, for they are short, and patterned on ritual repetition. Each begins with the pedlar taking on his knee the child whose name begins with the appropriate letter of the alphabet (because of course they are named alphabetically) and saying: "When I was walking Britain, looking for the First letter of my Alphabet ... I came one day..." - and since this is the first letter, he comes to a long red wall with a green door in it, and beyond the door is an apple orchard - and ends with the pedlar asking the name of the place. "And never forget, my dear (said Perkin the Pedlar to the child on his knee) that A is for Anna, and A is for Appledore in the County of Kent." There follows a rhyme which reiterates the theme of the story. There's an echo of Martin Pippin in this first story, and there are apple names, too:
Whatever the wind has made to fall,
Curleytail, Quarrenden, Russet and all,
Beauty and Welligton, Pippin, Pearmain,
Yours for the taking, and come again.

Place names have their own magic, and if there isn't much to the stories, perhaps there doesn't need to be: Uttoxeter is a trotting pony, Velvet Hall shelters a vagrant familly, neither the hall nor the family any the worse for their ruined state, and Idle - well, you can guess what Idle is like.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2017-03-26 04:04 am (UTC)
Sovay's review of The Silver Curlew made me want to read it, and I have it out now, myself. I think yes: it's going to be a book I like portions of rather than the overall whole, but the portions that are likable are very likable. And the illustrations are wonderful--that one you've picked, of Charlee with the puffins, was one I really liked.

Some of the phrases the characters use remind me of my father-in-law, who hailed not from Norfolk but from somewhere North-ish. "Stir your stumps," for instance--he used to say that.

Fascinating about the dumplings being boiled rather than baked--and somewhat annoying that Farjeon didn't pay attention to that point. Does make me wonder about the puffins!
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2017-03-26 04:29 pm (UTC)
I look forward to hearing which bits you like and which bits you don't, when you've finished reading it!

'Stir your stumps' is old-fashioned, I suspect, rather than regional.

And whatever is going on with the dumplings, I don't think we can put it down to inattention. It's so unusual, the idea that you might bake them, that I think it must be deliberate, and effect that she wanted to achieve. (I laughed when I realised that given the same text, sovay had picked out the old-and-young man on the sea strand, while I was fixating on the dumplings!)
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