This Easter weekend in England, it is only possible to travel any distance from home in imagination or in memory. I have been thinking of a place I visited last summer, a place which had existed in my imagination since childhood, and which has been in my memory since. This is the Manor, at Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire, said to be one of the oldest continually inhabited houses in England, and the former home of the writer Lucy Boston (1892–1990), who used it as the setting of her book The Children of Green Knowe, and its sequels.
The Children of Green Knowe, first published in 1954, is a book from another era of childhood, that of the post-war mid-20th century. I first read it a little over a decade later, at about the same age as its protagonist, a seven year old boy called Tolly (a diminutive of Toseland, an imaginary local place-name). Lucy Boston did not intend it to be a children’s book and it only became so because her publisher, Faber and Faber, insisted that a book with illustrations — drawn by her son, Peter Boston — could not be sold as adult fiction. On rereading, its dissimilarity to many children’s books stands out, for it is not a book in which children play or explore together like the vigorous Swallows and Amazons or the Railway Children, or in which anything is transformed by magical creatures or powers, but a story of an introspective child alone, and of how imagination brings to life a deep sense of belonging both to a past and present family and place. It made a great impression on me as a child, perhaps for these reasons, although I would not have perceived them in that way then.
At the opening of the book, Tolly is the only child at Green Knowe, a boy with no brothers and sisters, whose mother is dead and whose father and step-mother, staying on in Burma, then only just relinquished from British rule, are distant in every way. Tolly is a solitary and lonely child — “he wished he had a family like other people” — sent from a boarding school where he is unhappy to Green Knowe, his mother’s childhood home, to live with an ageless great-grandmother he has never previously met. And not only solitary in himself, but from the very opening of the book and Tolly’s arrival at Green Knowe, the house itself is set in isolation, cut off and surrounded by the floodwaters of the fenlands. Tolly first comes to the house by night in a rowing boat, wishing and imagining that it was Noah’s Ark in the Biblical flood. In this fictional arrival, Lucy Boston echoed something of her own coming to the house. In her autobiography Memory in a House she described her first visit to Hemingford Grey in 1915 “when it seemed to my eyes the most forgotten bit of rural England, wonderfully left behind”. It was the second year of the First World War, Lucy was in her early twenties, and waiting to start work as a volunteer nurse in Cambridge. She hired a punt from the boatman in the village and saw the semi-derelict manor house from the river “not to know it was waiting for me”, and not to return until 1937, by which time “I had become a solitary” after the ending of her marriage and return from Austria where she had been living, to Cambridge where her son was then a student. On hearing that a house was for sale in Hemingford Grey, “such was the force of the latent past” that she immediately viewed it, bought it, explored and restored it and spent the rest of her long life there.
For Tolly, on his first arrival, it is too dark for him to see what kind of a house Green Knowe is, but one of the first things he perceives in the “strange place” that is its entrance hall is his reflection in a large mirror
“There were three big old mirrors all reflecting each other so that at first [he] was puzzled to find what was real, and which door one could go through straight, the way one wanted to, not sideways somewhere else. He almost wondered which was really himself.”
These multiple mirrors and the wondering which reflection was really himself illuminate the entire world of the book. Virtually everything in it happens in reflection and imagination. Tolly and his maternal great-grandmother, Linnet Oldknow, are the only living members of generations of a family who have lived in the house before them. A large oil painting which hangs over the fireplace depicts an older generation:
“There were two handsome boys, wearing lace collars and dark green silk suits. They had long hair but looked anything but girlish. The elder of the two, who might be fourteen years old, was wearing a sword, and it looked so natural to him that Tolly was filled with hero-worship. He had his hand on the collar of a tame deer. The younger brother had a book under his arm and a flute in his hand. The little girl had a smile of irrepressible high spirits that seemed to defy the painter to do a serious portrait of her. She was holding a chaffinch, and beside her on the ground was an open wicker cage. One of the two ladies was young and beautiful. At her feet was a little curly white dog with a black face; on her arm a basket of roses. The other lady was old and dressed in black. They all had large dark eyes and all their eyes seemed fixed on Tolly. If he moved to one side all the eyes moved after him.”
It’s almost impossible not to see this portrait in the mind’s eye, as if it was a real painting, a seventeenth-century family portrait by Lely or van Dyck, as Tolly’s great-grandmother explains it to him
“They are Oldknows. Your family. The boy with the deer is Toby, the other with the flute is Alexander, and the little girl is Linnet. She is six years old. That is their mother in the blue dress.”
Toby, Alexander and Linnet are the children of Green Knowe who gradually come to life for Tolly, first glimpsed in the multiple mirrors, and then increasingly present, palpable and companionable, talking, laughing, before suddenly disappearing again, as he listens to his great-grandmother’s stories of their history, and explores the house and its garden, playing hide-and-seek with their elusive and indefinable presence –
“[Tolly] was not quite sure whether [his great-grandmother] thought that he and she were playing a game together pretending that there were other children, or whether she thought, as he did , that the children were really there.”
Apart from the destruction by lightning of a misshapen tree symbolising a long-ago curse on the family, little visibly happens between the beginning and the end of the story other than the coming to life of the children, Tolly’s discovery of their books, musical instruments, toys and clothes, and the loss of his sense of loneliness as he discovers Green Knowe as his lasting home -
“He no longer feared that the children would disappear and leave him, and perhaps never come back. He felt that they were like brothers and sisters who come and go, but there is no need for worry: they are sure to come home again.”
Long before this, Tolly learns the unsparing truth of the children’s fate. They are not immortal, but, with a momentary topicality, all died in childhood on the same day in 1665 when one of their household brought the Great Plague from London.
Lucy Boston was an artist and a music lover as well as a writer, and many visitors come to the Manor to see the skilled and beautiful patchwork quilts that she made. Her daughter-in-law, Diana Boston, guides visitors and describes the house and garden to them. Other visitors are drawn, like me, by their childhood reading of the Green Knowe books. Unsurprisingly, the house is full of much of what the book describes as belonging to Tolly and his discoveries.
But what leaves the most lasting impression both from visiting and from reading Lucy Boston’s autobiography, is the Music Room, originally a Norman hall, at the very centre of the house. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Lucy Boston “considered what I was prepared to do. All the organised channels of work for middle-aged ladies looked grim and, what was worse, boring.” Remembering some of her experiences as a nurse in the First World War, she offered the house for hospitality and convalescence to the servicemen of a nearby aerodrome. Throughout the war she provided meals for air crew or the parents of the dead and “various displaced streams of life flowed through the Manor from a Europe overwhelmed.” From 1941 onwards, Lucy organised weekly concerts of gramophone records for the air crew. During each concert “we could hear the droning roar of our bombers flying out overhead … late in the night we would hear the survivors limping home. Not till all were down could one think of sleep.” Lucy wrote of the “cumulative intensity” of the listening company. The old-fashioned gramophone player and the records are still in the Music Room. During our visit, Diana Boston put a record on the gramophone and we listened silently to that cumulative intensity echoing in the ancient house again.