Eleanor Farjeon’s “Room with a View”
An essay by Frances Claire Sayers.
Published October 1956 in The Horn Book and in Summoned By Books
Even before she had learned to hold a pencil or recognize one letter from another, Eleanor Farjeon had begun to create stories which were told to her father, and transcribed by him. All through her childhood she wrote as she read, from a necessity as immediate and persuasive as the urge to draw breath. At eighteen, an operetta for which she had written the lyrics to accompany her brother Harry’s music was performed in St. George’s Hall in London, and the two shy young people took their bows before an enthusiastic public who had come to hear the first opera, publically presented by the Academy, which was the work of an academy student. At nineteen, she received her first three guineas for a fairy tale, "The Cardboard Angel," printed in Hutchinson’s magazine. Now in her middle seventies, she has chosen from the bounty of her own writing a book of stories of ageless appeal, addressed to children, which she calls The Little Bookroom. Publishers have give the book a format that suggests its concentrate of magic, with light and space on every page, and the incisive line of Edward Ardizzone’s black and white illustrations echoing the harmony of type on the page, and confirming the characteristic reality of Eleanor Farjeon’s tales of imagination.|
An author is known by the worlds he creates. The measure of his greatness is the degree of clarity and the consistency with which he builds his spirit’s habitation, the depth and height it offers the reader who enters it. Eleanor Farjeon’s world is construed of fantasy, romance, and an abounding yea-saying joy in the experience of life. It is the stuff that dreams are made of, and as dangerous as dynamite except for those who have genius in their blood, a compassionate heart, a sense of wonder at the multitudinous miracles to be met in one day’s living in this world, and the blessed proportion of wit, humor and nonsense. All these she has. Look out upon the view that the windows of the little bookroom afford, in the English mist and sunshine, and see the origins of this, her particular enchantment.
One window looks out upon her heritage, a heritage that stretches back to generations of English actors - the Jeffersons - Tom Jefferson playing with Garrick, in a heyday of the English stage; the gifts culminating in Tom’s great grandson, the American Joseph Jefferson, who was to give the definitive performance of old Rip Van Winkle, in the coming of age of the American theater. He was a man of manifold talent: actor, painter, writer, with a gift for parenthood and friendship that made him, above all else, an artist at living. His autobiography, Rip Van Winkle, first published in 1890, is not only a vital account of the theater indigenous to America, but the astonishing record of a mind that encompassed art, literature, and music through his boyhood was spent in the uncertainty of a wandering life and the insecurity of the artist. A new edition of this autobiography was brought out in 1949, with a foreword by his granddaughter, Eleanor Farjeon. From him she has the love of music and the theater, and the flair for dramatic structure of tales and plays alike. It was his daughter, Maggie Jefferson, who was Eleanor’s mother, beautiful and gifted, the aura of a background strange and wildly romantic always about her.
He father was an Englishman: a storyteller, novelist, and journalist, bearing in his blood the passionate response to life typical of the Jewish people, with stormy moods balancing the periods of joyous exuberance and lavish generosity of spirit. He gave his daughter the love of storytelling, an insatiable sympathy for everything that lives, and her name: Eleanor Farjeon.
That name is like a melody in a nursery rhyme, the refrain of a ballad, or the recurring lilt of a singing game. It has set a pace of melody for her, since the beginning. "I can hardly remember the time when it did not seem easier to me to write in running rhyme than in plodding prose," she says of herself. "If you can’t be glad of your name it isn’t the right one," says Nollekens, the king in The Silver Curlew. She must be glad of hers, "for a man can no more escape from his name than from his nature,” said Robin Rue, in Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard, and none knew better than he who lost his love, Gillian, to the merrier name of Martin Pippin himself.
She has a gift for names, perhaps because her own evokes such music. What names in the two novels involving Martin Pippin: Jennifer, Jessica, Jane, Joan, Joyce, Joscelyn and Gillian; Micheal, tom, Oliver, Harry, Sally, Selina, Sylvia, and Sue! And the names she conjures for the spirits of darkness: Trimingham, Knapton, and Trunch, with Rackny, the Spider Mother in the Witching Wood.
The window of the bookroom that looks out on her childhood affords a view of the nursery in which she was brought up, saturated with music, the mystery of words, the self-invented games she shared with her three brothers, the legendary appeal of her mother’s American childhood, with the most colorful men and women of the stage and London’s literary life walking in and out of the household; a succession of "uncles and aunts," accomplished, beautiful - all dedicated to something beyond the common day, the diverse arts of expression - all this encompassed by a fierce family loyalty and love.
There were no schools in that childhood, but teachers and governesses, and all the books overflowing shelves and tables. "We all had bookshelves, mine were crammed with fairytales and ‘The Greeks’." In further confession of the wellsprings of her spirit she says, ". . . up to my twentieth year, the three outstanding ‘revelations’ in the worlds of poetry, music and pictures came instantly from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hansel and Gretel, and Turner." The fairies, the folktale, and the "luminous view!" From these vistas out of the bookroom windows, one sees the stuff of which her world is made. Small wonder, being born of felicity, that the essence of it is romance, a vision of the world as it is, if you look at it just so.
Eleanor Farjeon is master at presenting the world as romance. Yet there is bit in it. Her worlds of imagination are no simpering constructions, all syrup and sugar, with fairies uprooted from their antique and awesome lineage. It is shadowed with weeping now and then, and the bittersweet of lost dreams, but the strongest note is affirmation, and exuberance of joy. Early in her writing, in that love song to London, Gypsy and Ginger, the theme of affirmation is stated.
"What do the evils cry for?" asked Ginger.
"Reform," said Gypsy.
"Then let’s reform them," said Ginger. "But we needn’t cry along with them, need we? . . ."
"No," he said . . . "It’s no use crying over split evils. It’s better to mop them up laughing."
Her world is not so haunted as the world of Walter de la Mare, nor so wracked with the sorrow of search and longing unfulfilled. It is not so fey and whimsical as the world of Elizabeth Goudge. There is little whimsy in it, but great magic and stout humor, wit, and free-running nonsense. The miraculous quality is the freshness and originality; the themes, the incidents, the "glad invention" which well up endlessly, tale after tale, story after story, resembling nothing so much as the never-ending variety of melody and theme of Mozart’s music. A comfortable practicality, a touch of common earth and ordinary bread and butter give the sanity of salt to her finest fancy. Over and over again, the common touch thrusts home the whole airy concept and leaves the reader holding the fantasy so hard by the hand there’s no denying the truth of it. There is Ooney, for example, in the tale of Tom Cobble who had himself stolen by the fairies. Ooney was the daughter of the enchanter.
This juxtaposition of two worlds, this fusion of dusters with fairy moonlight, is always deft and successful. She has also the matchless ability of Andersen of naming exactly the object that symbolizes the real world or the world of magic. It is an eerie gift, resembling true pitch for the musician, or the infallible ear of the poet for rhyme and beat.
She has also Andersen’s skill of suddenly relating a world which seems inhabited by men and women to the immediacy of childhood. The soldier of "The Tinderbox," you will remember spent his wealth, it is true, in theaters and carriage rides through the Royal Deer Park. But when the extent of that wealth is told, it is described in terms of all the rocking horses and sugar pigs it could buy. In Eleanor Farjeon’s The Glass Slipper, when the ugly sisters were preparing for their bath, there is the same sly touch that brings the fairy tale straight to the child’s own world.
And again, in The Silver Curlew, when King Nollekins is trying to bribe the Imp to depart forever, he says, "Look here! Here’s my crown! Here’s my scepter! Here’s my pen-knife with three blades!"
The bone and sinew of her fancy and of her writing gifts derive from the sturdy art of the folktale and the folk storyteller. The direct action, the quick defining of character and conflict, the sudden flashes of dialog - oh, the mastery of the way people talk - the uncanny choice of detail, the rich improvisation on old themes, these are close kin to the folklore of the world. The storyteller will find tales ready for the tongue in her books, the wonders rooted to a background of English earth, or Italian or French Landscape, for in addition to all else Eleanor Farjeon had an avid eye for the minutiae of shifting beauty of meadows, gardens, flowers, skies and the night.
"I was fascinated by that things that came and went," she writes in Portrait of a Family, "things I couldn’t quite touch, or really find out; the silver road on the sea to the sun of the horizon, the moon and her star, the rainbow and its reflection, the shafts of light drawn almost down to earth from a bright edged cloud, the spot of light at the end of a green arcade of trees."
One of the windows of the bookroom looks across the peaks of solid scholarship. There are translations from the French and Italian in the writing of this author, plays for adults, short stories and romances. The English edition of O’Brien’s Best Short Stories contained in 1925, an exquisite ghost story, "Faithful Jenny Dove," with the characteristic turn of events, unexpected, haunting, as beautiful a love story as "The Mill of Dreams," the story of the weight of dreams on reality in one of the greatest of fantasies, Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard.
Scholarship casts its shadow of authenticity over her retelling of the Canterbury Tales, with its forthright foreword of explanation:
There is an inevitable rightness about that instinct. It fashions her style in the image of her subject matter. There is reverence in the sturdy prose with which she tell the lives of the saints she writes of in the book Ten Saints. And there is sweet grace in the poems included with the biographies of the holy men and women who lived between the third and thirteenth centuries. In Kings and Queens, she becomes the gay historian telling English history in ballads and verse that take the sting out of the dates of succession.
George the First, when he was young,
Couldn’t speak the English tongue;
In Hanover, where he was born,
He spoke in German night and morn.
George, George, in England they
George the First, till he was dead,
Rhymes, verse, poetry, and song have tumbled from her pen in a rush of melody. Much of it mirrors the inwardness of childhood with a sureness that betrays her understanding of incident and object which belong to their world and her remembrance of the emotions of childhood. Much of it echoes the wild, fresh poetry of ballads and singing games, and all of it is lyrical.
"I hope I shall never quite shake off my best bel-shangles. After the nursery rhymes, I found them among the Elizabethans, who, in my world of books, followed the Greeks." So she writes in a little book Magic Casements written for the world association of writers, P.E.N., in 1941. I could wish this book in the hands and minds of every teacher in the world. In the words of Eleanor Farjeon, the book "is a plea to return to imaginative reading, . . . not too much organized and systematized; reading for every age at any age, not running in grooves cut for the child of six, or ten, or fourteen. I would let children loose among books, as now, at an early age, they are let loose with brown paper and brush among color; where, without knowing it, they may find and give expression to the ageless spirit."
"The Little Bookroom" made its first appearance in this small book, when war raged in England and every beauty was threatened. It is a well of refreshment, and a candle that lights up the spirit and imagination of a rare person, giving and spending the exuberance of her richly stored imagination, her wide affection for the world and all in it. Her words are Elizabethan - a s warm, as intoxicated with words and song, as freshly viewing the world and the men and women in it. Not even the twentieth century can diminish the exaltation this author has had from life. Best of all, she had decanted the elixir for the young.
In the introduction to her collection of selected verse, the English edition of which bears the title Silver-Sand and Snow, she speaks of her writing, particularly her poetry, as being inconsequential stuff, made only of "silver-sand that trickles through the fingers, and snow that melts in the sun." She does herself something less than justice in this choice of metaphor. Looking upon the stature of her work, the range and variety of her imagination, the multitudinous invention of her fancy, and the music of her prose and verse, I bid her doff her bonnet to herself, in unaccustomed self-praise. It is a contribution of some magnitude, and for authority I cite that astute novelist and critic, E. M. Forster, who’s own Room with a View remains a prime delight in English fiction.
Mr. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, discusses the character of fantasy. Reading his analysis, steeped as I was in the writing of Eleanor Farjeon, I caught a glimpse of what she has done.
"The young youth of the world," as the young can see and feel it - this is Eleanor Farjeon’s gift. No one else has seen it with such merry eyes, or matched the flavor of her telling.
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