- Reading Series Fiction: From Arthur Ransome to Gene Kemp
This is a refreshingly original book for children's literary studies, being one of the first to look in detail at a surprisingly neglected phenomenon: series fiction (although it is a shame that Watson does not seem aware of Paul Deane's excellent earlier study). The pun in the title, hinting at the serious, deftly makes the point that this most widely read type of writing is never casually done: to read a whole sequence of books demonstrates a deliberate commitment to a writer's particular world.
The world mat Watson primarily explores is Arthur Ransome's (he originally wanted to write an entire book on this author), which is given three chapters; but there are others on Enid Blyton, Malcolm Saville, Mary Norton's Borrowers, Lucy Boston's Green Knowe, Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising, Antonia Forest's Marlow, and Gene Kemp's Cricklepit Combined School series—with further ones having briefer mention (e.g., William Mayne's Cathedral quartet).
Watson's writing is always exciting, not only for its insights but also for the graceful way in which he expresses them, often recreating the frisson of the ideas themselves. For example, Ransome's novels are described as "resourcebooks for dreamers," his language, says Watson, "is in love with what it creates and creates what it longs for," and his children "sail in search of Experience, yet never lose their Innocence....There is no arrival for them—only a perpetual voyaging in an extended holiday of expanding childhood" (70). Exactly right!—despite a few minor lapses, like speaking of "a dozen lakeland adventures" (23) and of Titty being a "modern Clare Francis" (45). But Watson is equally good on other authors. He commends Lucy Boston for her ability "to find exactly the right words, to groom her prose to glossy perfection" (145); he is impressed with the way that, in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, "the comfortable old cardigan of narrative reassurance is discarded" (155), while Gene Kemp's Tyke Tiler is accused of being "like a male text in narrative drag" (190). Like E. Nesbit's proverbial aunt, one often finds oneself reaching for a pencil to write "How true!" in the margins.
However, Watson is also someone we can take issue with, not being averse to laying himself on the line. He claims Peter Duck to be "one of the best children's stories of the century" (specifying which century might have helped, given the publication date of Watson's book, but otherwise, how true!). Likewise, "A Stranger at Green Knowe is a masterpiece...and in my opinion the greatest animal story in English children's literature" (145). Or, when speaking of Antonia Forest's work going out of print, he calls this "the worst publishing misjudgement [End Page 154] in the history of children's books in Britain" (189). I think the publishers who rejected Watership Down and Harry Potter might disagree, but Watson certainly provides a timely reminder of the immense talent of this neglected writer. Another recent book, by Susan Ang, similarly championed Forest's work, but as Ang began by acknowledging her debt to Victor Watson, the enthusiasm presumably originated with the latter. The title of Watson's chapter on Forest, "Jane Austen has gone missing," declares the esteem in which he thinks her work should be held. As he says, her association with the school story has prejudiced critics, just as Monica Edwards' work (mentioned in passing) has been neglected because of its associations with the pony story genre.
While some of the series discussed in Watson's book might have been expected, others are more of a surprise, like Malcolm Saville's (especially his Lone Pine series), in which Watson detects "a strong hint of sexuality" (unique in children's fiction of the time, he says). I certainly never noticed it, but Watson's case is persuasive. And, as he also notes (I am pleased to see), much of this subtext was lost when the books were reissued...