Posts Tagged ‘re-reading’

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

June 27, 2016

The Prime of Miss Jean BrodieI have an extremely clear memory of reading this book, one school summer holiday, sitting on a train and looking out of the window as we passed through Dawlish in Devon, where the train tracks seem almost to run over the sea itself. I remember enjoying the book, feeling a kindred spirit with the six schoolgirls of Miss Brodie’s ‘set’, all madly obsessed with finding out about sex, and under the spell of their teacher, Jean Brodie, who is forever telling them that she is in her prime.

Reading it again, in my thirties, it is a completely different book, and even better than I remembered.

This time round there seems to be a horrible poignancy to Spark’s portrayal of the schoolgirls. The narrative is extremely sophisticated, moving about in time (but she does this easily, not joltingly) so that we get little flashes of what will happen to the girls when they grow up. Mary’s innocent vagueness and clumsiness, we soon learn, will one day get her killed in a hotel fire:

Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her. She heard no screams, for the roar of the fire drowned the screams; she gave no scream, for the smoke was choking her. She ran into somebody on her third turn, stumbled and died. But at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie’s pupils. ‘Who has spilled ink on the floor – was it you, Mary?’

‘I don’t know, Miss Brodie.’

‘I dare say it was you. I’ve never come across such a clumsy girl. And if you can’t take an interest in what I am saying, please try to look as if you do.’

These were the days that Mary Macgregor, on looking back, found to be the happiest days of her life.

The year is 1936; Miss Brodie tells us: ‘The age of chivalry is dead’. Chivalry is dead, and so are all the young men killed by the First World War, including Miss Brodie’s fiancé. And, of course we know that many more will die in the Second World War, which isn’t far off. But Spark shows us this little glinting corner of life – the six girls of Miss Brodie’s set, at this moment of their unconventional education, before their innocence is extinguished, and in the case of poor Mary Macgregor, her life too.

And yet what exactly does Miss Brodie, in her prime, achieve with her girls?

In her lessons, Miss Brodie tells the girls to hold up their school books, ‘in case of intruders’ before regaling them with stories about her lovers and her holidays, which are usually in Italy:

‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’

‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’

‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’

I read this last week, pre-Brexit, and kept on trying to reassure myself that good old Miss Jean Brodie would have voted Remain, as she is forever proudly telling her girls that they are Europeans. But whatever comfort this provided was rather undermined as Miss Brodie is also a great admirer of Mussolini, telling her girls that he:

put an end to unemployment with his fascisti and there was no litter in the streets.

Miss Brodie is perenially at odds with the rest of the school, claiming that this is due to her differing ideas about education, which she sees as nurturing individuals rather than forging clone-like teams – though in fact the school’s disapproval of her is largely due to her inappropriate sexual liaisons. Moreover, it becomes clear that in actual fact Miss Brodie is just trying to create clones of herself in her ‘crème de la crème’. She succeeds to some extent, when the art teacher, after kissing her, paints portraits of her girls – all of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Miss Brodie.

There is a lovely review of the book on Book Snob’s blog (here), in which she questions why Miss Brodie is so driven to make the girls in her image:

I do think there is something more than just a criticism of Fascism in Miss Brodie’s methods of creating clones of herself; I think Spark was also creating the idea of Miss Brodie wanting to build a legacy, leaving a part of her personality and world view behind through the children she taught. They became the offspring she never had the opportunity to have. It is, after all, rather symbolic that Miss Brodie dies of a ‘growth inside her’ – but not a child; instead, a malignant cancer, destroying her from the inside.

It’s a nice point and makes the book all the sadder. For this is the clever, weird, slippery thing about this brilliant slim book: I read it and found myself laughing and laughing all the way through – at the brilliant observations, the sharp turn of phrase, Spark’s ingenious wit and skilful brevity – but all the while, it also made me extremely sad.

Miss Brodie, for all the force of being in her prime, achieves very little. Her girls go off in the directions they would have taken anyway, and the one she thinks is the most loyal is the one who eventually betrays her. Her love affairs are unsatisfactory and she remains essentially alone, and all the more so for being so misguided in her fervent political beliefs.

I suppose Spark is asking: what can a woman in her prime do? And when is a woman in her prime? What about poor Mary Macgregor and her all-too-brief life, did she ever reach her prime? It’s a question which is ever relevant – as we battle our way through the exhausting minefield of balancing children and careers, surely we’re thinking: here we are, in our prime, and what on earth are we actually achieving? (Please tell me it’s not just me who is always worrying about this!)

Anyway, thank God, Miss Brodie did achieve something in her prime. Even if it wasn’t especially tangible, she made an unforgettable impression on her students – and on her readers. Sandy speaks for everyone when, in later life, she is asked about her main influence. She says, in the closing sentence of the book:

There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.

How I hope that in however many years’ time we won’t be doomed to looking back on the main influence on our lives and reflect, ‘There was a Mr David Cameron, in his prime… ‘ I suppose we just have to hope that the future holds something brighter than that faced by Miss Brodie’s girls in 1936.

220px-Muriel_Spark_1960

Homecoming

July 21, 2014

All the heat has meant this week has been one of battling with exhaustion and feeling quite ghastly. Various low points have included sitting in a cold bath while commanding the bemused husband to make me a bucketload of pasta, spending half-an-hour hanging around in the bank just to take advantage of their air-conditioning, and falling asleep in the middle of a conversation. In fact the first time I felt normal all week was yesterday evening when, after managing to get thirteen hours sleep (twelve overnight plus another one in the afternoon!), I went for a swim in the peaceful haven of Hampstead Ladies’ Pond and at last felt reduced to a normal temperature.

Jane EyreLuckily, I have had a feast of good reading to keep me company while sweltering through the sultry weather. Next weekend I am off to Deer Shed Festival, up in the beautiful wilds of Yorkshire, where I will be interviewing Samantha Ellis – author of How to be a Heroine, which I wrote about here; Susie Steiner – author of Homecoming, which I will write about below; and doing a walking book club on Jane Eyre, which I suspect I will write about next week. Three terrific books to read or re-read – really I can’t complain! (A little aside to URGE you to re-read Jane Eyre, or indeed read it for the first time. It is completely brilliant, even better than remembered. And then you could come along to the festival and come on the walk … and then together we can imagine Jane striding away from Thornfield Hall and coming across Mr Rochester on his horse, while trudging through a landscape not so different, although of course ours won’t be treacherously icy. Go on, dig out your old copy, and begin it again, I promise you won’t regret it!)

HomecomingHomecoming is also set in Yorkshire, and while the landscape might be as wild and beautiful as Bronte’s, the concerns are very different. The Hartle family are struggling to make ends meet on their farm. There is a great deal about farming, which for a born-and-bred Londoner like me was surprisingly fascinating. Now I feel I know a little about things like ‘lifting the beet’, ‘lambing’ and the importance of not stacking hay too tightly. Joe loves the farming life:

The ground giving up its treasure to him: it was a beautiful thing. He pictures the soil and the layers – the substrata – brown then red, then glaring orange, reaching down to the earth’s core where it was hot. And him on the surface, gathering its riches up – drilling goodness and filtering it into trucks. This was what a man was meant for.

Ann is more pragmatic, and it is she who has to make the grim trips to the accountant, who tells her money is so tight they will barely make it through to lambing. On the way back, she stops at a petrol station and ‘resists a Ginsters pasty, even though she’s ravenous. Better to save the money and make a sandwich back home.’

The book is structured around the farming year, with a new calendar month for each chapter. It gives a feel of the rhythm of the year, but moreover of its unstoppable movement forwards. It is a tough year for the Hartles: disaster follows disaster (I won’t go into details here for fear of spoilers) and there are many times when you wish a rash act or unfortunate consequence could somehow be undone, but to no avail. While farming is the context for most of these tragedies, really it is as much a novel about the different ways in which people face change, and the playing out of complicated family dynamics. And those are things to which we can all relate!

Joe and Ann have two sons, Max and Bartholomew. Max works the farm with Joe, and Joe would like to pass it on to him, only Max is, quite simply, too useless. Bartholomew has gone down south, where he has set up his own garden centre, though that isn’t without its own share of troubles. Bring the four of them under the same roof for Christmas and you get the hellish mess of resentment, jealousy, grudges, nagging and everything else that almost all families suffer at that time of year.

Then there are all the other characters – the wives and girlfriends, the friends and local busybodies, and the dreadful barmaid from Essex… It is a rich cast, but my personal favourite is the ingeniously dreamed up Primrose, Max’s wife. She is a very peculiar woman, who is terrible at forging emotional connections with people, even her husband. Instead, she spends her free time wiring and taking apart plugs and things, evidently feeling more comfortable with electrical connections than human ones. How I long to ask Susie Steiner where she found the inspiration for her!

Steiner cleverly moves the narrative perspective between her many characters, so you get a nuanced understanding of their varying points of view, the different demons with which they struggle. It is a powerful device for creating empathy, and by the end of the book you feel rather like you’ve been living under the Hartle roof, absorbing their various quirks and idiosyncrasies and feeling very fond of them in spite of their many faults. I suppose much as you might feel after spending some time with your own family.

Luckily, for all the changes that the Hartles face, Homecoming is a pleasingly reassuring novel. And it does this without falling into the trap of being too cosy. The outcomes are not the straightforwardly happy ones which the various characters would have wished for in an ideal world, but if Steiner is a realist, she is still an optimistic realist for the results are largely positive, albeit very different to what they might have hoped for.

I suppose this is the thing about change – and at the moment, I feel like I am faced by CHANGE in capital letters whenever I glance down at my growing bump. It is a terrifying thing in that it is unknowable. Suddenly your course has altered and you’re no longer entirely sure where it is you’re headed. Of course you might not end up exactly where you’d imagined and things might not work out just as you’d hope, but in Homecoming we feel relieved and reassured that they do at least work out somehow. Phew.

Anyway, I am very much looking forward to discussing Homecoming with Susie Steiner at Deer Shed Festival next weekend. Come and say hello if you’re there too!

The Leopard

February 10, 2014

The Leopard by Tomasi di LampedusaThis is, put simply, one of the greatest novels of all time.

It’s hard to pin it to a particular century, as it was written in the mid-twentieth, yet takes place primarily in the late-nineteenth, and holds glimpses of both past and future. Perhaps it soars above the boundaries of time; somewhat ironic for a novel which is so preoccupied with time’s passage and the changing order of things.

Famously, Tancredi says:

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. D’you understand?

Do we understand? This novel is a sensuous, skilful unpacking of this paradox which must make any writer at once green with envy and incredibly proud to see words used so powerfully. As David Mitchell puts it in a fervent piece in the Telegraph:

The Leopard is truly exceptional. ‘Give it up, you poor hack,’ the novel advises me. ‘Retrain as a plumber and earn some real money, or you’ll waste your life and still not produce a book a tenth as good as me.’ But the novel can’t help adding, ‘Look at all this beauty, truth and emotion, created from nothing but words. Just words. How can you possibly spend your life not trying to do the same?’

The novel opens in May 1860, just as Garibaldi conquers Sicily as part of the ‘Risogimento’, the unification of Italy. ‘The Leopard’ of the title is Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina – a huge figure, intimidating, a womanizer, and something of an eccentric who applies his mathematical capability to astronomy rather than accounting for his family’s expenditure and debts. He is married with three daughters and two sons, but the novel’s key relationship is avuncular. Don Fabrizio’s nephew is Tancredi Falconieri, an orphan the Prince has taken under his wing. They are both fond of each other – Tancredi affectionately calls him ‘Nuncle’ and teases him that he’s too old to be going to brothels, while Don Fabrizo finds his youthful insolence endearing and admires his political flexibility.

‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ Don Fabrizio sees that Tancredi understands this and so is bound to succeed. Aristocratic but penniless, Tancredi chooses to marry the beautiful, decidedly middle-class but very wealthy Angelica, whose father wears ill-fitting suits and whose mother is completley illiterate. He chooses her over refined, noble Concetta, the Prince’s daughter, seeing that while he cares for her, she hasn’t the upwardly mobile social ambition, nor the money required for a suitable match.

Some of my favourite scenes are of Tancredi and Angelica’s courtship, as they explore the dusty forgotten rooms of Donnafugata, one of the Prince’s palaces. The house throbs with the sensuality of their desire, as they explore the ‘mysterious and intricate labyrinth’ of various apartments which had been uninhabited for many years:

The two lovers embarked for Cythera on a ship made of dark and sunny rooms, of apartments sumptuous or squalid, empty or crammed with remains of heterogeneous furniture … It was not difficult to mislead anyone wanting to follow, this just meant slipping into one of the very long, narrow and tortuous passages, with grilled windows which could not be passed without a sense of anguish, turning through a gallery, up some handy stair, and the two young people were far away, invisible, alone as if on a desert island.

These dreamy passages are a beautiful double metaphor for first love. The winding geography of the palace becomes a voyage to a distant island, a journey of discovery, as well as perfectly reflecting the newly discovered labyrinthine feelings of falling in love.

Lampedusa contrasts this match between aristocratic yet financially poor Tancredi and socially ambitious, wealthy Angelica – indicative of an acceptance that change is necessary to remain in power – with the Prince’s inflexibility. When he is asked to be a Senator of the newly unified Kingdom, a chance to represent Sicily in the country’s political affairs which is a great honour, the Prince declines. He says he supports the new regime but will not ‘participate’. He conjures an image of Sicilians who are old, ‘worn out and exhausted’, looking on the wonders of the modern world as:

A centenarian being dragged in a bath-chair round the Great Exhibition in London, understanding nothing and caring about nothing … thinking of nothing but drowsing off again on beslobbered pillows with a pot under the bed.

He continues:

All Sicilian sensuality is a hankering for oblivion … that is the cause of the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life; novelties attract us only when they are dead.

The Prince is old, and will not participate in change. Twenty years on, we see him sitting not in a bath-chair but in an ‘arm-chair, his long legs wrapped in a blanket’ taken out on to a hotel balcony, as he looks over the Sicilian landscape and feels ‘life flowing from him in great pressing waves with a spiritual roar’. He realises that he is the last true Salina, the last who understands traditions and refuses to bow to the changing times.

Throughout the novel there is the tension of the Prince’s heavy journey towards death – his ‘hankering for oblivion’, unchanging, doomed yet noble – against the nimble, practical, youthful energy of Tancredi, who will make the aristocracy’s traditions pliant in order to remain on top.

Interesting, this comment on ‘the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life’. For The Leopard begins in 1860 and was written nearly a hundred years later. Evidently Lampedusa himself was subject to this time lag, attracted to such ‘novelties’ as the decaying aristocracy only once it was well-and-truly dead.

The Prince feels himself to be a generation caught in-between generations – still alive in spite of his outmoded way of living and unable to adapt in the way that Tancredi can. It strikes me that this feeling of in-betweeness is surely felt by all generations. I know little of Lampedusa’s life, but perhaps he felt oppressed by the change brought by modern warfare – the Allied bomb of 1943 which fell on his Palermo palazzo, which is prophetically glimpsed in the novel:

From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling as inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.

Surely every generation suffers this neurosis of being at once ahead and left behind. For instance, my generation is endlessly bemoaning the fact that we are in-between in terms of the internet – too old to have been taught coding, yet not so old that we can get away with our ignorance. There is a feeling that if only we were older it wouldn’t matter if we knew no more than how to add an attachment to an email, but as it is we’re expected to be able to build a website, certainly to know basic html, and the fact that we don’t, whereas those just ten years younger than us have it all as second nature, is terrifying.

Perhaps that is in part why The Leopard is such a timeless novel, capturing the old order on the brink of collapse, while the new rises up – portraying how much is lost as well as gained in this evolution, while maintaining enough optimism not to be overwhelmed by the weight of such nostalgia. In each generation there is another old order giving way to a new, and surely everyone feels themselves caught between the annihilistic ‘hankering for oblivion’ and a naïve hopefulness. We are all faced with the statement: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ It’s less a question of ‘D’you understand?’ than how one chooses to respond.

Oh and there is so much more to discuss. The power of the Sicilian landscape – perhaps this is what Forster so admired about it, as it reminded me of the brilliant end to A Passage to India; Catholicism – no doubt much here about death being ever present a la Brideshead Revisited; and all the food – including that infamous macaroni pie … The Leopard is a magnificent and enduring classic, even better on this rereading than when I first encountered it ten years ago. As ever, I’d love to know what you made of it. Daphne, alas, was rather startled by its leonine character:

Daphne and The Leopard

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

July 15, 2013

As I Walked Out One Midsummer MorningLast week, I re-read Laurie Lee’s second volume of classic memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. It was up for discussion in the Walking Book Club on Sunday, so I wanted to refresh my memory.

Re-reading a book is a funny thing. Certain aspects leap out and grab you which slipped past last time, whereas other passages which one remembers as magnificent now seem barely significant. The book stays the same, of course, so I often wonder what your own shifting perspective reveals about yourself.

This particular re-reading was undertaken while suffering from a horrid summer lurgi, which gave an extra hallucinatory sheen to Lee’s passages of sunstroke:

By mid-morning I was in a state of developing madness, possessed by pounding deliriums of thirst, my brain running and reeling through all the usual obsessions that are said to accompany the man in the desert. Fantasies of water rose up and wrapped me in cool wet leaves, or pressed the thought of cucumber peel across my stinging eyes and filled my mouth with dripping moss. I began to drink monsoons and winter mists, to lick up the first fat drops of thunder, to lie down naked on deep-sea sponges and rub my lips against the scales of fish.

Let me assure you this is unnerving reading when you’re lying there sweating, drifting in and out of sleep, and your brain’s feeling far from screwed on right. Small wonder these passages seemed particularly impressive this time round! (I have to confess to still not feeling a hundred per cent, so my apologies if the post is a little feverish…)

What really surprised me in this re-reading, was how much I was struck by the book’s violence. I remembered it to be a sweeping romantic haze, whereas this time round it seemed far more sinister.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning begins when nineteen-year-old Laurie Lee bids goodbye to his Cotswold village and ‘the stopping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool’, setting off in search of adventure. The first chunk of the book is taken up with his walking to London and the year he spent there lodging in Putney and working on a building site. It reminds me of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, with his descriptions of endlessly processing tramps and acute poverty. At least Lee is rather better fed than Orwell, who survived on ‘tea-and-two-slices’. He moves into rooms above an eating-house, which has a menu offering:

Bubble. Squeak. Liver and B. Toad-in-the-Hole. Meat Pudding or Pie.

What particularly endeared this section to me was the fact that it was all set in Putney – such an unromantic, unglamorous, unliterary part of London. No offence Putney-ites, but its not quite Fitzrovia.

After a year, on a whim, Laurie Lee decides to get a boat to Spain, where he walks from Vigo in the north down to the Southern coast, as Civil War approaches. For the most part his journey is one of happy adventure, of walking and playing the fiddle and being given wine, food and shelter. Lee’s writing is lyrical, lush with imagery, beautifully crafted and so perhaps you can forgive my memory for fixing on the many passages like this one:

Green oaks like rocks lay scattered among the cornfields, with peasants chest-deep in the wheat. It was the peak of harvest, and figures of extraordinary brilliance were spread across the field like butterflies, working alone or in clusters, and dressed to the pitch of the light…

These pastoral images almost entirely eclipsed my memory of the episodes of violence which pepper Laurie Lee’s route. For instance, early on, there is a horrific moment when he returns to his inn late at night in Valladolid:

The huge front door had been ripped from its hinges and lay in splinters across the street. The three youngest children were huddled inside, half naked, moaning with fear – while the Borracho’s wife, storm centre of the scene, stood screaming at the foot of the stairs.

She says that her husband has tried to rape their daughter, and then:

I found the Borracho on the landing, about half-way up, sprawled on his back, wet with blood and wine. He lay like a slaughtered bull, breathing in painful gasps and weeping to himself in the dark.

A domestic dispute, with a father’s awful desire for his daughter at its heart, explodes into the public realm as the door is ripped off its hinges, revealing the bloody screaming mess inside. This heart of violence suddenly refusing to be contained by the huge front door could almost figure as a metaphor for the coming Civil War.

Individual violent moments like this do eventually boil into Civil War. By then, Lee has settled in Almuñécar, playing the violin at a hotel and falling in with a loosely Communist crowd. Then there are the first shootings, dead bodies and the assertion of ‘that powerful minority who would rather the country first bled to death’.

Laurie Lee is rescued by a British ship. As he stands on deck looking back at Almuñécar, he notices:

The whole village had turned out to witness our departure and stood in a long dark frieze round the bay, waving and calling across the water, some of them running up and down the sands. There was also something desperate, almost sinister, in the way they packed the edge of the sea, as though in dread of the land behind them.

It’s a powerful image, not least because Lee has just traversed that land, trodden on it, slept on it and written about it so beautifully. Here the violence has triumphed over the pastoral idyll, leaving the people scared of the land, on the edge of the sea.

I wonder why I noticed this thread of violence that winds across Laurie Lee’s path so much more this time. Perhaps it was thanks to the strange emphasis a fevered brain gives to his words. Perhaps a slight impatience with Lee’s restless youthful spirit made me concentrate more on the political side of the book. In any case, it was definitely worth re-reading and has left me longing to read the final volume in the trilogy, A Moment of War, which  is about his return to Spain during the Civil War. Luckily, I am off to Andalusia to broil in the sun with some friends in a couple of months, so there will be the perfect excuse. I can’t wait!

Laurie Lee by Anthony Devas in 1944, at the NPG © Prosper Devas & Associates

The Dark is Rising

May 14, 2013

The Dark is RisingI began re-reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising quintet at Christmas. I was staying at my Mum’s and one night I found I was unable to sleep, having snoozed through most of the afternoon. Looking through the bookshelves of my childhood, filled with Beatrix Potter, Swallows and Amazons, the multi-coloured Children’s Britannica, and other nostalgic delights, I alighted on this slim collection of novels with way-out fantasy covers. I remember being so terrified by the cover of The Dark is Rising (the second in the series) that I couldn’t sleep with it turned upwards by my bed, and always had to leave it face down, preferably safely hidden underneath another book.

Over Sea Under StoneThat night I re-read, cover-to-cover, Over Sea, Under Stone, which is the first in the series. It is about the three Drew children who go on holiday to Cornwall. They stay in an old house, where they discover an old map and they soon find themselves on a quest for King Arthur’s grail. Funny how in children’s literature, when you go on holiday you tend to find yourself on a very exciting quest, whereas in adult literature, you go on holiday and either fall in love or discover something about yourself. Even now I’m a grown-up, I’d rather my holidays followed the first plot line.

This family adventure story that’s set in a Cornwall steeped in Arthurian legend is great fun, but it doesn’t begin to prepare you for the books that are to come.

The Dark is Rising, which I read a couple of weeks later when feeling poorly, is a terrifying coming-of-age story. It begins on Midwinter’s Eve, the night before Will Stanton’s eleventh birthday:

It was then, without warning, that the fear came.

The first wave caught him as he was crossing the room to his bed. It halted him stock-still in the middle of the room, the howl of the wind outside filling his ears. The snow lashed against the window. Will was suddenly deadly cold, yet tingling all over. He was so frightened that he could not move a finger … there was only a dreadful darkness in his mind, a sense of looking into a great black pit.

It’s a brilliant description of terror, which we soon learn is an expression of the Dark. Will Stanton discovers that he is the last of The Old Ones, a force for the Light. He is about to embark on his first quest for the Light, helped on his way by Merriman Lyon, who we met in the first book.

This gives a new resonance to children’s common fear of the dark. Throughout the books, the Dark’s presence is often felt psychologically – a dark fug of fear not a million miles from J.K. Rowling’s Dementors – rather than physically. The Grey KingThis idea is explored again in the character Caradog Prichard in the fourth book of the series, The Grey King. Caradog is clearly not a good person, but Will suddenly understands the awful full implication of this:

Will was filled with an overpowering compassion: an awareness of what must inevitably overtake Caradog Prichard if he were not checked, now, for always, in this passion before it was too late. Stop he longed to call to him: stop, before the Grey King sees you and puts out his hand in friendship, and you, unwitting, take it and are destroyed…

Man’s ambition and weakness can be taken advantage of by the Dark for its own terrible ends.

In The Dark is Rising, Cooper is very good at depicting the challenges and contradictions of Will’s double life. One minute he’s the youngest child in a big family, sparring with his older brothers, saving up pocket money for Christmas presents, feeding the rabbits. The next he’s on a terrifying magical quest, trying to save the world from the forces of the Dark.

Of course Will’s situation is greatly exaggerated, but I remember a similar feeling from childhood of having a whole complicated imaginary world which was completely separate from adult reality. Whether it was from reading books, or playing games, or organising midnight feasts, there was always something going on which felt top secret, that the grown-ups wouldn’t understand and that had to be concealed from them at boring moments like supper or home-time. Cooper brilliantly captures this feeling of a child’s life being an intersection of different worlds.

GreenwitchThe Drew children re-appear, alongside Will Stanton, in the third book, Greenwitch, which is a kind of feminine Wicker Man. Then there’s The Grey King – every bit as terrifying as The Dark is Rising, when Will stays with some cousins in Wales, where he meets the mysterious albino boy Bran. Finally, there’s Silver on the Tree, which brings all the characters together in the ultimate test of good versus evil.

There is much to enjoy in this quest-filled quintet, but above all, I love the way the series is so firmly rooted in the British landscape, inspired by British stories and traditions. The Grey King, for instance, centres on Welsh tropes. At the heart of the story is the Brenin Llwyd, traditionally a Celtic King who lives in the Snowdonian mountain Cader Idris. Cooper casts him as a force for the Dark. Will has to find a golden harp – a Welsh object if ever there was one – and there is even an important sheepdog.

Silver on the TreeIn Silver on the Tree, the tree of the title is in the Chilterns. This is the scene when they find it:

Then the last of the mist blew away, and in the dim light beneath the lowering sky they saw a line of trees before them, a wood of beech trees capping a round chalk hill – and, gradually appearing on the slope in front of the wood, a single huge tree … It was an oak tree, more vast and ancient than any tree they had ever seen.

I’m not sure there could be a more English landscape!

These books are about oak trees and other trees and the folklore of English wildflowers and Welsh mountains. They are about Celtic myth and Arthurian legend, and about the Old Ways – ancient paths through the landscape that have magical powers of protection (Robert Macfarlane should take note).

Cooper often transports her characters from the present day to an ancient time, while keeping the place the same. It is a wonderful way of capturing the layers of history encapsulated in the landscape, or as Macfarlane would put it, the land’s ‘storiations’.

Susan Cooper wrote Over Sea, Under Stone when she was working at The Sunday Times in London. The rest of the quintet came later, however, once she’d moved to America. Cooper was very homesick and in an interview on her website she says:

I was so homesick that when I went home to Wales to visit my parents a few months after moving, my husband later said he was afraid I wouldn’t come back … My homesickness never went away. It bubbled up into The Dark Is Rising, a fantasy about the Light and the Dark that is at the same time intensely English, every inch of it set in the part of Buckinghamshire where I grew up.

Perhaps this vivid conjuring of British landscape in the books helped to ease her homesickness. It certainly transports the reader to the various settings, making me long to go to Cornwall, Wales and Buckinghamshire.

I loved re-reading these books from my childhood and found they had definitely stood the test of time. I find children’s books are best read when feeling a little overtired or poorly – there is something about the imaginative quests and the elemental background of good versus evil which really takes hold of my mind when it’s already feeling somewhat unhinged from reality. I think next time I read The Dark is Rising sequence will be when I go on a staycation to Wales, Cornwall or Buckinghamshire. They would definitely bring a new resonance to the landscape and who knows, perhaps the holiday would take a more adventurous turn.

And for those of you who are either terrified by the old Michael Heslop covers or unimpressed by the current Penguin ones, you might be tempted by these completely beautiful editions with illustrations by Laura Carlin, recently published by The Folio Society.

Folio Society editions of The Dark is Rising