Some cosy Girlsown reading
Clover Cottage, Frances Cowen, 1958
Young Solario, Marjorie Siddall, 1951
Windmill Hill, Wyn Brocklebank, 1962
The House by the Sea, Hilda Boden, 1962
I have a weakness for children’s books in the second (or even third) rank, often ‘Reward’ books, the kind which were given out as prizes. After immersing myself in new autumn books for a while, I went back in time and read some cosy Girlsown-style books. I have several books by Frances Cowen and I think most people will know The Secret of Grange Farm and The Secret of the Loch. I’ve always thought her a good writer. I looked her up to check the publishing dates of Clover Cottage and found that the British Library lists fifty four books by her, only a few of them for children. Clover Cottage is a happy family tale. Father is often away at sea, Mother lives in a basement flat with elder daughter Margaret (the heroine), a set of twins and a baby. It’s hard work, money is short and when schools break up for the summer, there’s not much chance of a holiday away from the town. Then a solicitor’s letter arrives, telling Mother she’s inherited a cottage in the country. The cottage is in a poor state of repair but Margaret falls in love with it and is convinced they can improve it and live there. The family go to stay on a nearby farm and the rest of the book is about the restoration of the cottage, with a couple of mysteries and a late spanner in the works to spice it up. This book is for you if, like me, you enjoy stories about houses and housekeeping.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Young Solario, which I’d never heard of. The title confused me; I kept mentally misreading it as ‘Young Lothario’. It refers to the painter Antonio Solario, also known as ‘Lo Zingaro’. The family here is fatherless. Mother writes romances (‘I know it’s not literature’, she says), to make some money, elder daughter Julie is training as a commercial artist, little sister Liz is still at school, which brings in some school interest. The household also includes a paying guest, the reclusive Mr Puddefoot, and beautiful, snobbish cousin Dilys, who is palmed off on them by her mother. Julie befriends Nick, a local gipsy with remarkable artistic talent. Poor Nick struggles with his father’s angry opposition to any life but that of rag and bone man, and with the snobbish attitudes of some students at Julie’s art college. The main plotline is about whether Nick will succeed in becoming an artist but most of the book concerns family life. I found it very entertaining, with pleasant, amusing characters and lots of home detail. This was a world in which girls had handkerchief drawers and even tidied them.
In Windmill Hill, Tamara lives with Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ted in Mill Cottage, a sheep farm in Yorkshire. Her mother is dead, her artist father left the farm and hasn’t been heard of since. On her twelfth birthday Tam is given the key to the Mill, so she can use it as a study and to entertain her friends. This is a strangely episodic, plotless book, full of the author’s own interests: nature conservation and opposition to hunting; the beauty of Yorkshire. An episode where Tam and her friend Jane rescue a shag which is covered in oil is very reminiscent of Tamzin in Operation Seabird, which was published earlier. Much of the detail, like a trip to Paris with clothes shopping spree thrown in, would have been very attractive to readers in the early sixties, but it is very much a country book.
The British Library lists thirty eight books by Hilda Boden. They all look like children’s books, and most of them are pretty undistinguished, the kind you forget as soon as you’ve finished them. In The House by the Sea, Penny and Gerry’s parents send them from Kenya to England to be in a safe place while Father tries to sell the farm. Their Aunt and Uncle’s house is obviously a perfectly nice, ordinary suburban one but to the sisters it seems poky and England very small. Twelve-year-old Penny makes the best of things and settles down happily. Older Gerry is determined to hate everything and makes herself as unpleasant as possible. When she reduces her aunt to tears, Uncle has had enough and arranges for them to stay with ‘Aunt Pru’ (actually no relation) in Wales. Pru is made of sterner stuff than poor Aunt Clare and ignores Gerry’s standoffishness and refusal to enjoy anything. Gerry learns to respect her and the two girls come to love Wales and ‘the house by the sea’. The descriptions of life in a small Welsh seaside village make this an enjoyable book.