I probably get to see about one in every six issues of The People’s Friend. One of its jollier features is called A Right Good Read, in which readers recommend books they’ve enjoyed. As you’d expect, these are often childhood favourites like Anne of Green Gables. In the copy in front of me now one reader praises Monica Dickens’ books One Pair of Hands & One Pair of Feet while a lady of ninety four loves The Old Curiosity Shop. I hope JD of East Sussex won’t mind me quoting from what was for me the most interesting letter:
‘I remember a charming little book from my childhood called A Peep Behind the Scenes, which my mother bought for me. She read it to me and later I used to read it on my own. … a few weeks ago I found a copy for sale on the internet and couldn’t resist buying it and enjoying it all over again.’
At the market one day I was looking at a particularly nice copy and the seller said, ‘Oh, that’s a lovely book! I’m only selling it because I’ve got my mother’s copy.’ A few weeks later I saw another one at a car boot sale when a complete stranger said, ’That’s a lovely book!’ and began talking about it. I sold a copy to someone in Canada who wanted it for her grandfather who ‘would be so happy to read this lovely book again.’ Obviously a much loved book, but why?
A Peep Behind the Scenes by Mrs O F Walton was first published in 1877 and it’s still in print! It must have gone through countless printings and was even filmed in 1929. It tells the story of twelve year old Rosalie. Her father owns a travelling theatre and her life is spent on the road with a fair. To outsiders all is glitter and glamour and spectators envy the pretty little actress. Behind the scenes is hard work, cold, hunger and a sick mother whose life is made worse by her husband’s callousness. Poor Rosalie tends her mother, keeps the caravan neat and performs in the theatre several times every evening.
Early in the book it’s revealed that Rosalie’s mother ‘was born a lady’ but wilfully left home to marry the unpleasant Augustus and become an actress (this explains Rosalie’s pretty ways and ability to read). The theme of the book is The Good Shepherd, forever looking for His lost lambs. Texts, hymns and the Testament feature throughout the book and bring comfort to Rosalie, her dying mother and other characters whom Rosalie meets and helps. Doesn’t sound very promising, does it? An overtly Christian story which attacks the tawdriness of theatre life. Yet it succeeds because of the way it’s written. Mrs Walton doesn’t condemn the poor mother who brought her troubles on herself or the unfortunates leading hard lives, who have never been given a chance. The book is full of satisfying details; about the fair, the interior of the caravan, the countryside they pass through, the dingy boarding house. The characters seem realistic and speak plain English. Even the criticisms are lively, for example the account of ‘the lady without arms who performed wonders with her toes … and whose very infirmities and deformities were thus made into gain … by her own relations.’
This was Mrs Walton’s most popular book. I’ve photographed four of her books here and each has a prize plate; who knows how many were given out? I don’t think the children need have been disappointed with what they received. Poppy’s Presents, for instance, is a much shorter book and probably intended for younger children. Poppy is only eight and the ‘presents’ turn out to be twin baby brothers. She has to leave school and look after them all day and half the night because her mother must work. Yet the book is written in a lively, humorous style likely to appeal to young readers.
The argument against this sort of book is of course that Mrs Walton trusts God and charity to help His little lambs, rather than arguing for social reform. Yet more than a century after A Peep Behind the Scenes was published, in spite of the Welfare State and the cried-up aim to ‘end child poverty’, there are still neglected children and child carers, so in its way the book is still relevant. Perhaps not many people these days are able to enjoy these Victorian morality tales, but I’m one of them.