The children’s author William Mayne has died, aged eighty two. There’s a very brief report in The Times here and more detail on the Liberal England blog here. There’s rather a deafening silence from the obituary columns (please tell me if I’m wrong). This is probably because in 2004 he was sent to prison for sexually abusing under-age girls. No one could dislike child abuse more than I do; it gives me the horrors. But I don’t think it invalidates his work. Knowing what we do nowadays, would you let your daughter pose for Lewis Carroll? Almost certainly not but would you therefore stop your children reading Alice?
I’m the right age to have read many of his early books as they came out. They were exactly the kinds of books librarians liked so it was easy to borrow them. I loved them and I think it was the language that engaged me. The World Upside Down, The Member for the Marsh, A Grass Rope, Underground Alley,The Rolling Season: I read the lot. When I stopped going to the children’s library I stopped reading Mayne. As he wrote about 100 books that means a huge gap in my reading; I’ve never read any of the popular Hob stories, for instance. Years later, when I was grown up, I read Earthfasts (1966) for the first time and thought it was terrific; I still admire it very much.
My favourite of his books is still A Swarm in May (1955) the first in what is now known as the Choir School quartet. They are set in a school based on The King’s School, Canterbury, which Mayne himself attended. ETA Wrong Bong! Please see better-informed comment below. ASIM was followed by Choristers' Cake and Cathedral Wednesday. I have all these but the last book, Words and Music is almost impossible to find and I’m not prepared to fork out the necessary for what is generally considered the weakest book in the series. In her wonderful Intent upon Reading (1961), Margery Fisher includes these books in her chapter on school stories and devotes three pages to them. She writes: 'the dialogue is curiously formalized and yet so apposite that it gets nearer to the real talk of boys than anything I have read later thanTom Sawyer.'
In The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard (1984) Mayne is given a page and a half and described as ‘widely admired and unconventional.’ A Swarm in May is ‘one of the century’s outstanding children’s novels.’ More space is devoted to Mayne in Victor Watson’s The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English (2001). The main entry is written by Kate Agnew, who says that he is ‘widely regarded as a difficult writer, mainly because the language he uses is unusually precise and economical.’ Thanks to the eccentric organization of this book (which has irritated me ever since it was published), there are other entries for Mayne under ‘Choir School series’ and ‘Earthfasts series’. Both these essays are by Victor Watson himself. He says that A Swarm in May ‘established Mayne’s reputation as an exciting and innovative writer for children.’ Nevertheless he doubts the book’s appeal today. ‘the novels refer to a culture of grammar schools and boarding schools familiar to many young readers in the 1950s and 1960s; but they would make considerable demands on young readers today.’ Years before, Margery Fisher also raised the issue of difficulty: ‘Perhaps he is a little difficult for children to appreciate … because he utterly ignores any compromise, any of the formulas which endear more popular writers to children.’
This just shows how attitudes to children’s books have changed. In the 1950s A Swarm in May made William Mayne a star writer and A Grass Rope won the Carnegie Medal. Thirty years later the feeling was that while critics admired, children did not read him and were put off by, for example, the Latin used in the choir school books. I can only say that while other children were reading The Famous Five, I was deep in William Mayne’s books. I feel a choir school re-read coming on.