(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on the full, First edition text, not the edited Second edition produced in 1969 for Armada, and upon second thoughts.)
Though he had published a book about Amateur Dramatics under a pseudonym several years before, Mystery at Witchend was the first book in Malcolm Saville’s career. It was the first book about a group of children with a habit of getting into the kind of adventures that children did in the fiction of the mid-Twentieth Century. Thirty-five years later, the twentieth book about the Lone Pine Club would be Saville’s farewell to children’s fiction, although there were till a book or two to come about the English countryside he loved, before he died in 1982, with over ninety books to his credit.
Alongside Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome, Saville would become one of the most successful writers of children’s adventures, with half a dozen different series – the Jillies, the Buckinghams, Marston Baines – but none so popular or so well-represented as the Lone Piners, and none in whom Saville eventually allowed to grow from children into young men and women, ready to step into adulthood with loyalty turned to love.
Mystery at Witchend was published when Britain was still at War with Germany, and it is completely a book of its time. Fifteen year old David Morton, and the nine year old Twins, Richard and Mary, are evacuated with their mother and Scottish terrier Macbeth, from their home in Hertfordshire to Witchend, in Shropshire, a cottage in a narrow valley on the east flank of the Long Mynd, bought for that purpose by Mr Morton, a London Solicitor currently flying fighters for the RAF.
The set-up almost exactly duplicates Saville’s own in 1943, though being in publishing he could only rent a farmhouse for his wife and four children, and not by the Mynd, though they were indeed evacuated to Shropshire, a county he had come to live since his first visit in the mid-Thirties.
And in a curious echo of Tolkien, combining the writing of The Hobbit and Book Four of The Lord of the Rings, Saville wrote this adventure as a story for his children, sending it to them in chapters that, when completed, were brought together by his employers, publishers George Newnes & Co, and published successfully.
First books are mostly about set-up, and Mystery at Witchend was no different. Though there’s an adventure, and probably the most serious the Lone Pine Club has to manage, for much of the book it takes second place to establishing the world of these youngsters in a country that is at War, no matter how far removed Shropshire may be from the tangible presence of it.
And Saville makes a point of establishing that he’s setting this story in a real place,to which his readers can go and explore: though Witchend, and the nearby Ingle’s Farm, and Hatchholt, with its cottage and reservoir, and the nearby village of Onnybrook are fictions, everything else is there to be visited.
So who and what is the Lone Pine Club? In this first book, it consists of five boys and girls, who break into two different age-groups. As well as the Morton children, who will go on to become the only Lone Piners to appear in all twenty books, there are Petronella Sterling and Tom Ingles: the first four will form the secret Club based around a single Pine tree in a hard-to-access clearing overlooking Witchend, and Tom will be enrolled within a few hours. They are only the first.
Saville doesn’t rush into the story. We meet the Mortons on Shrewsbury station, changing trains from the cross-country fro London to Liverpool for the local to Onnybrook and their new home. David, though still very childish in many ways in this book, is already a stable, sensible, sturdy boy, the natural Captain for the Club, given responsibility by his absent father to look after everyone else. And Mrs Morton is a quiet, calm woman with the same complaisant understanding of her children’s urges to disappear in pursuit of adventures as Mrs Walker in the Swallows and Amazons books.
And there’s the Twins.
I’m going to upset a lot of Malcolm Saville fans here, but the Twins are going to be my least favourite part of the books to come. We’re introduced to them at nine years old, absolutely identical and compulsively loyal to one another. The first factor results in strangers reacting in almost identical fashion throughout the series, which the Twins exploit, over and over, with a childish routine they never grow out of, whilst the second would be wholly admirable if it weren’t for the fact that Dickie and Mary are total paranoid egomaniacs who never grow out of some bubble of invincibility that, only a few books into the series, strains credulity to and beyond breaking point.
However, this isn’t seen to their disadvantage in Mystery at Witchend, when they are at their youngest, and at their most natural, and when up against perhaps the most realistic villains of the series.
Though he’s not included in the forming of the Club, the next future Lone Piner we meet is Tom Ingles. He’s a shorter, slighter, darker boy, about half a year younger than David, and like the Mortons is an evacuee for London. His father’s in the Army, his mother and the baby somewhere in Somerset, and he’s living with his Aunt and Uncle at Ingle’s Farm, half a mile down the lane from Witchend.
Tom’s immediate family never come into it again. A lot of books go by before it’s acknowledged that they’re dead, by which time Tom’s berth with the loud, boisterous Alf, and the motherly, cake-baking Betty, is a permanent arrangement. The Ingles’ we see are childless, and Tom is as a son to them, and he’s learning how to work on the farm, despite being, at this stage, the epitome of a city kid, missing red buses, pavement tar and the cinema, but he’s already able to imitate bird cries. And he’s more than glad at the prospect of other children nearby, though not necessarily the Twins, for being so much younger.
Tom’s not the one to suggest a secret Club. For that, we need the last of the founding four. And so to Petronella Sterling, or Peter as we will come to know and love her. The Armada paperback edited Second Edition on which this review was first based diminishes her by removing almost every instance of her struggle to adjust to being part of a group, instead of the independent, self-reliant and almost headstrong girl she’s been until we meet her. Peter’s the ultimate country girl, alive to and in tune with the country into which all these stranger have come.
Though there’s an unobtrusive bit of foreshadowing in the opening chapter, when an excitable man on Onnybrook station platform, speaking an odd but unremarked upon form of English, demands a parcel that hasn’t arrived, bumps into David and disturbs the Morton luggage, the book doesn’t really get going until the third day, when the Morton’s go off for the day, exploring the mountain.
Yes, three children, two of them under ten, go off into unknown country, on their own, without maps. This was a different era, with different attitudes. Children were expected to explore and to get into and out of scrapes by their own resources. The Long Mynd is a mountain (in Shropshire terms: with my Lake District hat on, we don’t recognise mountains until they reach 2,000 feet) and like all countryside, it’s not innocuous, forall it is long, smooth, rolling. The Mortons are warned of all the dangers: the narrow valleys (or ‘gutters’), the bogs, mist on the summit, but they are trusted to be sensible and not get lost.
As is the way of all children in all remotely worthwhile fiction, they forget all these warnings, they stray from the path, climb a waterfall out of Dark Hollow, discover an even narrower gutter, and Dickie manages to get himself stuck in a bog.
Peter is a girl on a pony, aged about fourteen, her fair hair in two old-fashioned plaits that will distinguish her for years, with a clear, ringing voice, and boundlessly enthusiastic. Her formal name, Petronella, was taken from a boat on Cromer Beach, but everyone except her father calls her Peter (this is a time when it was far from uncommon for girls who were not immediately feminine to be called by boy’s names).
With David helpless in unfamiliar circumstances, Peter immediately takes charge of Dickie’s rescue. She lives at Hatchholt, with her elderly, retired father, lost her mother at a very young age, has grown up without friends, even those at the boarding school she attends, and immediately offends the Twins by calling Dickie a ‘little boy’ and laughing at at his muddiness and the smell from the bog.
But she’s sensitive enough to understand and apologise for her mistake, and her enthusiasm for having a group of friends like she’s never had before draws the Mortons to her. And it is Peter who immediately suggests the four of them form a secret club.
In later books, Saville makes it explicit that Peter has never realised until now that she’s been lonely, but it’s implicit in the almost overwhelming way in which she embraces the Mortons, and it’s indicative that, having had only herself to satisfy for so long, Peter finds it hard to have to fit in with others’ wants, thoughts and opinions. She and David are almost of an age. Throughout the series, Saville will make it plain, in both action and word, that this meeting is the most important thing in their lives, and there are hints of a quick affinity between these two, but hints they are. In this book, more than any others to follow, the Lone Piners are children: they think and act and feel as children, and whatever spark this pair have started in one another comes nowhere close to their being aware of it.
The editing of the second edition makes Peter come over frequently as too gushing, too voluable. Mrs Morton virtually adopts her as a daughter on the spot, without fuss, and there’s an early sign that David isn’t going to be quite as stolid and impervious as he seems: having annoyed Peter by paying more attention to the Hatchholt reservoir works than to swimming with her, he senses both her hurt and the cause of it and, despite being the better swimmer, lets her win their race.
And Peter in turn understands that David’s gesture is meant in expiation, rather than condescending.
The Club finally comes about when its perfect home is discovered, above Witchend: a perfect, gorse-surrounded clearing surrounding the tree that gives the club its name. It’s a team efforts: Peter’s idea, Mary’s discovery of the camp, Dickie’s naming of the Club and Tom will contribute the secret signal, the peewit’s call: yet David Morton ends up Club Captain, with Peter as his Vice- for bringing nothing to the table, not even self-confidence, in this book.
Peter cedes the Captaincy to David. If that’s a chauvinist notion that we now would challenge, sobeit. This book was written seventy four years ago, when attitudes were different. Saville is a product of his time and its attitudes, but the decision to give the big boy the lead comes from more than mere convention. It’s in Peter’s nature to recognise David’s qualities, even so soon, and she is entirely without ego: responsible, self-sufficient, but ever so glad to find others that she sees as equals.
The Club established, David immediately proposes Tom for membership, and Tom is only too pleased to join in: like Peter, but for different reasons, he is lonely, though he is a more introverted character emotionally. Having a group of which to call himself part is manna for him.
So the Lone Pine Club is formed, with its rules and purposes set out in pencil and hidden in a salmon tin buried near the roots of the Pine tree itself. These are childish, and expressed childishly, but the objectives are kept: to explore, watch birds and animals, and track strangers, the last of which will be followed far more often and far more assiduously than any other. And there’s an Oath: ‘to be true to each other whatever happens always’.
They sign to these Rules and their Oath in blood, and it may be silly, and childish beneath everything, but that Oath is something worth signing to in blood, and it is performed faithfully throughout the series, during which it will come to have significant personal meaning for the Club’s elder members.
Having spent so much time on the Club and its members, there is almost none for the story itself. Having said that, and having read one other Lone Pine book before getting this, I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. Which is not, I hope, to be patronising but rather to reflect that I am no longer reading as a young boy, or even a teenager, but as an adult. Saviille’s writing here is calm, collected and natural, even though the children haven’t yet established any degree of maturity.
It helps that Mystery at Witchend affords Saville his best and most serious of plots, with the most serious of stakes that, afterwards, could not be repeated. The Lone Piners fall into the mystery casually and naturally, without anf oof the self-conscious searching for an Adventure that goes to typify later books.
The story revolves around Appledore, a house of the other side of the Long Mynd, belonging to the dark, mysterious Mrs Thurston. Strangers keep popping up on the Mynd, crossing the Lone Piners’ path: they turn out to be German saboteurs, planning to destroy the reservoirs that provide the great Midland cities water supplies, crippling morale, health and production of munitions.
The Lone Piners, David in particular, grow suspicious, but are not taken seriously until the Twins go missing. It’s not exactly a kidnap, though that will happen with distressing, and predictable, regularity. This time, it’s thoughtlessness, and the wish to be taken seriously, that leads them far from home, and into trouble from which their rescue is the preciptating point for the nest of spies to be cleaned out.
But not before one succeeds in his task. Hatchholt’s dam is blown, and its dry valley flooded, to the sudden danger of the Lone Piners, but with sufficient warning for them to escape the flood.
It’s a well-conceived plot, simple enough for its intended audience to understand it fully without necessarily getting to its conclusion too soon, but not so simplistic that the adult finds it improbable. The only part of it I have a problem with is how easy it is for planes to get so far into inland airspace and drop so many parachutists without being detected.
Saville supplements this believability by rigorously keeping every aspect at the level of the children’s understanding and observation, and by adding that Appledore was already under suspicion, so that the Lone Piners don’t improbably discover a nest of spies all by themselves.
All the details are cleared up in a picnic at the Lone Pine, to which most of the major adult characters are invited, as honorary members of the Lone Pine Club (Rules and Oath signed in pencil, not blood). Whilst many characters would recur throughout the series, it’s a little surprising that one seemingly major adult character – the home on leave sailor, Bill Ward, who pops up in the first chapter to introduce Shropshire and the Mynd country, and who is the subject of a major crush from Mary – never appears again.
The Armada Second edition omits no major plot points, but loses a lot of the naturalism of the children’s conversation, and as I said, does Peter no favours in flattening her character. I was pleased at how much of it I remembered after so long, which isn’t the case with many of the other books, though I had completely forgotten the blatant foreshadowing of the sequel, with its reference to Seven Gates Farm, by the Stiperstones, and Peter’s mysterious Uncle…