Under a Solitary Tree – Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club series: an appraisal


Malcolm Saville enthralling his readers

There is an active Malcolm Saville Society, established over twenty years ago, for fans of his work in general and his Lone Pine Club series in particular. This was not the only series Saville wrote in his prolific career, though by far the longest: The Jillies and The Buckinghams ran to six books each, aimed for the same general children’s audience as the Lone Piners, whilst the Susan, Bill books were for younger readers and the somewhat later Marston Baines series for older teenagers.
But Saville is and always will be remembered for the Lone Pine Club, and for the simple but heartfelt ideals that the Club represented and by which they lived: to be true to one another, whatever happens.
Re-reading and re-re-reading the series this year has been an enjoyable experience, and in general I think that whilst the series went on too long, a number of the books stand up well even today. In the Introduction, I compared the Lone Pine books to those of the Famous Five and the Swallows and Amazons, in terms of appeal and longevity. Having re-acquainted myself with them, my overall impressions remain unchanged. Though they are the most dated in terms of dialogue and setting, the Swallows and Amazons books are still the finest, and the Famous Five the least fulfilling.
Even during his lifetime, Saville’s books were accused of being out-of-touch, and middle-class. Revisions inimical to the overall quality of the series, and poorly executed, were forced upon him. Later books became increasingly ineffectual as Saville struggled to comply with demands that he reflect the world of the Seventies, demands that were beyond his understanding in the eighth decade of his life.
But what distinguishes Saville’s work from both his contemporaries is that, from the very outset, dealing with boys and girls no more than fifteen years of age, in the middle of Wartime, he was prepared to acknowledge the inherent attraction between boys and girls, and encourage and develop this over a series of books. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Saville wrote for both male and female readers. We may assume, whether that be rightly or wrongly, that the action was the main interest of the boys and the relationships that of the girls.
Either way, Saville’s art lay in making both sides of that equation palatable to their ‘unnatural’ audience, and in making the advent of relationships natural and enjoyable for those who would normally be embarrassed by emotion.
Reviewing each book, you can’t escape from unignorable drawbacks. I don’t mean the overall implausibility of a small group of youngsters getting involved in so many adventures, nor the problems inherent in keeping that group at roughly the same age against contemporary backgrounds that span thirty-five years. This is where Suspension of Disbelief comes in, though the longevity of the series puts as much strain on the Suspension as it does on the Golden Gate Bridge.
No, I mean the repetitiveness: the adventures that, after the first two, War-bound books, never vary beyond criminal gangs, or missing treasures, the inevitable kidnapping, usually but not always of the Twins (in Seven White Gates, the only book without a villain, they get themselves trapped underground instead). Then there are the frequent natural disasters, intended to provide a melodramatic ending. The effects vary, but Saville overdoes the one where underground water forcing itself to the surface, causing landslips.
And few of Saville’s villains are particularly convincing to the adult eye. The longer the series goes on, the worse they get. They bluster, ineffectually, or they get smarmy, thinking they’re winning the kids round. In the second half of the series, a number of villains start to get more brutal, as the senior Lone Piners start to transition into adulthood, becoming fair game, as it were, but Saville’s instinctive distaste for this step shows, and he never convinces that his heart is in what he’s writing.

The Long Mynd, and one of its ‘gutters’

For the most part, Saville deals with the advancing background by ignoring it. Mystery at Witchend causes the most problems by pinning the Lone Piners to the War. It takes eleven books and fourteen years for the only mention of Tom losing his parents in an Air Raid to appear, and in Not Scarlet But Gold, it is Jenny, who did not appear in that book, who is the only one who can ask Alf Ingles what it was like in Shropshire during the War with any plausibility.
I’ve admitted to being troubled by having an entire State Forest appear between a summer adventure and a Xmas one, whilst Miss Ballinger apparently undergoing arrest, trial, imprisonment, release and establishing a very successful fashion house between Easter and a foggy London winter is impossible to accept.
This wouldn’t be so bad if Saville wasn’t insistent upon a higher degree of realism in his settings. He can invent Witchend and Seven Gates, Onnybrook and Barton Beach, even Trader’s Street and the Gay Dolphin, but in all other respects he portrays Shropshire and Rye as they are, places his readers can visit themselves, and imagine themselves into the stories.
Because the stories take on this tangibility, unlike Blyton’s generic countryside, or Ransome’s Lake being a pot-pourri of real places drawn into a fictional conglomerate, the reader is being invited to see the stories on a more realistic level. And because Saville recognised, from the outset, that his children could be and would be more than just sexless figures interested only in the thrill of the adventure, the Lone Pine Club books encourage the reader to take them more seriously, more concretely.
In re-re-reading the series with the advantage of First Edition texts, I’ve eliminated from my reviews the original references to the time-flux in the relationships between the Lone Piners. It isn’t of any significant bearing on any of the stories, and I intend to look at it separately at some point, but Saville’s inconsistency reaches its peak with Jenny, who starts off three years younger than Peter in Seven White Gates only to beat her to her eighteenth birthday by Home to Witchend.
But in keeping the children the same age throughout (roughly) up to and including Not Scarlet But Gold, Saville was obeying the wishes of his readers, who he always encouraged to write to him, and whom he always answered personally. What changes in that book is that Saville is now prepared to complete what his writing has implied for over a decade and a half, and to have David and Peter recognise how much they have always meant to each other, and after that the senior’s ages can be allowed to creep up, until they officially become eighteen year olds, and adults
The biggest accusation against the series, and the one to which Saville’s fan club reacts most aggressively, darkly muttering ‘political correctness’, is that the books are out of touch and the children too middle class. Frankly, when two-thirds of your cast go to boarding schools, I don’t think you can afford to kick against that suggestion.
I’d be more inclined to respond by pointing out that the Lone Piners between themselves treat each other absolutely equally. There’s not the tiniest suggestion that Tom or Jenny are inferior to their friends because they are working boys and girls: Tom’s duties on the farm and Jenny’s duties in the Post Office are only an issue insofar as they restrict their freedom to go wherever they choose. This confines them to the Shropshire books: their one escape, to Devon, is brought about by an awkward contrivance.
And I would also be defiant about it. The Lone Piners are products of their time. They’re not working class or street kids, nor are they worse for not being so. Times and tastes changed, and the publishers’ reactions to that were stupid and hasty. The books palpably suffered from Saville being forced out of his natural instincts.
The problem was that he lived longer than Ransome and Blyton. Blyton was a book machine, a force of nature who could roll over anything her publisher demanded whilst Ransome, though surviving to 1967, had ended his career two decades earlier: his books were established.

The Stiperstones, the Devil’s Chair

Considering the Lone Pine books as a complete story leads inevitably to considering the long-lasting relationship between David Morton and Petronella Sterling. Their’s is not the only relationship, but it is the primary one. The books may begin with David on the first page but the Club begins with Peter, a recognition Saville makes increasingly formal throughout the last half-dozen books.
She arrives from nowhere, the girl on the pony, the Shropshire girl, at one with the land and the birds and animals. She accepts the Mortons utterly, the self-reliant girl who has, until now, had all she ever needed, but has now found what she never knew she wanted, a family to wrap around her.
Except when she is unsettled, by the threat to her lifestyle of having to leave Shropshire, by David’s and her own adolescent awkwardnesses and the attentions of a handsome young man treating her in the way David has not yet thought to do, Peter is utterly straightforward, complete from the beginning. All she has to do is grow and the only growing she needs is age.
Though it would be easy to see her as an idealisation, Peter is completely grounded. Everyone loves her, everyone relies on her, everyone trusts her, and in turn she gives her friendship instantly and unquestioningly to everyone (once she is completely assured that Penny Warrender has no designs on her David). She is a very natural, very open woman. She is brave, even when a situation has her scared. When others are in danger, she acts instinctively and instantly, before anyone else. She trusts in David Morton absolutely, and has done from the very beginning, and except when the two of them have their utterly natural difficulties, transitioning out of childhood into adulthood, he is worthy of her trust.
For several books, starting with The Neglected Mountain, we are constantly assured that very soon people are going to look at her and see a very beautiful young woman. In Not Scarlet But Gold, she has become this, and this book is the most complex and fulfilling work of the series.
But once Peter declares her love and is answered by David, she begins to fade. Once she’s officially on the road towards engagement, marriage and motherhood, only her beauty matters. She loses her enthusiasm for justice, she allows herself to be left behind continually, and she is even lowered to the indignity of being kidnapped. It’s as if Saville can no longer see her as a rounded, forthright young woman, but only as a figurehead. She loses so much by it.
The relationship between Tom and Jenny seems to emerge out of nowhere. She doesn’t appear until Seven White Gates, where she has no scenes with Tom, and is only mentioned in passing as hanging adoringly on his every word afterwards: we don’t even see them being introduced. But by their next appearance, they’re as acknowledged a couple as David and Peter, having formed a good and reliable friendship with overtones of an early affection on both sides between books. It’s only natural, not just because they are of a similar age and have no other options to pair off with, but also they have much in common. They go to local schools (we assume Tom does have some schooling) and without the Mortons around, they have only each other for friends.
But though Tom and Jenny’s relationship is kept more low key, with Tom frequently shown as a little embarrassed by Jenny’s open enthusiasm towards him, it is still a two-way thing, and just as real as David and Peter. Tom, after the early books, does display a certain slight distance from the Club, because he is a working man, but never from Jenny. The pair go through their final tribulations during Man with Three Fingers, where Tom briefly kicks against the restrictions of his limited life, and Jenny, for all her determined love for him, acts at her most juvenile over what she perceives as threats to the future she dreams of, but once she is assured openly by Tom that she is his girl, she crosses the bridge into adult acceptance that she cannot be the only thing in his life, and that it is more than enough to be the main thing.
Jon and Penny are a completely different kettle of fish. They arrive as an established pair, cousins in fact but virtual siblings. They are very different characters, and by no means compatible in the way that the other pairs are. If they hadn’t already formed a bond, it would be very difficult to imagine the two taking to each other.
Jon, tall, fair-haired, intelligent, lives with his mother, who was widowed in the War. Penny, a year younger, with coppery curls, has lived with her Aunt, Jon’s mother, for years because her parents live and work in India. That background is apt for the time of their introduction, but once India has achieved its independence, it’s an anomalous situation that gets increasingly anachronistic, but which Saville maintains, probably because bringing Penny’s parents home would split the pair up.
Penny, who is a true redhead, volatile, effervescent, flirtatious, open, looks up to and worships her elder cousin who, in turn, looks down on her and treats her for the most part with casual contempt and mockery. Partly that’s down to sibling rivalry, but that’s not enough to excuse the way Jon treats his cousin. Penny’s affection for him, and her reliance upon him, is obvious, but it’s not reciprocated in kind by Jon, except in very rare moments. And he’s inordinately slow to see how Penny feels about him.
His callousness comes to a head in Mystery Mine, when no sooner do he and Penny arrive in London than he and David unapologetically decide to shove off alone and leave her with no-one but the Twins and Harriet for company. He never sees just how rotten he’s been.
Saville ultimately hamstrung himself by making the Warrenders cousins. He lived at a time when there was a stigma about cousins marrying, based on the incest taboo and a mistaken belief that the proximity of genetic structure among cousins was guaranteed to produce physically or mentally disabled children. The Warrenders appeared when Saville had no intention of letting his children grow up to the point where that became a realistic factor, and their familial ties made it impossible for him to be comfortable with allowing them the same freedom.
Like David and Peter before them, they have their breakthrough in Treasure at Amorys. The book is not quite as unequivocal as it could be, and I find it significant that the edited-down Second Edition ruthlessly eliminates every single instance of the pair being romantic. But that was as much as Saville could bring himself to do: Rye Royal marks time, they are excluded from Where’s My Girl? on fairly specious grounds, and their appearance in Home to Witchend is marginal, and perfunctory, distinguished only by Jon giving Penny an out and out snog, with no words said.
Saville even wanted to throw Penny into Dan Sturt’s arms, which would have been a major disaster.

Rye

Which brings me to Richard and Mary, the Twins. Everybody’s favourites, except me. I wish I could somehow contact my younger self, the boy who read these books at the age they were meant for, and ask him what he thought of them, but I have no recollection whatsoever. As an adult, however, I would cheerfully consider drowning them!
To call them rude is to ignore such words as appalling, impossible and uncontrollable. They are absolutely paranoid, egomaniacal, obsessive and unashamed liars, and they are supposed to be heroes? They are also stupidly reckless and ignorant, completely uncaring of the effect their idiot propensity to get themselves kidnapped by the bad guys, over and over and over and over again, has on the people who love them, God knows why. And they never learn a single lesson, regarding themselves as complete heroes, the only people who ever solve mysteries, and completely justified in doing whatever they want.
By the time of the final book, the Twins have been allowed to age for the first time since between Mystery at Witchend and Seven White Gates. It makes no difference. They promptly go off on their own, into a ‘secret’ valley, and come close to being affected by another water-forced landslip. This whole sequence is artificial, lacking any real connection to the story and included just to give the Twins something to do. It’s pure formula and it’s tedious in the extreme, but it also serves to expose the Twins’ essential weakness, that they are not fit for anything else. They do not grow because the remotest sign of growth debars them from their fixed roles, and there is nothing for them to grow into.
With everyone turning adult, the Twins take it into their head to create a New Lone Pine Club, one that will belong to them and will be in their image. Harriet will transfer over with them, and Kevin and Fenella, the daughter of Reuben and Miranda who at last finds her voice in this book, but the new club will include Nicholas Whiteflower, who has appeared in one book, written twenty years before, which shows the extent to which the barrel is being scraped.
Apparently, after Home to Witchend, Saville was asked to write another Lone Pine book and started to plot one out. Thankfully, it never materialised, especially if it would have featured the New Lone Pine Club, because the thought of an adventure in which the Twins are the club leaders is too horrifying to bear. Unless Harriet planned a very early coup, I could foresee nothing but disaster.
Ah, Harriet. Poor Harriet. I had no real recollection of her before re-reading the series, which is a shame, because she is an absolute delight and deserved better treatment from Saville. She only appears in four books, but despite being just twelve years old, far closer to the Twins than any of the rest of the Club, she is self-reliant, and competent. Harriet accepts her place as the new girl, but stands up for herself. Her high point is Not Scarlet But Gold, where she is the moral centre of the story taking place around David and Peter, and she is the dominant figure in Strangers at Witchend and it does her a disservice to have her so taken up with the hapless Kevin Smith, to the point where her last scene is her bursting into tears at him going away.
She is even more badly served by Home at Witchend, where she doesn’t appear until almost the very end, and then as an adjunct to Kevin, who gets dialogue where she doesn’t. A really good character, mostly wasted.
I’ve already said enough about the adventure story aspect, and the villains, but Miss Ballinger and her gang, the closest the Lone Piners come to arch enemies, deserve separate mention. They appear in five stories, to varying, mostly decreasing effect. By the time of Treasure at Amorys, Ballinger herself is almost wholly eclipsed by the idiotic and unstable Les Dale, who is a prime example of late series Saville villain, who cannot be taken at all seriously. By the time of her last appearance, in the wrap-up Home to Witchend, Miss Ballinger is a busted flush, old, near-blind (though still somehow active as an artist), and an underling to someone who we have to pretend is Slinky Grandon, even though he bears no more relationship to Grandon in word or action than Jeremy Corbyn does to Theresa May.
But whilst this is, frankly, poor, I do have to praise Saville’s his handling of Ballinger’s final scene. Alone, abandoned, her glasses stolen, she is so helpless she doesn’t even know she is speaking to David Morton, but at the last she achieves a curious kind of dignity, that hints at what else she might have been, but for her greed and callousness.

Macbeth?

Overall, the Lone Pine series stands up decently well. The books are flawed, especially later books, written when Saville was being accused of being out of touch, and too middle class, accusations that, to be fair, are largely true. Yet the series started with the right impulses behind it, and never lost sight of these, and they were ideals worth adhering to, and I am in something of a minority in my response to the Twins.
What Saville did do, and did well, was to develop the natural connections between the senior Lone Piners. Bonds were formed from an early stage, were maintained and grew, ripened, deepened, until in two cases they ended with engagements, and the confidence of lives ahead. Speaking as a pre-teen boy, in the Sixties, I can testify that selling this was no mean feat.
I acquired a set, of mis-matched paperbacks and occasional hardbacks, cheaply, mostly Second Editions. On two occasions, I had to pay extra for the superb, restored and complete GirlsGoneBy editions. These inspired me to re-collect the set through those publishers, so that I now have a set of handsome, matching editions. This year has been the year in which I returned to the Lone Pine, and for all the things that the critical adult eye sees and cannot ignore, it has been a delight.

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