Back in 2017, on a whim, I reacquired the complete Malcolm Saville Lone Pine Club series that I’d loved so much as a boy in the Sixties. As well as re-reading the series, more than once, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about various aspects of the books and the characters in them.
My rediscovery of Saville has roused a bit of curiosity about others of his books. He was a prolific author of children’s books, all but two of them in series that ran to a minimum of three books. The only other Saville books I read in the Sixties were the Jillies’ series, five of the original six books, which I enjoyed as Sixties stories without being in the least conscious that these were books written and set before my birth.
With one exception, I don’t remember seeing any other Saville series back then, though the evidence of the Armada books editions available for so many varying prices on eBay clearly demonstrates they were there if I had wanted to hunt further afield. The exception was one of the Marston Baines’ books, a series clearly intended for older readers, which I turned down when the one I looked at in the Library had a scene involving kissing!
Whilst I wouldn’t mind re-reading the Jillies, and of course the one I missed first time, I am conscious that the Armada versions, much like the Lone Pine books, will be heavily edited down, and the originals tend to be a bit expensive for my budget, given the other books I am simultaneously pursuing.
But in the late 2000s, Evans Books, the original publishers, put out commemorative editions of the first three Buckinghams books, in a similar format to the GirlsGoneBy Lone Pine editions, albeit without any editorial material. Still, these are complete first edition texts with the original Alice Bush illustrations, and I could get decent copies of all three for about a tenner through eBay.
The Buckinghams series is a bit of an oddball. Saville wrote three books in the early Fifties, a fourth a decade later and then returned to the characters in the early Seventies for a final two stories. You’d expect these last two books to be easier to get in the Armada editions and, given that Saville was, by then, pretty much writing directly for Armada, I’d be willing to take on trust that these are complete. A quick survey on Book Finder reveals that, as assumptions go, that’s a pile of fetid dingo’s kidneys. It may be some time before I can do an article on the later books..
So: who are the Buckinghams? There are two of them, brother and sister Simon and Juliet (often called Julie). Juliet, who is described immediately as pretty, and has striking blonde hair, is about eighteen months older than her brother, the pair being fourteen and thirteen respectively in their debut, in The Master of Maryknoll.
There may only be two Buckinghams but the books are about the adventures of a trio, the other member being the half English, half Polish Charles Renislau, a talented violin player and son of a highly regarded Polish composer.
The Master of Maryknoll introduces Charles first. It’s England, post-War. Charles’ father has been missing, presumed dead, since the outbreak of World War II in Warsaw when, a patriot, he went to war to defend his country. Renislau managed to send his English wife and young son out of the country, with his violin, since when they’ve lived with Mrs Renislau’s brother, businessman Martin Strong, in the Midlands.
Charles is unhappy. His Uncle is unsympathetic, his Aunt Mary a social-climbing snob who makes it clear he is beneath her, and his cousins Cyril and Derek are ignorant and offensive, forever making plain the distinction between them, who go to fee-paying Boarding schools, and Charles, who goes to the local Grammar. Charles has little or no interests in common with any of his family other than his mother, and when the book starts, she has gone to Switzerland for mysterious purposes: Charles fears she is seriously ill and this is being kept from him. The adult reader quickly works out what her absence is really about.
But in the meantime, Charles falls foul of his cousins. Cyril demands Charles bowl at him but Charles is far too good a cricketer and humiliates him. This leads to a fight, to Charles going indoors when two snobbish neighbour girls arrive to play tennis, offending his Uncle, and eventually leading to a major argument with his oh-so-charming cousins, who maliciously tell him he and his mother are charity cases and no-one wants him there.
Stung o the quick, his pride rising, Charles decides to run away and prove he can keep himself. Naturally, he takes his most prized possession, his Dad’s violin.
Enter the Buckinghams. Dad’s a writer, like Saville himself, whilst the effervescent and energetic Juliet is an aspiring actress, and one with a degree of talent. Simon’s just a kid brother, home from boarding school for the first time. But there’s a very good relationship between the two siblings: the banter is affectionate but both respect each other and make time to act in concert.
It’s an odd first encounter: the enthusiastic Juliet gets everyone up early one morning, to have breakfast outside in the garden of their house, Leasand, somewhere to the south of Ludlow (aha, we are bordering on Lone Pine territory here!). And they are eating out in their garden when a boy of similar age to Juliet cycles by. Between her and him, the family ends up asking Charles to share their breakfast table, in return for his helping with chores around the place. And despite the fact he refuses to give them his real name, or where he has run away from, everybody intrinsically trusts ‘John Brown’. And neither parent objects when the Buckingham children decide to follow this perfect stranger travelling under an admitted false name to help him with his adventure.
Yes, it’s a different world, in space and time, but I find this much much harder to accept than the licence given to the Mortons the day they met Peter Sterling. Juliet and Simon are planning to be away for days, without their parents knowing where they are unless they phone home, and intending to sleep in barns and under haystacks.
There’s a very different dynamic between the three characters. Charles varies between being grateful to his new friends for the assistance and company they provide, and driving them, or at least Simon, away with his tendency towards melodrama and emotionalism. You see, whisper it, but Charles isn’t fully English. He’s half foreigner, which makes him over-emotional (I’m not sure what the image was of Poles in the early Fifties, but Charles is treated like a toned-down version of a French boy, and you know what they’re like.)
This is a Malcolm Saville book so there must be a menace of some sort. This is in the form of Septimus Bland, the titular character, who has opened his grounds for an extensive flower show to which the children are admitted. Charles and Juliet put on a popular mini-recital, but Bland shows great interest in Charles and especially in his violin. Charles finds himself effectively a prisoner, under pressure from Bland – who will eventually be revealed as a fence of stolen goods, particularly artistic ones – who ends up stealing the violin with the intention of selling it to an American collector.
It takes the Buckinghams to get Charles out, and it takes their father and uncle to intercept the dealer in London, who proves to be too ethical to proceed with the intended purchase of the stolen violin.
By now, everybody is in London. Charles has had to promise to go back to his Uncle’s but things have changed dramatically, in a way nobody’s telling him about but which isn’t hard to guess. His mother is back from Switzerland, his father’s Violin Concerto is to get its first English performance at the Royal Albert hall, and everyone is to attend. And not until Charles is reunited with his mother is the secret revealed: his father is alive, he has escaped from Poland after years of imprisonment and torture, and he is here: in fact, he will conduct his Concerto himself.
It’s a moment of great emotional release for everybody, a triumph on every level. And the book ends with Charles walking towards the father he has believed dead for a decade.
It was odd to read a non-Lone Pine Club book by Saville, for the first time in over forty years. The dynamics were completely different, first in there only being three characters, with their own individualities, and secondly for the melodramatic aspect arising naturally from the circumstances of Charles and affecting him personally, instead of being a formulaic criminal enterprise into which the Buckinghams stumble. And I was interested that, long before Peter Sterling was described as going-to-be-beautiful-one-day, Juliet Buckingham was not only described in physically striking terms but was openly stated to be pretty from the outset.
Not that there was the least element of sexual tension between her and Charles, though the likeliness of this is obvious to modern eyes. They are just boy and girl of similar ages, free of emotion or any kind of soppiness. Juliet simply believes in Charles on sight and gives him friendship. The only other girls in the book, his cousins’ stuck-up tennis partners, are beneath Charles’ contempt. In that respect, he’s a bit like a distant Jon Warrender.
Overall, I’d call it as a minor book in comparison to the Lone Pine series, though it is refreshingly free of many of that series’ flaws (and I don’t just mean the Twins). Then again, it has its own flaws, mainly in the distinction it is determined to draw about how Charles is different, because he’s not wholly English.
The Buckinghams at Ravenswyke appeared in 1952. Unlike the readers’ insistence on the Lone Piners staying the same age, Saville was under no such pressure and the two year gap between the books is reflected in the story. Two years have passed and Juliet is now sixteen, and has moved on from being pretty to beautiful: indeed, her appearance is so striking, heads are turning wherever she goes.
She and Simon have not really kept up with Charles Renislau: an exchange of letters, and then Charles has been spending time adjusting to having a father, and to a father who, whilst he is returning to composing and has become a British citizen, is still traumatised by the memories of his years of imprisonment, torture and escape.
Just as Juliet and Simon are not getting very far with their parents over the prospect of a holiday away this summer, a very long letter arrives out of the blue from Charles, updating them, getting far too emotional even for Juliet, and offering them a holiday. The Renislaus have moved from London to Ravenswyke, on the edge of the North Yorks Moors, near Whitby, where Alex can compose more peacefully, and invite the Buckinghams to stay.
Whilst the Lone Pine books are all about the adventure, Saville clearly has more creative freedom with a less popular series. There is an adventure, which once again arises organically from the characters’ situation, but this comes in the middle of the story and, though overwhelming at the time, is more or less put away with long before the end. The novel’s structure in that respect is a bell curve.
The drama involves the disappearance of Alex Renislau, in Whitby, on the day the Buckinghams arrive. Charles is very disturbed, not least because his father had been acting happy, and relaxed, more so than he’d ever been, and then changes demeanour on seeing a sailor in the harbour.
The ‘sailor’ is actually a spy, and a torturer that Alex knows from Poland. Alex follows him to a junk shop but Jan has already recognised him and Alex is taken prisoner. The Buckinghams and Charles are taken more seriously by the Police than the Lone Piners usually are when they report the disappearance (this is what happens when you’re not dragging the Twins around with you), and between them they find where Alex is held and assist his release.
That’s not the whole of the drama. Jan turns up incognito as a beach artist at Robin Hood’s Bay, who sketches Juliet whilst Charles and Simon are watching cricket, and when the children get lost on the moors in a sea-roke, and have to take refuge in an occupied cave overnight, it’s pretty obvious who’s been hiding there, but even though nearly everybody shifts to London for the last couple of chapters, Jan is captured pretty much offscreen.
No, those last few chapters shift well away from the action, to holiday concerns, and Charles’ debut for the Ravenswyke Cricket Club in a manner that would never do for David, Peter and Co.
One final point that struck me: Juliet’s now 16 and clearly very attractive. She doesn’t mind being appreciated, but nobody tries to be more than appreciative of her good looks, so her own emotional maturity remains untested. Given that he’s of similar age and has been described as handsome from the beginning, Charles is an obvious interest for her, like Mandy and Guy in the Jillies’ series.
But not only is Charles all but oblivious to Juliet as anything more than a dear friend (when the Cricket Club’s star twenty year old batsman displays obvious interest in the fair blonde, Charles is momentarily disgruntled, but this lead is not followed up at all), but Juliet is frequently snappy with Charles, and to his face, about his un-English over-emotionality. Even when he is openly rude, she makes it clear she doesn’t want an apology, when one is clearly merited.
Once again, two years passed before the third, and for nearly a decade, last book, The Long Passage, two years for the reader at any event, but not the Buckinghams. Once again, there seems to have been no meetings between them and Charles since the last book, contact having been limited to the exchange of letters between the golden-haired Juliet and her handsome friend.
What precipitates matters here is the arrival of a substantial royalty cheque for Mr Buckingham, on the strength of which he hires a caravan for a fortnight and takes his kids on a touring holiday aimed at Brighton and Sussex, his home county and perhaps their next home. Mrs Buckingham, not being into caravanning, goes off on her own for a week: it’s a good job this is a Malcolm Saville book or tongues might wag.
By coincidence, once they reach Brighton, the Buckinghams see Charles there. His Dad is touring, and he has written to tell them, in the hope they can get to Brighton, though the letter arrived after the party left Shropshire, and has to be forwarded on to them.
This time, the gang is transformed by the addition of two new characters. First there’s Maisie Dallas, an American girl, whose family have become firm if unlikely friends with the Renislaus. Maisie is sixteen, dresses like twenty, talks all the time and is truly getting up Charles’ nose (even if his reactions are expressed in a way that suggests he’s seriously not ready for girls yet). Naturally, she’s the occasion for the green eye from Juliet, but her enthusiastic adoption of all Charles’ friends when she meets them disarms our lovely blonde and there’s no serious rivalry between them after all.
The other is Sarah Temple, a young girl, eleven and nearly twelve, who meets the Buckinghams unpropitiously when, on a late evening ride on her horse, the family’s guest and new friend, antiques shop owner Mr Foster, startles her horse, throwing her. Though she’s initially rude, as who wouldn’t be, the family’s kindness and patience quickly wins her over and she wants Juliet and Simon to visit her home the next day. And Simon seems taken with Sarah, despite her being about eighteen months younger than him.
The thing is, Sarah’s father has recently died and her mother is having to sell their ancestral home and its possessions. The auction is tomorrow. In order that her mother should not be the only one to lose her things, Sarah, a brave little girl, has put some of her things, including a china cow once given her by her father, that she loves, into the auction as well. Taken by the girl’s sacrifice, Simon and Juliet buy it for her at the auction, only to find that the old box it comes with has a secret panel, inside which an exquisite, and no doubt valuable miniature is concealed.
Both the Buckinghams and Charles have already seen Foxy Simmonds, the assistant to Septimus Bland in The Master of Maryknoll, set up in Brighton, and still crooked. The five strong gang, with Maisie and Sarah accepted quite naturally, are out to foil attempts to steal the miniature.
There is a twist, a rather unSaville-like twist, when the friendly Mr Foster turns out to be part of the gang. I saw it coming, in his appearance out of the blue at a significant moment, but it’s a move Saville never attempted in the Lone Pine series, where imposters always failed to convince the astute Lone Piners even if they took in the grown-ups.
The increase in numbers works quite well and smoothly. I assume Maisie was a one-off, given where her family come from (and Saville really cannot write convincing Americans) but it wouldn’t surprise me if Sarah Temple returns in the fourth book: she gives Simon a partner of his own age, and a sense of responsibility, although at the end the youngest pair go all Twins-like when they think they’re being left out, and have their own, rather contrived adventure, which does at least justify the book’s title.
On the other hand, the increase in the cast, and the use of a problem that arises from the outside makes The Long Passage the weakest of the three books. Consciously or unconsciously, Saville is shaping the series towards the formula of the Lone Pine books. Doing so might make the writing a little easier for him but it doesn’t serve the character of the Buckinghams and Charles, nor is it helpful to turn them into second-rate copycats.
It’s interesting to note that after this book, Saville discontinued the series. It was nine years before he returned to the Buckinghams with a one-off story, and another eight years after that before two final books that took place abroad, instead of in England. Could it be that he recognised that with The Long Passage he was in danger of plagiarising himself, and stopped until a genuinely new idea, or ideas, came up?
Overall, it was refreshing to read a few Saville books that didn’t conform to the tropes of the Lone Pine series, and I’d enjoy reading the other three in the series. It could simply be that I was reading these for the first time, without familiarity, but the books came over as relatively minor works. That impression may well change on a re-reading, but I did enjoy the relative naturalness. This was an enjoyable experiment, and one that determines me to get access to the Jillies books again. GirlsGoneBy, are you listening?.