For Children, About Children, By Children: Kathleen Hull & Pamela Whitlock’s ‘Oxus in Summer’

The third and last book of the Persia series came out in 1939. By the time it was published, in November, England had declared war on Germany again, and the world would not return to normal for a very long time. If Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock had plans for another adventure in the valley of the Oxus that they had created for themselves – as well they might, since Oxus in Summer would only be half a summer – these were among the many things changed irrevocably by the advent of War, and far from the most important.
No elaborate schemes to get the Hunterlys from London to Exmoor were necessary this time: Bridget, Anthony and Frances leave their schools in the morning, receive their holiday cases from Aunt Angela whilst passing through London and, by the early evening, are back at Cloud Farm. Maurice is already in residence in the hut at Peran-Wisa, but the Clevertons are in France with their father and will not be back until the last three weeks of the holiday. They will not appear until the last forty pages of the book.
It’s summer: not the summer when the Hunterlys may be going out to Sumatra, but summer following the Easter of Escape to Persia, a year on from their absorption into the Persian tribe under Maurice.
This time round, the girls give some minor clues about their children. We still don’t know much, if anything, really, about Maurice the Mystery Boy, but in the very first paragraph we’re told that he is tall, ‘over five foot’. That jarred me. Rightly or wrongly, I read that description as being only just over five foot, which did not accord with my mental picture of him as aged fifteen.
But not too much further on, Anthony Hunterly, who has not long since passed his twelfth birthday, complains about being a month nearer his elder sister in age than he is his younger sister in age. Fourteen, twelve, ten? But that’s more or less the ages I assigned the Hunterlys when they first appeared…
It’s not just in lapidary inscription, but in the ages of children in their fiction, that no man or schoolgirl is on oath.
Oxus in Summer plays out in three distinct acts. The first has the Persian quartet just being children, enjoying their holidays in a place they love. The Oxus is about them, the Indian Caucasus above, they have Peran-Wisa and their ponies and nothing in the world could be better for them. Whitlock and Hull introduce nothing that is particularly new, nor which is of any longer-term significance. It is literally more-of-the-same-only-different, but it doesn’t feel repetitive, or tired, or unimaginative. The writers are still young, they are writing in an unforced and enthusiastic manner about what, to them constitutes a holiday that excites them.
Their own youthfulness invests every incident with a breath of fresh air, as we used to say. We see the story with eyes of wonder, because they are the same eyes of wonder that Maurice and the Hunterlys bring to bear on them.
The same thing goes for the third act of the book, which sees the Clevertons arrive back, alone, to pick things up where they left off. I’ll have more to say about that final act in due course, but it’s the middle of the book, the decidedly different and disturbing middle act, that demands extensive attention.
It begins innocuously. In the first act, the Persians join a Scavenger Hunt in Cabool, each pairing up with a local youngster. Maurice is the easy winner, not for his merits but because he pairs with Gillian Deptford, who sources most of the treasures to be found from her own home, in no more than a half hour.
Gillian is part of a large family, half a dozen strong, up to and including 19 year old Keith.
The second act begins with the Persians visiting an auction, the contents of a house called Lackbarrow being auctioned off. Bridget gets caught up, bidding way beyond her means for a grey pony, until Anthony has to break her out of her competitive reverie – she’s up to £150 when she only has two shillings and seven pence, half of which is back at Cloud Farm.
But Maurice has disappeared, completely. The Hunterlys search frantically for him, afraid he’s abandoned them. They eventually see him coming out of the furniture room, talking to Gillian and her brother Jeremy. He’s a bit offhand with them, then he goes and disappears again.
This disturbs the three siblings. Has he gotten tired of them? Has he abandoned them permanently? What will they do without him? They head down to Peran-Wisa but there’s no sign of him. They search the hut, trying to find some clue as to where he might have gone. They find two books, one battered, the other Maurice’s diary…
No, he’s not abandoned them. One of the lots on auction, very late in the day, is a jewelled Persian dagger, that Maurice wants for himself and his tribe. He’s determined to win it, but he doesn’t want to say anything to the Hunterlys in case he is outbid: it wouldn’t do for Maurice to be seen to fail, would it? Gillian wants the dagger too, but in the end Maurice just beats her to it. He’s riding back to show the Hunterlys his prize when he finds then with heads bent over his diary.
Maurice goes crazy. He jumps on them, swearing and shoving. He knocks over the candle, which burns Peran-Wisa to the ground and everything in it, including the diary, and rides off furiously into the night.
Ok, up to this point it’s an interesting twist. Chuck the cat in among the pigeons, see what feathers she comes out with. Only that’s not the case. It’s actually disturbing.
The Hunterlys want to find Maurice and explain they never read his diary (how unBritish of them it would have been to do so). They’d only just picked it up. It’s the anxiety, no, more than that, the desperation with which they want to find him. Because without him, everything is empty. He is their leader but he is the only source of adventure, of plans and discoveries. They are helpless without him.
And as for Maurice… In an instant, he has gone to the extreme of hating the Hunterlys, even though the diary only has initials and codewords, they might find something out about him, or they might find something out whilst hunting for him. This is so deadly a possibility that Maurice hires the entire Deptford tribe – who he openly tells are to become his slaves – to cover his tracks. They’re to delay and divert and deflect and, what’s more they’re to get everyone in Cabool, especially all the tradesmen and women to pretend they’ve never seen Maurice – and the Deptford’s can do this: I’m glad I don’t live in Cabool, it’s a bit too much like the Village. The monomania this displays is astonishing. Maurice may be the Mystery boy, and Whitlock and Hull clearly believe that his secret is essential, but there are degrees beyond which things become decidedly unhealthy, and this sequence leaves that point invisible in the distant rear.
How can something like this end? By the Hunterlys chasing Maurice on their ponies until they get close enough to yell that they didn’t read his diary. And all is well and good again.
Yet I like this book, despite the turn it took in the middle. And it returns to normal, to the same things it concerned itself with at the start. Assisting taking Mr Fradd’s carthorses to be shoed. An overnight stay in a dingy hotel in a storm. Greeting the Clevertons off their train, belated as they are. Rebuilding Peran-Wisa.
And lastly the tribe decides to split up into Persians and Tartars to have a polo match in the Cleverton garden and using its two grass tennis courts. Of course Mr Cleverton agrees, heedless of the damage six ponies’ hooves might do. The sides line up facing each other.
And it’s over. The abruptness of the ending disconcerts many. It is as if the book ends in the middle of things, as if pages, a chapter, whole chapters are missing. There is no return to school. There is no explanation of Maurice and why he has to be such a mystery. Did the girls just lose interest, suddenly? No, of course not.
Yet to me, abrupt and unusual as it is, it’s an ending that I find fitting and dignified. Maurice, Bridget, Anthony, Frances, Peter and Jennifer, they don’t end. Instead they fade, as if a flurry of rain sweeps across our vision, or a cloud crosses the sun. They will never grow old, not like those whose August of 1939 was both beginning and for too many end. They are still there, preserved: Kings and Queens of Cair Paravel, and one day we might cross into the world in which they await us, in the valley of the Far-Distant Oxus. Things don’t have to be real to be real.
In another world, almost a decade later, after the War, children no longer, Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock would reunite to write one more book. A copy of that, surprisingly cheap, came under my eye. I will read it next.

2 thoughts on “For Children, About Children, By Children: Kathleen Hull & Pamela Whitlock’s ‘Oxus in Summer’

  1. You probably know that the Pamela Whitlock archive is at Newcastle’s Seven Stories with all Ransome’s letters to her. Just reading Oxus in Summer. Thank you for your article.

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