Different authors tackle the matter in different fashions but practically all children’s fiction, especially in the adventure tradition, has to deal with the same question: how do we get rid of the parents? Somehow or other, if the boy and girl heroes are to have freedom to get into difficulties and danger, and out of it by, mostly, their own efforts, as respectable heroes must, some means must be employed to get Mother and Father out of the way.
Parents are a constant stumbling block. If they’re not stepping in to firmly rule out the merest possibility of little Jane or little Johnny doing the remotest thing dangerous, they’re taking over from their precious little dumplings to solve the problem for them. The last thing you want in an adventure story is for Mum and Dad to do anything except provide you with a hot bath and a generous feast once the Police, or the Secret Service, have finished congratulating you.
This isn’t, obviously, a universal law of children’s fiction, but as the point of the genre is to have children participating in adventures in their own right, in the majority of cases the author will be looking to keep the adults on the sidelines for as much of the story as he or she can.
I’m particularly interested in Malcolm Saville’s approach to this question, having spent the last half-decade in acquiring or re-acquiring thirty-nine of his sixty-five novels, a total of sixty percent of the whole. Certain patterns are very evident in his writing, one in particular. But before I go on to look at his approach to parenthood, I want to begin with an admittedly cursory look at how other writers have dealt with this thorny question.
Take, for example, Enid Blyton. When I was young, I read her books avidly, progressing from Binkle and Flip and Little Noddy to The Five Find-Outers, the quartet in the Adventure series and, of course, the Famous Five. I grew out of these by my late teens and haven’t read anything by Blyton since one nostalgic Sunday in my early twenties when I burned through half a dozen Famous Five books in the same number of hours, shortly prior to letting my complete set go.
So I am not the most reliable of commentators on how Ms Blyton handled her characters’ parents but my memories suggest that for the most part, she kept them in the background and let the children go about their business more or less under the parental radar. Take the Famous Five: Julian, Dick and Anne were brothers and sister and George their cousin. Her parents, the distracted scientist, Uncle Quentin and his wife Aunt Fanny, featured far more often than the other Kirrin’s parents, probably because Uncle Quentin was a source of plots, but for the most part, the Kirrin brood had both parents, they just went off on their own more often than not, under the leadership of the quasi-adult Julian.
If I remember correctly, the Secret Seven all lived at home, as did the Five Find-Outers, each with a full complement of parents, who provided meals at regular intervals but otherwise took little or no notice of what their various offspring might be doing with their time (the number of times they were congratulated by the Police for foiling crimes, you’d think they’d at least start to get wary, but no).
The one Blyton series that I remember being different is the Adventure series. This brood consisted of four children split into two brother-sister pairs. Philip and Dinah live with their widowed mother, whilst Jack and Lucy-Ann are orphans living with an unsympathetic uncle until, after the first adventure, they are adopted by ‘Aunt Allie’. This kind of set-up is unusual for Blyton, and I remember no explanation for the loss of either Mr Mannering or the Trent parents (though the book’s publication in 1944 may enable us to infer causes).
Blyton intended this series to run to only six books (as she had originally intended with the Famous Five), though audience demand led her to write two more. It’s interesting that the sixth book ends with Aunt Allie agreeing to re-marry, her new husband being the only other regular adult character in the series, Secret Service agent Bill Cunningham (aka Bill Smugs). It’s a suitably Austen-esque end to the series, though the interesting part is that, after six books of no detectable romantic interest between Alison and Bill, it’s the four children who suggest, in fact almost demand, marriage, and the adults who sound almost indifferent in agreeing to it!
The other giant of children’s fiction writers, Arthur Ransome, who invented the children’s holiday adventure genre with Swallows and Amazons, dealt with the issue of parents in a similar manner. His twelve books deal with three families, the Walkers, the Blacketts and the Callums, who have five parents between them. Mrs Walker and Mrs Blackett are the two most visible, both of whom are effectively single mothers: Mr Blackett has passed away before the series starts whilst Commander Walker is on duty overseas for most of the series, leaving his wife to cope with their pack. Professor and Mrs Callum simply don’t appear (though the former gets a wonderful single line in the never completed thirteenth book).
What Ransome does is to take the various children away, enabling them to sail and camp and construct adventurous fantasies around what they do and where they are that are all the more appealing for the knowledge that a happy real life, with a loving and supportive mother, lies behind it all, a moment of disaster away. Adults are never far away, but either they lean into the children’s games with the same imaginative spirit, as does Ransome’s alter ego, Captain Flint, or they are sympathetically indulgent, caring only that their offspring are well and happy, and that by doing so they are encouraging their growth and maturity.
As for Ransome’s other characters, much the same occurs. Mrs Barrable (the Admiral) takes on a parental role in the two Norfolk books, though her role is more that of the indulgent grandmother, as her character was originally conceived to be. Among the Coots, only Port and Starboard, the Farland twins, are without a mother, and they, in consequence, are in certain ways more mature than even Tom Dudgeon, having taken on a degree of responsibility to their AP (Aged Parent), though it is Tom who benefits from having a father with whom he can talk seriously about his concerns.
Ransome’s disciples, Kathleen Hull and Pamela Whitlock, go about things differently in their Persian trilogy, as befits the pair of teenage schoolgirls who wrote The Far Distant Oxus. The Heatherly’s parents are overseas, in the Far East, and the Aunt they live with when not at school has negligible understanding of them and is easily fooled when they want to get their own way in Escape to Persia. In contrast, the Clevertons have lost their mother and their father is impossibly but conveniently utterly complaisant, perhaps not least in the tribe’s final scene, about to start a polo match on his tennis court.
As for Maurice, the mystery boy, who knows? He is, after all, a complete mystery but, like all the Hull/Whitlock children, he can do as he wants and no-one to gainsay him.
I am only familiar with Geoffrey Trease so far as his Bannerdale series is concerned, four children forming a set of friends. Bill and Sue Melbury live with their mother: their father is not dead but divorced, and removed completely from consideration by emigration, but they are brother and sister. Tim Darren lives with his parents and has two younger siblings. Penny Morchard stands out on two scores, the only only child in the quartet, and the only one to have lost a parent to an early death. In a foreshadowing of Malcolm Saville, Penny has lost her mother.
What these four authors have in common is that in the vast majority of cases, they provided most of their child heroes with both a mother and a father, but took steps, in their varying fashions, to more or less remove their influence, positive or negative, most often by placing the children in settings where they are either taking responsibility for themselves, or else are benignly allowed to run their holidays in the way they most enjoy. Those children who lack both parents obey no pattern as to which has been lost.
Now it’s time to look in a bit more detail at Malcolm Saville. Those thirty-nine books in my possession consist of four complete series. The other twenty-six were written for, and feature younger children, of an age where they are more directly reliant upon their parents, or adult equivalents, and whilst I have not read any of these, I do not think it is an unreasonable assumption to suggest that the observations I’m about to make will not apply to these books.
Those four series are The Lone Pine Club, the Jillies, the Fabulous Buckinghams and Marston Baines. I put them in this order, both as to the order of their creation, and my subsequent discovery of them, but also because I believe that this is the correct order as to their importance in Saville’s career: the Lone Pine Club will always come first.
We’ll look at the other children who come into the Lone Pine story later on, but the first thing is to note is that of the nine members of the Lone Pine Club, no less than six are only children. The Mortons – David, Mary and Dickie – are the only siblings involved and in similar vein they are the only members to be blessed with two parents who appear in the story. Given that they were inspired by Saville’s own family (which consisted of four children, two sets of twins), this is hardly surprising. The Morton family, and the number of occasions where both Mr and Mrs Morton are involved, make them unique as the only whole and rounded family across all his work (those familiar with the Buckinghams may dispute this but I will distinguish that series in due course).
Indeed Mrs Morton – intelligent, kind, loving and supportive – is the biggest exception to the title of this essay. She’s introduced alone in Mystery at Witchend whilst her husband is on active service with the RAF, effortlessly combining the maternal and paternal duties and respecting her children’s individuality. Yes, in both Wings over Witchend and Lone Pine London, she expresses her disquiet, indeed loathing for the dangerous adventures her brood and their friends insist on getting themselves into, but that aside she is the maternal figure incarnated. As one would expect from someone based upon Mrs Saville!
Certainly, she and her husband come over as the ideal couple, contented, proud and, we can infer, still very much involved with each other. Indeed, given their willingness to let their lot go off on their own for extended periods, leaving just the pair of them, I think we can safely infer that, in the deep background that is never permitted visibility, this pair have the best sex-life of any of Saville’s adults!
But after the Mortons, the story is very different. Petronella Sterling, brought up by a father noticeably older than all the others after her mother died when she was young. Tom Ingles, whose entire family were killed by a German bomb, living with substitute parents that he consciously sees as Uncle and Aunt. Jenny Harman, whose mother has died at some never hinted-at time, long enough ago for her father to re-marry, providing her with an older and awkward stepmother who has very little sympathy for her yet who she has to call ‘Mother’. Jon Warrender, whose father was killed during the War, protective of his mother. Penny Warrender, whose parents play virtually no part in her lives, who has lived with her Aunt and her deceased Uncle for so long that they have become more effective parents to her. And Harriet Sparrow, whose parents may be kind and loving but about whom we know only literally no more than that they live in South London, Harriet whose devotion to her grandfather takes on a worryingly displaced aspect, as if the love she would normally have for her parents is instead lavished one generation higher.
Intriguing. Four children who have lost one or both parents, and the other two divorced from their parents either by circumstance or emotion. Let’s look more closely at each of them.
Peter Sterling – and though it was not unknown for certain girls in children’s fiction to be known by boy’s names, it is still odd that we so naturally think of a beautiful young woman by such a name – is defined in many ways by her not having had a mother. We don’t know exactly when she dies: at one point Saville suggests it was when Peter was a baby, but mainly it’s just when she was very young. That she has died is literally the only thing we know about her. This left Peter to be brought up entirely by her father, a fussy, old-fashioned, rather prim gentleman, as befits a father who is significantly older than any other parent in the series. Indeed, in Strangers at Witchend it’s clear that he’s very much a contemporary of Albert Sparrow, grandfather to Harriet, a girl no more than five years younger than Peter.
It’s from her father that Peter gets her characteristics of fearlessness, independence, self-reliance and her love for and understanding of nature, birds and animals. In the beginning, that goes a bit too far: in Mystery at Witchend she visibly has to struggle to accept the Morton children as equals whose wishes and desires are as important as her own. We’re told that Mrs Morton virtually adopts her as a second daughter on sight, and the relationship between her and Mrs Morton is always strong, but, and I find this significant, there’s never any sign of Peter acting as if Mrs Morton is a surrogate mother. Peter has done without a mother effectively all her life: she doesn’t need one by the age of fourteen.
When we’re introduced to Tom Ingles, it’s as an evacuee. His home has been destroyed by bombing, his family has been split up, his father is in the Army, his mother and baby brother have gone to the Somerset coast and he’s gone to live with his Aunt and Uncle. Oddly enough, and never explained, it’s his Aunt Betty who is his actual relative (even though her married name is the same as his) though we never learn whether she is related to his mother or his father.
Tom seems to be peculiarly unaffected by this complete separation from his family, far less than his separation from the London streets! Some of this is due to his naturally sturdy nature and some to the adventure this total change of scenery represents, but later on things become a little strange.
The War is still ongoing in Seven White Gates but by The Secret of Grey Walls peace has been restored and England is slowly getting back to normal. But Tom is still at Ingles Farm, and this is not just the immediate aftermath of peace. General demobilisation has taken place: Tom can go back to his family now, reunited. The fact that he hasn’t done so tells us that something rather serious has happened.
Surprisingly, and I think unhappily, Saville leaves it until The Secret of the Gorge, the eleventh book, not published until over a decade later and after four post-War appearances by Tom, before explaining as if in an aside, that his whole family was killed by German bombing in the War, when his father was on leave in Somerset.
I think it very poor that Saville waited so long before coming to this point. It’s not as if the excuse of not wanting to remind his readers of their own losses as a consequence of the War can be put forward because, in the preceding book, he had not only had Jon Warrender acknowledge his own father’s death at Normandy – and in admirable terms – but had made that very death fundamental to the entire story.
Not only that but, aside from this almost offhand mention in 1958, Saville makes no other mention of the loss of Tom’s entire family. It’s one thing to exclude any emotional response to being separated from his parents but another and much more suspect thing to have him make no response to their being wiped out. Even Jon shows a sense of loss at the death of his father, and Penny too expresses how much she misses her uncle but from Tom there is nothing: they might as well not have existed.
Jenny Harman is a third Lone Piner without a mother. We know she must have had one, it’s a biological imperative, but never at any time does Jenny herself, or her father, mention her. We have to draw inferences from negative information. Instead, she has a classical stepmother, not actually Evil, but definitely classifiable as Evil-Lite. Since Jenny appears to be used to her stepmother and seems to have adjusted to calling her ‘Mum’, we have to assume that, like her best friend, Peter, Jenny’s real mother has died when she was very young, perhaps no more than a baby. I find it difficult to believe that if Jenny’s mother had died when her daughter was five years old or more, Jenny would not be making comparisons between her and her stepmother, certainly in Seven White Gates when her father is away in the Army and unable to act as a buffer.
Of course, it’s possible that Mr Harman may have divorced his first wife for her actual adultery, the only circumstance in which he, not she, would have got custody of a young girl, but that would be to admit the existence of divorce in Malcolm Saville’s fictional universe, and I think we all know that that could never happen.
Except for a few brief moments in Lone Pine Five, and these when Jenny has brought in a paying guest, the second Mrs Harman displays no motherly instincts towards her stepdaughter. Indeed, to take it a bit further, her generally stiff and awkward nature and her categorisation as being older than her husband, makes the entire marriage seem unusual. When married couples do appear in the Lone Pine books, and indeed in other series, they’re generally portrayed as contented and even happy. In the case of the Harmans, it’s a puzzle why they ever married in the first place. Mr Harman seems more set to placate his second wife than enjoy a loving relationship with her, and if he re-married to provide his daughter with a mother, he got that seriously wrong.
Mention must be made of Mrs Harman’s final appearance in Where’s My Girl?, when she undertakes the long drive from Shropshire to Dartmoor on Jenny being kidnapped, rather than her husband. You might argue that she has done so out of a sense of duty, that Jenny may have undergone vile experiences that she would more naturally talk of with another woman, than her father, but that fails to take account of her genuine, but considerably belated, wish to be reconciled to her stepdaughter.
As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s a good, kind and generous impulse, but it fails because throughout the series, Saville has never even attempted to stand this woman up as a human being as opposed to a cardboard cut-out. The work to make this long overdue display of maternal concern has never been started.
Thus far we have had three Lone Piners who have lost their mothers before they could have any influence upon them in respect of the youngsters’ adventures. The three remaining members each have a living mother, but only Jon Warrender has a mother who is seen to bring him up and play the full part of a parent.
Jon’s situation is actually a reversal of those we’ve seen thus far. His mother – who in eventual course we will learn is named Margaret – is not only still alive but, when he is not away at school, provides him with a permanent home. But the marriage has been disrupted, and again by death, except that this time it is his father who is missing, literally in action.
It’s early yet, but we can already draw a conclusion that further examination will only sharpen, and that is that it is far from wise to be a mother in a Malcolm Saville book. With the major exception of Mrs Morton they are not welcome, not wanted and in far too many cases, not allowed to survive.
Why then the reversal with Jon’s parents? One answer would be that it is essential to the plot of The Gay Dolphin Adventure for Jon’s father, not his mother, to be killed off before the story begins. Without Mrs Warrender’s survival and, rather more pertinently, her need to make a living for herself, her son and niece, there is no Gay Dolphin Hotel and no Smugglers Treasure to hunt out. Captain Warrender survives Normandy, and simply goes back to whatever trade, profession or job he pursued in Civvy Street, and to wherever he and his family lived. The story, and the social structure of 1945, requires Saville to introduce another mother. It’s to be noted, however, that unlike Mrs Morton, Margaret Warrender has a full-time job that keeps her from being too maternally protective to limit her brood’s adventuring.
Much of the above applies in nearly the same degree to Penny Warrender. Penny does have living parents, but they are removed from her by nearly half the globe so their presence in and influence over her life is pretty negligible. It’s the old Colonial legacy that was still credible in 1945 but which almost immediately became anachronistic. The parents are out serving the Empire, but want their child educated in England, so when she’s not at boarding school, Penny lives with her other family, her Aunt, Uncle and cousin.
We’re not told at first how long this arrangement has been in existence, although later, when the situation has become barely tenable, it’s fixed as an impossible to credit three years. Penny treats her Aunt and Uncle as virtual parents, and her cousin as a sibling. She suffers the same loss as Jon in respect of his father’s death, and is as devoted to her Aunt as he is.
Penny’s own parents appear in one book only, Saucers over the Moor, returning to England for six month’s leave. Saville avoids the emotional reunion, restricting it to a cursory flashback and jumping almost immediately to an unstrained contentedness. This wasn’t the kind of thing he was there to write about, and at least half of his audience would probably have loathed it, but I think he should have made more of Penny’s emotions about having her parents back than he did. It’s also noticeable that, within no more than a day or two of arriving at the holiday home they’ve booked on Dartmoor, and no more than about ten days into their reunion with their only daughter whom they’ve not seen for three years, Mr and Mrs Warrender decide to push off into Cornwall and leave said daughter behind with no apparent separation anguish on either side. In fact, they seem more eager to take the Morton twins with them than their own flesh and blood!
Which leads us to the last and least decently used Lone Piner, Harriet Sparrow. Like Penny, Harriet has both parents alive and well. Unlike Penny, she lives with them, in South London. And that is the sum total of all we know about these two Sparrows and Harriet’s relationship with them. Pardon me: we also know that her grandfather, Albert disapproves of his daughter-in-law. Why, and whether or not he is justified in so feeling, is a complete mystery. But it’s noticeable that it’s his daughter-in-law that he disapproves of, not his son-in-law, when the question of which one is of no significance to the series.
And it should also be pointed out that whilst Penny does think of and miss her parents, here and there, Harriet only mentions her mother once and her father not at all, and then in purely matter-of-fact terms. All her love is reserved for Granpa Albert.
These are the Lone Piners, and the case would appear to be established already, but there is yet more evidence to consider. The Lone Piners are not the only children to appear in the series, and their parental relationships can’t be overlooked, though we don’t need to discuss these in the same depth. We should note at the outset that, with one exception, they are all only children.
Taking them in chronological order, we start with Fenella, the gypsy girl. She is an immediate exception because whatever we may think of the insecurity of her lifestyle, Fenella is blessed with parents who love and value and care for her, never falling short of that ideal. In contrast, though it seems absurd to treat Charles Sterling as a child, it can’t be overlooked that his long estrangement from his father is a consequence of the death of his mother.
In Lone Pine Five, Percy Smithson has both mother and father, neither of them an advertisement for ideal parenting. Mr Smithson is a leftover and vulgar War-time spiv, but Mrs Smithson, though equally vulgar and genuinely doting on her wastrel of a son, is held up as pathetic and ridiculous.
Arlette Duchelle of The Elusive Grasshopper not only has both parents but loves them dearly, and they her. Excited as she is about the foreign fields of England and her unexpected adventure, she has tears for being separated from them, and her enthusiasm for everything she sees is doubled by the thought of bringing her experiences and the curiosities of England back to them to enjoy.
Though she’s not a child, Charles’ future bride Trudie Whittaker is both an only child and a motherless one as well. And it’s noticeable that whilst she takes on the role of den mother to the Lone Piners whenever they’re at Seven Gates, there’s never any suggestion that Trudie might have or even want children of her own.
Dan Sturt, in Saucers over the Moor, is eighteen and, at that time, not yet an adult, but is another only child. Like Jon, his father has died and he lives with a supportive mother, but is becoming increasingly independent of her. Nicholas Whiteflower in The Secret of the Gorge, is an orphan under the wardship of an ageing spinster Aunt, a substitute mother with no experience of motherhood. Paul and Rose Channing in Sea Witch Comes Home, the only siblings apart from the Mortons, are yet again motherless. What’s more, their father is self-centred, unreliable and prone to abandoning the pair for his own entertainment. True, they have an Aunt living with them, who spends the whole book on a coach trip, but who is quite clearly there as a housekeeper and not for any emotional support.
Johann Schmidt of Not Scarlet But Gold is an orphan who never knew his father and whose mother has died, whilst George Crump of Treasure at Amorys is another from the single child of single parent mould, as is Ned Stacey of Man with Three Fingers. Both these two stand out as having surviving mothers, but both mothers are presented as fat, unintelligent and lacking completely in parenting ability. Ned, being older, and being Tom’s friend, is possessed of energy and ambition that George will never have.
Which leaves us only Kevin Smith in Strangers at Witchend, about whom I confess I have a prejudice. As if Saville has locked himself into relationships, he’s presented as a boyfriend for Harriet, and a particularly unworthy one at that. Kevin has been effectively abandoned by his aggressive criminal father and his fat, blowsy mother, another useless parent in the tradition of George Crump and Ned Stacey’s mother. Neither parent has anything in their favour, yet because Saville’s conservative and Christian beliefs won’t allow him to produce a broken family, Kevin must go back to them, in defiance of all real circumstances.
To achieve this, Kevin’s father has to have his anger and nastiness suddenly alibied to an illness that will vanish when he starts taking his medicine, as he promises to do whilst, despite being a professional criminal who has been adulterating gold and silver, as well as having committed crimes the Police haven’t associated him with, will get off without a prison sentence. Talk about defying reality!
These then are the examples Malcolm Saville has offered throughout the whole length of his career, thirty-five years and twenty books. We have seen enough already to make it extremely difficult to deny certain consistent themes. But this is one series only. Are these a peculiarity of the Lone Pine Club alone? For this, we need to consider the other series written by Saville for his older readers.
Saville’s third novel, published in 1945, was his first outside the Lone Pine Club series but the Michael and Mary books were aimed at younger readers so we next look to the Jillies series, beginning in 1948 with Redshank’s Warning and aimed at the same age group as David Morton and Peter Sterling.
The Jillies series was the most compact of Saville’s career, six books written in the space of as many years, granting it the dubious honour of being the first series he concluded. Though the books had similar characteristics to the Lone Pine Club, they were much simpler, with only five characters, two families and no only children.
The series takes its name from the Jillion family, Mandy, Prue and Tim. These three are a lively, unorthodox and extrovert bunch, and Saville in private correspondence confirmed that he found them much more fun to write about, which shows. The Jillies are the life of the books and it is a life we enjoy with them.
What’s the first thing that we notice? The Jillies’ mother is dead. This at least is secured to a concrete time-line, three years prior, long enough for her to have been of real influence on her children, though we known nothing of her save that Prue takes after her mother in looks, and perhaps in temperament, though this is purely inference. The children’s father, significantly, is known by the nickname his younger daughter has created for him, JD (Jilly Darling). He’s an artist but as a father he’s very much in the mould of Richard Channing, though impractical rather than selfish. He loves his children and takes them seriously, but as a competent father he’s not in the running.
Thank heaven then for Mandy. Though she was only twelve/thirteen when she lost her mother, Mandy has taken over as substitute mother to her younger siblings, and done a much better job of it than her only adult equivalent, not only exerting authority over Prue and Tim but keeping their loyalty as well. And all without disrupting her schoolwork or sports!
It’s all fundamental to what makes Mandy Mandy: her self-reliance, her mental confidence, her forthrightness and her determination to be taken – and treated – seriously. Mandy is still a schoolgirl, with the ability to switch back into being just that, but she is older than her years because she’s had to be, and even when she makes mistakes, she remains unabashed, because she’s earned her pride.
The other family, the Standings, Guy and Mark, are deliberately intended as contrasts. They’re the same ages as the two Jillion girls (though where Guy and Mandy obviously fancy each other like mad, the only instance of possible affection between the younger pair comes when Prue flings herself on Mark in The Luck of Sallowby, when he returns from being kidnapped).
The Jillies are meant to be an unconventional family, to which the absence of their mother is intended to contribute. The Standings therefore are conventional, with both parents and a more stable and better off home. However, the Standing parents appear in only two books, and otherwise are happy to let their boys go off miles away from the family hearth, most notably at Xmas (Two Fair Plaits). And mother and father are very different characters, again to an extent that you wonder what they first saw in each other. Mr Standing is an easy-going, relaxed and rounded man who has seen Mandy and is clearly very happy to encourage his older son to meet her as often as possible.
But Mrs Standing is a very different kettle of fish. She’s socially conscious but, more importantly, she’s stiff, humourless and completely lacking in empathy. She doesn’t like her boys associating with the slapdash and more common Jillies, doesn’t approve of, or perhaps rather understand their independent spirit and willingness to rough it, but on the other hand can be bribed into letting them shoot off to spend Xmas with virtual strangers by the prospect of spending her own Xmas in a Hotel, no doubt an upmarket one.
Two families: one without a mother, the other with one who makes up a very unflattering picture of maternity.
As there are only six books, there is correspondingly a limited number of other children to survey. No less than three appear in Two Fair Plaits: the kidnap victim, Belinda Ferguson, whose mother is dead and who has to leave her father behind to spend Xmas with her grandmother, Joyce, the bargee’s daughter, a nasty and cruel piece of work taking her cue from her parents, and Sandy Barton, the Docklands kid, a working class nipper brought up by honest, hard-working parents who know their place: all three are only children once more.
Nicholas Thornton in Strangers at Snowfell is no child, but is presented to us as yet one more character who is both an only child and whose mother has passed away.
In contrast, Lizbeth Schmidt, in The Sign of the Alpine Rose, has an elder but rather taciturn brother but for most of the story, has only the one parent. This time it’s her mother, and the circumstances of the story mean that it has to be her mother that has been bringing her up, because the plot revolves around her missing father being a War prisoner whose return from captivity is the object of the adventure.
Francis Curtis in The Luck of Sallowby is once again an only child, and one with presumably both parents, we just don’t get to see anything of his mother, whilst Patricia in The Ambermere Treasure, is yet one more only child, terrified that her father, whom she loves, is going to die a long way away and that she will not get to see him before he does. Her mother is away with her father, so once again the woman is off the scene. The evidence stacks up.
Between the two middle books of the Jillies series, Saville started his fourth series, featuring the Buckinghams, sometimes called the Fabulous Buckinghams. Like the Jillies, this new series was aimed at the same mid-level audience, featured two families and consisted of six books but there the comparisons fall short, because the Buckinghams series played out over twenty-five years, including a seventeen year gap with only one book to appear during a break that must twice have seemed that the series had been concluded.
There’s an even smaller cast of characters in this series, just three, being Juliet and Simon Buckingham and their half-Polish friend Charles Renislau. And, for a wonder, the children all have mothers on the scene! That’s not to say that the pattern has changed in any substantial way, for it hasn’t. Juliet and Simon live with their father and mother, but after an opening chapter featuring the Buckinghams at home and meeting the deliberately mysterious Charles for the first time, Mrs Buckingham drops out of proceedings until the final chapter as her two children go off on a cycling/sleeping rough holiday.
And Charles lives with his mother, though his circumstances are very different and, for almost all the first book, he believes his father is dead, a Polish violinist/composer whose talent and violin Charles has inherited, but a patriot killed in the defence of his country in 1939.That this isn’t going to be so is clear to any astute reader from the moment they learn that Mrs Renislau has gone abroad on a mysterious mission. Charles is afraid she is sick and has gone to die in a European Sanitorium, but though the pages of Saville’s books are littered with dead mothers and other parents, each one of them has had the decency to die and get any trauma over and done with well before the book starts: no-one will have the temerity to die during a story.
But for the moment, Charles’ mother is absent and only comes into it in the final chapter, by which time we know that his father Alex is alive and is about to be restored to his loving son.
That’s the situation in the first book, but it’s what follows that is, if anything, more interesting. Both Mrs Buckingham and Mrs Renislau survive to the end of the series, though neither acquire first names to match those of their respective spouses, and in the remaining five books, the ladies make only one appearance between them.
This is Mrs Renislau in The Buckinghams at Ravenswyke, when Juliet and Simon come up from Shropshire to the North Yorks Moors for a holiday without their parents. After that though, Mrs Renislau, who has suffered the agonies of separation from her husband, believing him to be dead for a decade, and who has had him restored, completely vanishes. Her husband and her son spend their lives permanently on tour, and she doesn’t bother accompanying them, not even as far as London.
As for Mrs Buckingham, it’s interesting to note that their four remaining adventures see them go off twice with their bachelor Uncle Joe, the artist, but also twice with their thriller writer father, James. But on neither of these occasions does their mother join the party, not even for a stay in Amsterdam. Instead, she makes excuses both times to avoid joining them which, in the works of another writer, could perhaps lead to unworthy suspicions as to what she’s doing behind their backs!
As to guest children, there are only two, who both appear in The Long Passage. Little Sarah has lost her father and is having to move to smaller accommodation with her widowed mother, whilst the American, Maisie, has two stereotypical Malcolm Saville American parents, but is very much the product of a nuclear family: both girls are, needless to say, only children.
Though they’re neither of them children, it’s interesting to note two other characters in the series whose parentage is relevant. In A Palace for the Buckinghams, the shiftless and unpleasant Barry Salter is both a thief and a lazy lout, but he is also an only child whose mother has died after a second marriage, leaving him to be thrown out by his stepfather. And Carla Jensen in Diamond in the Sky is in the same position, her mother having recently died and her relationship with her stepfather by no means cordial, though in her case she is the one who wants to terminate contact.
For completeness’ sake, I do want to cast a brief eye at the Marston Baines series, though this was written for older teenagers and features older characters, who are young adults rather than children.
Aside from the adult and bachelor titular hero, the seven books of the series feature appearances by eight people of University age or slightly older, who during the series form into four couples. There is also a young boy in one book.
Of the young adults, we learn about the parentage of only three, and needless to say they have all lost a parent, the two young women their mother, and Simon Baines, the real main character of the series, his father. With one exception, each of these characters is an only child, though that’s very much a matter of assumption, based on not one of them ever mentioning a possible sibling.
Running through these quickly, Simon Baines begins the series by having lost his father to a car crash only two months prior. This leads to an invitation to join his estranged Uncle Marston in Tuscany to recuperate mentally (Simon’s father ‘did not approve’ of his brother, for reasons never given: given that Marston was a very successful writer of thrillers who has lived in Italy for a dozen years, it comes over as awkward, but maybe the late Mr Baines also knew his brother was a British spy). Simon goes abroad, leaving his mother behind to cope with having lost her husband without any support from her son, but the reader needn’t worry: we shall never see her or hear from her again.
Both Annabelle Corret, who appears in The Purple Valley and Power of Three, and Francesca Brindisi of Dark Danger and The Dagger and the Flame are girls who’ve lost their mothers before their first appearances, though they both have loving and supportive fathers. Francesca is the odd one out in the set as having a younger brother Pietro, who only appears in the first book but makes enough of an irritating impression there to do for both.
Oddly enough, one other of this mixed group not only has both parents but we see both father and mother, albeit in different books and countries. Rosina Conway, who becomes engaged to marry Simon, makes her debut in Three Towers in Tuscany, whilst on holiday in Italy, but her industrialist father makes a separate appearance back in England, complaining of industrial unrest, just before Marston’s real job is revealed to the reader.
In contrast, when Rosina reappears in White Fire, set on Mallorca, she is on holiday with her mother, a demanding hypochondriac, and a woman who leaves no good impression, being primarily self-centred. The same book also features the young boy I mentioned, William Adams, in respect of whom Rosina has become a kind of informal nanny. William, like her, has two parents but is here with one, his workaholic (and criminal) father who has virtually no time to spare for him, whilst his mother is somewhere else entirely, with no explanation why she isn’t part of the family or why she has left her young son.
So there we have it. Four series, thirty-nine books, thirty-six children, eight young adults and a smattering of other characters whose parentage and family status we are exposed to along the way. Of those children a total of twenty-four, two-thirds, are only children, as are seven of the young adults. The only adult characters mentioned as having siblings are James and Joe Buckingham, Jon and Penny’s respective fathers, who were brothers, and Jasper and Micah Sterling.
Of these same children, seventeen, under a half, have both parents living, though Penny Warrender and Harriet Sparrow’s parents pay either no, or a very limited part in their lives as we see them. Six others have a mother but no father, two of whom are either ineffectual or never seen.
In contrast, twelve characters have a father but no mother, a condition that also applies to three adults. Tom Ingles, Nicholas Whitefeather and Johann Schmidt have lost both parents. The mothers of Kevin Smith, the Standings, the Buckinghams, Charles Renislau and young William Adams play little or no part in their lives
These are just figures, but figures that represent thirty-five years of writing and thirty-nine books. This is not the result of deliberate planning. This is evidence of an unconscious bias, perhaps a conscious decision, on Malcolm Saville’s part, to exclude mothers in only the tiniest number of cases, by making them invisible, or putting them out of the way or, which is where things start to get faintly disturbing, killing them off beforehand.
What lies behind this? Part of it is authorial convenience: parents are a mixed blessing in children’s fiction, a threat to independence and adventure, and yet a safe haven to return to, reassuring figures. But whilst statistics are never entirely the story on their own, what we have here suggests something deeper. Of the starring roles, only the Mortons and Jon Warrender have mothers who play an active role in their lives. The Buckinghams and Charles Renislau start with active mothers but these fade completely very early on. Of the rest, those who have mothers are rarely if ever seen with them.
We know Malcolm Saville to be deeply Conservative, conservative and Christian. In this, he was a man of his time, born in 1901, brought up in stricter, more disciplined times. Remember too that, if we admit Swallows and Amazons in its rightful place as the progenitor of the Children’s Holiday Adventure, the genre itself was less than fifteen years old when he wrote Mystery at Witchend. All these point to a man whose instincts were very masculine oriented, notwithstanding the care he took in creating believable and admirable female characters.
But girls or women were still inferior to boys. They lacked strength, physical and mental, they were affected by emotion, they lacked initiative and rationality. They deferred to boys. Wherever there is a pairing in any of the series we’ve looked at, in every case the boy is older than the girl. These are automatic assumptions on Saville’s part, as are the premises of his appeal to both genders: the boys read for the adventures, the girls for the relationships.
That attitude carries over into everyone’s parentage. Fathers are to be looked up to, but mothers are next to invisible, because mothers, being female, automatically equate adventures with danger and will restrict and hinder their children’s activities. Twice, Mrs Morton openly expresses her dislike of her own children and their friends getting involved with crooks and the Police. In contrast, only once – and that in the penultimate book – does Mr Morton, privately and contingently – worry about whether they should be let out alone, and by now we’re discussing seventeen year olds.
So mothers are to be excluded. They’re wet blankets, worriers, obstacles. They’re not wanted. But why do so many of them have to have been killed off, and leave no trace of ever having influenced their children? Mrs Sterling. The first Mrs Harman. Mrs Jillion. Madame Corret. Countess Brindisi. This persistence with killing off so many mothers only places greater emphasis on those others who have survived but who might as well be dead for all they play any part in their children’s lives.
The predominance of this syndrome suggests to me that Saville was actually not conscious of it. He didn’t want mothers playing a part in his characters’ stories – except for Mrs Morton, whose avatar was his wife – and given his chauvinistic instincts, it may have just seemed easier to have them drop dead before page 1 than to clog up his story with even a minimum bit of fussing.
As to his aversion to giving his characters siblings, I have no suggestions to make. The Mortons, the Channings, the Jillions, the Standings, the Buckinghams and Francesca Brindisi are all siblings but everybody else is an only child. Saville could certainly write for families, and among the Lone Piners there seems to be a theme of lonely children coming together to bond in the Club as a substitute family, but otherwise, his insistence upon ‘onlies’ is curious. Unless we’re meant to read something into his own family of four children, that is.
So there you have it. I am not well versed in the world of children’s fiction, so I don’t know how Saville compares to the mass of his contemporaries. Those with whom I am familiar in any degree – Blyton, Ransome, Trease, Rowe Townsend – seem perfectly happy with extended families in the way that Saville is not in the books covered here. I believe he was much more attuned to families in the series aimed at younger readers, where the danger was much reduced, but this I have to take on hearsay.
Nevertheless, I certainly wouldn’t agree to be a mother appearing in a Malcolm Saville book, not for a million pounds!