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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Literary heroes - the shock of disillusion!

In Saturday’s Guardian newspaper was the snippet that the private diaries of Alison Uttley, the children’s author, are published this month. I quote: “She was apparently jealous of Enid Blyton’s success, calling her “the Blyton” and describing her as boastful and a “vulgar, curled woman.” The columnist, Gwyn Headley, went on to recall the time that he had worked for Collins (the predecessor of Harper Collins) and was asked to escort Alison Uttley to the Children’s Book Fair at the Royal Horticultural Halls in Westminster. He found her to be a “sour little old woman, with no small talk” who treated him as a minion.

At this point in reading the item I paused in horror because Alison Uttley was one of my childhood literary heroes. Her book A Traveller in Time, which I read and also saw adapted for television, was a book that not only fuelled my teenage love of history but also sparked in me a fascination with the genre of the time travel romance. I adored that book and it is still on my keeper shelf, a little battered and with the lettering on the spine almost worn away from use.

After I had recovered from the shock of finding that my heroine apparently had feet of clay, I read the rest of the anecdote, which descended rapidly into farce. Apparently announcements had been made at the Children’s Book Fair that there would be a “Meet Tthe Author” event with Alison Uttley and the visiting children were, naturally, very excited. However, because Uttley hadn’t been listening when Headley had briefed her she was totally unprepared for what happened when the curtain rose for her book signing and the children were let loose. They stormed the stage and she “grabbed her duck-handled umbrella and waded into the attack, felling infants right and left. The kiddies paused, briefly regrouped, then broke up and ran off screaming in terror. Uttley strode among them, lashing out freely.”

The Meet The Author event was abandoned and Alison Uttley was escorted from the Fair…

The full, hilarious but horrifying story is at

Well! This raised several issues for me. Firstly, why does it feel so disappointing to discover that one of the authors I read as a child was apparently not a very nice person? For some reason this seems so much worse than if it was an author I had read as an adult. Does discovering that Alison Uttley was apparently a “sour little old woman” who beat children with her umbrella retrospectively spoil my enjoyment of her books? I don’t think it ought to do, but I do feel a little bit disillusioned.

Fortunately another snippet from the newspaper came to my aid. “A book belongs as much to the reader as to the author,” Lucy Mangan wrote in her Book Corner column. So now I’m taking Lucy’s advice and restoring A Traveller in Time to myself as one of my childhood/teenage seminal books. Others I have loved are listed below. I don’t know whether the authors were nice people or not and perhaps after the Alison Uttley incident, I don’t want to know…

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
Fell Farm Holiday by Marjorie Lloyd

Which books from your childhood are still on your shelves? And how would you feel if you discovered that the author had apparently attacked children with a duck-handled umbrella?


Keira Soleore said...

I have plenty of Enid Blytons on my shelves. Most have been purchased after I finished college and had a well-paying job and so could afford to buy books. I scoured online stores and now every trip to Asia includes a visit to a bookshop to add to my collection. I'm impatient for my daugther to pick up those book. None of the American children's books come close to those innocent childhood memories. The books nowadays are far too adult in their storylines.

Tess said...

Wow - that's quite the story!!!

Strange, but somehow Uttley escaped me completely (and despite being in Canada, I read lots of English children's books).

As for books from my childhood I still own (no bookshelf available to hold them right now, so they're in a box):

The School at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The O'Sullivan Twins by Enid Blyton

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

Little House in the Big Woods by L.I. Wilder

The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig

Lots more, but those are the ones that come to mind :)

margaret blake said...

Don't let your disappointment spoil your innocent pleasure Nicola.

I have many heroes and heroines who I discovered have feet of clay - but I just let it go. HOwever, the bashing of the kids with an umberella? Hardly Mary Poppins. Lovely post.

Beth Elliott said...

I was shocked by the revelations about Alison Uttley as well. Her Little Grey Rabbit books were a huge treat for me as a small child. It does damage my impression of her. Oh well, nobody is perfect... the stories are still what they always were.

Beth Elliott said...

I was shocked by the revelations on Alison Uttley as well. Her Little Grey Rabbit stories were a huge treat for me as a small child. Ah well, nobody's perfect...

Helen said...

What a story

I read Enid Blyton's Secret Seven and Famous Five books and loved them one book I really loved as well was The Secret Garden which we read in English in my first year in High School and that is another wonderful book.

Have Fun

Linda Banche said...

I never read Enid Blyton, but I think it's amazing an author who could write stories so many children loved hated children.

Although, I suppose that's what made her an author. She could imagine well enough to create stories children loved.

We tend to forget that today's "let it all hang out" atmosphere did not exist even fifty years ago. A person had his "private face" and his "public face" and the two were often 180 degrees opposite. We still see it today, but mainly with politicians.

michellewillingham said...

Enid Blyton wrote that boarding school series, didn't she? I seem to recall reading that when I was growing up. I never read Uttley.

My favorite books from growing up were Anne of Green Gables, A Girl of the Limberlost, and A Little Princess. Loved them.

Janet Webb said...

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
Fell Farm Holiday by Marjorie Lloyd

... that's quite a collection! I've read all but the book by Lloyd. You'd like The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper -- another rendition of the perennial Arthurian legend.

As to your question, you "own" the book -- what a great way to put it. I learned that Georgette Heyer was a rather aloof, reserved figure but no matter: I wouldn't change a word of her books and that's all that's important.

You're going to make me search my shelves for other childhood books that are friends of my adulthood ... thank you!

Kate Hardy said...

Blimey - I'm surprised, too. I remember her Little Grey Rabbit books. And I loved her 'The Country Child'. Doesn't really gel with the idea of an old lady bashing kids with her umbrella.

My personal favourite list is pretty similar to yours. Came very late to Diana Wynn Jones (Eight Days of Luke is excellent). I adored Ruby Ferguson's 'Jill' series, and 'My Friend Flicka' (yup, I was horse-mad).

Then there was Penelope Farmer's 'Charlotte Sometimes' and Madeleine L'Engle's 'Wrinkle in Time' and Philippa Pearce's 'Tom's Midnight Garden'. Loved the whole timeslip concept (and ADORED 'Lady of Hay' when my best friend introduced me to it).

And then there were the historicals. Gillian Avery's 'The Warden's Niece' was a favourite, and I enjoyed the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.

My absolute favourite from childhood was 'Wind in the Willows' - mainly because I can remember sitting on my mum's lap, wrapped in a blanket (winter, coal fire, 'nuff said) while she read to me. Doesn't stand up to rereading now - I was hugely disappointed when I bought a beautifully illustrated copy for my eldest.

Michelle Styles said...

Actually I was shocked by the marketing man's insensitivity. How long as he been storing up that particular story?
Miss Uttley did not know that she was doing a signing or rather he had not bothered to make sure that she even felt comfortable about doing a signing, and the children were overexcited. And it must have been thoroughly terrifying for a shy person unused to children or crowds.
I wonder if he even bothered to discover if she liked crowds or was painfully shy before he arranged for this. She possibly thought him to be pushy and having far too much to say for himself.
I suspect that Miss Uttley was utterly charming to quiet children who either wrote to her or met her on a one to one basis.
And wasn't there a warts and all bio of Blyton by one of her daughters? I believe she was not over fond of children...
There again, to write children's books you need to be able to tell a story that a child can connect with. YOu do not have to have good PR Skills or people skills. It is the story that is important.

Fran C said...

What a great story Nicola, though I can see that it might have been disconcerting.
Some of my favourite childhood books were, the Alan Garner books (I was at boarding school not far from Alderley Edge at the time the books came out, and knew the area very well); Monica Edwards' Punchbowl books, I read and re-read them.
Antonia Forest's school series - I still read them regularly;
A series by an American author; albert Payson-Terhune; He bred Collies (the Lassie type) and wrote lots of books and short stories about them, perhaps in the 1930s or 40s?, each dog was an individual with its own character - I loved them, I wept buckets over them, but they disappeared many years ago.
And of course the E Nesbitt books, still on my shelf and I re-read from time to time.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you so much for your comments and for sharing your booklists with me. Michelle S, I share some of your feelings about the Uttley story. I don't like the way that some people come out with anecdotes like that when the person cannot respond. It seems mean-spirited. I did assume, maybe wrongly, that it was a true story however and it did take me aback. I rather naively expected that children's authors would like children! In fact as you pointed out, Linda, she may not have done but she had the imagination to understand what children liked.

Nicola Cornick said...

Enid Blyton, in some shape or form, seems to have been a staple read for a lot of us! Tess, I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as well. And Helen - The Secret Garden! How could I have forgotten that one on my list! A Little Princess was another wonderful fairy story. Janet, you mentioned Susan Cooper's Arthurian stories. I had never come across them as a child but I picked up two of them recently and I'm looking forward to reading them. Keira, I agree very much that children's books these days seem way more adult in their storylines. I've enjoyed a number of children's books as an adult reader, in particular Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, but I imagine they would have terrified me as a child!

Nicola Cornick said...

Kate, I'm thrilled to find that you're another timeslip fan. I'm not sure how old I was when I first read Lady of Hay - in my teens, I think. I've always loved that style of book and avidly scour the shelves for them. Susanna Kearsley and James Long write in a similar style and I love their books.

Fran, I think I would have been a bit scared to have been out and about on Alderley edge after reading the Alan Garner books!

Lisa said...

What an experience, you have to feel sorry for the author. She obviously had no idea she would be in such a situation. I too act and think later. However it does not really surprise me once I read romance writer Liz Carlyle saying.
"The awful truth about novelists is that we are mostly dull, introverted homebodies who only write in order to live our fantasies vicariously."
I never read much as a child growing up in the country spending all my time out of doors. Catching the reading bug in my twenties. Sigh so many good books I have missed.
But I do remember falling hard for Vivien Leigh after watching Gone with the wind. The women walked on water for me. I watched all her movies then read a biography about her life. What a mistake, my bubble burst. I wish I had never known what her real life had turn out to be.

Kristina said...

Still on my bookshelf:

The entire Little House on the Prairie Series
Little Women
Wuthering Heights
My Antonia
The Secret Garden
A Little Princess.

I think I was a weird child because I didn't like the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe!!

Nicola Cornick said...

How interesting about Vivien Leigh, Lisa. It can really burst your bubble when you build up an idea about someone and then discover that the truth is perhaps a bit different. On the other hand I agree it's important not to let it influence how much you enjoy someone's work, be it films, books or something else.

Kristina, I suppose TLTWTW isn't to everyone's taste! Oddly I never enjoyed the rest of that series, only the one book. CS Lewis's book The Screwtape Letters is one of my all-time greats.