Thu
Jul 31 2014 2:00pm

When Your House Obsession Becomes A Kid’s Book: The Children of Green Knowe

The Children of Green Knowe L M BostonYoung Toseland Oldknow—Tolly, please, if you must give him a nickname, not Towser, or worse, Toto (I am trying to look past the implied insult to Oz here, everyone)—is off to live with his great-grandmother in a very old house that to him feels very far away. He is both scared and slightly hopeful: since the death of his mother, his only real family is a distant father and a well meaning but generally clueless stepmother, so a great-grandmother feels like something. She might even be real family.

Spoiler: she is. What Tolly didn’t expect—and couldn’t expect—were the ghosts. Or, if you prefer, The Children of Green Knowe.

Like her fellow children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lucy Maria Boston—better known by her initials, L.M.—got a late start with writing, not publishing her first novel until she was 60. Her parents, separated in age by twenty years, had eccentric ideas of both parenting and interior decorating, which helped shaped her early imagination. After the death of her father when she was only six, her imagination was further shaped by a year in the country which sparked a lifelong love of gardens. This love also led her to make an impulsive purchase of an old Norman house, with, of course, a garden, in 1937. She would dedicate much of the rest of her life to the house and its gardens—until she turned to novels, most of which, in one way or another, were about the house.

Including and specifically this 1954 book, which is lavishingly and lovingly filled with descriptions of the house, its decorations, its many oddities, its gardens, and various animals, both real and ghosts, especially birds, showing that Boston Had Opinions About Birds. It also shows that Boston loved her home, regardless of seasons: the floods that make it virtually impossible to get to and from the house create a delightful adventure; the deep snow is a marvel; days without snow equally marvelous.

Houses had featured strongly in children’s literature before this, of course—the “send children off to a country home” was a British literature staple for decades, perhaps most famously as a starting point for the Narnia series, and in that sense, The Children of Green Knowe fits solidly in that trend. It is also hardly the first book to give that country house a sense of magic—C. S. Lewis and Edith Nesbit had played with this—and as we recently saw, hardly the first book to let the house serve as a time travel portal—Nesbit again, and Philippa Pearce.

But where many of those books focused on the inevitability of change—something that seems particularly inevitable for a ghost or time travel story—The Children of Green Knowe is not so resigned. Oh, certainly Boston admits that some things have changed since the seventeenth century—forks are now commonly used, for instance. Still, everything in the house is so focused on the past that when a car appears later in the novel, it’s almost a shock to remember that this book—at least the present timeline—is set in the 1950s. And Tolly isn’t just interested in the people who previously lived at Green Knowe. He wants them to join him now, in the present. Fortunately for him, the previous occupants loved the house so much themselves that they are more than willing to shake off a small little thing like death in order to stay in it. But I anticipate.

Tolly spends his days exploring the house and the gardens, alternatively aggravated and intrigued by the various whispers he hears and the glimpses he gets of three children who bear a very strong resemblance to three children in an old painting. At night, Mrs. Oldknow—the book sticks to using this title for her, and it does fit; however much Tolly may love her, I can’t quite get myself to think of her as Granny—tells him stories of the past: hers, and those of those three children, Toby, Linnet, and Alexander. According to Mrs. Oldknow, they died in the Great Plague, or around 1665-1666, but not before having some fun with horses and moving statues and a haunted topiary and a very sardonic Charles II in a nice cameo appearance. And by “died,” I mean “kinda died,” since this is a ghost story, and the ghost children are, it must be admitted, rather casual about the whole “oh, yeah, we died,” sort of thing. They are far more interested in teasing and playing with Tolly and their toys.

Much more serious is the threat posed by the topiary, but here, the book falters, because although honestly a haunted topiary tree really should be one major plot, Boston is less interested in plot, and more interested in the house; the tree has a Scary Moment, but honestly it all falls rather flat. Much more intriguing is the discovery that being haunted by a ghost does wonders for your flute playing, and if you wear the right sort of clothes you just might be able to see a Magical Ghost Horse.

(Parents should be warned that the Magical Ghost Horse and the Haunted Tree plots are both loosely tied together by a romanticized, somewhat stereotypical Gypsy story, complete with horse stealing and curses.)

The book hints—no more than that—that just possibly all of this is something that Tolly is imagining, egged on by his great grandmother, who has her own need to believe in ghosts and magic. Or at least the practical minded might feel that way. But if Boston allows herself to admit that the ghosts might have some perfectly logical, mundane explanation, she also very much wants to believe that this house is so marvelous that, for many of its residents, death really isn’t the sort of thing that should stop them from enjoying the house.

This is not exactly a favorite book of mine—I found my attention wandering, perhaps because Boston’s love for her house outweighs her love of plot. But readers who love animals, ghosts, and terrifying cursed trees may be more enthralled than I was, and those looking for something warm to curl up to, or for a Christmas story, might find that this is the right sort of book.


Mari Ness rather wishes that ghosts would teach her to play various musical instruments. She lives in central Florida.

14 comments
Edd
1. Edd
I loved the whole series when I was about 10. I still have copies.
Sarah Adams
2. SarahKitty
I have my copies, too. I planned to name my daughter Linnet, even, until I realized everyone was going to pronounce it Linette.
Edd
3. Incoherent
For those who are interested, the house she based the stories on, The Manor, Hemminford Grey, is open to the public (tours by appointment). more information at http://www.greenknowe.co.uk/.

The shop on that web page allows you to order all of the Green Knowe books and some of her other works as well.
Edd
4. JohnnyMac
I loved this series when I was a kid and I still do today. In my estimate, the stories got stronger as the series grew. It is also interesting in that Tolly and Mrs. Oldknow do not appear in every book. Different children, different adults, only the ancient house is a constant.
Edd
5. Ravenya003
Brett Helquist's cover art was such a gift in rejuvenating this series - I rushed out to collect all six books just for the sake of the new covers. The stories themselves are beautifully strange, and also one of the few series that indisputably get better as they go.
Beth Mitcham
6. bethmitcham
I also loved these books, both as a kid and as an adult and as a parent. They are great read alouds for kids with the patience to enjoy the meandering story -- Boston really captures the mindset and interests of a small child, and in the sequels she does a good job of advancing Tolly in maturity.

I usually use Stranger at Green Knowe to lure strangers into the series, though.
Edd
7. a1ay
here, the book falters, because although honestly a haunted topiary tree really should be one major plot, Boston is less interested in plot, and more interested in the house; the tree has a Scary Moment, but honestly it all falls rather flat.

I'd like to massively disagree here; the Green Noah plotline scared the hell out of me when I was a kid (partly because there was a tree in the grounds of my school that looked very similar).
I can still remember the charm "Ad daemonum diminuendum" which comes into "An Enemy at Green Knowe"... tremendous books, the lot of them.
Edd
8. Russell H
For the story of how Boston purchased the house, what she found and had to do in restoring it, and how it inspired her, see her book, MEMORY IN A HOUSE. It's long out of print, but copies can be found online from various sources.

As much as I loved (and still love) this series, I'd say that they did improve after this one, inasmuch as Boston was less "literal" and more tantalizingly ambiguous, about just what was going on: While the "children" in this first book seem self-aware of being "ghosts" or "dead," in the later books, it seems to be suggested that the house and grounds may somehow exist outside "linear" time. It's never really clear whether Tolly has somehow stepped into the past, or if the people of the past have somehow moved to the present.
Mari Ness
9. MariCats
@JohnnyMac , @Ravenya003, @Russell H - Interesting that all of you agree that this series improves as it it goes on. I think better books appear later, but as we'll see, I definitely disagree with this with at least one upcoming book.

@Incoherent - At some point I really do want to see it - the descriptions of the gardens sound wonderful.

@Bethmitcham - A Stranger at Green Knowe does seem to be one of the more accessible books of this series.

@a1ay - Fair enough! For me it just seemed kinda anticlimatic.
Pamela Adams
10. Pam Adams
I discovered these in the last few years- as with so much British children's lit, they just weren't on my radar in the 1960's-70's. (Lots of Bobbsey Twins, though!) I remember thinking this one was a little slow, but still enjoyed it.
Pamela Adams
11. Pam Adams
And now that I've looked at the link, I want to go hear M.R. James stories at Green Knowe!!
Edd
12. HelenS
I am not exactly sure whether the series gets better as it goes or not. The River at Green Knowe is definitely worse than Children and Treasure, though it has some heartbreakingly lovely bits and in some ways is my favorite. But it really is a dog's breakfast of a plot. I liked Stranger least at first, or maybe Enemy, though that was more because Enemy scared me half to death, not that it wasn't well written.
Edd
13. JohnnyMac
HelenS @12 "...'Enemy' scared me half to death,"

It scared the hell out of me too. It gave me a memorable nightmare when I first read it. And, even now, fifty years later, there are lines in it that will give me a grue.

This series still appeals to kids. A few years ago, I sent several of the Green Knowe books to a young cousin as a Christmas gift. Not only did she like them, she went to her school librarian and demanded the whole series be bought for the school library. And the librarian (having read the ones I had given my cousin) ordered the set! One of my more successful Christmas presents.
Edd
14. LauraMJ
It is such a gorgeous house! Really worth going to see, especially if you loved the books as a child, because all the THINGS are there - Toby's mouse, and the stone St Christopher, and the toy box with the sword and flute...

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