Friday, February 20, 2015

The first enduring historical novel for children

by Deborah Swift

1911 edition
I am in the middle of writing the second part of The Highway Trilogy for young adults (and adults!) which is set in the English Civil War. One of the characters spends a long time hiding in the forest  - in a similar fashion to Robin Hood, and I was reminded of The Children of the New Forest by Captain Marryat, a book that has been adapted for TV no less than three times.

The Children of the New Forest was one of the first historical novels specifically written for a young audience. I loved the book as a child, but my memory of it was hazy so I bought a copy and dived in. Immediately I was struck by the fact that this book, although being about children, was not necessarily tailored to meet their needs. The vocabulary is sophisticated - lands are 'sequestered', 'appellations' are used. Marryat could so easily have chosen simpler words like 'removed' or 'names'.

Of course some of the language is archaic because Captain Marryat was a contemporary of Dickens and The Children of the New Forest was written in 1847, but it seems that the idea of children as being somehow a separate species with different reading needs did not exist then. Although we think of Dickens' books as 'historical' they were actually contemporary to him - Marryat on the other hand, has written a genuine historical from 200 years before him. Did he adapt his Victorian language to make it sound more seventeenth century? We will never know.

1998 BBC TV series

The novel exemplifies the class structure of the era in which it was written - servants call young boys 'sir' if they are of a better class, and girls are expected to cook and clean, whilst the boys hunt. However what is clear from the book is that having a certain status also brings with it great responsibility - the young boys feel obliged to protect and take care of their sisters, and their servants, in a way which is quite touching. The eldest boy is very concerned with his family house - his 'inheritance' - which he fears he has lost. Of course for the historical novelist these are obvious ideas, but I urge you to try this book because it is threaded so completely with these attitudes it really helps to understand the 'feeling' of that sort of society, and how it affects everything in the narrative.

Lymington, Hampshire, where the book is set

Another difference from more modern historical novels for children is the attitude towards food. Very few children's books would now contain imagery of a thirteen year old boy shooting a stag in the head at point blank range until it 'fell down dead', and then show him disembowelling it. In those days, animals were meat, and did not have the sentimental attachment we accord them now. And of course we are expected to applaud his skill, not feel sorry for the stag.

The narrator is very obvious in the novel. He stops the narrative every now and then to explain,

'What is a Leveller?' thought Jacob.
As perhaps my readers might ask the same question they must know that a large proportion of the Parliamentary army had at the time assumed the name of Levellers ' etc

He goes on to explain for another half page! This sort of obvious narration is much out of fashion now, but it works perfectly well in the book. We might call it an 'information dump', but it works because it is very clear that we are leaving the story whilst we get educated!

Craig Kelly in the TV adaptation

The plot is an exciting tale of adventure and young love, full of misunderstandings and traitorous deeds, and tension between the rival factions of Cavaliers and Roundheads.
Clips on Youtube
Download and read Children of the New Forest for Free - Project Gutenberg

Shadow on the Highway - the first in the trilogy about real-life highwayman Lady Katherine Fanshawe, and set in exactly the same period as Children of the New Forest - is out now.

What is your favourite Children's Historical Novel?
(apologies, US readers, I just can't get used to leaving out the 'u' in favourite!)


  1. My favourites(not American! I spell it this way too) are the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, especially the Eagle series - Eagle of The Ninth, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers. But I love them all.

  2. I remember reading this as a child, Deb and loving it for the atmosphere of the time and the sense of responsibility carried by an eldest son. As you say, no allowances were made in language for younger readers. If I didn't understand a word the grownups always said, 'look it up' - not, 'I'm going to complain to the publisher that my poor darlings cannot grasp the vocabulary'.

  3. This brought back wonderful memories of over 60 years ago, when I read "Cue for Treason" A Tale of Shakespearian England by Geoffrey Trease and was published in 1942. Had to read it in school and just loved it. I never had to worry about language. If I did not understand a word, was handed a dictionary. Thanks so much for the post.

  4. I love every Rosemary Sutcliff book I could get my hands on. I also loved The Bronze Bow and Carry On Mr. Bowditch (both Newbery winners)

  5. I loved the My Bookhouse Books. Our set was the original 6 published in 1921, I believe. It was added to over the years, finally ending with 12 volumes. It contained numerous short historicals written by all sorts of great writers. It was full of wonderful, absorbing illustrations. I lived in those books!

  6. I'm with Anita on words. Marryat used the appropriate words, e.g. property was sequestered. It was by reading that we learnt these words and their context. Ditto using the forms of address such as 'sir' and 'madam' which were similar in the 17th and 19th centuries.

    Thank you for reminding me of this inspirational story. Must go and re-read it!


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