The Family from One End Street

A charming family story that’s more radical than it might seem.

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In my last post, I suggested that had the inaugural Carnegie gone to Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, it would have set a very different tone for the Medal. However, the second winner – Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street – is  closer in spirit to Streatfeild’s book than Ransome’s. This is another family story, with an urban setting, and some of the same interest in change and modernity. Whereas Streatfeild’s family live in what can fairly be called ‘genteel poverty’ and have a generally middle-class set of values, though, The Family from One End Street are not only working class, but poor:

MRS RUGGLES was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. ‘Very suitable too,’ she would say, though whether this referred to Mr Ruggles himself, or the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide.

[…]

There were a great many Ruggles children – boys and girls, and a baby that was really a boy but didn’t count either way yet.

The neighbours pitied Jo and Rosie for having such a large family, and called it ‘Victorian’; but the Dustman and his wife were proud of their numerous girls and boys, all-growing-up-fine-and-strong-one-behind-the-other-like-steps-in-a-ladder, and-able-to-wear-each-other’s-clothes-right-down-to-the-baby, so that really it was only two sets, girl and boy, summer and winter, Mrs Ruggles had to buy, except Boots.

The book consists of a series of gentle adventures: one for each of the older Ruggles children (Lily-Rose, Kate, twins Jim and John, and Jo Jr.), plus three which focus on Mr and Mrs Ruggles and/or the babies (Peg and William), and one story about the whole family to round the book off. It’s illustrated throughout with lovely pen and ink sketches by Garnett (who was actually an artist first). It reminds me a little of Milly Molly Mandy in its tone and the generally low-stakes adventures, but the characters feel much more real than Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends (at least to me). Partly this reflects the fact that the adventures are genuinely rooted in the social setting.  Lily-Rose’s story, for example, is a ‘good deed gone wrong’ story of the kind that isn’t unusual in books from around this time. Arriving home early from school, she determines to do some of her mother’s ironing as her Girl Guide good deed for the day. Inevitably, she uses a too-hot iron on a customer’s artificial silk petticoat, and then memorably watches in horror at the petticoat ‘shrivelling… shrinking… shrivelling up… running away before her eyes!’ This is a scene that I could imagine in E. Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods, or in Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, but in both those series the main risk would be getting into trouble. In Garnett’s book, there’s the potential for a much more serious consequence: this is Mrs Ruggle’s business, after all, and damaging something compromises her reputation for skill and reliability. Of course it all ends happily, thanks to an understanding customer, but the anxiety about Lily-Rose’s mistake is much more real than it would be in the more middle-class narratives.

Eve Garnett was motivated to write the novel after spending time in London’s East End producing illustrations for Evelyn Sharp’s study of the urban poor The London Child (1927). By her own account, she was moved to do more to publicise the conditions poor children were living in, and on being told that it would be only possible to publish an illustrated book if it was for children, wrote The Family From One End Street herself. She later completed a book of illustrations called Is it Well With the Child? (1938), which comprised sketches of the children she encountered in the East End and brief captions. It portrays more extreme poverty than The Family From One End Street, but has some of the same charm and humour.

Portraying a working-class family groundbreaking at the time it was published – the Carnegie website notes that several publishers turned it down before Frederick Muller took it on. By the 1960s, though, it was beginning to be regarded as a rather patronising depiction. Rosemary Manning, writing in 1966, characterised it as a ‘perfunctory glance from outside’ at a working-class family. It’s certainly a cosy portrayal, and the book as a whole suggests that the family are poor but happy. It’s also fair to say that at times Garnett shifts perspective in a way that  makes it clear we’re seeing the Ruggles from outside, for example when the Ruggles visit an art gallery and puzzle over an army officer having time to paint; it’s clear that the reader is expected to recognise that ‘Sargent’ is a name.

Manning was particularly critical of Garnett’s description of Joe Ruggles as ‘a contented sort of man’ and her assertion that ‘So long as he had his job and his family were well and happy, and he could smoke his pipe and work in his garden, see his mates at the Working Men’s Club once or twice a week and have a good Blow Out on a Bank Holiday, he wanted nothing more’. This is problematic in its reproduction of the stereotype of the contented poor, but I think Manning’s criticisms overlook the radical edge of the book. If Joe himself is contented, this is questioned within the text, both directly (by the artist who is troubled by the fact that the small reward he gives Joe for returning some lost money is enough to secure the happiness of the Ruggles family) and by the general sense of aspiration within the book. Throughout the novel Garnett gives the impression that the Ruggles are no less intelligent, creative, or virtuous than any middle-class family: they are just poorer. The Ruggles don’t understand everything in the art gallery, but they are moved enough by Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose to name their daughter after it. (In finding that link, I also discovered that I missed some of the cultural assumptions of that scene:  the Ruggles wonder what the title is supposed to refer to, unaware – as I was – that it comes from a song by Joseph Mazzinghi.)  Kate wins a scholarship to grammar school, passing the exam ‘ninth in the whole district’, and throughout the book Garnett suggests that the state has a role in ensuring that the poor are not only preserved from destitution, but also given the opportunity to pursue their aspirations. The foundations of the Welfare State are here.

Well-meaning political views don’t save a book from being patronising, however, radical, but to my mind the absolute realness of the characters and the sympathy with which they are portrayed does make such criticisms unjust. The Ruggles have a happy home, but their poverty is never forgotten about: from the opening mention of Mrs Ruggles’ worry about boots to her anxiety about Joe revealing the split in his Sunday suit by straphanging in the Tube with the ‘wrong’ arm, we’re given many little reminders of the way having no money shapes your experience of the world. The children are lively and vivid: as a child I particularly sympathised with ‘clever Kate’, dreaming about ‘Latin and geometry and things they didn’t “do” at the Council school’ but also passionately keen to wear her new uniform on an ‘outing’. (Yes, I was a nerd – and just as excited as Kate when I finally studied Latin during my MA.)

The Family From One End Street is still in print, and as is probably evident I both read and loved it as a child. So far the Carnegie committee seem to have done well on picking books with staying power (although of course winning the Medal may be partially responsible for them sticking around).It’s a much easier read than Pigeon Post, both in the sense that it’s less literary, and due to the fact that it’s really aimed at considerably younger children, but I think this obscures the truly ground-breaking qualities of the book. It was a radical choice for the Carnegie, especially in light of the fact that The Hobbit was a contender that same year (I believe it was nominated, though I can’t lay my hand on a reliable source for that just now). I think The Hobbit would have been much more of a continuation of the style and theme honoured the year before with Pigeon Post, and given the very favourable critical reception of Tolkien’s novel the choice of Garnett’s novel a brave one. The Ruggles may have had a ‘Victorian’ family, but this was a novel which looked to a new future for Britain. Bravo, Carnegie committee.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10 (I’m starting to feel monotonous, but I love this book!)

Plot: 8/10 (It’s more episodic than a fully worked novel, though each episode is a gem in and of itself and the whole does hang together)

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Family, change, working class, socialism, adventure

Publisher: Frederick Muller

Illustrator: Eve Garnett

 

 

Pigeon Post

Pigeon Post gets the Carnegie Medal off to a good start with a realistically plotted story which celebrates the rural landscapes of Britain.

The Carnegie Medal kicked off in 1936 with Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post, the sixth book in the Swallows and Amazons series. Whenever I see this mentioned, the general consensus always seems to be that it was a ‘safe’ award which was really recognising Arthur Ransome’s body of work as a whole. Keith Barker, in his history of the Carnegie, says that Arthur Ransome himself said it wasn’t his best work. Well, I’m here to say that all these commentators are wrong, wrong, wrong. This far exceeded my expectations.

This is one of the Lake District books, and brings together all the main characters from the previous five books: John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker (the Swallows); Nancy and Peggy Blackett (the Amazons) and Dick and Dorothea (the D’s). There’s very little sailing in this book: instead, the plot centres around their efforts prospecting for gold up on the fells. There’s an enemy – the mysterious Squashy Hatted man who seems also to be  seeking gold – and a more realistic external threat in the form of a severe drought which has everyone in the area worried about fell fires.

I love the opening of the book, which gives a great ‘Previously, in the Swallows and Amazons series…’ via a dialogue between Titty and Roger and a farmer’s wife on the train, who knows Mrs Blackett:

“Aye, and her daughters too, and her brother Mr Turner that’s for ever gallivanting off to foreign parts …”

“We know him too,” said Roger. “We call him …” And he stopped short. There was no point in giving away Captain Flint’s name to natives.

“You’ve been here before, likely,” said the farmer’s wife. “Oh yes,” said Titty. “We always stay at Holly Howe … at least mother does … but Mrs Jackson’s got visitors for the next two weeks … Mrs Blackett’s having us till then because mother didn’t want Bridget to give us all whooping-cough.”

“We’ve come straight from school,” said Roger. “Eh,” said the farmer’s wife. “I know all about you. You’ll be the young folk that were camping on the island down the lake two years since when Mr Turner had his houseboat broke into. And you were here again last winter when the lake was froze over. But I thought there was four of you …”

“Five, with Bridget,” said Titty. “John and Susan must be here already. It isn’t so far from their schools.”

“And weren’t you friends with the two at Mrs Dixon’s?”

“Dick and Dorothea Callum,” said Titty.

We get a quick primer on all our characters, and set up a few things which are instrumental to the plot: the absence of Mrs Walker, (which results in a recurring anxiety on the part of Mrs Blackett about what the children are getting up to), the fact that the Swallows aren’t at the Jacksons (and thus won’t have access to their sailing boat), and Captain Flint’s penchant for foreign travel. It also subtly works to establish the Walkers as belonging in this community, which is a recurrent theme in this book.

Ransome is often criticised for writing essentially static characters – Geoffrey Trease was particularly vocal about this – but the care he takes to set things up here belies that. It’s important to Ransome to set up a reason why they’re not simply repeating the activities of the first book (which would be boring) – a love of sailing is really central to the Swallows’ and Amazons’ personalities, so it would be out of character if they just randomly decided to do something different. It’s also important that we know who these characters are, because they are slowly growing and changing and the adventures of the previous books actually matter. The whole book is actually full of lovely little character moments: one of the best scenes is when they are trying dowsing and it actually works for Titty, who totally freaks out. Her reaction is perfect for her character: she’s the most imaginative and sensitive of the Walkers, not used to being in the limelight (as second youngest), and  not really expecting anything to happen since the older children, whom she respects, haven’t managed to get it to work. I also love the way Susan is portrayed in this book: Susan is one of the characters who gets short shrift from a lot of critics because she’s a kind of ‘miniature adult’ who is mostly concerned with washing up and bedtimes. She’s definitely not the character who most readers identify with, and she’s partly there to fulfil a plot function by being the ‘serious’ one who grown-ups trust to make their undsupervised adventures safe. In Pigeon Post, though, we actually get a glimpse of what it’s like for Susan to be the one who plays this role: it comes across most powerfully in the moment when the older ones realise that the younger children are in the middle of a fell fire, and Susan reacts with the kind of horror that only comes with being the person who really feels responsible for everyone else’s wellbeing. I’m certain Susan’s character resonates more for me at 35 than she would have when I was 8, but I think it’s still important to the book as a whole that she’s there – and Ransome’s readers in 1936 were substantially more likely to have responsibility for the younger siblings than children of the same age are today.

I find Pigeon Post an interesting pick for the very first Carnegie Medal, because it is deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history. The earlier books in the Swallows and Amazons series involve a lot of games in which the children imagine the British landscape as a foreign space, but that’s more or less absent here. The prospecting plot is motivated by their desire to prove to Captain Flint that rather than travelling overseas, he should ‘look for things here’, and the whole plot thereafter is concerned with uncovering valuable things in the landscape. Their prospecting does eventually bear fruit (although they find copper rather than gold), and Titty’s success at dowsing also allows them to find water, which in the context of the drought is even more precious. They draw on various bits of ‘traditional’ knowledge: a local story about finding gold in the fells, the water divining, making charcoal, and the use of homing pigeons for the titular pigeon post. The tension that runs through the book is also fundamentally to do with belonging: the farmer whose land they are staying on is deeply concerned about the possibility that they will accidentally set fire to the fells, and it’s clear that she sees them as lacking in a real appreciation of the importance of the land and the degree to which a fire would be devastating to local livelihoods. The climax of the book, in which the children save the farm from a fire with the aid of a well they have created and a homing pigeon who alerts the local fire volunteers, serves to resolve this conflict and confirm them as ‘belonging’ to the land. What we have here, then, is a beautifully constructed narrative about identity.

In case it is not clear, I LOVE this book and think it absolutely holds up after 80 years. I know from teaching Ransome’s books that my students, at least, tend to find him heavy going, and I think it’s probably the case that his appeal today isn’t what it was in the 1930s. This is a longer, slower novel than most children (or adults) are used to now. That said, I think that there are still children who would enjoy this book. There’s also nothing in it that would make me cringe at giving it to a child, which is nice for a book from 1936. A++ inaugural Carnegie committee.

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10 (let’s start by setting the bar high!)

Plot: 9/10

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, camping and tramping

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Illustrator: Arthur Ransome

Competition

There were two highly commended books in 1936: Howard Spring’s Sampson’s Circus (Faber and Faber) and Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (Dent). We’ll be hearing from Streatfeild again…