The Children Who Lived In A Barn by Eleanor Graham

Mobius Dick cover

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham was first published in 1938. My copy is a Persephone reprint. The author is probably better known as an editor for Puffin and Penguin books, and as such she obviously knew better than anyone that the best way to write a book for and involving children is to get rid of the parents as fast as possible, which she duly does in this book.

The Dunnet family consists of the parents and five children who range in age from thirteen to seven. Susan is the eldest and luckily she’s a very level-headed and competent girl, she has to be because their rather feckless parents take off for Switzerland where Mrs Dunnett’s mother has taken ill. They’re completely confident that Susan can look after everyone until they get back, but they don’t return and even worse the children are evicted from the family home as the landlord wants the house.

The villagers are mainly helpful and a farmer offers them the use of an old barn to live in. They set to work making it habitable and as the summer approaches they make a decent job of looking after themselves although the bulk of the work has fallen on Susan who has to learn how to wash and sew. She’s at her wits’ end trying to make ends meet.

Susan has become a little mother figure with help from a local teacher, the baker and some others, but the local district visitor is determined to get them all put into a ‘Home’ for orphans. She’s a thoroughly despicable character, but to be fair nowadays there is no way that ‘home alone’ children would be allowed to look after themselves, they’d all be taken into local authority ‘care’ immediately.

This is a charming story even although the reader has to suspend disbelief, not only when the children are allowed to stay in the barn, but also the reason why the parents haven’t returned is fairly pathetic and totally unlikely. It’s well written otherwise although I have to say that it always annoys me when the youngest girl in a family is portrayed as spoiled and whining as is Alice in this book – such nonsense as I should know!

There’s a preface by the author Jacqueline Wilson in which she explains that when she was growing up it was normal for children to be given a latch key and to be by themselves at home – until their mother got home from work. All quite true, there were millions of us growing up like that, really bringing ourselves up, I don’t know when it was decided that children had to be chaperoned all the time, possibly around the late 1970s.

I’m fairly sure I didn’t read this one when I was wee, I think I would definitely have remembered it as it would have been right up my street. Have you read it?

This one is on my Classics Club list – another one bites the dust.

The endpapers are taken from a 1938 screen printed design by John Little.


House-Bound by Winifred Peck

House-Bound was first published in 1942 but it has been reprinted by Persephone.

It’s that World War 2 setting again, but this one is also set in Edinburgh which Winifred Peck decided to rename Castleburgh for some reason. It begins at a registry office for servants, but there are no servants to be found as they’ve all given up domestic drudgery in favour of earning more money, independence and ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort, and who could blame them!

The middle class ladies of Edinburgh blame them, that’s for sure, but when Mrs Fairlaw (Rose) is told that millions of women do their own housework she decides that that is just what she will do. Rose has been born into quite a grand family and married Stuart Fairlaw who had inherited the family pile, Laws House, originally an ancient tower house but much enlarged over the years and very inconvenient and difficult to keep clean.

Rose is completely clueless about housework and cooking and even wonders if you have to use soap to clean the potatoes! Stuart can see that his wife is exhausted by all her domestic duties but as a man it never occurs to him to lend a hand, and Rose doesn’t expect him to. Their children are grown up and off in various military services.

This book is funny in parts but also sad too as the war takes a toll on family members. Rose is a strange mother/step mother with obvious favouritism towards one child and this has had an unfortunate effect on the rest of the family.

Eventually a Mrs Childe comes to help Rose with the housework a few hours each day and she attempts to teach Rose the mysteries of domesticity, there’s so much of it going on that I felt quite exhausted. Did you know that you are supposed to clean your cornicing regularly, I didn’t – and don’t!

It’s an enjoyable read and Rose is a really likeable character, there’s also some input from the US army in the shape of Major Hosmer, who tries to help Rose with her problems. One thing which did amuse me was the constant references to Rose and her friend Linda as being old and basically past it, so it’s a bit of a shock to realise that they’re only in their early 50s.

I do believe myself that the 50s is the new 30s!!

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This is Persephone Book no 29 and as I recall I bought it from a charity bookshop in St Andrews more than a year ago but I read recently on a blog (which one?) that it was a great read so I got down to reading it at last.

Frances Hodgson Burnett is of course well known to us through her books The Little Princess and The Secret Garden but this is the first of her books for adults which I’ve read and I really did enjoy it.

Emily Fox-Seton has the knack of finding good in everyone, her character is so sweet and good that she should really be a bit of a sickener but amazingly she isn’t. She’s not a fool or a prig but has great common sense and is stoical about her situation. She is a 34 year old woman of good breeding but without money and she has to earn her living by being a bit of a dogsbody for ladies who will pay her to help them, securing good cooks for them or tracking down bargains at sales, anything which will enable her to keep life and soul together.

At 34 she’s deemed to be not only on the shelf but positively dusty and she seems never to have any hopes in that direction for herself, but as this book is a bit of a fairy tale for adults, and given the title of the book it’s obvious that things are going to take that turn for her. Like all good fairy tales though, there is a dark period of danger around the middle of the book. Will it all fall apart for Emily? Well what do you think!

If you want to read this book you can download it from Project Gutenberg it’s under the name of Emily Fox-Seton there.

There are lots of Frances Hodgson Burnett books to choose from, have a look here.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Miss Petigrew Lives for a Day cover

This is the first Persephone book that I’ve read and it was the perfect choice after reading Dracula. I wanted something completely different and light-hearted and this just fitted the bill.

The story takes place over one very eventful day in which Miss Pettigrew, a 40 year old spinster who has very little experience of the world, has had to eke out a meagre existence working as a governess to ghastly children whose parents are even worse.

Finding herself unemployed again Miss Pettigrew is sent by the employment agency to Miss LaFosse’s flat as she is apparently looking for a nursery governess.

Miss Pettigrew is bowled over by Miss LaFosse’s beauty and quickly becomes involved in the exciting life of the night club singer who is juggling men, and considering this book was written in 1938, is so ‘fast’ that if she were a car she would be a Grand Prix winner.

Anyway, if you want a jolly good uplifting read this one is definitely worth reading, you’ll find yourself smiling your way through it.

Library Loot

I had a ‘phone call from the library yesterday to let me know that the Willa Cather book that I had requested was waiting for me, so I sauntered up there in the afternoon and of course I had to take out just a few books more. I ended up coming home with these:

An omnibus by Ian Rankin containing Let it Bleed, Black and Blue and The Hanging Garden. Judith, Reader in the Wilderness is planning to read Let it Bleed, and we’re intending to have a bit of a chat about it.

The Willa Cather book is Death Comes for the Archbishop – lots of people have recommended this one.

A Persephone book by Winifred Watson called Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. This will be my first Persephone read. According to the sticker on the book this is now a major film, but I haven’t seen it.

And because it’s coming up for Hallowe’en and lots of people have enjoyed it, particularly Stefanie, So Many Books and Jane GS, (Reading,Writing,Working,Playing), I decided to take out Dracula. I really hate the blood spattered cover but it’s about time that I got around to reading it and I’m hopeful that it’s going to be a lot better than The Seven Jewels by Stoker.