I joined The 1956 Book Club just before it closes, so rather than reading something new (which would take time),I’m focusing on books I’ve read in the past. Today, I’m taking a quick look at three children’s stories, all published in 1956.
First up is The Fairy Doll, by Rumer Godden, which I read as a child and thought was truly magical – and I still do! Each Christmas, Fairy Doll is taken from her box, unwrapped, and carefully placed on the top of the tree. We know exactly what she looks like.”She was six inches high and dressed in a white gauze dress with beads that sparkled; she had silver wings, and a narrow silver crown on her dark hair, with a glass dewdrop in front that sparkled too; in one of her hands she had a silver wand, and on her feet were silver shoes – not painted, stitched,” Godden tells us. Our own Christmas Fairy was pink and gold, with fair hair and painted shoes – how I envied Godden’s family for their doll with stitched footwear.
One day the fairy falls from the tree and lands by Elizabeth, the smallest, youngest child, who is always being teased because she gets things wrong, and breaks things, and drops things and can’t ride a bicycle. Great Grandmother gives the doll to Elizabeth, telling her: “I was just going to say you needed a good fairy.”
And it seems Fairy Doll does have magical powers, for she helps Elizabeth find the courage and confidence to succeed with all the things she thought she couldn’t do, and to find her place in the world. It’s a very short, very sweet tale, which captures the joys and fears of childhood without being patronising or sentimental. And it has a lovely, happy ending – I’m a real sucker for a happy ending!
And there’s another happy ending for the lovable dogs in Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmations, though there are trials and tribulations to be overcome before pets and humans reach that point. If you only know this from the Disney cartoon, then please, please read the book, because it’s just brilliant. I’m sure most people know the story, but basically nice, kind, decent Mr and Mrs Dearly and their Dalmatian dogs Pongo and Missis, are devastated when their 15 puppies are stolen by Mrs Dearly’s old school friend Cruella de Vil, who is a thoroughly nasty piece of work and is collecting Dalmatian pups to make a fur coat… So the dogs set off to rescue their puppies, aided by a nation-wide canine network (the Twilight Barking).
It may sound daft, but it’s an utterly enchanting book, which will have you sitting on the edge of your seat and biting your nails as you urge the four-legged heroes on! As a rule I don’t like books about animals, but I make an exception for this (along with Wind in the Willows and Watership Down).
Finally, there’s The Last Battle, by CS Lewis, which brings the Narnia Chronicles to an end. I adore the others, especially The Silver Chair, but I’ve always had problems with his one – I sometimes wonder if my response would be different if I’d had a religious upbringing. As a child, I knew a lot about Karl Marx, the history of the Labour Party and the development of Trades Unions, but very little (if anything!) about Christian theology. Consequently, I suspect that the books being Christian allegories passed me by.
I’ve always found it tricky to get my head round the fact they are all killed in train accident, and up joyfully alive in the ‘real’ world, of which our world is nothing more than a shadow – a Platonic concept which doesn’t necessarily spring to mind when considering Christianity.
And I’ve always been horrified by the portrayal of the older Susan, so we only see her through the eyes of the characters as they explain her absence. Susan is no longer a Friend of Narnia, regards their previous adventures as games, and is only interested in lipsticks, nylons and invitations. Re-reading it after a gap of I don’t know how many years (I never read it to my daughters, though they loved the others), I’ve decided that the lipsticks and nylons are just window dressing, and the important thing is Susan’s loss of faith. She no longer believes in Aslan and Narnia, and that’s why she can’t be ‘saved’ with the others.
And on this quick re-read I felt more strongly than ever that neither the writing nor the storyline are as good as the other six. I am sure many people will disagree, but I think that here Lewis let his message override everything else – I feel the same way about Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm.