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The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta…
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The Young Pretenders (1895)

by Edith Henrietta Fowler

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The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler

"Grannie would never come back any more. At least that was what nurse said, and so the children knew it must be true.

"'When we're grown up will we know everything right like Nana does?' asked Babs, as they talked it over afterward in the garden.

"'I dare say,' answered Teddy carelessly. 'What shall we play at now, Babs?' So the children forgot the news that nurse had told them, and cheerfully accepted the fact that their grandmother, with whom they had lived during the whole of their short lives, had gone away indeed beyond recall. They had always thought of Grannie as a piece of the drawing room furniture, quite a nice piece, but dull and delicate as most drawing-room furniture is to the child mind."

Teddy, seven, and Babs, five, had lived with their grandmother in "the dear old country home" since their parents, Major and Mrs Conway, went back to India four years earlier. As their grandmother was too old and infirm to deal with them, and Nana, the nursery nurse, though kind and caring, is also elderly, the children spend most of their time outdoors making up games and learning about the world from Giles, the gardener, whom they regard as their best friend and sole playmate. They become in effect village children, consorting with servants and villagers and speaking like country folk, totally ignorant of city ways or the rigid codes of behaviour to which members of the Victorian middle class should adhere.

The children are told that their father's brother, Charley, has come back from India and will be coming to see them. They eagerly look forward to meeting their soldier uncle for the first time, unaware that their time in Eden is about to end.

This rather curious children's book was first published in 1895, reprinted in 1911, and not printed again until Persephone bought it out in 2007. I find the book curious because it seems so strongly aimed at the person reading to the child that I cannot imagine the child's view of the story. The novel is largely about the gulf in understanding and expectation between children and adults and the grief that results. Fowler is firmly on the side of the children and drives home again and again the duty of the adult to understand the child and to be aware of the harm that adults may unthinkingly do them. The novel is also concerned with honesty and clarity in people's dealings with one another.

First Fowler deals with the children's reaction to the death of their grandmother. As country children they are fully acquainted with death, and were inconsolable when the dog died. The dog was part of their world; their grandmother wasn't. She'd gone to London some time ago, and was fading in their memories. It's not immediately apparent that anyone said straight out to the children that Grannie was dead, or even that she had gone to London because she was ill. Fowler makes clear that in the circumstances the children's lack of interest is to be expected. Nana and Giles, themselves mourning their old mistress, misjudge the children's emotional state, Nana thinking of them as poor little mites, and Giles thinking them callous.

A telegram from Uncle Charley summons Teddy, accompanied by Nana, to the funeral in London. Neither Teddy nor Nana return.

After nearly a week a letter arrives to say that Uncle Charley will be arriving the next night, too late for Babs' bedtime. Babs rushes down in the morning to see her heroic soldier uncle, but instead of a ruddy cheeked scarlet uniformed figure with medal, sword, and trumpet, she finds a mild looking fair haired man in civilian clothes at the breakfast table. She refuses to believe that he can be her uncle. Furious and frustrated, she stamps her foot, and tells him to go away. She says Giles has told her wonderful stories about her uncle and how soldiers are the pride of the nation and he doesn't look a thing like the pride of the nation. Her uncle manages to sooth her somewhat and asks who Giles is. Babs waxes lyrical about Giles and tells Charley how since Nana and Teddy went to London she has "lived in the garden, goin' about with Giles more'n ever, and we've had the loveliest talks about you, and the crops, and when the old pig will be ready for killing; and I weed, and dig, and help Giles all day".

This is a disastrous meeting on many levels.

Captain Conway is the son, husband, and brother-in-law of beautiful women. The dandified captain and his pretty empty-headed wife had decided to take in Teddy and Babs pending their parents' return from India, but in making this decision had imagined their niece as an exquisite fair-haired doll to be dressed up and taken about as a decoration and source of conversation.

Teddy, who is already staying with Charley and his wife, has inherited his mother's fair good looks and can smile like an angel. He is not entirely pleasant, but adults do not realize this, taking his laziness and self-absorbed disengagement for good behaviour.

Babs, however, is plain, dark, and square, with fat legs, and no amount of correction of speech, manner, or dress will alter this. Her "tender sensibilities and ardent feelings" will have no place in the cold fashionable world which the captain and his wife inhabit; he can think only that the niece "who was to take the place which a daughter of his own would have filled was quite the plainest, most common-looking child he had ever noticed".

When they arrive in London Babs is banished to the top floor nursery and kept out of sight, while Teddy is brought down to be shown off to other adults. The children undergo increasing difficulties as their freedom is curtailed and strict nurses and governesses are imposed on them. While Teddy gradually figures out correct form, even if he doesn't understand it, Babs cannot anticipate adult's responses. The first time the children see their aunt in evening dress Teddy says "You're as lovely as a fairy, or an angel!" Babs, after a deep intake of breath, says "How splendid you do look! Giles always said Uncle Charley married one as would be more for ornament than use - and you are, aren't you?" Teddy gets a kiss, Babs gets a scolding.

Babs realizes her aunt will never like her, and understands why. On a rare encounter with another adult, who asks whether she prefers London or the country, Babs says she prefers the country because in London it matters about being pretty. When she lived in the country she didn't know she wasn't.

During the course of the stay with Uncle Charley Teddy changes and grows apart from Babs. Fowler captures well the way children square off with each other. Teddy on being silently assessed and accepted by some older boys doesn't hesitate to abandon his sole friend and playmate of the previous four years. Ultimately he becomes "the heartless, mindless, soulless creature which is generally to be found in preparatory and public schools" where "good bowling and steady batting are so much more suited to schoolboy life and ambition than a thoughtful temperament or a vivid imagination". This is nicely balanced by Uncle Charley's journey in the opposite direction.

The preface by Charlotte Mitchell mentions that Fowler's children's stories evidence the influence of the contemporaneous debates about the ideas of educationalists such a Friederich Froebel and Maria Montessori. There also seems to me to be a hint of a sort of sentimental Victorian Christianity in the emphasis on Bab's innocence, lack of guile, truthfulness, and the transformative openness of her heart. Babs is often referred to as the little lamb. More difficult to cope with, certainly initially, is Babs' baby talk. There used to a fashion for writing the speech of very young children as they might speak, complete with mispronounciations. Babs does this in spades, but while it is initially irksome it becomes less jarring as the book goes on. Indeed, the entire book went from an initial trudge to something quite thoughtful and poignant.

I just wish I knew what children make of it.

The book is prettily illustrated by Phillip Burne-Jones, whose line drawings of little children with mere dots for eyes and little other detail of facial features have something in common with Edward Gorey.
2 vote Oandthegang | Oct 12, 2014 |
The Young Pretenders is the story of two children, Babs and Teddy—or, more aptly, it’s about Babs, a five-year-old living in late Victorian London. Covering the space of about a year, the story follows Babs and her adventures living in London with Uncle Charley and Aunt Eleanor, while her father and mother are in India (collectively referred to as “Father-and-Mother-in-Inja.” Babs is no ordinary child, and she certainly defies the old maxim of “children should be seen and not heard.”

Babs is a little girl who’s unprepossessing in personal experience, but more than makes up for it in personality. I don’t I’ve ever come across a more engaging character in fiction in a very long time. Babs is constantly described as “merry,” and so she is, unhampered as she is by the same kinds of cares that adults are. She doesn’t have a malicious bone in her little body, but she’s constantly being pegged by her elders as “naughty”—simply because she doesn’t know how to filter what she says! In fact, there’s a hysterically funny scene where Babs copies something that her uncle Charley says, and unintentionally offends an older matron while asking her if she was born during the reign of Alfred the Great! In fact, the whole book is filled with Babs’s social gaffes, but she makes them so innocently that you can’t help but be charmed by her. And some of her lines are priceless, as in this exchange she has with her cousin Ronald during the Queen's procession:

“Wasn’t Britannia a queen?” Babs asked.

“Oh, yes! She rules the waves, you know.”

“Well, queens is all alike,” argued Babs triumphantly, and Ronald did not feel quite equal to gainsaying this statement.

There are a lot of great characters in this book: Uncle Charley and Aunt Eleanor, who are so selfish that they don’t understand their niece and nephew; the Draconian governess, aptly named Miss Grimstone (an positively ancient at the age of about fifty), and others. Teddy is a bit disappointing as a character, but Babs’s personality quite stole the show for me, so that didn’t matter in the end. The Young Pretenders is a lovely little book about life as told from a child’s perspective; it’s accompanied by a gorgeous set of illustrations at the beginning of each chapter (done by Philip Burne Jones). ( )
1 vote Kasthu | May 6, 2010 |
25 Dec 2009 - from Audrey

I took some time off over my Birthday and allowed myself to skip ahead in the To Be Read mountain to have a Persephone treat. This is a lovely book. A little similar to "The Brontes Went to Woolworths" in the whimsicality of the piece, the descriptions of childhood were so accurate and perceptive that a slight tendency to lisping tweeness really did not matter. I really felt for little Babs as she tried to adjust from living a wild outside life with the gardener, nurse and animals, to trying to conform to her shallow aunt's drawing-room expectations, and really loved the character development. There was a little preachiness about how to treat children, but it was warranted and of it's time, and as a whole this book was a delightful and sweet read. ( )
1 vote LyzzyBee | Jan 30, 2010 |
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