The Box of Delights is a 1935 children’s book by John Masefield. It’s a sequel to The Midnight Folk (which I haven’t read) and in both books the centr...moreThe Box of Delights is a 1935 children’s book by John Masefield. It’s a sequel to The Midnight Folk (which I haven’t read) and in both books the central character is Kay Harker.
On the way home from his first term at boarding school, Kay meets a mysterious Punch and Judy showman, Cole Hawlings, who warns him that, “The Wolves are Running” and seems to have magical powers – he finds Kay’s lost railway ticket and somehow knows that he will be having buttered eggs for lunch. Later Cole entrusts him with the magical Box of Delights. The Box gives its owner the power to shrink to a tiny size (“go small”), get places at lightning speed (“go swift”) or both at once. It’s also a portal into the past (Kay goes back to the time of the Trojan Wars in search of another time traveller) and into a kind of parallel universe. The villain of the book, Abner Brown, is after the Box and will stop at nothing to get it. He’s also determined to prevent the millennial Midnight Mass due to be held at Tatchester Cathedral from taking place. In the run up to Christmas Eve, clergy begin to disappear. Kay and the four Jones children, Peter, Susan, Maria and Jemima, who are staying with him for the holidays, have to keep the Box safe and use it to solve the kidnappings (or scrobblings, a word Masefield coined in The Midnight Folk).
In the best tradition of children’s mysteries, the adults disappear early on and the police are no help whatsoever. And as usual, the protagonist is not the most interesting character – that would be Maria Jones. Maria is eminently quotable. She gets kidnapped at one point (“I’ve been scrobbled just like a greenhorn. I knew what it would be, not taking a pistol.”)
This is a book where the sense of the past is strong even in the parts set in what was then the present day. However, there’s plenty of modernity in the mix. “Christmas ought to be brought up to date,” Maria says, “it ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.” In this book there are gangsters, cars, aeroplanes and cars which turn into aeroplanes, as well as a lot of delightfully old-fashioned magic, both black and white. As a contrast to the dangers the children face in The Box of Delights there is the safe haven of Kay’s home Seekings and beautifully festive descriptions.
The Box of Delights is long for a children’s book – over 400 pages in early hardback editions – and not as plot-driven as The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia. There are excursions which, while fun to read, don’t have much to do with the plot. It’s a sequel without much backstory, so it might be better to read The Midnight Folk first. Having said that, there wasn’t a page which disappointed me – apart from the very last two.
Bottom line: Magical vintage Christmas story. Slightly spoiled by a cliched ending but don’t let that put you off reading it.
The Greengage Summer is about children but not a children’s book. I’m not sure how to classify it: it’s somewhere between YA and general fiction. In a...moreThe Greengage Summer is about children but not a children’s book. I’m not sure how to classify it: it’s somewhere between YA and general fiction. In a nutshell, Cecil (Cecilia) Grey narrates the story of what happened the summer she and her siblings spent at a hotel in the Champagne region of France.
There’s no one to supervise them because their father is absent on an expedition and their mother falls ill as soon as they arrive in France and spends several weeks in a French hospital, leaving the children in the care of an Englishman staying in the hotel, Eliot, who turns out to be a rather unsuitable guardian.
The children are spoiled and insular, and their mother intended to educate them with visits the French battlefields and war graves. In the event they don’t go near a battlefield and their education comes through the discovery of alcohol, cigarettes and adult sexuality. That makes it sound a more racy book than it is: the narrative brilliantly evokes the significance of small milestones like a first taste of champagne.
The book was first published in 1958, but I wasn’t convinced that the setting was the 1950s. The references to the war could as easily mean the First World War as the Second World War – appropriate enough to a book which is all about ambiguity.
While England and the English are repeatedly associated with the colour grey (the family’s surname is grey; the children arrive at the hotel dressed in their grey flannel school uniforms; the wallpaper in Cecil’s bedroom at home is a ‘grey-blue pattern’) France is associated with the colour green. Green is associated with fertility and, by extension, with sexuality. The hotel proves to be a hotbed of various passions and the cat is put among the pigeons when Cecil’s beautiful sixteen-year-old sister, Joss, comes downstairs after a period of illness and immediately attracts the attention of Eliot – to the fury of his lover, the hotel owner, Mademoiselle Zizi. Which brings us to another thing associated with green – jealousy.
Instead of doing the sensible thing and poisoning a greengage, then dressing up as an old crone to get Joss to eat it, Mademoiselle Zizi starts to let herself go – drinking too much and forgetting to put blush on – which doesn’t help matters. But if she is playing the Wicked Queen to Joss’s Snow White, then Joss (who in two scenes admires her own beauty in the mirror) begins to aspire to queenship herself.
Joss’s discovery of her new power is very quickly followed by the discovery that it has limitations. She can’t make Eliot commit to her – he continues to play her off against Mademoiselle Zizi. There are ways to deal with this kind of behaviour: you can turn elusive, ending phone calls after a few minutes by gaily announcing that you have ‘a million things to do!’ Or you can drop the man in question. (Moppet recommends dropping him). Joss makes a different choice – a choice which will have far-reaching consequences for all concerned. She and Cecil learn the hard way that (to use another food metaphor) they can’t have their cake and eat it – the privileges of adulthood come with dangers and responsibilities attached.
Bottom line: insightful and evocative coming-of-age story.
When Deborah's husband goes to war she is adamant that she will be faithful to him even though he says he can’t promise the same. Once he is out of th...moreWhen Deborah's husband goes to war she is adamant that she will be faithful to him even though he says he can’t promise the same. Once he is out of the way, she keeps her vow for about five minutes. Deborah is a snob, a social climber, a bad daughter and a worse mother, a serial adulteress who abandons her country’s service in order to live like a wartime Belle de Jour. And I loved every minute of reading about her.