Boys and Girls, Then and Now:
Remembering Childhood Books / Some Perspectives on Childhood Reading
On 8 October, Dr Alison Waller hosted an evening on childhood reading with Professor Peter Hunt and Dr Jane McVeigh at the University of Roehampton. It began with an exclusive tour of the Richmal Crompton Collection in the library, which includes not only a wide collection of Crompton’s published work and numerous drafts, notes and letters, but also her writing desk, as well as memorabilia such as a Just William boardgame.
Dr Waller reported on her recent research project ‘Men Remember The Secret Garden,’ in which she interviewed male readers about their memories of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic and their impressions after re-reading the book. She explained how an important image such as the hidden door into the garden can be merged with real autobiographical memories (of a door in a wall on a childhood walk in Yorkshire, for example, or an encounter with a mysterious ruin in a jungle). She also argued that gendered readings might affect what and who is remembered over time, noting that Colin’s sickness and recovery play a particularly key role in male recollections. The project is part of a larger study on ‘Rereading Childhood Books’ which sees personal memories of reading childhood books as a valuable resource for academics.
Professor Peter Hunt provided a fascinating insight into his research for editing the centenary edition of The Secret Garden for Oxford University Press. To demonstrate that the way the reader encounters a book influences their reading, Professor Hunt mentioned various editions and paratexts of The Secret Garden, including picturebooks, films, and even a novel about making a film adaptation of The Secret Garden (Noel Streatfeild’s 1949 The Painted Garden). The Secret Garden has become “common property”, as Professor Hunt put it. [Secret Garden image] According to him, reasons for its lasting popularity may be the fact that it has been a crossover book from the beginning and that the author masterfully combined cultural references. She was, he said, “a magpie” who borrowed names, contemporary ideas of health, vitality and Christianity, as well as the garden metaphor for her own creative work. Although she was only one of many authors writing about gardens at the time, her story survived. Her work has become culturally embedded to the extent that, as Professor Hunt said, “even if we haven’t read it, we feel like we have.”
Finally, Dr Jane McVeigh who works on Richmal Crompton’s adult fiction, offered another perspective on childhood reading by sharing extracts from letters between Crompton and a young admirer of her work (to protect his identity, Dr McVeigh called him David). Upon Richmal Crompton’s reply to his first letter, David wrote that he now was “the happiest fellow alive”. From then on, the boy and his beloved author exchanged affectionate letters discussing not only the Just William books (and David’s kinship with the protagonist) but also their personal lives. Their friendship through correspondence lasted from 1953 until Richmal Crompton died in 1969; thirteen of these letters are held in the Richmal Crompton Collection.
Dr McVeigh claims that the letters “are very much a story in their own right,” showing a special relationship between a child and his childhood reading but also hinting at the caring and loyal nature of the author. Her account was complemented by short talk by the Co-President of the Just William Society and Crompton’s great-niece Kate Massey, who, with plenty of humour, shared memories of her “Auntie”.
The event – and the ‘Men Remember The Secret Garden project – was funded by a British Academy and Leverhulme Small Grant. If you are interested in finding out more about ‘Rereading Childhood Books’ you can email Alison Waller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to view the Richmal Crompton Collection or other parts of the children’s literature collection at Roehampton, please contact Kornelia Cepok at email@example.com
Photographs by Anne Malewski