How The Heather Looks

This delightful book was part of my Reading Presently project, where I read books I’ve been given as presents, but… nobody knows who gave this to me!  I was sure it was my friend Clare, but she denies all knowledge… I know it was *somebody*, because it appears in my birthday present post here… so, if it was you, let me know!  Because I’ve read it now, and I love it.

The full title, which does the job of summarising the book for me, is How The Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books (1965) by Joan Bodger.  Even if the book had nothing else going for it, I was sold by the inclusion of ‘joyous’ in a subtitle.  Well done, Joan Bodger, you win my approval – and, when we look at the words surrounding it, thinks just keep improving. The title itself is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet I know how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart was given.
What Bodger (excellent name) means by this is that, although she and her family have not visited the sites of these children’s books, they are already deeply familiar with them through reading and re-reading, and loving, books steeped in the British countryside. And the book documents how they do visit them, coming all the way from America to do so.

How The Heather Looks, really, rests on a false premise: that the settings, houses, and landscapes of children’s books must be based on actual places.  I’m a big advocate of the fiction-is-fiction line of thought, and feel rather disappointed if I find that an author has not been as inventive as I’d hoped – particularly with characters-based-on-people.  I’m much more willing to allow a building or tree copied from life, but I don’t expect it in the way that Bodger and her family do.

Luckily for them, they’re satisfied without conclusive proof – or, indeed, much more than fanciful detail.  A stray cat is, they’re sure, the model for a decades-old children’s book; a certain patch of river cannot be other than Ratty’s favourite place to mess around in boats (there is, actually, a lovely story attached to that expression in How The Heather Looks, which I will leave it for you to discover.)  I suppose, if one has not seen much of the British countryside, then any of it will provide an illuminating backdrop for British rural literature.  And it is almost entirely rural, from Beatrix Potter to C.S. Lewis – via (for Joan Bodger is not averse to the odd nostalgic moment for adult literature) Daphne du Maurier:

Hour after hour we drove through mist or rain under lowering skies.  The children were too tired even for crankiness.  I remember the green hills giving way to great brown sweeps of moor and long stretches of roadside, where we saw almost no evidence of human habitation and only a few sheep, as wild as mountain goats.  Once in a while, when the rain lifted, I would see a high crag or tor in the distance, and sometimes, in the hollows, the gray glint of a tarn.  We were pleased to discover how easily a lifetime of reading ables one to fit the right words to the landscape.  We had climbed to what must have been almost the highest point on the road when I saw an inn, a large, low, rambling building with beetling roof and a board that creaked in the wind.  Glancing back, my heart missed a beat when I read the sign: Jamaica Inn.  The day before we might have stopped, but now we flew past as though a pack of smugglers were at our heels.  At least, I thought, we could not be far from the sea.
Notice how she does not tell you that it’s connected with Daphne du Maurier – she trusts you to know.  That’s a theme of How The Heather Looks, actually; not a lot of background info is explained, because Bodger takes it for granted that we all love and cherish the same books.  This rather threw me in the first chapter, on the unknown-to-me Randolph Caldecott, but after that I think I was fine.  Even her son Ian, 8 years old, seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of British children’s literature, and a photographic memory for it too.

I haven’t mentioned the Bodger family properly, have I?  They’re pretty fab – ‘our family is incapable of passing even a shelf of books without pausing to take a look’.  (My family all enjoy reading, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a whole family of unashamed biblioaddicts!)  There is Ian, who loves soldiers and adventure, and befriends children wherever they go; Lucy, aged 2, who seems (her mother suggests) to believe they have simply hopped into the landscape of one of her stories, and fully expects to meet Mrs. Tiggywinkle – and then there’s husband John, a researcher, who is surprisingly absent from the page.  (This becomes less surprising when you realise that their marriage was ending while Joan Bodger wrote the book; only the tip of the ice-berg for a horrendous period of Bodger’s life, with which I shan’t colour this review.)

For there is nothing tragic about How The Heather Looks.  It truly is joyous.  The Thomas family once had a literary holiday, travelling along the South Coast to see various sites of literary importance (including Jane Austen’s house and the area which inspired Winnie the Pooh) and it was, as I recall, an entirely splendid holiday.  We don’t have the Americans’ scorn of distance, willing to drive from Edinburgh to Cornwall to get a pint of milk, but we managed to cover a fair distance nonetheless – and see some wonderful sites, which stay with me.  I still have the photograph of A.A. Milne’s house on my wall – it was taken illicitly, running down the driveway of a private residence… Not so, the Bodgers.  In (unsurprisingly) my favourite part of the book, they do for tea with Daphne Milne – A.A. Milne’s widow – in his house.  So casually, she throws in that they wrote ahead and got the reply: “I am always happy to meet friends of dear Pooh.”  Can you imagine that happening today?  In the same way, she finds out from affable locals where Arthur Ransome lives, and (although he foreswears interviews) charms him into submission!

How The Heather Looks feels a bit like a glorious dream.  Perhaps that is partly because Joan Bodger is looking with determinedly rose-tinted glasses at a halcyon summer from the vantage of a difficult period, but perhaps it is simply because she is a good writer, and the summer was halcyon.  I could call the book enchanted, I could call it a delight – but I think Joan Bodger picked the best description when she wrote her subtitle.  It really is, above all, joyous.

Now, if only I could remember who gave it to me…

28 thoughts on “How The Heather Looks

  • March 8, 2013 at 5:38 am
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    Wonderful review Simon – thank you so much for bringing this book to our attention. I can't see the name Bodger without thinking of The Incredible Journey (not totally inappropriate connection either!)

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    • March 9, 2013 at 10:21 am
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      Thanks Donna! (Like Karen, I connect Bodger with badger and mashed potatoes!)
      I'm sure you'd really love this book.

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  • March 8, 2013 at 11:59 am
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    I have been searching for this book for years! Once again I will renew my search with vigor!

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    • March 9, 2013 at 10:21 am
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      It came back into print a few years ago, so it's easy to find now – there's even an ebook available!

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  • March 8, 2013 at 2:11 pm
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    Reminded me of two things:

    The work of Edward Eager, because of his care to point his readers to other books (especially E Nesbit) in his children's stories

    The joy on my own two-year old's face when he awoke as we drove into our local railway museum's car park – and Thomas the Tank Engine was REALLY THERE!

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    • March 9, 2013 at 10:22 am
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      Lovely story about your son!
      And I've never heard of Eager, so will have to investigate…

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  • March 8, 2013 at 7:10 pm
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    It sounds a *lovely* book Simon (although unfortunately the name Bodger conjures up mashed potato and badgers to me….) – I love the idea of your family pottering along the south coast visiting sites of interest! I still have an illicit photo taken of Welsh poet R.S. Thomas's cottage taken sneakily on a holiday there many moons ago…

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    • March 9, 2013 at 10:22 am
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      I think you'd really love it, Karen! And I'm glad it wasn't just me who thought of mashed potatoes…

      My illicit running down driveways has also encompassed E.M. Delafield's house in Devon…

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  • March 8, 2013 at 8:20 pm
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    This reminds me of The Canary-coloured Cart: One Family's Search for Storybook Europe by Christina Hardyment, Simon. I read it decades ago. As you know I am always keen to discover the 'real' places in literautre and authors' homes.

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    • March 9, 2013 at 10:23 am
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      Not heard of that, but have read something by Hardyment – will keep an eye out! And yes, Barbara, this is the sort of book you could write…

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  • March 8, 2013 at 8:27 pm
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    I have this book – probably bought it from Laura at anglophilebooks.com. I find wonderful books there. But I got it and read it in 2006, before our 2007 trip to the UK. What a wonderful book to read to add to the excitement of a trip! It has a place of honor on my bookshelf and it's probably time to get it out and read it again. Julie B.

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    • March 9, 2013 at 10:23 am
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      What a lovely time to read it, Julie – perfectly setting you up for a visit! It is a delight, isn't it?

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  • March 8, 2013 at 11:19 pm
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    Brilliant review, Simon. It sounds like a wonderful book. I added it to my I-don't-know-if-I-can-manage-before-I-die TBR list.

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    • March 9, 2013 at 10:24 am
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      Thanks Agnieszka! I'm certain you'd enjoy this – hope you manage to get through the tbr pile before many decades have passed :) But it just keeps on growing, doesn't it?

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  • March 8, 2013 at 11:42 pm
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    I have had this book for over 30 years, from when my own children were tiny. It was a great inspiration to me, and although my three children were perhaps not paragons like the Bodger children, they certainly all turned into fanatic readers.

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    • March 9, 2013 at 10:25 am
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      Lovely, Pam! The afterword suggests that it was near impossible to find a copy for many years, so I'm delighted that somebody reprinted it (and with such a gorgeous cover.)

      You must have done something right to turn out three fanatic readers! I always think it must be rather heartbreaking for bibliophile parents to have non-reading kids.

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  • March 9, 2013 at 6:40 am
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    This has gone to the top of my wish list. Even reading your review has made me feel joyous. :)

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  • March 9, 2013 at 12:55 pm
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    Oh thanks,Simon. I must look into this, because, you know, I simply don't have enough books to read.

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    • March 10, 2013 at 6:08 pm
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      Well, I know, you were in danger of running out, weren't you? ;)

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  • March 9, 2013 at 5:28 pm
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    I have this one on the TBR shelf and have been eyeing it lately – as usual, you may have spurred me on to pick it up sooner than later. You really do need to check out Edward Eager's children's books – they are delightful stories. Favorite of dh and ds is Knight's Castle – some children get into a tangle with Ivanhoe as their toy castle figures come to life. My girls loved them all.

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    • March 10, 2013 at 6:08 pm
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      Nice coincidence! I haven't the smallest doubt that you will adore this book, Susan.

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  • March 10, 2013 at 9:17 pm
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    I'm so glad you remember that holiday so happily – OV and I do too. As I recall the sun shone every day and we drove nearly all the way with the windows wound down completely! It was marvellous to share the love of authors and books – even if some of the pavements proved very hot and long as we searched for the odd elusive address – and the Expotition to the North Pole was Very Hot!

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  • March 12, 2013 at 4:42 pm
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    Omigosh – I LOVE this book! So cool to see you reviewing it, and with such glowing words. Now, Simon, and this is an order, you must search out and read Joan Bodger's biography, The Crack in the Teacup. This will give a completely different perspective on How the Heather Looks, a picture of the darkness behind that golden idyll. May I pique your interest by disclosing that sweet young Lucy is fated to die from a brain tumour shortly after the return from England; Joan's son and husband are also doomed to lead bitterly unhappy lives. Joan herself makes it through more or less in one piece; she writes eloquently about her history and her life-long fascination with story-telling, in all of its forms. The Crack in the Teacup is not at all grim, despite that gloomy teaser. A must-read.

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    • April 7, 2013 at 10:36 pm
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      I have gone straight to Amazon and bought a copy of The Crack in the Teacup! I did read about the desperately sad lives of her family, but decided only to mention them elliptically in this review, as I didn't want to colour people's judgement when reading it.

      Reply

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