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…