one of the illustrations for The Young Pretenders by Philip Burne-Jones
PREFACE BY CHARLOTTE MITCHELL
The Young Pretenders (1895) by Edith Henrietta Fowler (1865-1944) is Persephone book no.73. It is a children’s book whose sophistication, humour and ironies are nowadays appreciated by both children (aged about 9-13) and adults. In this respect it resembles The Children who Lived in a Barn, Persephone book no.27, and The Runaway, Persephone book no. 37. It also shares some of the themes of these two books: a child is without her parents and the world of adults in which she has to fend for herself is a harsh one.
Babs in The Young Pretenders is too young to run away, as does Olga in The Runaway, or to take charge of her siblings, which is what Susan does in The Children who Lived in a Barn. At first she lives most contentedly in a large house in the country with her grandmother, her nanny and her brother (their parents are in ‘Inja’). Then their grandmother dies and they are sent to live in Kensington with their uncle and his wife. Having run wild in the country, spent hours with the gardener (very like the gardener in The Secret Garden) and had a great deal to do and to think about, suddenly they are abandoned in a world of artifice and convention and are expected to behave artificially and conventionally. ‘It all came of so much pretending. But then it was simply impossible for the children not to pretend. It would have been so dull to have lived their child lives only as the little Conways, when they might be pretending that they were such exciting things as soldiers or savages, cab-horses or mice.’ Babs cannot, of course, stop playing, and the central theme of the book is that she has not learned how to dissemble (as opposed to playing ‘let’s pretend’) but must learn how to do so. The Young Pretenders 'is written from a child's point of view,’ writes Charlotte Mitchell in her Persephone Preface, ‘and all the villains are grown-ups...its targets are the casual crimes committed by adults against children.’ Edith Henrietta Fowler comments about Babs: ‘She was not nearly as happy and merry now as she used to be. Constant snubbings were beginning to dim the brightness of her child-nature, and the still stronger element of fear which had crept into her life cast a black shadow across many of the once-cheerful every-days.’
But, as Charlotte Mitchell adds, this is not a solemn book, on the contrary, ‘its great characteristic is a gay malicious irony’ as Babs misunderstands the adult world and fails to conform to adult norms. 'As anyone who has tried to bring up children knows, you spend a good deal of time teaching them to be insincere, to simulate gratitude or contrition, and not to repeat other people’s comments at the wrong moments. Many of the jokes depend on the fact that Babs has yet to learn these lessons.’ Here is an extract:
‘Aunt Eleanor put on a tea-gown, and threw herself down on the sofa. “I feel so wretchedly ill!” she exclaimed petulantly, “these hot days give me such a headache!” “Do you fink you'll get better or die?” asked Babs with interest. “She is the most unfeeling child I ever saw!” thought her aunt – but aloud she said snappishly: “Of course I shall get better!” “I'm so glad!” Just then a telegram was brought in asking Mrs Conway to dine with some people in a friendly way and go with them to their box at the opera afterwards. The headache vanished as if by magic. “A hansom!” said their uncle to the butler. “Good-night, little people!” [he said] patting their heads. Uncle Charley always treated the children as if they were dogs – not prize ones of course – but nice commonplace dogs, who occasionally were brought out of their kennels for a treat.’
The focus, and the star, of The Young Pretenders is Babs. She is intelligent, fun, kind, lively and honest and it is hard to think of a heroine in children’s fiction (that is, fiction written for children but enjoyed equally as much by adults) who is like her. Her most touching characteristic is her openness and her complete lack of fear. ‘“What was we naughty about?”’ she asks her brother after their uncle scolds them: ‘The children could not know that some very persistent tradesmen had insisted on immediate payment of their bills.’ When the news comes from India that they have a new sister Babs thinks of a name for her – Mrs Brown. Her aunt slaps her down, saying that it’s not a name but Babs persists, ‘“It is, I know it is, ’cause nurse has a sister-in-law what’s called it.”’ Then she ‘began to think so hard that she refused a second helping of pudding’ eventually announcing, to renewed scorn, that “‘I’d like her to be called Strawberry Jam.”’
‘Apples’ by Lindsay P Butterfield, 1895, for The Young Pretenders