Sunday, October 12, 2008

L.M. Montgomery

Lucy Maria Boston , a British writer, was born in 1892, one of six children of James Boston, an engineer, and Mary Wood Boston. Her upbringing was both strict (her word, "puritanical") and marked by tragedy, with the passing of father when she was six years old.

After her father's death, the family lived for a period in England's Lake District. This was a transformative event for Boston, "From that moment life was as different as for a butterfly getting out of its chrysalis, (I) became then like the children in my books: all eyes, ears, and finger tips in a world too beautiful to take in. Every moment of day and night was bliss, and had to be prolonged with solitary rambles in the early dawn. . . . There was no keeping me in, day or night, wet or fine. This, I suppose, is why my book-children are early rovers."

Boston was educated at Downs School in Sussex, followed by some time in a Quaker school in Surrey before finally attending finishing school in France. She read English at Oxford before the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. With World War I, she received training as a nurse and then served in France. While there, she met her future husband, an officer in the British Flying Corps. They had a single son, Peter, before their marriage was dissolved in 1935. Peter Boston later illustrated a number of his mother's books.

Boston travelled in Europe from 1935-1939, residing mostly in Austria and Italy, learning to paint. She was a creative artist in several fields. Besides painting she was an avid creator and collector of patchwork quilts. Perhaps her greatest artistic work began in 1939 with the purchase of a manor house, Hemingford Grey, near Cambridge. This was to be her home from the time of purchase to the time of her death in 1990. Boston had a relationship with her new home akin to that other British poet, novelist, horticulturalist of that era, Vita Sackville-West and her home Sissinghurst Castle.

At the time of purchase, the Hemingford Grey manor was in dilapidated condition. With the help of her architect son, Peter, Boston set about restoring the manor. She was intimately involved in the detailed work of stripping away the grime, detritus and damage of several centuries of continuous habitation. At the same time, she was privy to all the nooks, crannies, and idiosyncrasies that a long inhabited house develops. She also, restored the gardens in the four acre grounds and planted a huge collection of old roses (some 200 varieties.)

Certainly this was a labor of love but the house also served as an inspiration and not only in terms of the architectural and horticulturalist arts. Boston is among a small band of writers for whom place is the critical element of their writing.

Boston did not begin her writing career until she was 62. Virtually all of her books are set in or involve Hemingford Grey under various guises. The astonishing thing about Boston is not only that she started writing so late in life but that she appears to have sprung forth fully formed as an author with no real antecedents, period of apprenticeship or trajectory of writing maturity. She was an older divorcee living in an ancient house and with interest and talent in architecture, horticultural, and patchwork quilts. And then, all of a sudden, she was an author, producing some of the most translucent prose of the 20th century, pitched equally to adults and to children.

1954 saw her first publication as an author with two books, The Children of Green Knowe and Yew Hall, both coming out that year. While both were written by Boston as adult books, she wished Peter Boston to illustrate The Children of Green Knowe and consequently was positioned serendipitously by her publishers as a children's book. The Green Knowe books are among the more literary works for independent readers and are a great introduction to the craft of descriptive writing and structuring a story.

She eventually wrote eighteen books in total, including a book of poetry, two autobiographical works and two novels for adults (Stronghold and Yew Hall.) She is known primarily, though, for one of the more unique series of books, the Green Knowe series. There are six books in the series - The Children of Green Knowe (1954), Treasure of Green Knowe (1958), The River at Green Knowe (1959), A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961), An Enemy at Green Knowe (1964), and years later, the final tale, The Stones of Green Knowe (1976).

I can think of no real counterpart to Boston in terms of her writing. There are authors for whom a sense of place is central to both their style and their stories. In adult literature there is Lawrence Durrell and his Alexandria Quartet, and perhaps Daphne du Maurier with Manderley ("Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.") in Rebecca. The distinctive aspect of Boston's writing, though, is that she goes beyond place being important or central to a story. In her writing, Green Knowe is really almost the protagonist of the tales. Across the six books in the series, Green Knowe is the only element that remains the same. Human protagonists come and go but the series is really a collective fantasy biography of Green Knowe itself.

Beyond making the manor the lead protagonist in her stories, Boston does two further things that are pretty surprising. First is that she creates some mystically complex story lines and then makes them work. In several stories, you are often uncertain whether you are reading about ghosts, or time travel or whether the protagonists are simply almost temporally empathetic. While this sounds complex, the beauty of Boston's stories is that that complexity is not apparent or intrusive and helps create a unique atmosphere.

The second thing that Boston does is that she runs roughshod over traditional genres, combining in different stories, elements of time travel, mystery, horror, adventure and historical fiction. You can pick up one book and form the impression of an author that is a master at historical fiction, another and think she is a master of fantasy and yet another and think of her as an adventure/mystery writer. In one book, she has a tautly plotted story but in general what you come away with is sensory. She puts you in a place with detail and creates an atmosphere that lingers. For example, she describes a cat's eyes which "had a vertical black slit that was like the gap between curtains."

You can read one of her books and feel like you have been reading one of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series. Another of her Green Knowe stories affects you as does Old Yeller. This in the same series. Boston described her objectives as a writer:

I would like to remind adults of joy, now obsolete, and I would like to encourage children to use and trust their senses for themselves at first hand - their ears, eyes and noses, their fingers and soles of their feet, their skins and their breathing, their muscular joy and rhythms and heartbeats, their instinctive loves and pity and awe of the unknown.

The Green Knowe series are all about place, continuity, and change. One of the features of Boston's writing is that while these are lovely, lyrical stories, they are broken into manageable and indeed almost independent chapters. They blend seamlessly together but you are able to read each chapter as a tale in itself. A great read aloud story.

If you have not read any of L.M. Boston's works, give them a try. I think you will find that your children will be entranced by them. If you have a child that cut some of their reading teeth on Harry Potter, there are some elements of Boston's Green Knowe books that will probably appeal to them in particular.

Independent Reader

The Children of Green Knowe by L. M. Boston and illustrated by Peter Boston Highly Recommended

Treasure of Green Knowe by L. M. Boston and illustrated by Peter Boston Recommended

The River at Green Knowe by L. M. Boston and illustrated by Peter Boston Recommended

A Stranger at Green Knowe by L. M. Boston and illustrated by Peter Boston Recommended

An Enemy at Green Knowe by L. M. Boston Recommended

The Stones Of Green Knowe by L. M. Boston and illustrated by Peter Boston Recommended

L.M. Boston Bibliography

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston and illustrated by Peter Boston 1954

Yew Hall by Lucy M. Boston 1954

Treasure of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston 1958

The River at Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston 1959

A Stranger at Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston 1961

An Enemy at Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston 1964

The Castle of Yew by Lucy M. Boston 1965

The Sea Egg by Lucy M. Boston 1967

The House that Grew by Lucy M. Boston 1969

Strongholds by Lucy M. Boston 1969

The Horned Man; or, Whom Will You Send to Fetch Her Away? by Lucy M. Boston 1970

Nothing Said by Lucy M. Boston 1971

Memory in a House by Lucy M. Boston 1973

The Guardians of the House by Lucy M. Boston 1974

The Fossil Snake by Lucy M. Boston 1975

The Stones of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston 1976

Time Is Undone: Twenty-Five Poems by Lucy M. Boston 1977

Perverse and Foolish: A Memoir of Childhood and Youth by Lucy M. Boston 1979

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