The Far-Distant Oxus, I think, deserves to be more famous than it is, not just because it is such a lovely story, but also because of its unusual back-story. It was written in the 1930s by two school-girls, Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock who, inspired largely by Arthur Ransome, took turns to write alternate chapters and between them created a classic holiday story about two sets of children cavorting round the countryside, complete with the requisite ponies, rafts, friendly farmers and campfires. The book is indebted to Ransome both in terms of its content but also its very existence – in a fairytale-like turn of events, the girls sent their manuscript to Arthur Ransome who, not only read it and appreciated it, but passed it to his publishers, Jonathan Cape, and promised to write an introduction to it. Publication followed, along with a couple of sequels, which I haven’t tracked down yet.
I love discovering what characters in books are reading themselves: it gives an insight into their personalities and the inspirations that fuel their imagination – I think it brings them alive. The children in The Far-Distant Oxus are obviously Swallows and Amazons fans and they mention another book, called The Ponies of Bunts, which I am definitely going to look for. They are less appreciative of other fiction that we might have assumed to be popular with children of the time: ‘”The Swiss Family Robinson makes me vomit.” Anthony declared.’
One of the fascinating aspect of the book is the insight it grants into the cultural references and inspirations that the authors call upon, and which are threaded through the book; the ‘Far-Distant Oxus’ of the title, for example refers to the Persian river which features in Matthew Arnold’s poem, Sohrab and Rustum. The children in the story (and so, we would assume, the authors and many of the contemporary child readers of the book) have studied this poem at school and map their landscape with names from the verse, weaving the exotic with the every day so that the lines between their fantasy world and reality become smudged: Cabool, Aderbijan and Peran-Wisa are all key locations transposed from Persia to Devon.
Reading University has a file of correspondence in its publishers’ archives relating to The Far-Distant Oxus which I’m desperate to get my hands on. I’ve got to get permission from the executors of the authors’ estates first though, and it’s proving a little problematic to track them down – I’ve traced one them to Kyrgyzstan, which is quite ironic, when you think about it…
I went to an amazing old school second-hand bookshop this afternoon; it’s the sort of place that you imagine would collapse if all the books were ever taken out of it. Towers of books fill every corner, the shelves are double-stacked and book stalagmites rise from the floor leaving only the narrowest space to crouch in as you attempt to burrow through the volumes for that illusive paperback at the very corner of the shelf which just might be the one you have been looking for. In an illogical, analogue way, it reminds me of one of those interminable internet searches where you scroll on and on, convinced that the piece of information you need is just one more click away – here I found it hard to leave the lowest, darkest shelves alone, for surely that’s where those elusive books are sitting waiting for me.
I did find some treasures; the nature of my research means that sometimes, as low-fi as it might be, this is the best way to winkle out useful material. Because lots of children’s books with farm settings are not particularly famous, or by well-known authors, and many of them don’t explicitly feature ‘farms’ in their titles, there is only so far that a library or database search will take you. Sometimes it just has to come down to serendipity. A case in point today – as I was just about to leave the shop I found yet another stack of books I hadn’t looked at properly, and came across Rachel of Romney by Primrose Cumming (1939). The eponymous Rachel is actually a lamb, rescued and raised by two children on a farm on Romney Marsh. Primrose Cumming is better-known for her pony stories, but this book is a perfect example of a farm-based story of the period, and some quick research has also revealed another Cumming book that I shall have to look for – Owls Castle Farm, about children helping to run a farm during WWII. I love the way that one find leads to another.
I do have to be strict with myself though – I could have filled a bag with pony stories (you will see that a couple did slip into my pile) – but although they do often feature farms, they are a genre unto themselves so I can’t canter off too far down that track. A project for another day possibly?
The piles of books are fast becoming unmanageable. My cataloguing system is non-existent so I find myself ferreting around amongst toppling towers and carrier bags to find the book I need, sometimes without success – Akenfield, where are you? I know you’re in the house somewhere…
But help is at hand in the shape of my clever and obliging husband who is constructing me what we are rather grandly calling a ‘library wall’, in what feels like the last remaining free space in the house. This is going to revolutionise my PhD life; streamlined efficiency will be the order of the day; all the books scattered in every room in the house will be given a home (not alphabetised, that would just be weird).
So here is the work in progress – verticals up, lots of mess and sawdust created, and the first two shelves have already acquired a box of tissues and a pumpkin…
…and a far distant one at that. Why farms? Why children’s literature? Why a PhD? All good questions that I am asked regularly and that I am trying to formulate coherent answers to. I really hope that I will get better at this. And better at blogging. How many new things can one 45 year old learn in a year? Lots, I hope.
So, to attempt some answers in as pithy a way as possible – because when I was looking at subjects for PhD research (having completed – and loved – my MA in Children’s Literature, Language and History I knew that this where any future research would take me), I started thinking about the stories we tell children, and what this says about our embedded cultural beliefs and ideals. The rural idyll is something that has long been conflated with the construction of childhood as a time of innocence and freedom; within that idea, farms have been the setting for some of the classics of children’s literature particularly in the first half of the 20th century. What happened after that interests me particularly. Where did those stories go? Do the stories that remain (mainly picture books by the end of the 20th Century) paint an accurate picture of modern farming practices? Does the retreat of children from fictional farms echo that of farms in reality? Why might this be – is it because urban culture is entirely dominant; is the free-range child a thing of the past or did it ever exist – or does it still thrive but in a different way?
I promised pithy and this is not, but these are essentially the questions I will be looking via a Collections Based Research PhD at Reading University. I will talk more about this at a later date but suffice to say there is a treasure trove of material in Reading’s Special Collections and the amazing Museum of English Rural Life just waiting to be explored.
Excited? Definitely. Panicky? Only when I stop walking that tightrope between work (completely non-related to academia), family life and research, wobble, and look down for a minute. Best not to think about it too much, I feel…In the words of the song, I’m just going to keep on keeping on.