Leon Garfield 1921–
British novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer. Garfield has used the content and background of English history in his works to create an interpretation both modern and unique. Operating out of the tradition of writers such as Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Robert Louis Stevenson, he has brought an original viewpoint and style to such established literary forms as the adventure novel and picaresque romance. Many of his works are novels of experience which employ a journey motif, often describing the involvement of a young homeless or rootless hero with characters and situations that lead him to an understanding of his true identity. He will often provide twists in narrative and characterization to show both hero and reader the deceptiveness of appearances, especially as they relate to good and evil. Garfield's heroes uniformly search for values that are solid and permanent, and his fiction has been said to reflect his own similar concerns and desires. He had an unsettled childhood, with a neurotic mother and an irresponsible father whom he has compared to the character of Mr. Treet in Devil-in-the-Fog. Garfield originally wanted to become an artist, but World War II interrupted his studies. Following the war, he worked for twenty years as a biochemical technician in a London hospital, and wrote in his spare time. Both art and chemistry have influenced Garfield's style, since he has a painter's eye for composition and detail, and a scientist's predilection for research, detail, and fact. Although the times and events he describes are only occasionally particularized, such as the French Revolution in The Prisoners of September, he makes them appear believable and authentic, and presents attitudes to such subjects as mental illness without overemphasis or sentimentality. Garfield has been criticized for concentrating on atmosphere over plot and for being too wordy, melodramatic, and hard to read. Some critics also feel that he tries too hard to be allusive and symbolic. The modern reinterpretations of Greek myths which Garfield wrote with Edward Blishen have especially been criticized for their loftiness, and for losing the significance of the myths in the psychological theorizing of the authors. However, he is often considered among those contemporary writers who are headed towards classic status, and whose works are closing the gap between literature for adults and the young. Devil-in-the-Fog was the winner of the first Guardian Award for children's fiction in 1967, and The God Beneath the Sea was awarded the 1971 Carnegie Medal. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)
[Jack Holborn] is not easy reading, for the plot is involved, and there are slight lacunae in its unfolding, as if the book had been cut and certain connecting links lost. Yet the brilliantly written episodes, of which the appearances of mad Taplow's "ghost" are among the most graphic, remain in one's mind, alight with promise for Mr. Garfield's future….
A book for rather older children, it requires some patience, even rereading in places, for the author does not always treat his plot expertly. He seems unable to control his main themes through the tortuous paths of shipwreck, slavery and mistaken identity. A firmer editorial hand might have clarified the issues. Nonetheless, a vividly painted rogue's gallery and a robust style that owes something to [Tobias] Smollett—a statement intended as a compliment—make Mr. Garfield an author worth watching. (p. 1072)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1964; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 26, 1964.
There is more action to the square page in [Jack Holborn] than can be adequately condensed…. [Leon Garfield] writes well and uses a myriad of absorbing detail to make you see, hear and smell the disparate sections of 18th century London and the world. The cast of characters is enormous of course, but the dialogue is so well done that each of the many voices emerges as a distinct personality, partly through the descriptions of Jack Holborn, the young narrator, and partly through their own choices of revealing words and identifying phrases. (Jack has the master gossip's great ear for reporting whole conversations.) The book is proof positive that all good stories deserve re-telling, because in lesser hands, each of the amazing dramatic turns Jack's story takes would be just a series of thundering cliches…. It's done with such terrific good nature and flair that you begin by liking Jack, whose instincts are good, and wind up enjoying the whole teeming book. (p. 1082)
Virginia Kirkus' Service (copyright © 1965 Virginia Kirkus' Service, Inc.), October 15, 1965.
Margaret Sherwood Libby
Jack Holborn [is] a taut, tough and exciting story, complicated but so well-told that it held me to the last page. The old cliches [about pirate tales] are given fresh turns, and the spectacular additions to the formula include a desperate trek through an African wilderness, a tense slave-market auction and a London trial in which the prisoner claims a place on the judge's bench….
[Jack Holborn] plays a more effective part in the story than most young pirate victims, and the ups and downs of his fortunes provide as good an incursion into the world of derring-do as any older boy would wish while many a younger one … will find this his dish. (p. 42)
Margaret Sherwood Libby, in Book Week—The Sunday Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 31, 1965.
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Devil-in-the-Fog is 18th-century—not history, but luscious melodrama, complete with wicked baronet, missing heir, convenient recognition scar, the lot. And much more than the usual lot, because Mr Garfield has humour too and ingenuity in mixing old ingredients to produce something fresh. This is first-person narrative, with showers of exclamation-marks, a proliferation of parentheses, and enough lines of dots to demarcate the parish boundaries on an ordnance map. But the warmth and gusto are genuine enough, the characters swagger, the drama is riveting. (p. 708)
Geoffrey Trease, in New Statesman (© 1966 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 11, 1966.
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Jean C. Thomson
If readers of Stevenson delighted in "Jack Holborn," Garfield's first book, "Devil-in-the-Fog" will suit devotees of Dickens. Such comparisons are only approximate, for this author's inventions are original, and his tempo is modern. He writes with such dazzling ease that all else falls effortlessly into place, and his artistry is more satisfying than any conjurer's—begging Mr. Treet's pardon. (p. 55)
Jean C. Thomson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission). November 20, 1966.
Devil-in-the-Fog [is] doubly disappointing after the author's Jack Holborn. Mr. Garfield's earthy, fantastic style, so at home in an exotic pirate setting, here seems altogether too clever. It was a mistake to make the young travelling actor George recount his own adventures. He speaks in character ("Oh God, I whsipered, Why? Why?") and his eighteenth-century grammar, even if accurate, is difficult to read. When the mysterious stranger who overshadows the lives of the Treets pays his last visit and George takes up his apparently rightful position as son and heir to Sir John Dexter, strange characters crowd confusingly in…. The identity of the wicked Principal remains a fairly good secret until the end. There are humorous moments, like the seven little Treets perched on the stocks where their father sits, but that...
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The dead little gentleman—what a title that would have been for [Devil-in-the-fog, a] strange compound of mystery, violence and Dickensian humour. Did the infant George Dexter die in truth or was he really farmed out among the numerous progeny of Mr. Treet the itinerant actor? There is a search for identity in this book, as there was in Jack Holborn, worked out in just such a way, with dropped hints, evasive half-answers, events acquiring meaning bit by bit as the story winds on. The theme is implicit in the first lines ('My father is put in the stocks again! Oh, the injustice of it! My father is a genius—as are all of we Treets') as it is in the last ('For the dead little gentleman sleeps in the churchyard close by his father …). Father and son, character inherited or acquired—the theme is carried like a refrain through the story….
Artistry is a matter of painstaking work relaxed, finally, in personal ease. One of Leon Garfield's devices, implied in his title, is to sustain the image of fog all through the book. In the abstract, for everyone is in a fog about the meaning of events. In the everyday life of the Treets, since their claim to respect rests on the Lucifer's Smoke and Devil's Fire they are so adept at producing. And in event after event—the November fog that heralds the arrival of the Stranger; the mists of Sussex 'like clumps of wool from a giant's sheep' through which the Treet's waggon rolls...
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Smith crosses the line into brilliance.
Smith himself [is] a pickpocket by trade…. After he has taken—something—from a troubled-looking old gentleman, he sees his victim murdered and searched by two men in brown. His find is a document: but Smith cannot read…. The tale leaps on in a series of dazzling scenes—a session in Newgate where Smith is held for the old man's murder; an eerie flight through a kind of ventilator; the reading at last of the script; the tomb with the black stone angel to which it leads; the extraordinary climax. Leon Garfield speeds with shrewd or crackling or poignant wit through the London of dark thieves' kitchen and gentleman's mansion, in and out of St Paul's, St Andrew's and the Old Bailey. To follow is an electrifying experience. (pp. 732-33)
Naomi Lewis, in New Statesman (© 1967 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd), May 26, 1967.
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Smith is an outstanding book on many counts. Set in the author's favoured period, the mid-eighteenth century, the story owes its unerring sense of period partly to the characters. But though they are, you might say, period types … they transcend costumes, idiom, manners, because the author uses them to communicate more than just a sense of the past. This intricate mystery of ancient wrongs and present revenge has the kind of tempo and vitality we expect from Leon Garfield. Adventure is here, initiated when Smith … witnesses a murder seconds after he has snatched a document from the pocket of the victim. What the document holds, how Smith worries at its secret and what danger his curiosity brings—explanations follow logically on event in scenes in Newgate, in the streets of Holborn, on Highgate Heath—and for these scenes the author has first worked at background facts and then felt himself into the past. The prose in this book is noticeably less staccato than that of Devil-in-the-fog and there is more time allowed for reflection and for the proper emerging of character. For the reader is not told but shown how to understand that two paths converge—the path of the vagrant boy, independent, shunning affection, unwilling to trust or to like, and that of the magistrate who has to come to compassion a different way, by seeing the limitations of the legal form which has comforted his physical blindness. I doubt if anyone...
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Leon Garfield has quickly established himself by general acclamation as one of the most gifted and individual writers for the older child. He has staked out a special corner for himself; one is tempted to say 'a graveyard plot', so macabre is his fancy, but that description would belie the vitality, the exuberant gusto, with which he claps his skeletal grip upon the bristling nape and sends his delicious frissons down the spine.
Those who seek absorption, and dislike short-story collections, need not be put off by the title of his new book, Mister Corbett's Ghost and other stories …, for there are only three stories, and two are of novella length. Both [novellas] have Mr Garfield's favourite period and setting, the seamier side of the 18th century…. Both, and the short story between them … are related in Mr Garfield's characteristic style, by turns humorous and horrific, earthy and fantastical, scintillant with new-minted phrases.
The style is superb. Of the content I am not so sure. It poses the question that always crops up at parents' meetings on children's reading tastes. Is horror undesirable, or does it provide a healthy release?… [I wish] that Mr Garfield, having given us four books of this genre, would emerge from the shadow of the gallows and exercise his splendid powers in a wider historical field. (p. 700)
Geoffrey Trease, in New Statesman (©...
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[Black Jack is another] graphic eighteenth-century story from this master of prose [which] suggests his earlier macabre situations and characters, but also possesses an overriding warmth of human kindness…. [Leon Garfield] has reached his highest level in the fresh, rich period story so dramatically told. His full realization of scenes, incidents, and problems indicates the vast research which must lie behind the vivid detail. (pp. 310-11)
Virginia Haviland, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1969 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), June, 1969.
The successful Mr. Garfield is best taken in small doses, and so [Mr. Corbett's Ghost and other stories] is my book. His stylistic bravura and professional technique in fact conceal a remarkably narrow range, so that in time the long atmospheric stories begin to pall. In this book he offers two novellas with, as meat for this sandwich, a brilliant miniature in the Dutch manner. The first ghost story is nearly all atmosphere, ghostly and not far short of ghastly. Devilish clever but not endearing. 'The Simpleton' is … less dependent on stylistic tricks and the better for this. The tale has a neat twist. The centrepiece is 'Vaarlem and Tripp', a marvellous thumbnail portrait of a great Dutch painter drawn by his reluctant apprentice. In fifteen pages Mr. Garfield establishes himself as the master he has often...
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The separation of mind and feeling is the theme of Mr. Corbett's ghost, the first of three stories which confirm the pattern of Leon Garfield's language and thought. He has never rendered atmosphere with as much power as he does in the scenes of his first story, making Hampstead Heath an expanding place of terror and possession. The bitter struggle of a young apprentice to free himself from a cruel master is shown, literally, on the frontiers of the human spirit…. To his chill and mysterious detail Leon Garfield adds a wry and mature understanding of the indignities of human nature. So finely is his story worked out that we are hardly aware that strong form and verbal dexterity have done their part in carrying the force of its theme. In a lighter vein but still with a sombre irony, Vaarlem and Tripp shows a glimpse of cowardice and genius in the setting of a seventeenth century sea battle. At sea again, in The simpleton, a boy transported through the trickery of evil associates finds himself in the company of jailbirds and unexpectedly protected by the worst of them. A pretty passenger further complicates his situation until the wheel of fortune brings him fortune and revenge in a way that provokes laughter and thought alike in the reader. The paradoxes and quips of this tale alone would be enough to make Leon Garfield as a craftsman of the first rank; his serious comment on human beings is never allowed to extrude from a literary...
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Ruth Hill Viguers
An outstanding English writer of the sixties is Leon Garfield, whose books have pace, humor, and unusually good characterizations. In each of his books mystery is focused on a strange, dominating figure…. Smith…, the tale of a small pickpocket of the eighteenth century, is a triumph of story telling, characterization, and suspense. Few presentday writers combine the attributes that seem so effortless in Mr. Garfield's work: well-built plots, suspense, a writing style suited to the mood of each book, and characters that come to life. (pp. 491-92)
Ruth Hill Viguers, in A Critical History of Children's Literature, by Cornelia Meigs, Anne Thaxter Eaton, Elizabeth Nesbitt, and Ruth Hill Viguers, edited by Cornelia Meigs (copyright © 1953, 1969 by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), revised edition, Macmillan, 1969.
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The rising star in [the field of the British historical novel] is Leon Garfield, who has called forth comparions with Fielding, Hogarth, and Dickens. Not merely concerned with creating a strict historical setting, he conveys the very atmosphere of time past. Using the ingredients of melodrama—pickpockets, highwaymen, smiling villains, cut-throat sailors, stolen documents and diamonds, escapes and hurried journeys—he welds them into tales of high adventure that have their own inner purpose. The only direct problem Mr Garfield poses to readers is how to put a book of his down. (pp. 442-43)
Sheila Egoff, in Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, edited by Sheila Egoff, G. T. Stubbs, and L. F. Ashley (© Oxford University Press (Canadian Branch) 1969), Oxford University Press, Canadian Branch, 1969.
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Leon Garfield's imagination is disciplined so that the surprises and bizarre events in his stories are properly related to the whole. He makes it seem natural, and yet astonishing [in The Drummer boy], that Charlie Samson the drummer boy, the "golden lad" of the regiment, should be the link between the General who gave orders (or said he did) in anticipation of ambush, his son-in-law who disastrously failed to carry them out and the young soldier whose remarkably unheroic death will deprive the General's daughter of life and love—unless Charlie is prepared to stand substitute…. What is heroism? What is love? How can a mere boy, trained to lead with the sound of his drum, learn to work out his own orders for life? Perhaps none of Leon Garfield's parables of innocence tarnished has been quite as moving or as sharply considered as this one. In his quick, pointed sentences he uses visual images to establish a mood or a scene or to make a point about character; the whole book is imbued with the red and gold of destruction…. It is most particularly an artistic whole, this book, an enormously stimulating and touching one. It will not teach children historical fact but will open the past for them. (pp. 1534-35)
Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, May, 1970.
[The Drummer Boy] may dismay many a reader whose experience and ability have been limited by...
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There have been many retellings of Greek myths for children but this interweaving of about twenty of them [in The God Beneath the Sea] must be among the best. It is difficult to add authentic language and atmosphere to such old and familiar stories. [Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen] have succeeded.
Victorian moralizing dullness was more concentrated on the ancient Greeks, and on what children should be taught from them, than on almost anything else. This dullness is monumentalized in masses of poetry and literature for children. Very few writers have been able to touch, let alone release, the real life sealed up in those old shapes. The joint authors of this book deliberately set out to crack the Victorian plaster, and the result may be a surprise to some people. These stories are, after all, primitive revelations, the life they dramatize is not a little demonic. (p. 66)
Beginning with the birth of Hephaestus, [the authors] follow a developing series of about twenty stories through the war with the Titans, the creation of the main gods and of men, down to Hera's unsuccessful attempt to dethrone Zeus. These goings on—usually so cloudy and familiar and abstract—are made vividly new, interesting, often exciting. The authors obviously enjoyed the job greatly. Their zest sweeps you along. It is a real feat, to make everything sound so first hand. These are in fact genuine imaginative retellings—the dramatic...
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With so many books published annually, and so little space available to a critic, it seems extravagant to pay attention to rubbish, but in this case there may be a lesson to be won from the experience. The God Beneath the Sea … is very bad. It is almost impossible to read, let alone assess.
The editor is to blame as much as anybody. Personal taste is one thing, but The God Beneath the Sea is quite another; and whoever accepted the manuscript in its published form has rendered a disservice to the authors. Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen have fallen into the trap they tried to avoid. The prose is overblown Victoriana, 'fine' writing at its worst, cliché-ridden to the point of satire, falsely poetic, groaning with imagery and, among such a grandiloquent mess, intrusively colloquial at times.
Worst of all, the authors are so coy in their efforts to be 'frank' about sexuality that only the cumulative absurdity saves them from prurience: '… and in a white passion of wings, [he] quenched his restless heat'…, 'The Titan's daughter was already quick with child' …, 'Her time was at hand' …, 'Her gown was torn, her hair awry, and everything about her proclaimed her ruin…. All that is missing is, 'Afterwards, they slept.'
It's necessary to quote, because destructive criticism is cheap and easy, and the authors must speak for themselves—which they do at length in an Afterword that is...
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There is a type of book which operates both on an adult and a juvenile level. I am not thinking of books like Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver's Travels, which probe deeply into the human condition and to which the child may bring his own uncluttered and innocent responses, taking from the surface of the work an enjoyable fiction comprehensible within the limits of his own world. Nor do I have in mind those books (Alan Garner's The Owl Service may be one) which have been written with professional competence for a specific market, but which hold within them a range of interpretation that may seriously activate and perhaps even tax the critical and intellectual faculties of an intelligent adult. I am thinking of a third and rarer type of book, one which may well have been written in ignorance of the readership it will eventually find, and which operates successfully on the adult and the juvenile level simultaneously.
I suggest as examples of this an acknowledged classic, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island … and a modern story of adventure on the sea set in a similar historical period, Leon Garfield's Jack Holborn…. The former was produced when a writer of genius descended into the realm of juvenile fiction. Stevenson's integrity and devotion to his craft would not allow him to produce anything that was not the best he could write. The latter was written when an author whose talent in the field of...
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[A] writer who ridicules villainy, though the tone of most of his books is not comic but deeply serious and moving, is Leon Garfield. He involves his readers in a situation where, identified with the hero, they see the forces of evil moving to engulf them and then, suddenly, by a delicate twist of phrase, he shows not the wickedness of the villain but his weakness and, above all, his vanity. As Thackeray pointed out, once you understand a man's vanity, he is in your power; for this reason the Garfield villians evoke almost as much sympathy as terror. (p. 125)
Catherine Storr, "Things That Go Bump in the Night" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Sunday Times Magazine, March 7, 1971 (and reprinted in The Cool Web, edited by Margaret Meek, Aidan Warlow, and Griselda Barton, The Bodley Head, 1977, pp. 120-27).
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Karl Kraus said: "There are two kinds of writers, those who are and those who aren't. With the first, content and form belong together like soul and body; with the second, they match each other like body and clothes." Leon Garfield in The Drummer Boy has become one of "those who are". It is no more a children's book than Gulliver's Travels is a travel book; but the fact that it had to be prepared for the children's market may be the reason why it is so perfect a work of art: enforcing compression of complex ideas within the accepted length of a children's novel, and enforcing exclusion of all that may not have been central to them. (p. 47)
[The] landscape of the book is, as in [D. H.] Lawrence, a real landscape, and a landscape of the inner world. (pp. 47-8)
Much of the last part of the book is set in the New Forest, with its royal associations stressed. Charlie's father, we are told, was "a great forest lover—in every sense of the world". When Charlie arrives in the Forest he feels at home there: to the other, inglorious, survivors it is nefarious shelter; for Charlie "all about him there lingered memories of the love that must have brought him into the world"…. Charlie … was conceived at King's Hat. After his birth, Mrs. Samson preferred to keep to the safety of her husband's inn, pregnantly called The Doe's Rest. At the very end of the book Charlie and Charity, his down-to-earth (in every sense...
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A re-creation of myriad Greek legends, this long and detailed book ["The God Beneath the Sea"] quivers with excitement. Its language is like a mosaic of fiery, precious jewels; and its interwoven plots are brilliantly handled. Beginning with the creation of the world, the book advances swiftly to the creation of the gods and then to the creation of man. The cast of characters is enormous, yet each god takes on a distinct personality. Nothing is omitted here, whether it be the agony of the bound Prometheus or the tragic fate of crippled Hephaestus or the wild lusts of Zeus. The making of mankind from a few handfuls of clay is perhaps the most moving part of the story…. The death of the first pitiful man, the unleashing upon the world of evil and sickness by Pandora—all these episodes touch the heart quite strangely. They are only myths, yet they seem to be a total dream-history of the world. Authors Garfield and Blishen have written a strong, sensual and complicated book for adolescents, who are of course the very people that will appreciate it most. (p. 46)
Barbara Wersba, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1971.
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Peter Geoffrey Townsend
In an Afterword the co-authors [of The God Beneath the Sea] explain that their aim in re-telling the Greek myths to the young is to avoid 'A haphazard sequence of tall tales' often related in a manner arising from certain conventions of translation from Greek poetry, but rather, to relate, 'as a continuous narrative' using a 'literary voice of our own time'. The manner in which many of the better known myths are put within a dramatic framework and given a coherence, both chronological and psychological, is indeed probably the greatest achievement of the book.
The narrative is strung between the two falls of the god, Hephaestus, hurled from Olympus first by Hera, his mother, and later by Zeus. After his first fall, 'the god beneath the sea' is told by his guardians, Thetis and Eurynome, of the great Creation myth…. Hephaestus' birth and fall is also recounted and then by a clever narrative twist, typical of the book, the maker of a marvellous brooch is summoned to Olympus, and found, of course, to be the formerly rejected, misshapen artist—God. The making of men, and finally some of the Greek myths concerning the inter-relations of the two, are retold in the latter half of the book. There is, perhaps inevitably, after so fine a reworking of the earlier myths, a slight loss in narrative cohesiveness in the last section of the book. Nevertheless, this detracts little from the effectiveness of thematic and narrative motifs, such...
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What is a children's book? What is a young adult? What pigeon-hole is big enough for Garfield? The answers to these questions must depend finally on each reader's discretion. Certainly [The strange affair of Adelaide Harris] is a book for all to read—all, that is, from a reasonably sophisticated eleven years upwards, for an intricate plot, a devastating mock-heroic tone demand some such starting point of age. As for the top limit, this is a comedy, a superb comedy whose slapstick, irony and farce may be readily accepted by adults on its own terms. All the same, there is one respect at least in which this book is within the particular reach of young people; to use [Edward] Blishen's phrase, there really is 'a child's eye in the centre'.
Imbroglio is the only word for the swift, bewilderingly intricate plot. (p. 1817)
What I want to stress is that though this is a mature and extremely cultivated book, with a humour as sharp as a scalpel and as entertaining as the Marx Brothers, it is all the time subtly keyed to the boys [Bostock and Harris]. The animal passions evinced by Ralph Bunnion and the egregious Sir Walter, the monstrous drunkenness of Mrs. Bonney, are hilarious rather than sordid partly because we see them through the eyes of the two boys, naturally coarse and self-centered, who find the grown-ups splendid if inexplicable fun to watch. Even when the boys are not present their attitude still colours...
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Leon Garfield is one author who has invented what is almost a new category of his own…. His books are not historical novels—though they are set in the past—nor are they simply adventure stories—it is even possible to see them, in some lights, as fantasies. But they are more likely to be read and enjoyed by those who like stories with plenty of action and excitement, than by lovers of historical stories or fantasy…. (p. 98)
Although Leon Garfield's work has strengthened with each book, his manner and method has remained unchanged and it is impossible to mistake any book by Garfield for one by any other writer. They are all set in a not too precisely defined part of the eighteenth century; a period which seems to have been chosen more for the opportunities it presents than for any special reason of historical interest or research. It is not an imaginary period, in the sense that Joan Aiken's settings are imaginary,… but no serious attempt is made at historical accuracy. No doubt some reading must have been done to get the general picture of the period into the author's mind, but would not be the kind of research that a Rosemary Sutcliff or a Stephanie Plowman undertakes before writing a historical novel and there are, as a result, occasional anachronisms and inaccuracies. But these are minor blemishes and it is clearly not Leon Garfield's intention to aim at an accurate historical picture. (pp. 98-9)
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John Rowe Townsend
Of all the talents that emerged in the field of British writing for children in the 1960s, that of Leon Garfield seems to me to be the richest and strangest. I am tempted to go on and say that his stories are the tallest, the deepest, the wildest, the most spine-chilling, the most humorous, the most energetic, the most extravagant, the most searching, the most everything. Superlatives sit as naturally on them as a silk hat on T. S. Eliot's Bradford millionaire. They are vastly larger, livelier and more vivid than life. They are intensely individual: it would be impossible to mistake a page of Garfield for a page written by anybody else. They are full of outward and visible action, but they are not just chains of events, for everything that happens on the surface has its powerful motivation beneath. And they create their own probabilities. Wildly unlikely it may be that the waif Smith should be rewarded with ten thousand guineas by the not-conspicuously-generous heirs to a fortune, but like many farther-fetched events this is entirely acceptable because nothing less would have matched the size of the story.
Although Garfield is endlessly versatile within his range, the range itself is narrow. His novels so far are all set in the eighteenth century, mostly in London and southern England. His themes are few and recurrent: mysteries of origin and identity; the deceptive appearances of good and evil; contrasts of true and false feeling; the...
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Leon Garfield's latest, The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris, is a glorious, non-sensible frolic, with carefully erudite period roots, that will charm and refresh adults as well as the teenagers for whom it is primarily intended. Garfield has always seemed to have power to summon the ghosts of both [Robert Louis Stevenson] and Dickens to his elbow when he starts to write, interweaving the sinister blood-chill of Blind Pew and Long John Silver with the stench and slime of Simon Tappertit and cronies' underground cellar. But this time he's taken an unexpected turn into the sunlight, and added Saki to his established familiars. A lovely outburst of joyful, impudent satire has resulted, with horror and violence in full retreat. What's more, Mr Garfield has dared to come all out on the side of age against youth, and it is the plans of the over-cocky young that go astray, while their poor, browbeaten, bullied classics master wins his heart's desire. (p. 96)
Gladys Williams, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Gladys Williams 1972; reprinted with permission), February, 1972.
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Brian W. Alderson
It is Bostock and Harris who are responsible for 'the affair' [in The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris], they (or at least Harris) having decided to expose Harris's sister Adelaide on the down above Brighton in the hopes that she will be adopted by a wolf. This decision sets in train a sequence of events of extraordinary complexity, their relationship to real life being a fragile one, but their existence for the sake of Mr. Garfield's art being amply justified. Casting aside the elements of romantic drama which characterised such books as Jack Holborn and Black Jack, and turning his back on the pretensions of The Drummer Boy, he has allowed full play to the ingenuity and wit that are also present in those books.
It is impossible to chart the convolutions of the story—and indeed, an inquiry-agent brought in to do just this succeeds only in confounding matters even more…. What can be singled out is the sureness of the comedy: the descriptions (Mrs. Bunnion asleep 'like a stately ship rising and falling at anchor'), the characterisation, even of the walk-on parts (poor Adam, the apostate monk from Basingstoke, who was too wet to burn) and a farcical cross-talk that is at times reminiscent of Christopher Fry. The book has its flaws—some of the jokes are repetitious, and there is superfluous hat tipping towards our newly-acquired freedom of expression in 'children's literature'—but it is a fresh and...
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Devotees of Leon Garfield's distinctive way of expressing himself will take pleasure in [The Ghost Downstairs]…. A tale whose meaning dances full circle, it is for any child, teenager, or adult who delights in fantasy. Despite its verve, however, it may grow too fantastical for those not sufficiently enchanted by its style to enter into a willing suspension of disbelief. (p. 13)
Eleanor Cameron, in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1972 Postrib Corp.), May 7, 1972.
(The entire section is 71 words.)
J. Allan Morrison
[Sir John Theophilus Lee is portrayed in Child O'War] as an ingratiating nonentity…. His one substantial claim on the regard of posterity, apart from the memoir around which Child O'War is built, issues from a judiciously negotiated contract for the supply of lemon-juice to the navy.
A pretty slender target, you may think, for Mr. Garfield's bubble-pricking broadsides. But Lee's is by no means the only character to be raked, for little good is said of any of the actors in the revolutionary drama. Callous heads are hacked broadcast from fat, bemedalled bodies on both sides of the Channel; all politicians are pompous fools, or worse; only the First Consul himself is allowed—true to the multiple standards of our own time—to escape his due share of invective. Well, of course we all know that war is a rude game played by less elevated minds—but what would Mr. Garfield and his able annotator, David Proctor, have done about Napoleon? Batter him into submission with adjectives, perhaps? (p. 86)
J. Allan Morrison, in Children's Book Review (© 1972 by Five Owls Press Ltd.; all rights reserved), June, 1972.
(The entire section is 185 words.)
Splendidly logical is Leon Garfield's The Ghost Downstairs …, with the spooky originality one expects from this writer. I'm not sure how old a child would have to be to appreciate the true meaning of its Faustian theme, let alone the chilling concept of selling one's own childhood: I suspect that this is really a tale for adults. But then so were some of the most enduring children's books ever written. (p. 760)
Gillian Tindall, in New Statesman (© 1972 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 2, 1972.
(The entire section is 84 words.)
The ghost downstairs tantalises with fleeting likenesses—among them Bosch and Breughel, Coleridge and M. R. James; the last not only because "a ghost in the sunshine is a fearful thing" but also because of Leon Garfield's urbane, polished style….
The Pathetic Fallacy is used brilliantly in this book; fog and sunshine, the gloom of a basement and the fiery flickering of a steam train, by turns reflect and represent the alternating moods of greedy hope and sharp despair as the clerk, who has sold not his soul but seven years of his childhood to the old man downstairs, realises his mistake and tries in vain to think of a way out of the ingenious legal contract he has devised so cunningly. The book takes the form of a novella in two parts, with an elaborate system of loud and soft passages leading to a colossal crescendo and then to a coda of piercing sweetness. This is a fine piece of writing…. This is not a book for all children, or exclusively for children. Certainly it is not for anyone who reads for the story alone and has no feeling for words. Ultimately its value lies in its whole and not in its parts, as a piece of original, stimulating literature in an inevitable form. (p. 1973)
Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, July, 1972.
[In] Leon Garfield's Child O'War … the author presents both the hero and the sea battles he takes...
(The entire section is 497 words.)
Leon Garfield dislikes being described as a writer for children. He regards this as a publisher's convenience—a slot into which his books can be easily put. What interests him is the novel as narrative, and since the modern novel for adults tends to be concerned with psychological states and sexual exploration rather than with the telling of an intricate and neatly dove-tailing story, Garfield's novels are regarded as being more suitable for children. Certainly they appeal very strongly to young readers and a very important element of this appeal is the strong story-line.
Each of his novels is built on a complicated but firm plot, following the adventures of the main character through a series of clues and discoveries until the complications are resolved and the mysteries revealed as the novel comes to a close. The plots are usually based on a search of some kind—in Jack Holborn and Devil-in-the-Fog for the truth about the hero's origin, in The Drummer Boy for what is real and what is false. Always there is the search for knowledge.
Another factor which gives the novels an appeal for young people is the type of hero that Garfield depicts. Garfield's heroes are on their own. They have to make their own way in the bewildering adult world, finding out for themselves what is reality and what is illusion, learning by trial and error whom to trust and who is merely making use of them. There is...
(The entire section is 1019 words.)
Leon Garfield seems to have had no 'prentice period. His first book, Jack Holborn …, has all his characteristic qualities; indeed if one were to be unkind one might venture to say that he has gone on telling the same story ever since…. [The book includes] mutiny, shipwreck, jungle trekking, a slave-market and a great trial scene. The ingredients are all conventional enough. It is the author's expert chemistry—appropriately he is a biochemist by calling—which makes the unpromising materials react to produce tension and atmosphere.
Jack Holborn is sustained through great physical ordeals by the hope that he will discover his identity…. When the truth is made known … it is unspectacular. Jack's mother is not a duchess but a treasure of a housekeeper to a foolish Sussex knight. In Devil-in-the-Fog … the situation is reversed. George Treet, one of a travelling showman's brood, discovers early on that he is in fact the long-lost son and heir to a wealthy Sussex knight…. At last it appears that he is not the heir, but that he has been called upon to play a part with innate professionalism.
What makes these absurd plots not merely acceptable but absorbingly fascinating is Garfield's craftsmanship. He has a gift for creating sharp larger-than-life characters, like Mister Solomon Trumpet in Jack Holborn and Mr Thomas Treet, genius and loving father who allowed his infant son to be scarred...
(The entire section is 578 words.)
What is one to say … of the view of life expressed in, for example, Smith, by Leon Garfield: is that simplistic? The word hardly seems an apt description for a kaleidoscopic view of fortune and deservings such as Garfield presents. Schematic, I suggest, is the more appropriate word. And in this word, I think, is contained one of the essential differences between an adult's and a child's view of life. By and large adults have effected a bifurcation between the moral and the physical imperatives. But this understanding is itself of fairly recent growth, having its springs in the development of scientific rationality during the last three centuries; and in popular terms perhaps is restricted to presently living generations of 'advanced' countries. A common nineteenth-century European view, in all strata of society, would have been that a moral power could, and frequently did, overrule the physical laws. A personal accident that befell one was not explicable in terms of a chain of physical cause and effect, but as a 'judgement' for some earlier moral failing. This schematic moral view of life is essentially childlike; and what is more, it is inconceivable that one should reach the more sophisticated state of discriminatory thinking about the varieties of cause and effect without going through the more primitive stage of belief that an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniactive power controlled all manifestations. From a child's point of view not only is...
(The entire section is 302 words.)
In The Golden Shadow [Garfield and Blishen] have combined a number of stories from disparate sources into a literary whole. Gods, demi-gods and god-like humans strive, love, lust, inhabiting a landscape whose very rocks and stones, whose tides are alive with menace and promise. The stories are linked through the figure of an aged story-teller who wanders from place to place, always, like the hero of Ted Hughes's Bedtime Story, inattentive at the crucial moment; so that he is there when the events happen, but never sees them happen…. It is an interesting device, and a successful one, as if the authors had imaginatively become this archetypal figure, and tried to eavesdrop on the scenes they described.
Since so many stories are packed within 150 pages, some, inevitably, suffer. At times the authors try too hard to work up to a climax in too short a time…. The result at such moments is a sub-Keatsian, orgasmic kind of writing, over-laden with imagery. Here for instance is Atalanta running her final race:
The rushing wind painted her tunic against her breasts and flying thighs … she laughed aloud; she and the inquisitive air were one. She was a spirit—a dream in men's minds to be possessed only in sleep and death.
Good. Yes very. But you can have too much of a good thing.
However, when the authors settle down to the central...
(The entire section is 1203 words.)
[The Golden Shadow] is in no way a conventional retelling of the deeds of a strong-arm bully whose heroism is measured in monsters slain and enemies lying dead in heaps. It is every bit as idiosyncratic an interpretation as [The God Beneath the Sea], concerned more with the hero as a man than a superman, and questioning the nature of heroism itself. If there are two ways into myths as has been suggested, it is true to say that this book takes the inward route, looking beneath the outer religious and moral purpose of the stories to their inner preoccupations. We feel Heracles primarily as a man, still larger than life, but in weakness as well as in strength; the archetype not of the hero as species, but of everyman's heroic suffering in his quest through life. It is this dimension—the massive humanity of Heracles—that the authors have added to the traditional story. It may be an interpretation nearer to our ways of thinking than to the original conception of the Greeks, and perhaps we lose here something of the old heiratic grandeur of the Myth, but we gain far-reaching insights, investing the story with a new and valid relevance. (pp. 182-83)
The Golden Shadow is for all who will read and are of an age to understand. It is not an easy book; its narrative devices are as complex as the ideas it contains. Despite the moments of humour, of broad comedy even, it is a sombre story told as a tragedy with all the...
(The entire section is 311 words.)
"There is no doubt about it," wrote Thomas Mann in 1936, "the moment when the story-teller acquires the mythical way of looking at things … that moment marks a beginning in his life." And with this gem of a book ["The Golden Shadow"] to back me up, I would add: the moment the listener, in this case the young adult reader, is confronted with such a story-teller, this moment must mark a beginning of a deeper insight into the dark recesses of man's fantasy life.
Is this saying a great deal? I mean to. One should not underestimate the literary gift of a thoroughly successful work, one that is sure to influence the inner life of every child and adult who reads it.
The original story-tellers here already worked with myth. But the book would not be what it is, a re-creation of the Heracles legend that makes us feel witness to its birth, were Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen themselves not endowed with the mythical perspective. In the hands of those less skilled and less sensitive, such a re-creation would be hubris.
Here time flows. The tales are stunningly interwoven. And like a true poem, time flows in the round. (p. 8)
Shulamith Oppenheim, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 3, 1974.
(The entire section is 219 words.)
C. S. Hannabuss
The richly styled atmospherics of Leon Garfield form one of the salient literary features in the landscape of the last decade and a half of children's books…. [His] tales of misty derring-do, replete with coincidental encounters and nightmare villainies that work an insidious chemistry on the imagination of the reader, will remain on booklists for a long while. Nevertheless the strength of stories like Devil-in-the-Fog and Black Jack and Smith should be seen side by side with the pastiche heaviness of Child O'War, the manneristic parody of The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris, and now the sense of self-imitation that arises in The Sound of Coaches….
The play's the same but the company are tired after a long season. Episodes trickle along, description doing the work of action. The characters are not able to support this amplitude, for they thrive in the pell-mell that continually entertains and delightfully confuses the reader. The greater scope to show the hero's feelings is impaired by a hang-dog prolixity with none of the wry self-knowledge that exonerates, say, Tom Jones from being tiresome. The Sound of Coaches has few of the haunting harmonics one yearns to hear again: in fact it is rather a weary sound, going on a bit too long. (p. 110)
C. S. Hannabuss, in Children's Book Review (© 1974 Five Owls Press Ltd.; all rights reserved),...
(The entire section is 224 words.)
Ethel L. Heins
A favorite Garfield theme—the mystery of the hero's identity—forms the backbone of [The Sound of coaches]; and a few lines quoted from The Beggar's Opera sets a theatrical atmosphere for the picaresque tale…. The threads of the skillfully-woven plot are almost too neatly tucked in at the end of the story; and after all the expended energy, the final chapter seems to go a bit limp. But the book bears many of the author's hallmarks—his melodrama; his discerning character development; and his humor: "two … professional ladies in the company … both not so much past their prime as having missed it altogether." And Garfield is still an alchemist with language, whipping it into a fine froth, extravagant images spilling out, one after the other. (p. 142)
Ethel L. Heins, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1974 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), October, 1974.
(The entire section is 143 words.)
C. E. J. Smith
[The Prisoners of September is a] real reader's book. The plot is as nicely convoluted and ironically involved as one has come to expect; the characters have a touch of the eccentric excess that so delights: but the great fascination to the committed reader is that Mr. Garfield uses words so well, so prodigally, so precisely, so colourfully, powerfully, brilliantly. (p. 66)
Here are mystery and madness, violence and virtue, terror, conspiracy, coincidence, character, humour and surprise….
Mr. Garfield has been accused of self-indulgence—there seems little here. And it is asked: For whom does Mr. Garfield now write? Surely he writes for those who love fine words and a strong story. However, it will be a well-schooled adolescent that copes easily with this. (p. 67)
C.E.J. Smith, in Children's Book Review (© 1975 Five Owls Press Ltd.; all rights reserved), Summer, 1975.
[The Prisoners of September] marks a turning-point in Leon Garfield's career. It is not only that he has chosen to leave the strange never-never land of Smith and Jack Holborn in favour of the authentic historical past. He has abandoned too his standpoint of ironic detachment; if he does not identify with his characters now he certainly takes them very seriously indeed.
If this should seem too sober a view, it must be...
(The entire section is 420 words.)
This splendidly unclassifiable novel [The Prisoners of September] opens in a mood of exuberant mock-Gothic comedy, with a hero as gullible, though hardly as winning, as Catherine Morland: it ends in tragedy, in the victory of violence and compromise over idealism and innocence. Events of great moment in the past—the French Revolution in general and the Septembrist massacres in particular—are treated with the opportunism of a Dickens or a Dumas, used to give a positive turn to the lives of two heroes who prove, in the end, to be anti-heroes. (p. 2679)
I have no doubt that The Prisoners of September will be read with an eye to its relevance to the present day, for the very direct look at the self-perpetuating nature of violence, the implied comment on political ignorance and uninstructed idealism, the negation of conventional heroics. I hope it will also be read as an excellent story. The twists of the plot are contrived through the two main characters but also through a great many minor characters delineated strongly and with an almost genial humour. Dialogue and description are managed with a skill and firmness which I do not think Leon Garfield has ever equalled. In particular, his predilection for the off-beat or unexpected verbal image is, in this book, kept in bounds and used only when it really contributes to the story in one way or another…. [Though] I may have seemed to suggest otherwise, this is a pleasing...
(The entire section is 306 words.)
Leon Garfield has said that we are all the ghosts of what we were. Unfortunately, if we are to afford Garfield the level of critical response his remarkable achievements demand, it must be acknowledge that [The Prisoners of September] echoes uncomfortably the stylistic brilliance of earlier works without developing into significant, fresh areas.
It is as if he is drawn spectre-like to the scene of previous triumphs. The characters are disconcertingly recognisable, patchwork creations from the dramatis personæ of earlier novels, while the relationships too explore familiar ground—the love-lorn boy drawn irresistibly to the blood-sucking woman for instance.
I hasten to add, however, that second-class Garfield is far in advance of the generality of writing for children. Perhaps the core weakness of The Prisoners of September lies in its construction, unlike his other books, around a specific historical event, the French revolutionary September massacres. This has forced upon the author a particular 'political' position. So, what had in Smith and Black Jack seemed a rich recognition of the complexity of human nature and the interdependence of human beings, here appears a slightly cynical, distanced observation of human motivation.
Adelaide Harris shared this tone but being much more broadly comic, it succeeded. Now we have a somewhat tired repetition of the unique...
(The entire section is 227 words.)
Leon Garfield is an example of what talent can do to a children's book writer: it can drive him out of children's books as he follows the development of his material wherever it takes him, and that is precisely what's happened. The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris, for instance, has to be considered as an adult book. Comedy is a serious business in that it relies on dead accuracy of insight—the laughs don't happen unless we recognize ourselves and others in each situation. And the depth of recognition for Adelaide Harris requires adult experience.
Garfield's outstanding characteristic has always been energy and exuberance, his gusto in using words; and this has sometimes led him into overwriting. In The Ghost Downstairs, however, after a characteristically twinkling opening, he settles into what I think is his best and tightest writing to date. His variation of the Faust legend is a conception of frightening power, and wholly a book for grownups.
The measure of his invention is the shocking vitality of his 'What if?': What if it isn't necessarily the Devil who wants to buy the soul of Mr Fast? What if the canny seller offers the mysterious Mr Fishbane seven years of his life in return for wealth, but seven years from the beginning of it? What if, having signed away with his childhood all that was bright and wondrous in him, he finds existence a perdition of betrayal through which he...
(The entire section is 458 words.)
All [Garfield's] books deal in some way with an atmosphere of concentrated evil shot through with possibilities for good. Perhaps his wartime experiences have had something to do with the springs of his writing inspirations. On the other hand, the press handouts all tell us that he "has a passion for secrets and mystery". However they are sparked off, Leon Garfield's books are unique in children's literature.
He is as aware as any other author for children of the need for frequent action. Never a page is turned but something happens, and yet the overwhelming contribution of his books is that they deal in that old-fashioned quality, morality. At the centre of each story is a young person, a boy usually, whose life is impinged upon by mysterious forces for good and evil, their rightness or wrongness obscured by different shows and pretences or seemingly accidental occurrences. Is everything as it seems? Part of the fascination of reading Leon Garfield is penetrating the camouflage of his precision-made plots. These are not historical novels in the accepted sense. An interpretation of history is certainly not what they are about. An interpretation of life perhaps.
The young men in Prisoners of September involved in the bloodier side of the French Revolution could just as easily be young men caught up in the violence of the I.R.A. Pick-pocket Smith has his modern counterpart and Leon Garfield's latest long novel,...
(The entire section is 647 words.)
"Garfield's Apprentices" opens with two stories—Mirror, Mirror and The Lamplighter's Funeral—which offer examples of cruelty and compassion, defeat and victory…. Though the tales are short and structurally simple, they will appeal mainly to children experienced enough to catch the tone of a writer's voice and listen to his unspoken message. Both tales are full of imagery—the brilliance of jewellery and glass in the first, the revelations of torch light in the second….
These are stories intended not to teach children history but to surprise them into realising that time does not change humanity very much. Leon Garfield's particular version of the London of Fielding and Hogarth offers its own private, searching history lesson. (p. 2913)
Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, July, 1976.
(The entire section is 124 words.)
[With The Pleasure Garden] Leon Garfield has produced another rich meal from his sub-Smollett/Hogarth/Dickens recipe, and as a heavily decorated thriller it is very impressive. The cameos and grotesques are all alive—the stay-makers, beggars, blackmailers, half-innocent urchins, the whores. But this time, his packed world is paralleled by an equally packed symbolism, centred on the microcosm of Mrs Bray's Mulberry Pleasure Garden with its masks, confessions, and dubious redemptions. Thus the Reverend Justice Young's search for a murderer is also a search for his own salvation; the trouble is that he often seems to be wading knee deep in symbols as well as red herrings.
Perhaps it is all too much of a good thing, for Mr Garfield's cleverness is also his Achilles' heel. His verbal dexterity does as much to create his atmosphere as do his scenes, and for most of the time it works well. Thus the noise of children on cellar steps "suggested that a small-sized hail-storm had got inside the house and panicked". But to say that "the revellers go out of the pleasure garden, out into the black garden of pain" is to go out into pretentiousness. It is not that the allegory is inappropriate, or that the ambivalence of everything (including, centrally, sex) is not well conveyed. It is more that Garfield is too insistent; his over-stressing of the cosmic leads to overwriting, almost to self-parody, so that episodes such as Martin Young's...
(The entire section is 295 words.)
[The House of Hanover] takes the form of a stroll through the Hanoverian portions of the National Portrait Gallery, with a running commentary on the principal personalities of the age as they appear. It is a short book, but the approach is self-indulgent, with lengthy accounts of conversations between the author and a garrulous attendant, and a good deal of jovial jocularity. It is page forty before we actually reach the age of Hanover, though the result hardly justifies the effort of getting there. Each character is treated in a few superficial words, which convey Leon Garfield's prejudices, such as they are, but little of interest or consequence. There is no attempt to relate the artists and writers discussed to the major cultural, let alone social developments of the period, no attempt to transmit the essential flavour and character of Hanoverian England, no attempt to impose any kind of framework.
Paul Langford, "Georgian Stroller," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 16, 1976, p. 886.
[The Pleasure Garden] includes transvestism, prostitution, blackmail and murder. Meat for the kiddies? On the one hand Mr. Garfield has always maintained his contention that there are no books for children, only books; on the other his view of Georgian London...
(The entire section is 351 words.)
I would hesitate to offer The House of Hanover to anyone who did not already possess a reasonably good idea of the sequence of events in the eighteenth century and their own views on some at least of the century's writers. On the other hand, those who do already relish the period are likely to find Leon Garfield's dish somewhat over-spiced. This is, by intention, a very personal view of the period and one which is almost disavowed by the author when, having made a rapid and dogmatic tour of the National Portrait Gallery, he is adjured by the attendant to "Go through the gallery again—and come out with a different answer". So, we must accept, even if we do not like, echo or agree with, the attitudes he takes up in this book. He is lengthy and serious about Handel, coyly respectful of Johnson, disagreeably superficial about Pope (surely the fashion for describing the poet as a cold projector of strategems went out generations ago), sentimental about Swift, inadequate about George III. The idea of seeing the eighteenth century by way of a sequence of portraits was a good one and the book's epigraph, Pope's line "The proper study of mankind is man", says something valid about a period when individuals still steered historical event. Still, there is dangerously little of history here to anchor the throw-away literary comment, and a chronological scheme somewhat resembling Dunne's theory of Time is likely to confuse rather than enlighten a young...
(The entire section is 386 words.)
C. S. Hannabuss
The Lamplighter's Funeral and Mirror, Mirror [are] … very much in the style of books like The Ghost Downstairs and Black Jack. The misanthropic lamplighter Pallcat in The Lamplighter's Funeral has a strange nocturnal meeting with Possul, a street urchin with disconcertingly innocent eyes and, when he becomes Pallcat's apprentice, with an uncanny and disturbing way of lighting up scenes of human misery in the murky Victorian streets. Travellers learn to avoid him, but Pallcat's thoughts are changed by this boy and by the bizarre way the boy views his job. Mirror, Mirror, too, develops a story both sinister and symbolic: apprentice Daniel Nightingale, working for a master-carver of mirror-frames, has to learn to cope with a house full of mirrors and full of the unreasonable sadism of his master's daughter. The mirrors seem to multiply his fears until he finds a way of using them to show her what she really looks like. Leon Garfield's distinctive melodrama allows him to write a compelling adventure and at the same time to explore the sinister side of life in ways children understand…. This is clear from books like Smith and Devil-in-the-Fog, and it is clear in [these stories], even if symbolism of a high Gothic kind sometimes makes some of the imagery a private adult literary experience. (p. 24)
C. S. Hannabuss, in Children's Book Review (© 1976 Five...
(The entire section is 231 words.)
J. Allan Morrison
[There] is too much of Garfield [in The House of Hanover: England in the Eighteenth Century] and he is showing-off like mad. The first person singular may have appeared in the earlier books, but I recall no instance; Garfield however talks as much about himself as about his characters and in that exuberance of verbiage which is a delight in his novels but which is quite out of keeping here. The smooth continuity of the [Mirror of Britain] series is rudely jarred. He is always readable, but I am not sure that he is believable. (p. 29)
J. Allan Morrison, in Children's Book Review (© 1976 Five Owls Press Ltd.; all rights reserved), October, 1976.
(The entire section is 111 words.)
Leon Garfield [presents] his simple people simply as they are [in Moss and Blister], in a comic view that surprisingly avoids being patronizing while delighting in absurdity at every social level. His laughter is quite without contempt, despite the fact that his methods are akin to caricature…. Moss and Blister is the latest in Garfield's series of "apprentices", odd little books whose length suggests a slightness that their energy contradicts. Moss the midwife and her scrawny apprentice are a splendidly comic duo, plying their trade of delivering babies—itself seen as essentially comic, perhaps for the first time since Dr. Slop—on Christmas Eve. (p. 1545)
Julia Briggs, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Time Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 10, 1976.
A preliminary glance at [The Book Lovers] raises suspicions that it is nothing but an attempt to entice reluctant readers. A young man worships a librarian from afar and follows her from "Lending" to "Reference", where he presses his suit by means of love scenes in the books he reads, ostensibly to prepare an anthology on love. One should have more faith in Leon Garfield! In the first place, the framework story is deliciously funny…. Secondly, the extracts are all from nineteenth-century authors, and though some are...
(The entire section is 264 words.)
Leon Garfield's "Apprentice" stories are not for a young reading age, despite the somewhat misleading format and plentiful illustration. In these terse, ironic tales there is a concentration of imagery, an elusive technique of characterisation and a breadth of social comment which demand an alert reader (I suggest, ten and over) ready to accept an idiosyncratic but authentic view of the past. Like their predecessors in the series, the present books, numbered 5 to 8, contain several linking devices. The London scene shifts from one street to another within the City, from St. Martin's Churchyard in The Valentine to a dingy yard off Old 'Change in Labour in Vain, from a Jewish clockmaker's in Carter Lane in The Fool to Drury Lane and its alleyways in Rosy Starling. Each tale is marked by a festival…. Beyond the links of place and circumstance there are deeper links in theme, for each of these caustic, sharply documented tales turns on imposture, self-deception, change and—in a sense—growing up. When the sequence is complete I am sure it will stand out as one of the most notable individual commentaries of our time on the vanity of human wishes, a lesson anyone could learn willingly through this unique combination of historical detail and universal feeling. (pp. 3199-200)
Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, November, 1977.
(The entire section is 408 words.)
Leon Garfield's five early novels—Jack Holborn, Devil-in-the-Fog, Smith, Black Jack, and The Drummer Boy—established very clearly the kind of world we associate with Garfield's writing. Since then, he has continued to produce prolifically, but the sense of unity, the sense of direction, seems to have become dissipated. It is not just a question of wanting or expecting him to go on writing as he has done or to write about the same things as before. After all, one doesn't expect each of William Mayne's books, for example, to be the same—in fact, one is surprised and gratified that each new novel is different and unpredictable. Nor does Garfield's later work lack quality—The God Beneath the Sea, The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris, and The Ghost Downstairs are as fine as anything he has written. But nevertheless, looking back at the work he has produced since The Drummer Boy, there is a slight nagging sense of disappointment as though Garfield has missed his footing or somehow stumbled from the path and only intermittently found it again. He seems to be turning round seeking new directions, not all of which lead to successful destinations.
The quintessential Garfield world of the early novels is most instantly recognisable in his subsequent short novels. Stories like The Boy and the Monkey, The Captain's Watch, and Lucifer Wilkins show the characteristic delight of playing with...
(The entire section is 1301 words.)
Garfield's novels appeal to young readers for reasons which should become clear in looking at them individually. All his work has a strong narrative line and his books are worlds of violent adventure. Theatricality and melodrama are part of their fabric. The hero's search is not only for his identity but also for moral certainties in the shifting sands of good and evil. The hero is usually an adolescent boy, bewildered by the duplicity of the adult world. He is a valuable point of identification for the young reader. The moral choices he has to make are presented not in terms of psychological analysis (until we come to The Pleasure Garden) but in terms of action and discussion which offer a high level of vicarious experience. Garfield's style also has a wide appeal; its level of complexity varies, and while it is never easy for any other than the literate child the vocabulary is not particularly unusual or difficult. The imagery is strongly visual and colourful and he appreciates children's curiosity for detail. He will thread an idea or an image through a story so that it becomes a signpost of the plot, providing a thrill of recognition or anticipation. Such detail contributes to the vividness of his writing and often to its humour, for even in the grimmest situation—and "the stench of Newgate gaol" pervades almost all the novels—an ironic humour breaks through.
Most of Garfield's fiction is set in the eighteenth century,...
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Ann A. Flowers
[Leon Garfield], noted for his Dickensian novels about London, has written [with The Apprentices] an ingeniously linked series of twelve tales about apprentices set in successive months, so that the book covers one year; each tale has a relationship to at least one of the others and each deals with a different craft. Many of the stories tell of some unlikely and unexpected good deed. For instance, "The Lamplighter" is the tale of Pallcat, a dirty, stingy old man, who reluctantly takes a pathetic waif as his apprentice and, to his own surprise, becomes attached to him…. Characters appear and reappear, sometimes as major figures, sometimes as passersby. A lamplighter or a linkboy crops up in almost every story, demonstrating the themes of light and dark, good and evil that dominate the book. The sights, the sounds, and especially the smells of eighteenth-century London are vividly presented, making a brilliantly impressionistic and amusing book. (p. 402)
Ann A. Flowers, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1978 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), August, 1978.
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Leon Garfield has been hailed as one of the best contemporary writers for adolescents for his lively and unmistakable style, his ability to weave a series of endlessly fascinating plots, and for his quirky and unforgettable characters. He draws richly and with originality from our great masters of fiction: Fielding, Smollett, and Dickens. His debt to Fielding and Smollett is most obvious in terms of the settings of his novels, all of which take place in the 18th century. Many of them make use of the picaresque episodic structure and the complex combination of comedy and violence found in those early works. Encounters with all kinds of rogues, kidnappings, attempted and actual murders are not unusual in a Garfield novel. In fact, his own particular use of the adventure story, varied and expansive as it is, involves exploring and indulging in melodrama, which allows, of course, for suspenseful plots and characters that undergo extreme states of feeling.
But while any Garfield novel uses all the conventional melodramatic devices, his sense of humor tempers, refines, and adds complexity, so his novels don't feel corny or staged. Like Fielding, Garfield seems to embrace humanity in all its pettiness and smugness, and is appreciative of man's ingenuity. He is interested in exploring what we do to survive—and how, in the direst of circumstances, we are often deprived of the luxury of being moral, upright, and clean. While Garfield takes us...
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The final two stories in Leon Garfield's 'Apprentices' series [The enemy and the filthy beast] introduce respectively the love-lorn Hobby, apprenticed to a modeller of plaster statuettes, and Shag, the trainee house painter who spends most of his life venting his earthy humour from his precarious scaffolding perch on those who pass below. These apprentices like their predecessors are, however, first and foremost apprentices to the business of life. (pp. 349-50)
I have not yet read all twelve 'Apprentices' but I suspect that the characteristic Garfield style, with its distinctive imagery and knowing, gentle irony, while weighing a little too heavily in the context of a single short volume, may well work effectively to bind together the separate tales into a coherent pattern, offering something different but as satisfying as the full-length novels.
It is the unique colouring of Garfield's style that tends to obscure that he is above all a moralist—and none the worse for that! Like all his fiction, the 'Apprentices' communicate the need for human beings, despite all their individual quirks and eccentricities, to recognise their shared vulnerability and homogeneity of feeling. (p. 350)
Gordon Parsons, in The School Librarian, December, 1978.
Even at this late stage in his career Leon Garfield still has a surprise or two left....
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