Leon Garfield Essay - Critical Essays

Garfield, Leon


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.

Geoffrey Trease

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.

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 gentleman, reminiscent of both Vincent Crummles and Wilkins Micawber, scarcely merits George's extravagant adulation. The characters of eighteenth-century high life are unreal, and we feel little involvement until the end, when George finds himself back among those who love him for his own sake. (p. 1078)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 24, 1966.

Margery Fisher

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...

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Naomi Lewis

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...

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Margery Fisher

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...

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Geoffrey Trease

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...

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Virginia Haviland

[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....

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Margery Fisher

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...

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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...

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Sheila Egoff

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...

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Margery Fisher

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...

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Ted Hughes

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...

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Clive Pemberton

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...

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Catherine Storr

[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...

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Richard Camp

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.]...

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Barbara Wersba

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...

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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....

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Margery Fisher

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...

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Frank Eyre

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...

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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...

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Gladys Williams

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...

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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...

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Eleanor Cameron

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.

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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...

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Gillian Tindall

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.

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Margery Fisher

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...

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Rhodri Jones

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...

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Marcus Crouch

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...

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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...

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Gerard Benson

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....

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Judith Vidal-Hall

[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...

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Shulamith Oppenheim

"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...

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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….


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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,...

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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...

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Margery Fisher

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...

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Gordon Parsons

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,...

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Russell Hoban

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...

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Anne Wood

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...

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Margery Fisher

"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...

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Peter Hunt

[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...

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Paul Langford

[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...

(The entire section is 351 words.)

Margery Fisher

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...

(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...

(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.


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Julia Briggs

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)


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Margery Fisher

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...

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Rhodri Jones

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,...

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Philip Holland

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...

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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,...

(The entire section is 171 words.)

Roni Natov

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...

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Gordon Parsons

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...

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