Leon Garfield

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Rhodri Jones

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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 words and images and the creation of chirpy characters. The more recent Mirror, Mirror and The Lamplighter's Funeral, two of a projected twelve under the general heading of 'Garfield's Apprentices', mark a very definite return to the London of narrow streets and evocative names, of master craftsmen and beggared children—though perhaps the squalor is more readily revealed….

Another element which has previously been evident in Garfield's writing—though not, strangely, in the major novels—is an interest in the supernatural, but none of his ghost stories has been as extended and successful as The Ghost Downstairs. It is innovatory in that it is set outside the eighteenth century, in the time of children's sailor suits, of cabs and trains…. The story is told with grim power though not without the touches of irony and humour that are characteristic. (p. 41)

Comedy is always bursting out in Garfield's work, but with The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris comedy has taken over completely. The story has the riotous to-ing and fro-ing of a farce by Feydeau. The characters are all swept along in a fantastic dance as complication upon complication is piled up to a masterly dénouement. Every detail is right; every incident builds up our knowledge of the characters and tangles or untangles the skein of the plot more. No word is wasted. It is a virtuoso performance, whose virtuosity can be gauged by comparing it with the short story The Restless Ghost, where the two schoolboy heroes, Bostock and Harris, who set the dance going by exposing the infant Adelaide on the hillside in emulation of Ancient Sparta, made an earlier appearance. In the short story, Bostock and Harris are merely rather mischievous schoolboys involved in a prank that becomes too big for them. In The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris they have been purified and refined; they have come into focus. Harris is the one with the cunning brain and the deep thought, Bostock his more sensitive but rather dense friend (except that it is Bostock who shows the real intelligence) with an undying admiration for and devotion to his supposed genius of a hero. They are not just schoolboys, they are...

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quintessential schoolboys. (p. 42)

Another direction Garfield was moving in was towards collaboration. The Ghost Downstairs, for instance, could almost be described as a joint work with the illustrator, Antony Maitland. But the most important collaboration has been with Edward Blishen in their retelling of the Greek myths in The God Beneath the Sea and The Golden Shadow, where the myths are given a fresh power and a new and strong narrative unity. The strength of these two books lies in the sweep of the story-telling and in the austere nobility of the tone, which except in occasional ironic asides is strangely unlike the Garfield of the earlier novels and shows a greater restraint. The characters come alive without losing dignity. The stories are filled in with details that convince—the hawkers selling purses of sand stained with the blood of the Nemean Lion in the market place of Mycenae, for example—so that a sense of bustling life is given to this strange mixture of heroic endeavour, godly power and human frailty without in any way diminishing the grandeur and awesomeness of the events. Both volumes (The Golden Shadow marginally less so) are splendid achievements, and rescue the myths from past flat and fustian versions—even if one may sometimes have to go back to those versions to find out what the myths actually and factually were.

It is with the three major novels that Garfield has written since The Drummer Boy that doubts really begin to press. The Sound of Coaches has a theme reminiscent of the earlier Jack Holborn and Devil-in-the-Fog with its hero Sam searching for his real father and finding disillusionment along the way. The world of the coaching trade and the travelling actors that Sam joins are vividly portrayed, but somehow Sam is too pale a character for us to care very much about him. The Prisoners of September deals with the involvement of two young Englishmen in the massacres of September 1793 in Paris. They are like two halves of the same character, one glorying in the brutality while believing himself to be fighting for freedom, the other repelled by the horror of it. Unthinking idealism takes a hard knock. The Pleasure Garden is set in a kind of open-air brothel, based presumably on Vauxhall Gardens, where children hide all night in the trees and report on the goings-on for the purpose of blackmail.

It is not simply that these novels display an increasing though only occasional coarseness of language and violence. There is the cellarman Joe in The Sound of Coaches, for instance, talking about the sun 'shining out of the tiddler's arse'; there is Richard Mortimer in The Prisoners of September inciting the crowd to tear a young woman's body to pieces and the vision of packs of wild dogs rushing through the streets of Paris with the private parts of princesses in their jaws; there is the whole idea of children being involved in voyeurism and blackmail in The Pleasure Garden. These were crude and violent times, and foul language can be justified in terms of character, but are such things suitable reading for children? (pp. 42-3)

[There] have been violent and unpleasant episodes in [Garfield's] earlier novels, but the subject-matter of his recent novels seems more suitable for adults than for children. They raise the question of what is a children's writer, which is a large topic but a part of whose answer is to do with tone, the way the author addresses his imagined audience. And while Garfield is writing about things which more suitably concern adults than children, his tone is still that which one would use when talking to children alone, with the result that the end-product is satisfactory neither to one nor to the other…. He wants to communicate, and he wants to communicate to children and adults, but this is only possible in exceptional circumstances—and usually long after the author is dead. It seems appropriate that the figure of Prometheus should loom so large in The God Beneath the Sea. (p. 43)

Rhodri Jones; in her postscript to "Leon Garfield," in Good Writers for Young Readers, edited by Dennis Butts (copyright selection and arrangement © 1977 Hart-Davis Educational), Hart-Davis Educational, 1977, pp. 41-4.


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