William Mayne Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Mayne 1928–

(Has also written under pseudonyms of Charles Molin and Martin Cobalt, and, with R. D. Caesar, under joint pseudonym of Dynely James) British young adult novelist and editor and author of picture books for children. Mayne is recognized as a writer whose young adult fiction has broadened the definition of this genre, preparing his audience for the style, content, and complexity of adult fiction. Mayne is not considered an easy writer due to the conciseness of his prose, which sometimes borders on terseness, and the intricacy of his plots. His books often expect readers to answer their own questions and have a particularly British reserve or coolness of emotion, aspects which are sometimes regarded as limiting their popularity with young readers. However, Mayne is an individualistic writer who is not content with recycling standard themes and plots. His books contain sensitive characterizations, skillful use of language, and lyrical evocation of atmosphere, giving them what many critics consider an uncommon depth. As a writer Mayne calls himself an observer, like a camera lens. "All I am doing," he says, "is looking at things now and showing them to myself when I was young." He was born in Yorkshire, the setting reflected in both the atmosphere and dialogue of many of his books. At nine he won a scholarship to Canterbury Cathedral, where he stayed until 1942; he later used his experiences as a choir boy for his cathedral school stories. Mayne began his career writing family stories involving mysteries and treasure hunts, books in which he first explored the nuances in relationships among members of all generations. In 1958 he was awarded the Carnegie Medal for A Grass Rope, a book considered the precursor of many of his later works, which investigate the intricacies of time and space, past and present. Perhaps the most successful synthesis of Mayne's literary characteristics is Earthfasts. Based on a local Yorkshire legend, it has been recognized as a modern classic of fantasy literature. Mayne has more than fifty books to his credit, including several for younger children, and is the editor of several anthologies dealing with legends and the supernatural. He is also a composer of music, and in 1965 composed the incidental music for Holly from the Bongs, by Alan Garner, a British writer to whom Mayne is often compared. As a literary observer, Mayne portrays what he sees in both his imagination and the real world with clarity, making him well respected among those young adults who know his work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vols. 6.)

Some might quibble at the whimsical humour and allusive conversations in [The World Upside Down], but read in the right mood it is delightfully refreshing, with its nice civilized children making quotable (and quotation-filled) remarks, and finding pleasure in being alive as well as a proper treasure of golden crowns and coins…. There is style in the writing, warmth and wit in the family relationships, and reality behind each character, even the poacher who sounds almost too much a character to be true. The kind of light reading which will stand up to many re-readings, and pave the way to the best kind of adult light fiction. (p. 247)

The Junior Bookshelf, November, 1954.

Without going outside the familiar convention of seek-and-find adventure in an English country setting, William Mayne has quickly established himself as the most original good writer for children in our immediate time. At this stage ([The Member for the Marsh] is his fourth) it is possible to see something of the pattern on which his imagination works. He writes on the edge of the past rather than on the edge of the future; he dismisses the age-barrier between friends; he makes his own traditions (among schoolboys, for instance), but they seem to lighten life, not burden it. He also expects his readers to think speedily. If it is a scramble to follow his quick wit at times, the book can always be read again; and the second reading often gives more pleasure than the first.

"The Edge of the Past," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1956; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 11, 1956, p. vii.

William Mayne is certainly the most excitingly original writer for children to emerge in the last five years. This is not to say that he is, even potentially, the most popular. The Member for the marsh confirms the impressions of his three earlier novels that he has an insatiable passion for oddities. When many writers are haunted by the shadow of the backward reader, he writes joyously and unashamedly for the top flight of the grammar school, for those who may be expected to enjoy fine style, original and provocative ideas and rich characters. He writes, one suspects, to please himself, as most of the best books are written.

Mr. Mayne is a master of the use of setting. This time his scene is the fascinating flat country of western Somerset. He knows the country well and communicates his appreciation of its not-very-obvious charms. Into this setting he puts—but no, they live there already—four very odd boys, the Harmonious Mud Stickers…. Never were there less typical schoolboys, but each is drawn consistently and convincingly. Their activities, in which schoolboyish fun charmingly breaks through the solemnity, are too good to give away. Mr. Mayne tells a good story, with certainty and without haste. Not a book for children, but definitely a book for the child who can deserve it. (p. 144)

The Junior Bookshelf, July, 1956.

To come to Choristers' Cake is to enter a new world, from the flat drabness of monochrome engraving to the colour and movement and depth of real life. The scene is that of A Swarm in May, but the viewpoint is changed. The Choir School [of Canterbury] is seen through the eyes, and interpreted by the rather muddled brain, of an older boy, one who does not easily find a place in the cooperative society of school. This is a most skilful study, and there is nothing contrived about Sandy's gradual achievement of self-recognition.

Psychological insight is not the whole of Mr. Mayne's armoury. He is a master—the master in contemporary English writing for children—of setting, and the hero of Choristers' Cake is not Sandy but the Cathedral. The Cathedral is ever-present. Its traditions provide the story with its main theme. Its services mark the passage of time. The precincts are the boys' home and their playground. The many, and delightful, minor characters are the Cathedral's servants….

Choristers' Cake may be a by-way of children's literature. Its virtuosity and verbal richness, as well as the undoubted oddness of many of its characters, put it beyond the range of the average reader. But for the child who can meet its demands it will be a deep and memorable experience. In insight, in gaiety, in exuberance of idea and language, it is in a class apart. Mr. Mayne is certainly the most interesting, as the most unpredictable, figure in children's books today. He has all the talents, and he has devoted them to the creation of a little world, self-contained and absorbed, in spite of quarrels and rivalries, in its work of praising God. (p. vii)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1956; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 23, 1956.

Mr. Mayne is not an easy writer, as we know. His love of words, his range of ideas and his interest in psychology, which are the very essence of his art, all act as stumbling-blocks to the young reader. One suspects that Mr. Mayne is not unduly distressed by this. He writes, as he must, to please himself. Will he at the same time please others? Yes, he will delight those who deserve writing of this quality, the children, a minority but not an insignificant one, who can recognise the truth of his observation of boys' behaviour and who can relish the convincing oddity of his adults.

This book is not a sequel to A Swarm in May. That inimitable book said the last word on its subject. In Choristers' Cake we look at the same school from a different viewpoint. The central character is an older boy than John Owen, who in this story is a very small and unimportant singing boy. Sandwell is one of those boys who fight a solitary war against school tradition and discipline. He is intensely real. (p. 341)

The Junior Bookshelf, December, 1956.