Books for a New Mother
The Young Pretenders
The Young Pretenders (1895) by Edith Henrietta Fowler (1865-1944) is Persephone book no.73. It is a children’s book whose sophistication, humour and ironies are nowadays appreciated by both children (aged about 9-13) and adults.
Babs in The Young Pretenders is too young to run away, at first she lives most contentedly in a large house in the country with her grandmother, her nanny and her brother (their parents are in ‘Inja’). Then their grandmother dies and they are sent to live in Kensington with their uncle and his wife. Having run wild in the country, spent hours with the gardener (very like the gardener in The Secret Garden) and had a great deal to do and to think about, suddenly they are abandoned in a world of artifice and convention and are expected to behave artificially and conventionally. ‘It all came of so much pretending. But then it was simply impossible for the children not to pretend. It would have been so dull to have lived their child lives only as the little Conways, when they might be pretending that they were such exciting things as soldiers or savages, cab-horses or mice.’ Babs cannot, of course, stop playing, and the central theme of the book is that she has not learned how to dissemble (as opposed to playing ‘let’s pretend’) but must learn how to do so.
The focus, and the star, of The Young Pretenders is Babs. She is intelligent, fun, kind, lively and honest and it is hard to think of a heroine in children’s fiction (that is, fiction written for children but enjoyed equally as much by adults) who is like her. Her most touching characteristic is her openness and her complete lack of fear. ‘“What was we naughty about?”’ she asks her brother after their uncle scolds them: ‘The children could not know that some very persistent tradesmen had insisted on immediate payment of their bills.’ When the news comes from India that they have a new sister Babs thinks of a name for her – Mrs Brown. Her aunt slaps her down, saying that it’s not a name but Babs persists, ‘“It is, I know it is, ’cause nurse has a sister-in-law what’s called it.”’ Then she ‘began to think so hard that she refused a second helping of pudding’ eventually announcing, to renewed scorn, that “‘I’d like her to be called Strawberry Jam.”’
‘Apples’ by Lindsay P Butterfield, 1895
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