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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

11 December 2020

Malcolm Guite receives a surprise package containing a precious book

WHEN I finally got into college the other day to pick up my post, I found a lovely surprise awaiting me. It was a letter and a package from a reader of this column containing a very precious book: precious first to her, and now to me.

A while back, I wrote about my pleasure in reading the Green Knowe books by Lucy Boston (Poet’s Corner, 8 May), and how I had been astonished and delighted to discover that the magical house in the books, the oldest inhabited house in England, in which the children in the stories meet and play with each other from across the different centuries through which the house has stood, was a real house, not far from the school where I taught.

In that column, I told the story of how I visited the house, which was just as I had imagined it and met Lucy herself, then in her nineties, who was just like Mrs Oldknowe, the wise and playful grandmother in the stories.

Well, when I unwrapped my parcel in college, there was a lovely first edition of The Chimneys of Green Knowe, the one book in the series missing from my collection. It’s a wonderful story that centres on two children from the 1790s: Susan, who is blind, and has to struggle against the way in which she is constrained and dismissed by those who will not let her develop her natural gifts; and Jacob, a little African boy who has been brought over from the West Indies as Susan’s help and companion.

Like Susan, who is dismissed and marginalised for her “disability”, Jacob is name-called and dismissed by the racism around him. But the author and her young readers know better! There is a brilliant and sympathetic insight into the inner lives and gifts of both characters as they make an alliance together against the prejudices around them.

It was lovely to remake my acquaintance with these characters, but the letter that accompanied the gift was even more moving. It was as though Susan, a character I had always loved, was writing to me herself; for Helen, my correspondent, was a blind woman who had, as a little girl, been consulted by Lucy about how Susan should be portrayed.

Lucy had visited Helen and some of her friends at their school for the blind, where they had showed her how they could climb trees and what fun they could have together. Helen wrote: “Our time together was very productive, as the depiction of Susan was not in the least patronising or sentimental — thank goodness!” And, there, on the title page, next to the printed dedication to those blind girls, was a handwritten note from Lucy thanking Helen.

So, thanks to Helen’s generosity, my Green Knowe collection is complete, but there is a terrible irony about why it was incomplete in the first place. When I tried to buy the set from Faber, the “Chimneys” was missing, and Diana, Lucy’s daughter, told me that Faber had decided against reprinting it because, in the realistic depiction of the way Jacob was treated by insufferable adults when he got to England, the “N word” was used, and the book was, therefore, “politically incorrect”.

My goodness! If there was ever a book in advance of its time, ever a book that took the disabled and those from ethnic minorities, put them front and centre, and showed how false the prejudice against them is, then it was The Chimneys of Green Knowe. Thankfully, Faber has since decided to reprint it.

 

A Heaven in Ordinary: A Poet’s Corner collection by Malcolm Guite is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-78622-262-2.

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