Born in 1912, Monica le Doux Newton spent her early formative years in Rye Harbour where her father became the local vicar. Just like Tamzin in the Romney Marsh series, young Monica would escape from her bedroom window at night in order to go down to spend time with the local fishermen. Together with her family, she shared the hardships and trials of a small fishing and farming community. A particularly poignant event in her youth was the day her father conducted the funeral service for the seventeen men who were lost in the 1928 Mary Stanford life-boat disaster. Certainly many of her stories involve the local fishermen in less than honest activities but the loyalty of her fictional children to some of the old rogues in her books shows just where Monica's sympathies clearly lay.
She became Monica Edwards in 1933 when she married William (Bill) Edwards from Rye. They moved to Punchbowl Farm in Surrey which became the setting not just for another series of children's books but also the subject of autobiographical sketches and books and radio and television programmes.
Three ingredients form the centre of the "Romney Marsh" and "Punchbowl Farm" series. The landscape brought convincingly to life is the first of these. The local landmarks of Rye Harbour, such as the castle and the Martello Tower and indeed, the Grey family vicarage, can all still be seen just as they are portrayed in the adventures of Tamzin, Rissa, Meryon and Roger. The map of Punchbowl Farm found in the end-papers of most hard-back editions of that series gives a very precise feeling of place as the events unfold in such dramatic stories as "Fire in the Punchbowl". Monica Edwards was very well-served by her illustrator and Geoffrey Whittam's pictures of the people, the animals and the places catches the mood of the stories exactly.
Secondly, animals always play a large part in these stories. The themes that Monica Edwards follows are alive and hotly debated today. The books are not certainly not over sentimental and deal with such issues as the consequences of over-fishing, the slaughter of horses, the perils of animal husbandry and, particularly piquant for whole areas of Great Britain in the year 2001, the disaster that is foot-and-mouth disease and its effects upon farmers. The name of the first book "Wish for a Pony" might send some people away with the feeling that she is a merely a "pony club" writer. Pony club stories do have their own virtues but Monica Edwards, in her approach to all the animals of the countryside, whether wild or domesticated, offers both children and adults much more than that.
Inevitably, however, the best ingredient of the books, especially as we see the two series develop, is the gradual unfolding of the relationships between the two groups of children. Watching what happens to Tamzin and Rissa, Roger and Meryon, Andrea, Dion, and Lindsey, especially in those stories where the two series unite, is a fascinating and often moving experience. Even the portraits of the youngest children in each family, Tamzin's little brother Diccon, and young Peter Thornton, are carefully and thoughtfully written.
Although Monica Edwards died in 1998, the quality of her writing is timeless and ensures that her characters will live on in the minds of both younger and older readers.
CHRONOLOGICAL BOOK LIST
Wish for a Pony
... Illustrated by Anne Bullen Collins 1947.
Additions with thanks, supplied by David Anderson.
For some people there is always a feeling of disappointment when they discover that a book by an author they have followed devotedly turns out not to contain the characters they have come to know and love. For me, with Arthur Ransome, it was finding out that "Racundra's First Cruise" was nothing to do with the "Swallows and Amazons" series. Readers of this review can perhaps identify their own examples of hopes dashed in this way. Favourite authors can never write enough for their fans. There is always a desire to know what happens next. Sequels by other authors are, at best, always either pale imitations or, at worst, an insult to both the writer and to the legions of fans. When the discovered book turns out to be fact and not fiction then the chances of satisfying the disappointed book-purchaser are further reduced. The power that is given to an author with his or her capacity to invent a story and to develop characters, that particular indefinable magic, is difficult to match by anything from real life. And yet, after reading it, "Badger Valley" only increases my respect and admiration for Monica Edwards as a writer and as a person.
The blurb on the front of my paperback edition says, "An engaging account of four years of badger watching." A flick through the pages reveals a series of black and white photographs, mostly of badgers but also two cats, fox cubs, house martins and occasional glimpses of the author and her friend. You are arrested by one picture : a dead badger lies by the side of the A3 as blurred vans and buses race past. The other pictures of badgers are each assigned captions : Talley, Jack, Piglet, Roly, Proudfoot, Shy and so on, but these mean little as they are just a medley of black and white bodies and faces. By the end of the book you are still being drawn back to the photograph of the dead badger but you can also look closely at the other badgers now and the details of appearance and the kinks of personality begin to emerge. For, after all, this isn't entirely a plotless narrative and, just like the story-lines in the "Romney Marsh" and "Punchbowl Farm" series, we are left wondering what is going to happen next.
At the centre of the story is the wild valley, "a ten-acre woodland of almost magical beauty, with its bright stream and hidden paths and its wild creatures that no longer considered me an intruder."
The farm, the old farm-house, the garden, the fields and the Jersey herd that Monica Edwards and her husband Bill had bred themselves, are all gone. It seems that the world of the "Punchbowl Farm" books is to be lost, a tragedy for her readers as well as for the author and her family. However, in the end, she asserts that the strongest feeling she had as the last document was signed was one of "joy that we had kept the valley." It's surely the valley where Lindsey and Roger found the pine martin and then their "even better" secret.
Minor details of the development of the new house and events in the Edwards family appear from time to time but the focus is very firmly on the badger sett in the valley. The story that is told is one of happiness, tragedy and mystery. The closeness that she achieves to the badger family, feeding some of them from her hands, being accepted as a neutral or friendly part of the woodland, is the bringer of the "joy" that is referred to earlier. She got so close and was so trusted.
"Seven badgers by moonlight; all the cubs and three yearlings. Puff came on to my knee she is very big for this ! How dramatic moonlight is in the woods; the black trees slashed with white from crown to roots. There are few greys; everything is black or brightest silver."
The mystery is mingled with the tragedy in many ways. By its very nature a badger's life is mostly conducted underground and in the darkness of the night. Only up close can the different badgers be identified even the extraordinary Jack with his champagne-bottle shaped white streak and his venturesome character. Monica Edwards brings this iceberg-like puzzle clearly to our attention by remarking that even after all her observation she still can not be sure if some entrance holes are actually connected to each other by subterranean passages. Then suddenly there are there are those poignant moments of loss, sometimes only recognised months later as she reviews her diary entries.
"It is good that we are not aware of the future, even in comparatively small things, for I should have been sad if I had realised that this was the last I should see of Proudfoot."
On one occasion all four badger cubs disappear and the reason for their inevitable death is never discovered. There is also the episode where she and her friend had nursed a fox cub after the death of its mother and brother. They succeed in nourishing him through the end of winter with food but "he had no mother to teach him caution" and they find his body or what was left of it. Monica Edwards knows that it was inevitable but cannot suppress her emotions.
"It was the end of an episode: no good being sad about it, but we were."
She never knew the fate of many of the badgers that she had been accepted by in her valley. She realised that this is the way of nature. However, she makes the reader share her emotions during the grim job of examining the road victims, sad at the loss of any badger life, but relieved that it wasn't one of her (and now our) intimate acquaintances. One is reminded of a relative of one of the missing looking through the human bodies that have been recovered from the river appalled but still filled with vague hope.
Her role in being with the badgers is constantly full of self-questioning. She wonders if it is right to interfere in the processes of the natural world, to befriend animals that are basically wild and needing their fear of humans for self-protection. Her justification is that man has interfered so much in their world that their chances of survival are unsure. If she can weight the balance a little back in their favour she will do so. Thus we applaud her campaign for a safety culvert under the main road that has claimed so many of her badger friends. Unlike Tamzin or Lindsey, who surely would have chosen direct and dramatic action, Monica Edwards works determinedly and relatively quietly towards her goal, enlisting the aid of many like-minded supporters. The resolution of the issue is only a partial triumph, the sort of sticky compromise that is better than nothing at all.
The tentative nature of her conclusions about badger behaviour brings out the robust honesty with which she treats any animal topic she touches. On the question of whether cubs of the previous year (yearlings) help with the protection and upbringing of the cubs from the new litter she remains impartial. Once delightfully this had happened. On another occasion the yearlings were driven ferociously away from the sett. All this is recorded faithfully in her meticulous notes that have allowed her to reconstruct just what did happen from the evidence which was visible.
The same pleasure that can be found in her
descriptions of young Diccon's babyhood, toddler-time and
gradual maturing in the "Romney Marsh" series
can be experienced here in her accounts of the badger
cubs. The behaviour of her two cats, Haile and Rover, is
as intriguing as any account of that old miscreant, Jim
Decks and the other Westling fishermen. Needless to say
the evocation of the landscape, enhanced here by a
wonderful photograph of the Old Sandy Lane, is as
brilliant as ever.
And so we do. But, alas, this was her last book. #
Romney Marsh and Punchbowl Farm
The Summer of the Great Secret (1948) is Monica Edwards third book, and the second in her Romney Marsh series, set on the Sussex coast near Rye. She started the series with her first book, Wish for a Pony (1947), a fairly traditional example of the summer holiday book, complete with ponies and other outdoor activities, so popular at the time. The characters, however, are fairly well developed right from the start: Tamzin Grey is dreamy and idealistic, given to sudden enthusiasms and great plans; her best friend Rissa Birnie is brisk and practical. Tamzins father is Vicar of Westling, a small fishing village, and many of their adventures involve some of the more eccentric village characters.
As the series develops, the characters mature; ponies become less of a focal point in the stories but remain as one activity among many. Roger (a cousin of Rissa) and his friend Meryon are introduced into the series and gradually a close foursome develops, although the central character is always Tamzin. Within the context of the stories there is a degree of realism and ordinariness mixed with adventure: buried treasure and secret caves are not standard ingredients, and whilst there is a certain amount of smuggling and horse-stealing, this is tempered with episodes about rare sea birds, problems with property-developers, and involvement with farm and village activities. Later in the series, the developing friendship between Tamzin and Meryon, and the effect of this on themselves and on the old foursome, is sensitively handled. However, the last book of the series, A Wind is Blowing has always seemed to me somewhat out of key and is perhaps my least favourite: it concerns mainly the Tamzin/Meryon relationship and the effect of Meryon being temporarily blinded while trying to prevent a robbery. The book tries to move the characters into the young adult world, but on a storyline which is slightly too improbable.
The Punchbowl Farm books form Monica Edwards other main series. The characters are introduced in No Mistaking Corker (1947), which describes a summer holiday in a horse-drawn caravan. This, however, is a forerunner rather than the first book of the series: the story is narrated by Lindsay Thornton, and Dion appears as a younger brother. Black Hunting Whip (1950) is the real beginning of the series: the book is in the third person, Dion is now an older brother, and this remains constant for the series.
In Black Hunting Whip the Thornton family (Andrea, Dion, Lindsay, Peter and their parents) move to the ancient, dilapidated but beautiful Punchbowl Farm. Lindsay Thornton is usually shown as the central character: she is rather like Tamzin Grey, dreamy, tender-hearted, fond of animals, disliking change. Her older sister Andrea tends to be a minor character; in the later books she is often away, at boarding school or involved in her own interests. Peter is the youngest, and in common with Tamzins younger brother Diction, takes a scientific interest in animals and insects. Dion is non-academic but practical, and is already planning to run the farm when he is older. Adventures tend to focus on farm life: animals getting out, the harvest, a fire. There is also a mild supernatural thread appearing in a couple of books of the series, connected with aspects of the farms history: in Black Hunting Whip, a riding whip found buried with an old diary near some ancient foundations is mysteriously claimed by a boy rider at the local gymkhana; no-one knows who he is and its implied that he is in some sense a ghost. In Spirit of Punchbowl Farm (1952), Lindsay sees episodes from three hundred years ago in the farms history, from her vantage point in the old yew tree which somehow embodies the spirit of the farm. The supernatural episodes, woven into the more down-to-earth accounts of farming and holiday activities, give the series a strong sense of stability and permanence. The life of the farm in past and present is seen as a continuum. Even the modern improvements to the buildings, which enthuse Dion but sadden Lindsay, dont alter the secure framework of the series.
Both series have elements of improbability and adventure, but these are grounded in secure family life, small domestic or farm incidents, and ordinary outdoor activities. The books are full of the sense that the holidays are all too short, and theres a great deal to do. Ordinary interests are part of the fabric; in between more adventurous episodes, Tamzin makes models, goes boating and swimming; Lindsay gets up early to watch badgers playing in the valley. School is mentioned only distantly, as a tiresome interlude to the real life of weekends and holidays.
In Punchbowl Midnight (1951), Tamzin meets Lindsay whilst on holiday near Punchbowl Farm. They become good friends, and several of the later books mix the characters from the two series. This allows other threads to develop, such as the friendships between Roger and Lindsay, and Rissa and Dion. The boy/girl friendships are handled well. There is no romantic intensity; it is seen as quite natural that people with common interests should enjoy each others company. Monica Edwards is also refreshingly non-stereotyped about male/female roles, unlike many childrens writers of the period. Jobs such as cooking tend to be shared; one holiday Roger tries to work through the recipe book from A to Z, with varying results. Roger and Lindsay work together on creating a tapestry; Tamzin and Meryon can both handle a boat. There is no nonsense about looking after the girls; when Meryon asserts his authority, it is because he is older rather than because he is a boy. Relationships are equal and everyone has a share in whatever is happening.
This sense of equality permeates other relationships: parents are generally trusting and reasonable, refraining from giving advice unless asked, and seeing other points of view. The interests of younger siblings are taken seriously by the older ones. The Westling village characters are portrayed with interest and affection rather than in the class-conscious, rather disparaging way so often found in similar books for children. The general atmosphere is one of tolerance and stability, coupled with a keen interest in the people and activities to hand. An added appeal is that the locations actually exist: Romney Marsh is real and you can walk to Cloudesley Castle (Camber Castle in reality) from Dunsford (Rye). And Punchbowl Farm is based on the real Punchbowl Farm in Surrey where Monica Edwards lived for many years.
Ive always found these two series much the most interesting of Monica Edwards work. She wrote two career books for girls at a time when these were popular, plus two one-off stories, Under the Rose and Killer Dog; however, I find these quite lightweight and uninspired in comparison with the two main series. There are also her five autobiographical books about the real Punchbowl Farm; many Monica Edwards fans are very fond of these, but I must admit I find them rather dull. Perhaps its because they assume a great interest in animals, particularly cats and badgers. Not being keen on either, I find that these books dont appeal to me nearly as much as her fiction; even so, there is a certain amount of interest in the background information about Punchbowl Farm.
Finally, a word about collecting. Monica Edwards seems to be popular with collectors at the moment but, as yet, most of her books are quite inexpensive and reprints (particularly Childrens Book Club editions) regularly turn up in charity shops for a few pence, or for £2-£4 on sales lists*. Early first editions in dustwrappers, as well as a few of the later titles, are harder to find, but with a little persistence can be tracked down and are still relatively inexpensive. Earlier titles have the added attraction of illustrations by Anne Bullen, Geoffrey Whittam and Charles Tunnicliffe. You should be able to build up a good collection fairly easily; and if you havent read any Monica Edwards yet, I hope youll now feel inspired to do so!
*This article was written in 1995, and the prices given above were true at the time. Alas, prices for almost all Edwards hardbacks are now above £5 even for CBC reprints: firsts in dustwrappers are now going for very high prices, between £20 and £120, judging by ABE and E-bay.
THE ROMNEY MARSH & PUNCHBOWL FARM STORIES
No Mistaking Corker 1947 Punchbowl Harvest 1954
OTHER CHILDRENS BOOKS
All published by Michael Joseph #
Just ONE page on the Collecting Books and Magazines web site based in Australia.