|bc||Geoffrey Trease and the world
Introduction Writers and Romances
A short comment on the last page of the second volume of Geoffrey Trease's autobiography led to the series of thoughts that produced the following article. It was merely the author noting the visit of his friend and fellow novelist Malcolm Saville. Straight away I was reminded of two main things that the two men had in common: they were both men who loved the English countryside and who set themselves the task of writing for boys AND girls. And then I was even more struck by the clear differences in their approach to writing about the subject of the relationships between the sexes in their books. Why, in spite of liking the "Lone Pine" adventures, have I always found what happens in Bannermere so much more rewarding. What was the magic of this aspect of those Lake District stories ? It is time to find out.
Malcolm Saville eventually had to face the problem of the children in his "Lone Pine" stories going through a gradual process of maturity. Almost inadvertently it seems, when the pressure was put on him, he produced some of his finest writing as he chronicled the way in which David and Peter (Petronella), Tom and Jenny, Jon and Penny gradually discovered and then explored their love for each other. By the time he got to "Not Scarlet but Gold", however, it was already too late to break the mould of the traditional "Lone Pine" adventure. There would always be the crooks (sometimes indeed the same villains coming back for a further dose of frustration) whose plans, in the end, would be thwarted.
Moreover the dangers and the pressures that were faced were nearly always physical : being trapped underground, locked in a room, threatened by flood or by vicious intimidation. Hints at the complexity of the key relationships are never really followed up. The reader is protected at all times from any thoughts that the romance might not work out. Thus Peter's attraction to John in "Not Scarlet but Gold", whilst intriguing, is already predictably doomed, for Saville has made it clear in the opening chapters that John is, for most of the book, on the side of the selfish and the cruel. By the time we get to "Where's My Girl ?" and a genuinely eligible "nice" young man, Dan Sturt, can present himself as a rival, Peter's commitment to David is so profound that the issue is never in doubt. Dan's attempts to flirt with her scarcely ruffle the surface of their relationship. Earlier Peter's worries that she might be lost outside the world of Shropshire are described in "Rye Royal" and they come nearest to convincing us that the road ahead might not all be smooth and even. That's how Saville allows to feel for all of about three pages.
Tom's desire for a life less dull than that on a country farm causes a few moments of upset in "The Man with Three Fingers" but by the time of "Where's My Girl ?" the writer reverts to using physical means a tractor accident that causes a loss of memory in order to place a strain on the relationship with Jenny. The possibilities of the consummation of the feelings between Jon and Penny are more difficult to pin down. Perhaps Malcolm Saville realised that he had "written himself into a corner" and balked at tackling the very difficult issue of love between first cousins. In the end, of course, you remain grateful for the happy endings that he would permit and "Home to Witchend" brings the older "Lone Piners" over the threshold into adult life in a way that doesn't abandon the original "catching crooks and villains" format and which, in fact, in spite of its contrivances, validates the principles of friendship that have been there from the first book. This is all very well but I want to talk about something better.
No Boats on Bannermere
Reading them again with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what happens in "The Gates of Bannerdale", it is surprising how clear the signs are that Trease will take the basic attraction that Bill feels towards Penny and make it into something more deeply rewarding. My memory of reading "No Boats on Bannermere" with a classroom full of schoolchildren (11 year old boys and girls) drew me at once to the small section at the end of the book. The adventure is over and Bill and Penny stand together in the courtroom.
One of the newspaper men was still a bit muddled. He had cornered Penny and me.
"Let's see," he said, "it's this girl who's your sister ?" and before I could put him right, Penny burst out in her blunt way: "Thank goodness, no !"
He winked at me he was that sort of man and said: "That might mean more than one thing, eh, lad ?"
And for once Penny's white face went pink, right up to her high cheekbones.
At this point all my pupils would give knowing glances towards each other and demand to know whether Bill and Penny "got together" in the next book. I had five copies of "Under Black Banner" and invited the keenest ones always the girls by the way to find out for themselves. Perhaps it was just as well I didn't tell them the length of the journey they would have to make, nor indicate the beautiful subtlety with which the story of their "fine romance" is told.
But on looking more closely at this first book in the series it is clear that this whole business of the relationship between the sexes was embedded far more deeply in the text than might at first be realised. Take Bill's first meeting with Penny in Botley's café in Winthwaite. He recalls what he saw,
"I must say Susan had picked her first friend jolly well. If the form average was anything like Penny, they must be a smashing lot. Her hair was practically black, she had dark eyes too with a lot of devil in them, and a pale smooth skin almost as good as an advertisement. Not shiny or spotty or anything."
Later that evening Susan describes her brother's reaction:
"Bill's awfully wild," said Sue. "I think he's fallen for Penny."
"Don't talk wet ! I hardly noticed her."
"What a fib ! Mum, his eyes were popping out !"
"If I showed any pleasure," I assured her with dignity, "it was due to the ice-cream."
Mum came to my rescue. "His eyes do that, you know, when ice-cream appears." That was another slander, but I was glad to let it pass.
If Mrs. Melbury understands her son's incipient attraction and his need to cover it up, then it must come as a relief to Bill after his ordeal at Winthwaite Grammar School on the afternoon of his first day. Mr. Kingsford certainly did not understand and did not approve. For that fearsome headmaster Bill has already broken one of the unwritten rules of the school
"You were giving your full attention or should I say, 'paying your attentions' ? to two young ladies."
His instinctive loathing of Bill's apparent interest in Penny and Sue is rendered vividly by his memories of his own youth,
"When I was a boy, Melbury, we did not seek the society of the opposite sex. A fellow who did so was regarded as ..well ." he did not finish the sentence, but a look of disgust came into his face."
He follows this up by saying that there is no need for "these ridiculous exhibitions, these pavement romances "
Even Bill's declaration that the girl had been his sister and her friend whom he was meeting for the first time does not deflect the Head from his angry outburst.
"Let is be the last ! At least for some years."
Bill returns to his classroom reflecting that Kingsford's ideas might have come out of the Ark ! Then that characteristic streak in his nature that causes him to reflect on the choice of his words even as he writes them makes him see a deeper and bitterly humorous truth. Kingsford would not approve of the Ark because male and female went in together !
At this point poor Bill would seem to be an unlikely subject for romantic involvement. Being with the opposite sex is strongly discouraged by the authorities that govern his daily life and the bantering affection he shares with his sister means that any interest in Penny will bring on a bout of teasing. He finds his own appearance unprepossessing; he even considers himself possibly unsuitable for his chosen career as an author.
There's another thing that makes me shy about it I don't look as if as if I'd grow into an author. I'm not pale with long dark hair, and brooding eyes. I'm pink, with hair of no special colour, and I keep it short since I joined the Cadet Corps. I don't know about the look in my eyes. I only see it in the mirror, and then of course the expression is always the same, just a chap staring at himself.
There's nothing glamorous about Bill. But, as we live life from his point of view (and this becomes more and more important as the series goes on,) we are soon deeply in his confidence, sharing his embarrassments and registering his hopes and, best of all, being thoroughly frustrated by his refusal to see the way ahead clearly. We can grow up with him and we can't help liking him. There is also the enjoyment of Geoffrey Trease's handling of Bill wanting to be an author at the same time as he (Bill that is) is being an author telling us these interesting stories. Especially pleasing are those moments when the audience are treated to a theatrical aside that deepens our understanding and illuminates the context in which they occur. Take, for example, the first weekend that Susan and Bill invite Penny and Tim to visit the cottage at Beckfoot. Having settled the notion that prospective policemen (Tim) and budding authors (Bill) both have to inspect people closely, Trease makes the following observation which brings us back straight away to Penny and the way that Bill regards her.
Detectives don't see things quite the same as authors, though. After tea, while the girls were helping Mum I got the chance to ask him what he thought of her.
"Jolly nice," he said. "I wish I had a sister nearer my own age."
"I don't mean Susan, Penny !"
"Oh .the other girl. H'm, she seems all right."
You see what I mean ? Yet Tim imagines that he's developing his powers of observation.
The section that comes before this comment contains a flowing description of the way that Penny looked as she turned up.
She looked different from when I saw her the first time, because she'd a gay head-scarf now, she had let her hair stream down, as it wasn't a school day. Needless to say, she wasn't in school uniform either. She had a sports shirt, lemony colour, and the kind of grey shorts girls wear, that you can hardly tell from skirts.
Having concocted this portrait Bill takes an almost apologetic step back.
This description sounds as though I stared at her.
For a moment it sounds like he's embarrassed by his interest. Then comes his basic honesty.
(Perhaps I did.)
There then comes a feeble excuse that training to be an author involves you in looking closely at people. Trease has provided just enough doubt to let the reader know both that Penny is extremely attractive and that Bill can't help noticing.
However, making Penny take notice of him is a lot more difficult. Yet from the earliest moments Bill is prepared to make the effort. As they climb the hillside for the first time Penny's limp would seem to give him the opportunity but in fact the disability forms a barrier. It is not easy to be gallant when the gallantry reminds the "maiden in distress" of one of the most painful aspects of her life.
It was a bit rough in places, and I tried to give Penny a hand, but she was quite huffy. "I can manage, thanks. I'm not a complete cripple, you know." Susan told me afterwards that people have to be very tactful with Penny about her limp. She hates sympathy. She's apt to fly out with some crushing answer, which she's sorry about afterwards, but too proud to take back.
In spite of this prickliness about her limp Penny shows very soon that she has many things in common with the literary Bill. He immediately finds other things to like about her as well as her appearance. He talks with relish about the way in which she positively leaks Shakespeare quotations at every opportunity. His own Lancelot Gobbo debate with himself on rainy night of his first arrival in Bannerdale confirms his own fascination with the Bard. Bill also comments on how she transforms herself successfully into Gitana the Gypsy at the High School Fete. Her general good humour and lively mind make her an ideal friend whatever her gender. She is in effect the complete contrast to the apparently dull and methodical Tim with his fascination for gadgets. Their common involvement in the mystery connected with Sir Alfred Askew is enough for the four young people to inter-react in a way that would be totally be disapproved of by the crusty old Mr. Kingsford.
Yet Kingsford has his part to play in this "fine romance" even from its earliest days. For a start his encouragement to Bill to write about "his own uneventful experiences" leads to both the contents of the narrative and the style in which it is written. Secondly, the way in which his attitude towards Miss Florey, the headmistress of the County Sec, undergoes a radical change by the end of "No Boats" forms a prelude to the way in which the barriers between the sexes are breached as the series progresses and the children get older. From the unfeeling dictator, the "benighted old fogy" of their first meeting, Kingsford develops into almost an avuncular figure who has come to accept and indeed enjoy the changed world that he sees around him. His apology to Miss Florey for his cold and haughty behaviour is both abject and impressive.
"But I never dreamt D.M. Florey was a woman ! The intellectual grasp, the depth of learning .Madam, I am at once ashamed and proud to stand here with you this morning."
Later Bill tells us that "The Head was hobnobbing with Miss Florey as though she were his favourite niece ."
Bill has begun to realise that even in his dull and "uneventful" world anything can happen. To return to the end - even Penny can be made to blush at what the newspaperman hints about her and Bill. But they are very young and there is a lot of growing up still to do.
Under Black Banner
In "Under Black Banner" Bill, Tim, Penny and Susan are, by now, fast friends. Geoffrey Trease's clever use of Bill's observations makes their little group plausible. He makes it clear that to like people a lot you don't have to be like them. We see, for example, how Tim's stolid good sense which makes him seem older than his years is balanced by Penny's lively and impetuous nature. Even Susan's interest in all things to do with the country and the people who earn a living from it is contrasted with her brother's need to live in a world of books and ideas. Bill's feelings for Penny are still those of affectionate friendship. There are many things he would like to do in order to please her. Back in "No Boats on Bannermere" his drawing off of Sir Alfred Askew's pursuit by deliberately attracting attention to himself is so that the lame member of the party, Penny, can have a chance of escape. This sort of behaviour is never acknowledged by Penny but all the time we can see Bill entering imaginatively into her world. Thus, as they stumble across the slopes of Black Banner in the opening chapters of the second book, Bill's own feelings of tiredness are always modified by his realisation of how much worse it must be for Penny. When Penny challenges Tim to find the mysterious bicycle-owning occupant of the lonely farm and prepares to pit Bill against him in the detection business we learn that Bill joins in "to please Penny".
"You are a sport," she said. There was always something very warming about Penny's approval.
How galling for him then after having metaphorically ridden into battle as her champion to discover her total lack of memory about the challenge when he proves successful. But worse things than that have begun to befall him. The day of the School Sports proves to have a very distressing consequence for our young storyteller.
For a while everything goes well. Mrs. Melbury, Penny and Sue come to watch the boys compete. Bill's description of Penny again leaves no doubt about his admiration for her.
Penny looked absolutely smashing, I thought. She was wearing dark blue and white, all very crisp and clear cut and definite like herself. With her pale skin and almost black hair she might have stepped from the cover of a magazine.
We know by now that Bill appreciates far more about Penny than her youthful good looks. Unfortunately Penny herself is not immune to the superficial attraction of outside appearances. She becomes fascinated by Seymour, one of the more gifted athletes at the school and who is three years older than Bill. She comments that he looks like a film-star and Bill supplies his own not altogether balanced description of the boy from the rival house.
Next to Nelson stood Seymour, with his wavy hair glinting yellow in the sun, smiling like a toothpaste advertisement but otherwise (let us be fair) looking more like the picture of "the young Alexander the Great" in our Greek history-book.
The inevitable happens and Penny falls for Seymour. She is even put off the idea of food when Bill invites her to the refreshment tent.
"No, thanks," she said in a far away tone. "I don't think I want anything."
And then there comes one of those moments where Trease makes use of Bill's lack of perception to indicate not only how young and self-preoccupied he is whilst at the same time letting the reader see a part of the secret that is to unfold. Whilst Bill has been upset by Penny's reaction to the glamorous Seymour he has failed to note his own sister's interest in Johnny Nelson. He is still pursuing his line of detection that will prove that Nelson was the mysterious person at Black Banner Tarn. Thus, when he needs a copy of Nelson's handwriting for comparison with the paper he found in the chemistry book, he tries to press Susan into asking Johnny for his autograph. When the embarrassed Susan refuses Bill sees this as mere feminine foolishness but the reader already knows that romance is in the air. It is just one of the delights of the way in which Bill's own narrative tells us things long before he suspects them himself. This is a storyteller's art that is brought to its finest pitch in "The Gates of Bannerdale", the crucial final novel. But we must not anticipate ourselves.
To be fair to Bill it must be admitted that his condemnation of Seymour comes before he realises that he and Penny are starting to go out together.
Actually, I had an instinctive dislike of Seymour, but nothing very definite to base it on. He thought a lot of himself ..With him, though, there was something more than (an) ordinary swelled head.
Bill pins his antipathy down to Seymour's glib views on morality.
"So long as you can get away with it, good luck to you."
Poor Bill is thoroughly upset when he sees her for the first time in the car that Seymour has borrowed from his brother. His bitterness comes out that evening in his discussion with Susan and his mother.
"You might tell Penny she's not the first
girl he's gone around with.."
"You know, Bill," said Mum mildly, "that might not worry her in the slightest so long as she can convince herself that she'll be the last. We females are very peculiar."
And so Bill has to live with it. The reader knows that he hasn't just lost a friend but also a girl to whom he is strongly attracted. When he sees her with scarlet lipstick and smelling of cheap scent his feelings bubble over into anger. As he also believes that she has failed to do her duty by writing a letter to the paper about Black Banner Tarn he loses his temper. It seems the Penny he has known has disappeared.
She was wearing lipstick, and it looked all wrong.
When next he sees her she is on the train on the
school trip to London
Worst of all is her reaction to Bill.
She pretended not to see me.
But at last Bill's opportunity to rescue the girl he likes so much finally comes along. Once again Trease effortlessly brings together all the themes of the book, indeed of the whole series, as the two young people ride on the Tube together between Charing Cross Road and Euston Station. Bill has completed his mission in London by his visit to the House of Parliament. His determination to fight for what is right is thrown into sharp contrast with Seymour's selfish indulgence and ruthless abandonment of Penny when he gets the chance to take chat up another girl and take her to a tea dance. The final straw is his parting shot about her gammy leg. Nothing could condemn him more in the eyes of the readers than that.
Penny and Bill are jammed together in a corner of the carriage. They are physically back together and soon they are emotionally back into their old friendship.
"If we breathe alternately," I panted, "we may live." Penny twisted her head and grinned. It was her old grin. It was the old Penny.
No wonder his heart leaps when he learns that she never wants to see Seymour again. At the same time the reader is relieved that some of her feelings of mortification are completely masked by her evident enjoyment of "Romeo and Juliet". Seymour has caused no permanent damage. Who better to tell about the magic of the performance than Bill ? And for Bill who better to tell about the venture into the House of Commons than Penny ? His distress at discovering than Penny had indeed written the letter he'd accused her of neglecting is, of course, double-edged. He'd made a mistake but he'd discovered that she was indeed true to her word even in the midst of her foolish infatuation for Seymour.
Mrs. Melbury makes it clear that Penny will have learned by her experience and suggests that she wonders if Bill will ever grow up at all. Bill indeed may have a long way to go before he understands himself but the end of the book beautifully celebrates the renewed friendship of Penny and Susan. It has even dawned on Bill that Susan's interest in Johnny Nelson has developed into something more than concern over a victim of government bureaucracy. As Mrs. Melbury has said, some people (like her daughter) grow "straight and slow" but Penny's violent "zigzag" in the case of Seymour has not blinded her to her friend's needs. Thus she checks Bill's intended "witty" comment about his sister suddenly referring to Nelson as "Johnny" in the context of him getting married some day.
Then I caught Penny's eye and read her signal to have a heart, and say no more.
The last two images of the book indicate perfectly Bill's feelings for Penny and give the sensation that once more that the girl he admires looks "all right" again.
It was a dark eye, with a wicked twinkle, like the tarn when the wind ruffles it, and the smile flitting over her smudged face was like the sun lighting up Black Banner.
Black Banner Players
In fact Bill starts the story as the young lover
Lorenzo in "The Merchant of Venice", his
efforts at plausible romance being undermined by the
rather large boy who is playing Jessica. The whole
episode is saying, in a good-humoured nod to Shakespeare,
that boys without girls are not really a viable
proposition. Miss Florey makes the same point to
Kingsford as she tries to talk him into permitting a
joint Twelfth Night entertainment in the hall at Black
Banner Tarn. Kingsford argues that the boys have enough
"sensible boyish hobbies and pursuits" and that
"Oh, no !" commented Tim in a discreet undertone. "You should just study your own Sixth Form, old chap !"
The inevitability of the attraction between the sexes is the line also taken by Miss Florey and her main point is that the school has a responsibility to produce the right environment
"They will meet, whatever their parents say or their schoolmasters ! The question is, are they to meet sensibly and naturally, as they do here, or would you rather see them mooching round the town, giggling and whistling after each other ?"
A close inspection of the first two Bannerdale books would reveal that Penny has "sensibly and naturally" grown close to the Melbury family, regarding Bill and Susan's mother as an unofficial auntie. In "Black Banner Players" Bill finds himself drawn more and more into the world of Mr. Morchard, Penny's father. When he works as a part-time shop assistant in the pre-Christmas rush in the bookshop he gets a further insight into the world of the girl he has come to know and gradually understand. Trease just uses one example to show how easy it is for Bill to tune into the wavelength of Penny's thoughts and feelings. A glimpse of the model theatre high up on a shelf in her room looks fascinating but Bill knows he dare not ask about it. Her limp will prevent her from ever becoming an actress.
As the theatre was a birthday present from her father, she would never hurt his feelings by giving it away but she would not torment her own by using it.
It seems that the older she gets the more this unfulfilled ambition will continue to cause her grief. It even manages to spread a pall of gloom over the atmosphere of Christmas Day at the cottage at Beckfoot. Left alone with Bill out on the frozen Bannermere, Penny begins to compare her lot to that of Susan whose life seems all planned. Both Penny and Bill know that his sister will be happy when she marries a farmer and they already realise that Johnny Nelson is the man at the centre of her heart. Penny convinces Bill that he will succeed as a writer but feels that she is doomed to spend her life merely helping her father in the shop. The mood passes very quickly but the reader notes that it is Bill to whom Penny turns now that the contented Susan is not available in quite the same way as a confidante. Bill understands.
In the same way Penny understands Bill's feeling of euphoria when he learns that the selection of poems he put in the post to a publisher has been accepted. She spreads the news of his success and he enjoys his "sweet hour of glory" before the blow falls and he learns that he has nearly fallen into the clutches of a vanity publisher. It is a humiliating experience for him but it is the thought of Penny that helps to sustain him through his disappointment.
After all Penny had never lain down under any trouble in her life, yet she had already, though a year younger, borne misfortunes a thousand times worse than mine. She had the pluck of a fox-terrier, with the bounce of a rubber ball.
The last two images are not at all romantic but they underline his deep admiration for the girl who has become his close friend. Her practical actions also prove her worthy of his high opinion. She is vulnerable just like him but she ensures that none of the other people in Bannerdale or Winthwaite will make fun of his setback.
Things turned out much less embarrassing that I had feared. Penny had been round before me. What story she told, I don't know. But there were no clever remarks flying about.
Any negative thoughts the reader might have about Penny's foolishness with Seymour in the previous book are being replaced by this positive picture of real friendship. It is a friendship that is now not just one way. She knows just how much Bill wants to succeed as a writer and takes the earliest opportunity to throw him back into the deep end by putting his name forward to write the skit for the Twelfth Night celebrations. She soon becomes the dynamic driving force behind the creation of Black Banner Players. To some her taking the lead comes over as bossiness but Bill makes it quite clear that he and many others are very happy to be swept along on the wave of her energy and enthusiasm. The result is a good deal of pleasure for both the players and the audiences and another step along the way in persuading Kingsford that the boys and girls should be allowed to act together both in school and out.
Nor does Trease neglect giving us a picture of Penny's more caring side. Her concern for the well-being of the Drake family, the two former actors who have fallen on hard times, brings out both her gentleness and her fighting spirit. However, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of "Black Banner Players" is the subtle irony of the way in which Bill and Penny keep secrets from each other for perfectly good reasons and so put a strain on their relationship once again. Their chosen vocations are the problem and the trip to Castle Eden is the set-piece scene used to by Trease to create the drama.
The last thing Bill needs when he goes to Castle Eden by train to discuss his writing for the BBC is to be accompanied by the most inquisitive of his friends. Another failure must surely be kept private if he is not to be smothered in the pity of those who know him. Little does Bill know that Penny too is visiting the BBC to audition for a part in a radio play she too is desperate to preserve her secret for it represents her last chance to even approach the world of professional actors. The last thing she needs is the company of the boy who knows most about her thwarted ambition. And yet who else would Bill rather share a railway carriage with ? He comments once again on how attractive she is.
In my heart I was quite thrilled to be seen stepping into the train with her, and if people liked to think that we were spending the whole day, instead of just the journey together well, it was not going to worry me.
And for Penny as well there are rewards to be found in Bill's company. His instinctive understanding of her delight in the beauty of nature is a rare quality that she truly appreciates.
Spring was really here now. Creamy blossoms gleamed against pink sandstone barns, and in one orchard the long grass was spiky with hundreds of daffodils. I leant across and touched Penny's wrist. "Look," I said. She was just in time to see the warm flash of gold before it vanished behind us. "Oh, lovely !" she said with a little gasp. I had known she would like it.
The journey home brings a strong reversal of this instinctive understanding. Bill wrongly comes to the conclusion that Penny has travelled all the way to Castle Eden to meet the rather handsome-looking boy who accompanied her back to the station. When the sky over the Irish sea stands out as "flaming crimson" Bill feels it is a sunset which exactly matches his mood. The following day his mother accuses him of having a very bad case of "possessiveness" with regard to Penny. Nowadays I find this statement doubly ironic. Of course Mrs Melbury is right in an altruistic sense the best thing Bill can do is get over his jealousy. And yet this outburst of jealousy is fostered by a natural desire to want Penny for himself. It's hard to reconcile the selfishness of this early form of love with a need to allow freedom. After all the main problem in "The Gates of Bannerdale" is Bill's apparent reluctance to claim Penny as the one he wants, a determination to allow her to make her own choices that frustrates both her and him. He becomes disabled by his own deep principles and his basic "niceness".
Trease shows once again how hard it is to do the right thing. Bill's success with his Children's Hour play cannot be fully tasted unless he tries his best to find an opportunity for Penny to play a part in it. To appeal on her behalf is both risky and embarrassing. Indeed his apparent cheek might frustrate any prospect of further commissions from the BBC. Yet Bill wants to give Penny her chance for happiness and that means more to him than any possibility of jeopardising his own future career. With the best of intentions he makes the wrong choice and we share his relief that the decision in Penny's favour has already been taken out of his hands.
And so the book once again ends with Penny, a heroine who isn't perfect, but whose vivacity and independence never fail to catch our attention.
Black Banner Abroad
The author's belief that the story of "Romeo and Juliet" belongs to young people and not to actors shines through every time the play is mentioned. Even before the troop of juvenile actors sets off from Winthwaite the irresistible demands of the opposite sex have been recognised by the one-time apparent woman-hater, Mr. Kingsford. Referring specifically to the travelling arrangements but in fact more generally to the lives of the young people who are about to embark on the big adventure, he quotes an apposite line from Horace. Bill translates it for the benefit of his friends.
"It's a line of Horace," I whispered back. "Means roughly, "you may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but she'll nip back in again.'"
Little does Bill know it but an unhappy love affair which met the disapproval of parents is at the centre of his own visit to the south of France. The Garniers, who are his hosts, have a niece called Gigi staying with them. At the very end of the book Bill overhears Miss Easterly saying,
"A most attractive girl. It seems she has just come through a rather difficult time. She got very fond of some young man someone quite unsuitable, rather a scoundrel, by all accounts. Her parents put their foot down you know what French parents are ! And she was packed off for a change of scene !"
The warmth of his friendship for Gigi takes Bill a little by surprise. He delighted in her company, was captivated by her blonde prettiness and relished her sense of humour. His enthusiasm for her showed to all around him, including all his English friends and especially to Penny.
Surely we have never liked Penny so much as this time when Bill appears to be neglecting her. It is particularly poignant to read what happens on the night of their first performance in Rivacelles. The unusual conditions and the strangeness of the audience have intimidated the young actors until Penny takes the stage as Juliet's Nurse. Her confidence and her technique rescue their debut from humiliation.
It wouldn't be fair to the others or to her to say that she had stolen the show. That would have meant she'd been selfish, and that she'd used her talent to overbalance the production. She wouldn't have done that. Penny knew that no Nurse, however brilliant, should dominate Romeo and Juliet, which must always be a story of boy and girl.
Bill wants to tell her how much he understood and appreciated her performance but he couldn't get near to her. Those words from him would have meant a lot. It is rather a jar therefore that a mere page later when we read that Bill is enjoying his first kiss in the Garnier kitchen with the lovely Gigi. His determination to include Gigi in all activities after this puts him into embarrassing situations such as asking if she can go on the trip to see Arles and Nimes even though she doesn't belong to either of the local schools. Penny rewards this assiduous attention to the French girl by delivering a classic put-down which Gigi interprets as giving Bill "the bird".
There are already other pictures of Penny that bring out her basic sadness. On the first Sunday in France Bill discovers the delights of spending his evening dancing with an attractive young lady but his pleasure is tempered somewhat when he has to explain to Gigi why Penny can't dance.
"Oh, Bill, how terrible !"
"Yes. Of course, she's got used to it."
Or would it have been truer to say that her friends had ? I didn't think, at the time. I had seen Penny sitting out of inter-school dances and parties before now. But, come to think of it, had she ever worn quite that mask-like expression before ?
Bill knows that the last thing that Penny wants is pity. On the other hand it is a painful reflection that in his time of happiness he had for once conveniently forgotten how upsetting it may have been for Penny. He also knew how good an actress she was when it came to covering up her feelings. The memory of the "mask-like impression" has stuck in his mind.
After he has heard Miss Easterly's revelation about Gigi on the journey home Bill deliberately moves out of the way so that he can hear no more. One can only wonder at the thoughts that cross his mind had he been used by Gigi because she was on the rebound from someone else ? He would prefer to think of her in the most positive fashion a friend with whom he had shared a special time and someone to be remembered with happiness in the future.
It is Penny who makes the first move back to resuming their friendship. In the swaying corridor of the French train they stand side by side eating peaches. As he offers her his handkerchief to wipe the juice from her chin he says,
"If you don't mind using MY handkerchief, that is."
He has neglected her and she has shown some slight signs of resentment but their underlying affinity, his appreciation of her and her liking for him, remains unchanged.
It wouldn't be the first time," she said with a grin. She dabbed her glistening mouth. "Bless you, Bill." "I don't suppose it'll be the last time either, " I said lightly.
The fourth book in the Bannerdale series has ended once again with the two of them together.
The Gates of Bannerdale
The crux of the matter would seem to be deciding just when their friendship for each other turns into a form of love that is going eventually to unite them in happiness. We must never forget that the medium for the story is Bill's narrative. Thus whereas we can squirm with embarrassment at his block-headed obtuseness whilst reading all the signs correctly ourselves, we are not entirely surprised that the details of tenderness, the inevitable outcome of the end of the book are left muted or unstated. Bill's narrative is retrospective. The reader benefits from his hindsight but his character in the middle of events seems perversely incapable of seeing things clearly. I now realise that this happens many more times than I first noticed. Intent upon the plot I had failed to read "between the lines".
Here's just one ocasion. By the summer term at Oxford Bill's friendship with Paul has proved another double-edged sword. Reluctantly Bill has decided that Penny has found that Paul's theatrical connections and their common interest in the theatre to be an attraction that has led her further away from him. Take the way in which the invitation to the May morning punt on the river takes place. Bill asks Paul to ask Penny and Carolyn if they want to come. Paul's reply is intriguing.
"Look " Paul hesitated. "I think it might come better from you. So far as Pen is concerned, especially."
I stared. "You've not had a row with her ?"
"Of course not !"
"I I just think it should come as your idea, not mine."
Why else has Trease included this little piece of dialogue except to suggest to us that Paul has attempted to become more "serious" with Penny and that she has put him off. Paul, nice young man that he is, has realised that Penny's affections lie with Bill. Something may even have been said.
In fact that Penny now cares deeply about Bill is obvious from the beginning of the book. Her "accidental" trip to the station to see him off and give him the piece of white heather is transparent in its motives. Remind yourselves of the chapter in which we learn that Penny has made up her mind that she is going to Oxford as well. Bill only learns about this much later from Miss Florey. For me the only plausible moment that Miss Florey is likely to reveal the single-mindedness of this decision (which shows Penny's desire to follow Bill) is when their relationship has been transmuted into open affection by an engagement. Miss Florey couldn't tell a boy that a girl set her heart on pursuing him unless it had all worked out right in the end. (In fact Bill wouldn't have dared to write the book if it hadn't worked out all right in the end !) We get the impression that Penny, often portrayed as being much older than Bill in many ways, has now made up her mind (like Susan) about whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Bill's ironic reflections upon how he persuaded her to go to Oxford produce all sorts out interesting strands in the fabric of their relationship. Eventually he must realise what a fool he was to be convinced that his logical arguments and his enthusiasms were what influenced her decision. On the other hand it must give him a feeling of happiness and security when he finally understands that she pursued him because he had become essential to her life.
But then must come the thought of how nearly he had thrown it all away. The scene in which he realises the depth of her feeling comes at the end of their first performance in "The Tempest". When she repeats the words he used at their first tea-party in Oxford about how one can grow out of friends it is with horror he listens to how she is having "to keep her voice steady". His flippant remark had hurt her deeply. She also talks about how he appeared to be trying to spare her feelings. He hadn't known that she cared so much, that the determined and spirited girl of his schooldays had become so vulnerable.
In fact what Bill had shown during that first year at Oxford was the perfect example of the "non-possessive case." It seems that Mrs. Melbury had taught her son too well. All through his National Service Bill had refused to acknowledge that Penny was his girlfriend in spite of what his fellow soldiers construed from the fact that the two of them were interchanging letters. Bill had thought that such an idea would have been abhorrent to her for such was her independent behaviour.
All the hours in which he had spent coaching her in Latin revealed how their emotions would engage, sometimes in a spirit of anger, but always return to the old friendship that had existed for so long between them. He doesn't yet realise that something further has taken place. Ironically, even old Kingsford seems to have more inkling about the real state of affairs when he warns Bill about how women can be a distraction to his studies.
In fact, apart from Bill's lack of perception, it is the friendship that got in the way. What was needed was a magical transformation scene. It is hardly surprising that Trease turns to Shakespeare in order to effect it. In "The Tempest" Penny has been asked to be a decorative figurehead on the boat at the end of the play. Bill, playing Ariel, describes the effect that has upon him.
I don't know what it did to the audience. I know that I myself well, I found it effective. If I had had the next line to speak I think I should have forgotten it.
Unlike "Black Banner Abroad" it is not Penny's acting talent but her physical beauty that has affected him. He tries to tell her.
I waited for Pen, and we walked up the grey winding path together.
"You were terrific," I said.
She shrugged her shoulders. "There was nothing to do. I only had to keep still."
"Yes, but " I stopped.
Some things are harder to say, the longer you have known people.
After the second part of the scene in which the two of them get angry with each other about the misunderstandings that have kept them apart they sudden dissolve into laughter which "blew away all the barrier" that had been between them.
For the moment, not much needed to be said. Everything was all right between us.
We now have to be clear that this is not just a resumption of friendship but the clear start of something deeper. Bill will say no more "For the moment". That this new feeling is hinted at rather than blared out with trumpets marks the clearest difference between the approach of Malcolm Saville and that of Geoffrey Trease. Before we reach the end of the book there are several small indications of Bill's intentions and progress. When they go punting on the river Bill makes it abundantly clear that he wants Penny alongside him.
I felt relaxed and happy, and not only because the strain of the play was over or because Mum and Sue were so obviously loving every minute of their time in Oxford ....
Those four dots at the end of the paragraph allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. Mine are that either his body language and/or behaviour, and perhaps even some explicit statement of his feelings, have made it clear to Penny that he wants her as his own. Her reaction to this has been positive and so Bill is happy. When we consider Bill as narrator we realise that, given his character, it is hardly surprising that the more intimate moments will remain private, something between himself and Penny that the reader can guess at but which he will never declare.
The marriage between Johnny Nelson and Susan ends the book and the short final chapter confirms the changed outlook that Bill and Penny have towards each other. When Tim Darren, roped in as best man, wonders whether he will be forced into kissing the bridesmaid, Bill's instinctive response is to show the reader his own enthusiasm at the thought of Penny,
"Well, if you don't want to ." I murmured.
Most of all we are struck by the final image of the book,
"The treasure you seek longest is often close under your hand."
I referred to four treasures at the beginning of this last section of my consideration of the Bannerdale series. Some people I know have been disappointed that "The Gates of Bannerdale" ends like "No Boats on Bannermere" with the finding of an actual tangible treasure. Nothing seems to have changed from the very first book, and to them it was obvious from the start that as soon as the treasure was mentioned it would be found. I feel that they are missing not just one point but several ones that the writer wanted to make. The real historical treasure that is found is the truth - the vindication of one man's behaviour over three hundred years later. What Bill and Snaith have discovered is that their original partisan beliefs on either side of the issue have been replaced by something higher, a form of objectivity that is to be prized above the thrill and satisfaction of winning the argument. It is something that Trease himself valued most highly and which he explains in some detail in his autobiography. In the last Bannermere story it had taken Carolyn to push Bill in the correct direction.
She was perfectly right. I felt ashamed that I had ever hesitated. Facts are sacred and in the field of history, anyhow, they must be shared with everyone else who is seeking after truth.
This is not an easy lesson for anyone to learn and it involves a difficult step on the road to maturity. But for Bill honesty brings its reward.
So, if the first treasure is the college silver and the second is the uncovering of the meaning of the word truth, what are the third and fourth manifestations of this word ? Of course, most all it is Bill's recognition of his love for Penny. He has finally seen the truth. She is the treasure that is "close" at hand and Penny's understanding that he now knows it and that they have much to share in the future makes it the greatest treasure of all. But all through this book and indeed all through the series the fourth treasure has been there around them the people and the places of Bannerdale. Even whilst the Bill-Penny romance has been having its rocky passages there are stretches of writing which reveal how much Cumbria means to him and to her. We have already quoted how Bill drew her attention to the coming of spring as they travel together to Castle Eden in "Black Banner Players". Now let us look at one other journey they make together back to Winthwaite at the end of term.
The train rattled on, the sea came into view on our left and the well-remembered shapes of the mountains on our right. The spring was later here, but there were daffodils already under the apple trees. The fells, crouched like great friendly dogs, still wore their last autumn coats of shaggy brown bracken, but very soon now the new green stalks would be pushing up and unfolding. The waterfalls were spuming down. When the train stopped at a little station, the gush and gurgle could sometimes be heard as a background to the voices on the platform.
We feasted our eyes on the scene we both loved.
Like Malcolm Saville's Shropshire and Monica Edwards' Romney Marsh, Geoffrey Trease's Lake District is a place both loved and lovingly recreated as each story unfolds. His two characters Penny and Bill are ones that have also obviously become close to his heart and it was surely certain that he would unite them in the place that meant so much to him and to them. The last short chapter has all of the necessary ingredients even before we have Bill's conclusive statement about the treasure so near at hand. The reference to Shakespeare and to weddings recalls the thread of drama that has so linked the lives of the characters. The more perceptive of readers will know that Shakespeare's plays so often ended with not just one wedding amongst the central players. Indeed Mr. Tyler pushes this theme most insistently towards Bill even as Susan and Johnny set off on their honeymoon. The last glimpse we are given of Bannerdale is a simple but evocative one.
Bannermere Church was packed. It's a plain, whitewashed Lakeland church, but that day it was bright with flowers.
The fact that all four friends from "No Boats" play a part in the wedding or as Bill puts it "the old quartette were united in a common enterprise" is particularly satisfactory as is the "round up" of all the characters who have featured prominently in their lives to be wedding guests. Bill's yearning to kiss Penny is followed very quickly by the description of the car carrying the bride and groom between the Gates of Bannerdale.
He had to stop the story somewhere. And I must bring to an end this article. Let us borrow the words Trease used in his later book "Curse on the Sea" when Rob and Barbara can finally come together.
"And life really began."
Now that Penny and Bill have cleared away their differences, surely Trease intended that the same could be said for them. That Trease has carried us so successfully and so compellingly through to this point in their fortunes is for me the fifth treasure, the real treasure of the five Bannermere books themselves. It is truly a "fine romance". #
(C) Jim Mackenzie 2002