The 1938 Club : Some earlier reviews


The list of possible reads for 1938 turned out to be a long and fascinating one, and some of the books I’ve already written about on the blog. So rather than re-read or re-post, I though I’d share a few links here to previous reviews.

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

The original Puffin cover

The original Puffin cover

I read this one as part of All Virago/All August, which includes Persephone, and found it great fun, as well as a real eye-opener about the hard work involved in day-to-day living back in 1938.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson


One of my favourite Persephones – a real feel-good read, that had me with a grin on my face all the way through – just thinking about it makes me want to read it again!

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen


My first read of Bowen, and what a wonderful one it was too. Her prose is quite something – beautiful and complex, sometimes difficult but always rewarding. I really do need to read more Bowen!

The Secret Island by Enid Blyton

secret islandA bit of a blast from the past here – I grew up reading Blyton and these stories were some of my favourites. I couldn’t resist a revisit and was happy to read an original version, not one which had been sanitised and updated.

A Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun


This was a wonderful read – my second Keun, and capturing the sense of dislocation and insecurity in Europe in the 1930s. Also a very successful child narrator. Which reminds me that I need to get on to the other Keuns I have on the TBR!

So that’s a few 1938 books I’ve already covered here. I’m really becoming convinced this was a golden year for literature of all sorts, despite (or in some cases because of) the rumblings going on in Europe. One more book to go! 🙂

Home Alone for All Virago/All August


The Children who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

It’s been a while since I picked up one of the lovely Persephone volumes I have on my shelves, and I’m not sure what attracted me to this one at the moment, although All Virago/All August (which includes Persephones) is one possibility! “The Children who Lived in a Barn” was a Christmas gift from my dear pal J. and as usual it’s a lovely one. The book is of course a classic, and Graham was editor for Puffin Books, Penguin’s children’s arm; this was her only proper work of fiction.

The original Puffin cover

The original Puffin cover

“The Children who Lived in a Barn” tells the story of the Dunnett family: Sue, Robert, twins Sam and Jumbo, plus the ‘baby’ Alice. The family live in a rented ramshackle old house near a village, and at the start of the tale their parents are called away unexpectedly by a family illness, rushing off to take their first plane flight. Amazingly (to modern eyes, anyway) they choose to leave their children at home alone, with Sue (the eldest at 13) and Robert (next down, but a boy) in charge of the younger ones. All does not go as planned, however, as the family are behind with the rent and their nasty landlord decides to evict them. A friendly local farmer offers them a barn to live in; the children move in and try to get by on their own, and also to win over the initially suspicious locals. Will they cope with cooking, cleaning, school work and the lack of money? Will they defeat the local do-gooders who want to farm them out to various carers? And what did happen to their parents.

On surface level, then, the book is very reminiscent of Enid Blyton, who wrote a number of books about children managing on their own (“The Secret Island” springs to mind instantly). However, there are differences: “Barn” comes across as having a much more adult perspective, and unlike many of the Blytons (which often involve children running away), these youngsters are staying put and carrying on with a relatively ordinary life.

So the chores are divvied up; alas, the children fall into traditional roles and Sue ends up with most of the domestics (which *did* rankle a little); but they all have tasks, they all learn to pull together and have adventures along the way. Their relationship with the villagers improves, the do-gooders get their comeuppance and at the end equilibrium returns. There *are* a few strange gaps in the story, particularly dealing with the Dunnett parents – their rushed departure and sudden return does rather stretch credibility a teeny bit in a book that’s striving to be more realistic than the usual childhood fare. And although the central character of Sue is believable and well-drawn, the rest of the family are perhaps less developed – Robert is stolid, Sam and Jumbo naughty and it was probably the whiney and selfish youngest, Alice, who really stood out in her own right alongside Sue.

Lovely Persephone endpaper

Lovely Persephone endpaper

Nevertheless, these are minor niggles, because I really enjoyed my read of this novel. Like so many Persephones, one of the most rewarding things about this book is the glimpse it gives us into the past. We take our mod cons so much for granted, and the thought of getting up at 4 a.m. on a Monday morning to hand-wash the family clothes and linen is terrifying. It’s staggering what housekeeping involved back in the 1950s and watching the children struggling to deal with endless cooking, cleaning, shopping and account-keeping alongside going to school is quite an eye-opener.

The book as a physical object is, of course, a delight. It comes beautifully reproduced with original drawings and I do wish all reprint publishers would take as much care as Persephone do. “The Children who Lived in a Barn” was a wonderfully enjoyable wallow in a tale from a lost world, and it’s really whetted my appetite for picking up more titles from my pile of Persephones!

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