How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books by Joan Bodger. Originally published 1965. Reprinted with Afterword and Notes on Further reading by McClelland and Stewart, 1999.
Joan Bodger’s classic chronicles the summer holiday her anglophile family spent searching for the sites about which they had read in their well-worn reading trails through British children’s literature. Equal parts travel memoir and sourcebook, this book teems with interesting anecdotes and well-informed discussion of such staples of the British canon as Arthur Ransome, Randolph Caldecott, A. A. Milne, Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame.
I ransacked our old favorite books, going over the familiar ground like a detective in search of clues. The Arthur Ransome books, T. H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose, even the Pooh books, had maps in the end papers. Were they totally imaginary or could we orient them to an atlas? I searched out more information at the public library and found more books to bring home and read aloud to the children. My husband, who is a reference librarian, brought home biographies and autobiographies of children’s authors for me to study. Perhaps something in a writer’s life would give a concrete clue to the places described in his books. A kind friend presented me with a twenty-year back file of Horn Book, the magazine of books and reading for children. I combed these for details concerning the lives and works of authors and illustrators.
The more I read the more convinced I became that the children were right. Most places in children’s literature are real. We could find them if we searched. All we needed was faith. I was reminded of a poem by Emily Dickinson.
I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet I know how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be. (xiii)
The cover illustration for How the Heather Looks, by Mark Lang, is an image perfectly suited to capturing the book’s many charms as well as its weaknesses.
The line-drawn family of four look out from the frame in which they stand and gaze reverently at a watercolour image of a quintessential English cottage, nestled in rolling hills and framed, in turn, by the heather in the foreground. Fluffy white clouds, grey mountains and the glimpse of a body of water in the distance, complete the idyllic image.
The family is illustrated in a style different than the subject at which they all gaze, highlighting that they are strangers in a strange land. Although she and her husband are each half English and each spent part of their childhoods in England, Bodger plays up their American identities in this book, referring frequently to her anxieties about her children’s boisterous nature and, like Helene Hanff, to the quirks and foibles of English accommodations. She is often surprised by the locals’ limited knowledge about the books and authors they have come so far to research and about which they themselves know so much, but I cannot imagine there are many other people who know as much as she does about British children’s literature. Her knowledge borders on encyclopedic, and she has the layered experience of not only having read some of the books as a child herself, but reading and re-reading them with her own children. Her being so thoroughly steeped in the text and illustrations of the books, both as a reader and as a researcher, is one of the things that makes this text such a delight.
Her reverence for great literature is also a delight.
I suppose that an American’s approach to English literature must always be oblique. We share a language but not a landscape. In order to understand the English classics as adults, we must build up a sort of visual vocabulary from the books we read as children. Children’s literature is, in some ways, more important to us than it is to the English child. I contend that a child brought up on the nursery rhymes and Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales can better understand Shakespeare; that a child who has pored over Beatrix Potter can better respond to Wordsworth. Of course it is best if one can find for himself a bank where the wild thyme grows, or discover daffodils growing wild. Failing that, the American child must feed the “inward eye” with the images in the books he reads when young, so that he can enter a larger realm when he is older. I am sure I enjoyed the Bronte novels more for having read The Secret Garden first. As I stood on those moors, looking out over that wind-swept landscape, I realized that it was Mrs. Burnett who taught me what “wuthering” meant long before I ever got around to reading Wuthering Heights. Epiphany comes at the moment of recognition. (184)
The way that the cover illustration keeps the viewing visitors apart from the scene they have come to see also highlights one of the quirks of Bodger’s style over which I kept tripping: that she never seemed to be quite fully in the present, that the self who wrote, the self who read, and the self who saw were often at odds. She has a complex layering of time, place and knowledge. Clearly, she and her husband carefully planned their trip and prepared with much research as well as with the passion of devotees to their subject. Too often, though, she will reach a destination, describe what they came to see, what they have (or have not) seen, and then refer to what they could have seen if only they had done more research beforehand.
If we had known what to look for, we could have seen Houghton House, the original of Bunyan’s “House Beautiful” at Houghton Conquest, near Ampthill, or we could have searched out Bunyan’s cottage at Elstow. But we were ignorant, and, besides, in too much of a hurry to reach Leighton Buzzard. We wanted to see if we could find Firbank Hall and to find out if we could reconstruct the saga of [Mary Norton’s] The Borrowers. (166-67)
The benefit of hindsight is not always a benefit to smooth prose, and the past conditional intrudes too much and too often. This is a small complaint with a great book, though.
I also felt that under the surface of Bodger’s often nostalgic and eager tone was a current of something darker. We get occasional glimpses at her impatience, her irritation with the housewifely chores that must still be done on this wonderful trip. I’d like to have read more of that kind of thing. It does no one any favours to romanticize motherhood, even motherhood during the realization of a son’s dream of finding his hero, King Arthur.
The Afterword makes some of the dark undercurrent more clear, and it is in the Afterword that I met the Joan Bodger that I liked best. There, she is not only erudite, passionate about her subject and painfully honest, she is acerbic.
Much to my consternation I have … discovered that some young families have viewed Heather as a how-to book for raising children, suffering pangs of guilt because they did not read the same books to their children at a prescribed age. I caution against any recipe for perfect children, or for perfect families. I began the book in 1958. Before its publication, by Viking Press in 1965, our family had suffered death and schizophrenia. A year later, in 1966, John and I were divorced. (231)
There is a little acid to cut the sweetness of the pilgrimage to childhood, and the Afterword gave me a perspective on Bodger’s difficulties after the idyllic trip that made the joy of their discoveries all the more poignant.
If you, too, are a devotee of British children’s literature, I recommend curling up with a cup of tea and spending a few hours being regaled by a woman who knows how the heather looks.