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One From the Archive: ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ by Rudyard Kipling ****

Rudyard Kipling has left a plethora of fantastic writing behind him, ranging from his moralistic Just-So Stories and his beautiful and far-reaching collection of poems, to his delightful work for children.  Each story in Puck of Pook’s Hill – which was first published in 1906, and is possibly the most charming novel which Kipling turned his hand to writing – ‘mixes war and politics with adventure and intrigue’. 9781843915027

The foreword to Hesperus Minor’s beautiful new reprint of Kipling’s classic children’s novel has been written by Marcus Sedgwick.  He explains, first and foremost, that a puck is ‘an ancient creature of British mythology, a catch-all name for the “little people”, the fairy-folk, or the People of the Hills’.

The novel is comprised of short stories which relate to one another in terms of the central thread running through them, and which are separated by rousing poems.  Surely such a format deems them perfect for bedtime reading.  In the novel, we are introduced to siblings Una and Dan, who live in rural Sussex.  On Midsummer’s Eve, whilst they are reciting – rather fittingly, one feels – the beautiful A Midsummer Night’s Dream to one another, using a fairy ring ‘of darkened grass’ as their stage, they manage to summon an elf named Puck, and ‘are taken on a fantastic journey through Britain’s past’.  Kipling describes the little creature in rather a charming and vivid manner: all of a sudden, ‘in the very spot where Dan had stood as Puck they saw a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes, and a grin that ran right across his freckled face’.  Pook’s Hill, upon which the children sit, belong to Puck: ‘it is just that’, Sedgwick writes, ‘as the years go by, words and names change’.

The entirety of Puck of Pook’s Hill is filled with history.  Una and Dan meet, amongst other figures of yore, a Roman Centurion and the knight Sir Richard, who came to England with William the Conqueror.  Both figures tell many tales of their pasts.  In this way, the book is both entertaining and educative, telling the story of Britain’s important past by way of events which are sure to pique the interest of children.  Throughout, Kipling balances the adventurous tales with beautiful descriptions – for example, ‘The trees closing overhead made long tunnels through which the sunshine worked in blobs and patches’, and ‘the little voices of the slipping water began again’.

Puck of Pook’s Hill is of the rare kind of children’s literature, presenting as it does a story which will equally appeal to both boys and girls.  It is filled to the brim with magic, folklore, ancient beings, other-worldly creatures, and two very endearing children.  The charming story which Kipling has woven is ready to be rediscovered by a whole new generation of readers, who are sure to treasure it.

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‘A Hilltop on the Marne: An American’s Letters from War-Torn France’ by Mildred Aldrich ****

‘A Hilltop on the Marne’ by Mildred Aldrich (Hesperus Press)

A Hilltop on the Marne, which was first published in 1916,presents a far-reaching account of Mildred Aldrich’s experiences during the First World War.  Aldrich, a retired American journalist who worked for several papers in the Boston area before moving to France in 1898, had just moved to an idyllic hamlet in France’s Marne Valley before World War One was declared.  In Huiry, a ‘little hamlet less than thirty miles from Paris’, she found herself adjusting to life in wartime, volunteering such services as hosting tea for and providing water to local forces.  Her farmhouse soon became ‘a safe port in a storm for the various troops stationed in the village’.

Aldrich’s first letter in the volume is dated the 3rd of June 1914, and her correspondence goes through to the end of the war.  We do not know who she writes to, and as none of her letters carry her signature or anything of the sort, A Hilltop on the Marne feels more like a diary in consequence.  She urges her correspondent, who is evidently trying to coerce her into returning ‘home’ to the United States, to allow her to be content.  In her first letter, she states, quite frankly: ‘I did not decide to come away into a little corner in the country, in this land in which I was not born, without looking at the move from all angles.  Be sure that I know what I am doing, and I have found the place where I can do it’.  She goes on to show how headstrong she is in her decision making, writing in August 1914: ‘I have your cable asking me to come “home” as you call it.  Alas, my home is where my books are – they are here.  Thanks all the same’.

Throughout A Hilltop on the Marne, Aldrich writes beautifully; each letter is long and has been penned with such care.  Through her words, one gets the impression that she was an incredibly warm and witty woman, who valued honesty above all else.  Sincerity weaves itself into each sentence which she crafts, and it feels throughout as though her utmost wish is for her reader to understand the things which she does, and the choices which she makes.  We learn of such things as the layout of her home, the way in which she fills her days, the history of the Marne region, and the characters who live in the hamlet of Huiry.  A Hilltop on the Marne is as rich as a novel in some respects, filled with such a wealth of detail as it is.

Aldrich evokes small-town life in France marvellously.   When war begins and she is able to meet some of the soldiers stationed in her area, she begins to reflect upon what battle means for the men in the region, and in France as a whole: ‘It is not the marching into battle of an army that has chosen soldiering.  It is the marching out of all the people – of every temperament – the rich, the poor, the timid and the bold, the sensitive and the hardened, the ignorant and the scholar – all men, because they happen to be males, called on not only to cry, “Vive la France”, but to see to it that she does live if dying for her can keep her alive.  It’s a compelling idea, isn’t it?’  She goes on to write: ‘I have lived among these people, loved them and believed in them, even when their politics annoyed me’.  Aldrich exemplifies the way in which her community carries on regardless, women taking over the ‘male’ tasks like baking bread and seeing to crops.  She tells of preparations for battle, the lack of news which reaches the hamlet, the unreliability of the postal service, refugees being sent into France from Belgium, and how wounded soldiers are treated.  She touches upon the requisition of weapons, evacuations of entire French towns, and the British cutting telegraph wires.  In this way, Aldrich has presented a far-reaching account of life in wartime from a most interesting perspective.

One of the wonderful things about A Hilltop on the Marne is its versatility; it can be dipped in and out of, or read all in one go.  It is an important work of non-fiction, particularly in this, the centenary year of World War One’s beginning.  It is a chronicle of war in a rural hamlet, which is sure to both charm its readers, and make them think.

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Marzie’s Novella Series: ‘The Moorland Cottage’ by Elizabeth Gaskell

In this Victorian novella we have a very early piece of Elizabeth Gaskell’s works. Our heroine Maggie Browne is

‘The Moorland Cottage’ by Elizabeth Gaskell

a familiar in Victorian works, poor with a mother who is overly critical and a mean-spirited brother who of course is doted upon by the mother. The father has passed away, having been a clergyman, and the family has nothing but itself to get along. Gaskell uses the down-trodden frequently as characters in her work. Maggie comes to fall in love with the son of the wealthy estate owner and, of course, not all receive that development happily, his father in particular. What follows are the twists and turns the couple endure and the caprices of Maggie’s errant brother.

This is Gaskell at an early age, yet her writing is lyrical, and you see what she will hone to perfection in her later novels. Being a novella, there is fast plot development and the ending comes together nicely. If the story seems familiar, it may be because George Eliot used it virtually as a template ten years later in writing The Mill on the Floss, even so far as to use the name Maggie as her heroine. A very nice read to add to those who enjoy Gaskell. This is re-printed by Hesperus Classics as part of their large catalog of out of print stories now available as novellas.

Rating: 4 stars

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