Janet Boyes at work
Why They Like the Manor
Perhaps the key to the success of the Green Knowe books is that all six in the series centred on a single place, thereby giving the reader a comforting sense familiarity. For people who have moved around a lot, or those who live in a busy city or dense housing development, the remote village world of Green Knowe offers something fresh and appealing. At the age of 11, Lucy herself moved from a town environment she did not care for, to a country setting she adored. It seems that her books were often an attempt to recreate the world and feeling she experienced at that time in her life.
“Lucy consciously wrote to give a sense of place and sense of continuity,” agrees Diana, “as if it were the same family being there from the day the house was built in 1130 right through to the day she died. I don’t know how consciously people think about that but I think they do like continuity and that sense of place. That is possibly one of the things people love about the books; because less and less people are having that experience. I suppose there are not many books that are so much about a place that you can come and recognise it all.
“That is also because Peter did the illustrations and drew what was here. The little mouse that the child goes to bed with, for example, reduces the people who have read the books to tears. And the tears are international, it doesn’t matter whether they are Japanese or British, they still get very emotional when they find they can actually hold the mouse and stroke it!
“Of course, some people don’t like fantasy. My chum at teaching college never read the books because she didn’t like fantasy, but I used to read a bit of The Sea Egg to seven year olds that I was teaching, and got them to go on with their own story. I used to get wonderful stories, use of language and poetry from them afterwards.”
In 2009, Lucy’s book The Chimneys of Green Knowe was made into a film called From Time To Time. Julian Fellowes adapted the book for film and also directed, casting Maggie Smith as Mrs Oldknowe and Timothy Spall as Boggis. He was particularly attracted to The Chimneys of Green Knowe because of its supernatural storyline – perhaps mindful of the success of fantasy films like the Harry Potter series and The Chronicles of Narnia – but was disappointed that other books in the series did not involve ghosts.
“He was wondering why Lucy didn’t go on with her ghost stories,” explains Diana. “Lucy played around with the writing and wrote ghost stories well before the Green Knowe series and her move to the manor, but only two were published. She used to make them up to tell Peter and his cousins. In fact there is a new publication of her ghost stories which is just about to come out. She was a great M. R. James fan and that is one of the reasons I host M. R. James ghost stories here in the winter.
“A Stranger isn’t a ghost story, nor is River or Enemy. Julian would never have been interested in doing any of the ones that weren’t. He would have only have been interested in doing The Children, The Chimneys, The Stones, and possibly Enemy if that could have been made a bit more ghostly. He couldn’t understand why she had changed within the Green Knowe label – why the books are so completely different. She wasn’t sticking to one pattern.”
Lucy did live long enough to see her story The Children of Green Knowe made into a four-part BBC period drama, originally broadcast in November and December 1986. The manor itself was used in the location filming. Further back still, the BBC’s Jackanory featured The Children of Green Knowe in a five part series broadcast in December 1966, and The Castle of Yew in a two-part adaptation shown in December 1969.
By the time the book rights fell to Diana, Lucy’s work was not especially in vogue. Many titles were out of print and, as the publishers focused their attentions on new books, nothing was done to address the matter.
“The books were not doing hugely well then, they were just chuntering along,” say Diana. “They were on Faber’s and Puffin’s backlists so they were not exactly going to push them and gradually they began to go out of print. The Children of Green Knowe has never been out of print since it was published in 1954, but the others did so I got the rights back and published them myself.
“When they are out of print you just have to give notice that you are going to take them back unless the publisher does a reprint. And so I gave notice and we went through the six months, or whatever it was, and got them back. Faber still own the rights to two Green Knowe books, and I have the rights to the other four, so I published the other four to match Faber’s ones with their agreement. They were very cooperative about it.
We retained the same artwork – everything. Then I also republished her two autobiographical books and published my own book about her patchworks. Originally the autobiography was published by a little publishing house in Cambridge called Cult Books, as was the patchwork book, so I paid part of the costs of the publications.”