Next week I have to hand in a short piece on Geoffrey Trease for the next issue of SOLANDER, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society. I had never read anything of Trease’s before I got this mini-article, heck, I had never even heard of him before!
Shame on me! Because I should have: he was one of the authors who changed the nature of historical novels written for children. In his autobiography, A WHIFF OF BURNT BOATS, he writes,
. . . new new idea suddenly presented itself. Children’s stories, but children’s stories such as there had never been before . . . . Why were all our own children’s books still rooted in the pre-1914 assumption which serious adult literature had abandoned? In the boys’ adventure story especially there had been no development since my own childhood. Such stories still implied that war was glorious, that the British were superior to foreigners, that coloured “natives” were “loyal” if they sided with the invading white man and “treacherous” if they used their wits to counterbalance his overwhelming armaments. In historical tales the Cavaliers and the French aristocrats were always in the right, no matter what the teachers explained at school, and the lower orders, like the lesser breeds, figured only in one of two possible roles, as howling mobs or faithful retainers.
In his first children’s novel, BOWS AGAINST THE BARONS (1934), he changed all that: in his rewriting of the Robin Hood story he did away with Merrie England and had his outlaws converse in modern English. This book and his next, COMRADES FOR THE CHARTER, were radical in their portrayal of poverty and social inequality, and reflected the young Trease’s socialist tendencies. In retrospect, he wryly admits, “My characters, unfortunately, lapsed occasionally into the phraseology of a Communist meeting.” Naturally, as he grew older, his writing, too, matured: “[By 1938] I had outgrown my initial desire to correct the old Henty bias with a partisan counterbalance on the Left, but I believed there were many things that could be said usefully in children’s fiction and yet still acceptably to an open-minded publisher.”
In John Rowe Townsend’s WRITTEN FOR CHILDREN (my personal bible on children’s lit — I discovered the book early during my studies in Mainz, and have happily used it ever since whenever I needed to look up something about British children’s fiction) you can find the following about Trease: “English historical novels of the inter-war years seem, in retrospect, unexciting. The one lively innovation was made by Geoffrey Trease, when, as a young man, he introduced the radical, ‘committed’ historical story.”
For my little article, I’m currently reading his autobiography. I normally don’t particular care for biographies of any kind, but his is certainly interesting and exciting. It easily takes the reader into a past era, when schoolboys visited their teachers at home and went hiking in Dartmoor during the holidays. And when Trease was in his twenties, Basil Blackwell was still running his publishing house, and Gollancz had just been founded. It is interesting to delve into Trease’s life this way, to follow him on the road to publication and fame.