Sunday, 3 April 2011

Hope triumphing over experience

I've blogged before about adaptations of favourite books (here) so I won't rehearse those thoughts again. I'm quite surprised to discover that I haven't mentioned Lucy M. Boston, however.

The adaptation in question is From Time to Time, adapted by Julian Fellowes from The Chimneys of Green Knowe, which is the second book in the Green Knowe series.* A little history lesson follows: in 1988-9 I was in Group 2 at St John's College Choir School in Cambridge. Two things are pertinent: one is that Diana Boston was my history teacher and the second is that in my English exam I wrote a story about a child who made friends with an escaped leopard (I think - the details are sketchy). My form teacher, who taught us English among other things, was Mrs Cairns, a termagent of the first water and one of the two most inspirational teachers I've ever had (Mrs Gadd is the other one, and the reason I became an English teacher. If someone reminds me, I'll blog about the reasons why another time.). Mrs Cairns suggested that my story had been heavily influenced by a book called A Stranger At Green Knowe (the link is to the cover I remember - it's in print in a different edition); what book? I asked.

One week later I'd read all of the Green Knowe books, by Lucy M. Boston. They were magical, and whimsical, and best of all, they were written by a local author, whose daughter-in-law just happened to be my wonderful history teacher and the woman who ran the school stamp club. Mrs Cairns showed Mrs Boston my story. I was very unusual among John's pupils in not having heard of the Green Knowe books because Mrs Boston was one of the Transition teachers, and usually arranged for that year group to visit the Manor in Hemingford Grey, which was the house in the books. I joined the school too late for this privilege. So that summer, Mrs Boston very kindly arranged for me, and a child who'd missed the trip because of chicken pox, to make the visit just the two of us, instead of as a school trip.

It was one of the most magical experiences of my life. Lucy Boston was a tiny, white-haired, bent over old woman, with the brightest, most alive eyes you've ever seen. She was 97 when I met her, and died a year later, but she was incredible, as was her house and gardens. Diana Boston now keeps the house open to show Lucy's quilts as well the extraordinary objects of her collected life. I went back there last year, with my mother and sister, to see Diana, and revisit the house, and see if I remembered any of it correctly. You too can visit the house - check the website . Read the books first. Every object in them is also in the house.

This is Emily with the yew deer in the garden of the house.

This has all been a very long prelude for the fact that last week I watched the film. It was most odd seeing a story that I knew so well, so firmly located in a real place in my head, moved to a much larger and very different house. And then suddenly one would be transported back to the Fens, as Timothy Spall rounded a corner and walked past the statue of St Christopher which rests against the Manor wall.

This is my mother with that statue last summer. The film wasn't so bad, in fact it was pretty good, though it wasn't quite right. But very satisfactorily, Diana Boston was an extra, playing a dinner guest in a very spectacular feather, and escaping through the window, leading to shouts of 'there!' and then rapid pause and rewind of the DVD to let everyone get a look in. I do recommend the film, which features Dominic West as the dastardly butler, as well as Hugh Bonneville being lovely, and the wonderful Maggie Smith as Mrs Oldknowe, who in the books is clearly just a cipher for Lucy herself. Buy it from the Green Knowe shop (for that matter, buy the books from there too) and help keep this wonderful building, and its dual life of fiction and reality going.

* I am aware that I spend most of my time blogging about children's fiction. It happens to be the thing I like best. Deal.

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