Hurrah for the holidays and time to read books! I have been browsing my collection of old books, and thought I’d “let nature back in” via illustrations from three British early-20th-century children’s books depicting children living in small villages in the English countryside.

These books all belonged to my mother when she was a little girl, and they formed part of my childhood too.

Our Diary or Teddy and Me was first published in 1905, but my mother’s copy was probably a reprint from the 1930s. The illustrator, John Hassall, was well known for designing advertising posters in addition to illustrating children’s books. In the book, twins Anne and Anthony, take turns to write in a diary, and by their own account, dressed by the aunt who was looking after them, they “look rather like the children in books of twenty years ago”. But, undeterred by her bonnets, long dresses and sleeves that are “much too bunchy”, Anne is “determined to be the first girl cricketer to play for England”.

Despite such ambitions, Anne is quite often in her “fairy-tale moods” and according to Anthony, she was certain that the squirrel they saw in a tree was a pixy with auburn hair.

It turns out that the children are staying with their aunt because “Daddy is a soldier, and he and Mummy have been in India for two whole years”. Their aunt and people in the village find many simple diversions for the children. For example, a neighbour invites them to collect windfall apples, including Davey Gentles, a “lovely golden pippin” that would “not give even the most delicate [children] pains or bad dreams”.

Children collecting windfall apples. Illustration by John Harrap.

On another day, Anne made a deal with the gardener; he would delay mowing the lawn so that she could rescue the daisies and buttercups in the lawn first, in exchange for the children raking up the grass after the mowing. Anne even got Anthony to help rescue the flowers that were each named and placed on a green-leaf bed in a hospital for flowers in the orchard. There were so many flowers that they ran out of names, and had to call the flowers “all sorts of queer things, like ‘Artichoke’ and ‘Toffee’ and ‘Camera’”.

Children raking grass. Illustration by John Hassall.

Moving on, in Ameliaranne and the Big Treasure, Ameliaranne Stiggins returns a diamond necklace that fell from a motor car, to a wealthy young woman who rewards Ameliaranne by securing a lovely cottage for the Stiggins family who have just been turned out of their home by their landlord. This book , first published in 1932, is set in small village in the depression years between the two World Wars. In the illustration below, in preparation for the wedding of the wealthy benefactor, the Stiggins children guided by Ameliaranne, gather buttercups to toss in front of the bridal couple at the church door. The children seem to take serious pleasure in filling their little baskets with flowers.Children collecting buttercups.

The third book, More of Milly-Molly-Mandy, has a birthday message to my mother handwritten by a friend in clotted ink wishing her well for her eleventh birthday in 1943. Milly-Molly-Mandy stories, “told and drawn” by the English Joyce Lankester Brisley, were first published in 1925 on the children’s pages in the Christian Science Monitor. This collection was first published in 1929, followed by numerous reprints, with my mother’s copy published in 1942. Amazingly, Milly-Molly-Mandy books are still being published as recently as 2015 by PanMacmillan.

Children collecting field mushrooms.

Little-friend-Susan alerting Milly-Molly-Mandy to field mushrooms that they then set about picking. How many young children in Britain today would have the knowledge or be trusted to pick wild mushrooms for eating, and without any adult supervision?

Children in treehouse.

This drawing of Milly-Molly-Mandy and friends in her treehouse “nest” built for her by her uncle in an old oak-tree at the bottom of the meadow, has a little colour painted in by my mother, when she was ten years old. 

Village life in England was to change irrevocably. My mother too lived in a small, picturesque village, but by the time she was reading these books during World War II, already they were telling of an era that was in eclipse. After the war, village and country life were not to be the same again.

Posted by Carol at letting nature back in

Sources: [No author; no date.] Our Diary or Teddy and Me. Illustrated by John Hassall. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson & Sons;  [Title page missing, but author is Natalie Joan, possible date 1932 or 1935.] Ameliaranne and the Big Treasure. [Illustrator Susan Beatrice Pearse.] London: George G. Harrap & Co;  Joyce Lankester Brisley. 1929, reprint 1942. More of Milly-Molly-Mandy. London: George G. Harrap & Co.

Book coverof Our Diary or Teddy and Me  Book cover Ameliaranne and the Big Treasure  Book cover More of Milly-Molly-Mandy