Tag Archives: India

The Far Cry by Emma Smith

The fictionalised account of Emma Smith managing boats on the Grand Union Canal during the Second World War appealed greatly to me. I reviewed Maidens’ Trip a few months ago. I would recommend it strongly. One comment on that post (Kaggsy again!) led me to this novel, which draws on the same author’s experiences in India immediately after the Second World War. She sailed there in September 1946, with a small film crew on a commission from the Tea Board. Laurie Lee was the scriptwriter in the same crew.

Looking back from the vantage point of old age at the young person I was in 1946 I realise now that the ignorance I so deplored was really a blessing in disguise. I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion. I was totally unprepared for it. Engulfed by a teeming multitude of exotic strangers – foreigners – by raucous noises, brilliant colours, pungent smells, the huge surprise of it almost overwhelmed me. (p.ix From the author’s preface)

The endpaper is a late 1930s English printed linen which Teresa’s sister Ruth might have chosen for her bungalow from a catalogue sent out from London.

The Far Cry 

Teresa Digby is 14 years old and at the start of the novel we find that she has not experienced much love so far in her life. Her mother left her father to live in America. As we become acquainted with him in the novel we understand why. This was her father’s second marriage. He has a favourite daughter, Ruth by his first marriage. Ruth lives on a tea plantation in Assam. Teresa had been placed with her Aunt May, who is kind but not loving.

Mr Digby believes that an imminent visit from the US of his second wife means she will take Teresa away. More in a spirit of defeating an enemy, Mr Digby determines that he will not allow it, and decides to take Teresa to India to visit Ruth. 

The novel moves through five sections, beginning at Aunt May’s, on the voyage to Bombay, the train journey to Calcutta, Arrival in Assam, the final outcome.

Each section is rich with understanding especially of Teresa, but also of Mr Digby’s selfishness and unsuitability for this adventure. On board the ship Teresa learns how to make friends and how other people will latch onto you. When she falls ill from sunstroke Miss Cooper looks after her with kindly detachment.

 In Bombay, like the author, she is nearly overwhelmed by India, but is helped by Sam their self-appointed bearer. The unsuitability of her father as a carer becomes more and more apparent. At Ruth’s husband’s tea Garden five unhappy people are thrown together: Teresa, Ruth who believes she deserves much better from life because she is so beautiful; Edwin, her husband who understands her, but despises her attitude; Mr Digby who having achieved his objective finds no place for himself and becomes more and more pathetic; and the deputy manager Richard, who is young and so required to entertain Teresa which he bitterly resents. Edwin is one of the few people who behaves well towards Teresa and does not join in Mr Digby’s racism. The five of them find only occasional pleasure in each other’s company, for example on a picnic. Teresa begins to fall completely for India’s charms and is devastated when after her father’s death Ruth plans to leave Edwin and take Teresa back with her to England. 

They begin their long journey back but Ruth delays in Calcutta and they meet up again with Miss Spooner. The outcome is better: Ruth is killed in a road accident and when Edwin comes to fetch Teresa he agrees to ask Miss Spooner to join them. It is hinted that Teresa will later marry him.

The novel is written with her clear style, with exciting set pieces: arriving in Bombay, the Festival of Light, the trip in the Nagar Hills, as well as long dragging times in the heat. She demonstrates a great deal of insight into the need of young people for affection and friendship and how that can be mishandled.

Here is an example of Emma Smith’s writing. 

She chose her oranges one by one, and the dusty-footed spectators who had gathered to help her choose, stretching their arms past her to pick out and offer the roundest, largest, most sunburnt specimens anyone could desire. They waved them in front of her now; they muddled her considerably. They were so gay, vying with one another to catch her attention: ‘Looky, memsahib – this one good orange,’ She felt like a grown-up at a children’s party. (121)

I was surprised that there was no mention of the war that had so recently finished when Emma Smith visited India, nor of the looming divisions in India’s independence movement that resulted in Partition at the time of Independence in August 1947.

Emma Smith 

She was born Elspeth Hallsmith in 1923 but used her nom de plume because it is easier to say. 

During the war she worked as a boatwoman on the canals. And then aged 23 went to India for nine months with the film crew. On her return in 1948 she published Maidens’ Trip and then The Far Cry in 1949. This was written in Paris where she was captured by the photographer Robert Doisneau, typing beside the Seine. 

Emma Smith and her typewriter in Paris, by Robert Doisneau

She married in 1951, had two children and then was widowed. She went to live in Wales and published some children’s books. Later she wrote another novel: The Opportunity of a Lifetime (1978) and two books of memoirs about growing up in the South West. Susan Hill found an old copy of The Far Cry and was struck by its competence and quality. She wrote about this in 1978 in a piece reproduced as the Afterword.

Emma Smith lived in London until her death in 2018.

The Far Cry by Emma Smith, first published in 1949 and republished by Persephone Books (no 33) in 2002. Afterword by Susan Hill, Preface by Emma Smith. 324pp

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Secrets, a house with hundreds of rooms, a boy who can charm animals, another boy who has tantrums in the night, and a robin who shows you the entrance to a walled garden. These are some of the ingredients of this much-loved children’s classic. It can also be read as a description of that necessary transition from tyrant to socially engaged individual that every child must undergo. And this story includes two little tyrants.

This is the second post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project 

The Secret Garden

The story starts in India where Mary is growing up as the neglected spoiled child of rich parents. A cholera epidemic results in the ten-year-old being orphaned and she is brought to her uncle’s house Misselthwaite in Yorkshire. Her temper tantrums and sour and sullen nature make little headway against the Yorkshire servants who have the care of this sad girl. She is starved of companionship, but kindly treated by Martha, a young village girl engaged to look after her. It is Martha who tells the child about the garden, much loved by her uncle’s dead wife, now locked up and the key buried.

In her wanderings around the great house Martha meets the gruff gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, and his sidekick the robin. And the robin helps her find the key and the door behind the ivy that leads to the secret garden.

Mary also meets Dickon, Martha’s brother, who is a kind of naturalist, before such a term was known. He has an affinity with animals and birds and knows how to grow plants. Martha and Dickon become friends and begin to care for the garden in secret.

On wet days Mary explores Misselthwaite where she finds another neglected and motherless child whom she befriends.

‘Oh, what a queer house this is!’ Mary said. ‘What a queer house. Everything is a kind of secret. Rooms are locked up and gardens are locked up – and you! Have you been locked up?’ (139)

Both have been used to getting their own way. Both are rather sickly and not used to fresh air or exercise, indeed Colin is afraid that he is a cripple and will not go where people can see him.

With the help of Martha, her brother Dickon and the wise advice of their mother the children learn to thrive. Through a combination of fresh air, gardening, looking out for each other and playing they become nicer children. The book begins with Mary, but it ends with a focus on Colin.

‘That’s fresh air,’ she said. ‘Lie on your back and draw in long breaths of it.’ By Charles Robinson

Growing up in Edwardian England

The story is about the damage done to children by neglect, especially by their parents. It is also about the damage that an unchecked and rampant imagination based on fear can do. And about the power of the mind over such fears – Colin’s fear that he will become a hunchback leads him to lie in his room and have hysterics every now and again. But when he sets his mind to strengthening his body he is soon as healthy as any other ten-year-old boy. This is the final paragraph of the book:

Across the lawn came the Master of Misselthwaite [Colin’s father], and he looked as many of them had never seen him. And by his side, with his head up in the air and his eyes full of laughter, walked as strongly and steadily as any boy in Yorkshire – Master Colin! (318)

But the children, Colin and Mary, are privileged, and their advantages over the cottage children, Martha and Dickon, are not explored. Both privileged children have been used to commanding servants, in Mary’s case they are referred to as ‘blacks’.  The shift of focus from Mary to Colin leaving her future unresolved, while his is assured, is worrisome. These points suggests that Frances Hodgson Burnett shared the racist, classist and gender assumptions of her day.

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester in 1849 and lived in America and England until she died in 1924. She had gone to the States when her father died leaving the family without income. She began to write to support the family when she was 18 and continued to write for the rest of her life. She began to write for children in 1879 after a meeting with Louisa May Alcott. 

She bought a house in Kent, Great Maytham Hall, and it is said that she was inspired by the walled garden there to write this classic. She wrote the novel while she lived there.

The novel has been adapted for film, television and the stage. And there is a statue in Central Park, NY, that features Mary and Dickon. It is called the Burnett fountain.

Burnett fountain, Central Park

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1911. I used the Everyman Children’s Classic (1993) illustrated by Charles Robinson (brother of Heath Robinson). It’s a lovely edition and was given to me by my daughter Anna when she knew I was seeking a copy. 320pp

The Decade Project in 2019

This is the third year of my Decades Project. This year I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1920-1929. I plan to read a novel by Angela Brazil. Suggestions for further decades are welcome.

Here’s the link to the first book in the 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature, which was 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

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