No sooner the word than the deed. Recently, somewhere in response to my blog and this year’s Decades Project, focusing on children’s literature, my friend Jennifer mentioned The Librarian by Salley Vickers. She had not read it herself but she has children’s librarians in the family. She thought it would fit my project. Almost immediately I found a copy on the shelves of the local RSPCA charity shop. Rather strangely when I bought it for a pound the person on duty asked me if I wanted change for the car park, implying, I think, that one would only buy one item for £1 to get change.
The Librarian by Salley Vickers
You may have read other novels by Salley Vickers: Miss Garnet’s Angel and The Cleaner of Chartres come to mind. If you have you will know that her style is very readable. Her protagonists appeal to many women readers of my age group and are popular with many other readers as well. The current book is a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller.
The story of The Librarian is set in 1958 and young Sylvia Blackwell has taken on the job as children’s librarian in a market town in Wiltshire called East Mole. She has high ambitions for the children of the town, of engaging them with her love of literature. It is that time after the war when publishing was taking off. Many of the books for children featured in The Librarian will be familiar: Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, the Narnia series and so on.
Sylvia is naïve but things initially go well. She befriends many of the local children and some of their teachers and parents but she lives in dread of a neighbour, the Librarian and the Library Steering Committee. Many of the children do gain from reading; one, Lizzie, gains entry to the Grammar School with help from Sylvia’s coaching for the 11+. From the children Sylvia learns about the local wildlife and from their parents she sees the difficulties of bringing up children at any time.
Trouble soon begins as some of the children behave badly, and Sylvia’s informal manner with them is implicated and soon leads to blame. Sylvia starts an unwise affair with the married GP, and some of her neighbours are spiteful (no reason for this is ever discovered) while others remain kind.
The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller is discovered in the possession of one of the children when it was supposed to be locked away safely in the Restricted Access collection. Now the restricted and prejudiced attitudes of many people in the town have free reign and Sylvia looses her job while other also suffer.
In a brief second part of the story, set in the 21stcentury, we learn of the fates of all the main characters, including Lizzie who has become a children’s writer. Attitudes to literature have become freer and for some people all ended happily.
While I enjoyed the nostalgia of returning to the books of my past, this novel did not reawaken the sense of wonder that reading brought me (and so many others). For that I think I would revisit Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading (2018) by Lucy Mangan, which I reviewed on this blog in the summer. You can find my comments on it here. In The Librarian books appear as objects, like the stolen book, or the piles of late returns that arrive periodically. The children respond with enthusiasm when the choice is right, but they do not appear to enter the worlds created by the novels they read. And I think I must remark that Sylvia herself, an enthusiastic reader of children’s literature, has not gained a great deal of wisdom from her literary experiences.
But there were pleasures to be had, especially in being reminded of such a wealth of experience to be had in children’s fiction. So do join in the Decades Project for 2019 on Bookword to be reminded of your early reading.
The Librarianby Salley Vickers (2018) Penguin, 385pp
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