My Lockdown Books: Thirty Nine

A few years ago, when I was rationalising ny book collection, I took the dramatic step of getting rid of my Elsie Oxenham books.  I realised that I hadn’t read them for years and wasn’t likely to do so in the future (just wait, I’ll collect them up again one day!)  However, I did keep a few titles and Mistress Nanciebel was one of them.

I’ve always have had a soft spot for it even though it’s set far too early in history and it’s not even my history!  It’s set towards the end of the seventeenth century and features the Seymour family, English landowners and critics of the king.  Their outspokenness causes them to be exiled.  Sir John and his two older children, Gilbert and Nanciebel, along with the latter’s companion, Constancy, are sent to Wales under the guard of Captain Morgan.  The book describes their adventures there.

I’ve never been quite sure what it is about the story that appeals to me.  I think it’s probably the idea of adjusting to changed circumstances and making something out of nothing.  It’s a little twee in places but the characters are well drawn and the landscape well defined.  It’s also the book that gives the background to the contemporary (at the time they were written) Kentisbury set of books, probably my favourites.



16th December

Elsie Oxenham was one of the Big Three school story writers in the early and middle part of the twentieth century, the others being Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Elinor Brent-Dyer of whom you will have already read! I collected her books for a long time after discovering them as a teenager. Much as I enjoyed reading them, there was something about many of them that made me feel slightly uncomfortable. And I am afraid that it was Elsie Oxenham’s unthinking snobbishness. In their attitude to class and wealth, they have dated much more than Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s or Elinor Brent-Dyer’s books. And yet they are still enjoyable. I recently decided to sell off my Oxenham collection, keeping only a few. And one of these is The Secrets of Vairy. It’s part of a small set of books related to the main Abbey series and is set on the west coast of Scotland. It’s a completely ridiculous story but I love the setting and the way the characters interact. I borrowed it from a fellow collector when I was sixteen and for years it was the Oxenham I aspired to own. Having waited so long for it, I have no intention of getting rid of it.

Airborn is a book I had to read whilst judging for the Carnegie Medal and my heart sank when I saw it. It appeared to be yet another sci-fi/fantasy mixture, two of my least favourite genres. But one should never, of course, judge a book by its cover and when I finally steeled myself to read it, I was enchanted. It’s set in an alternative past (it feels Edwardian) on an airship – a very enclosed community – and tells the story of Kate and Matt who are first-class passenger and crew. It’s a fast-paced adventure but it’s also a character study and has a great supporting cast. I use my story of discovering it when I’m helping children choose new authors. It’s always worth trying a new book.  You never know; it might become one of your fifty favourites!

Comfort Reading: The Big Three

Ages ago I wrote about Anne of the Island and said that it was one of my desert island books.  I chose the books in question for an article I wrote for the journal Folly.  As I already mentioned, what the books have in common is a strong sense of community and they also form part of my comfort reading.


If you’re paying attention it’s quite easy to tell when I’m stressed: I start re-reading certain books.  Most of them are children’s books and many of them are school stories although there are exceptions.  And this month I’ve read lots of them.  Things are hectic at work just now and I’m pretty sad at being back from Norway and away from the sea again.  So, there’s been nothing else for it but to lose myself in my favourite books.


Of the children’s authors I collect, my absolute favourite is Dorita Fairlie Bruce.  One of the Big Three (along with Elinor Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham), she wrote fewer and (I think) better books than the others.  I like all of her books but most of all I enjoy her series about Nancy Caird, some of which are set in Scotland and some in England.  The later books in the series are set in Scotland and have a real homecoming feel to them.  It’s the last of them that’s my favourite: Nancy Calls the Tune.  By this time Nancy is grown up and is living in a small town and working as a Church organist.  It’s set during the Second World War and has a strong sense of community and camaraderie.  I’m a small town girl myself and, to a daughter of the manse, the Church setting is extremely familiar and the characters completely believable.


On my imaginary desert island I would have to have a Chalet School book but I found it hugely difficult to decide which one.  In the end I chose The School at the Chalet because it’s where it all begins.  It’s the Chalet School I’ve been re-reading recently and that made me realise all over again how much I like them and how difficult a choice it would be if I could really only have one of them.  I think The School at the Chalet has the best descriptions of the setting and it brings Pertisau and its environs back to me whenever I read it.  And, although I’ve fallen in love with Norway’s west coast as brought to me by Hurtigruten, Tirol will always have a very special place in my heart.  There have been many fill-in Chalet School stories written over the years but the first and best of these is Visitors for the Chalet School by Helen McClelland.  It’s a great addition to the series but it’s a good book in its own right too.  It gives a wonderful outsider’s view of the Chalet School and contextualises it historically.  And it has more descriptions of Tirol…


I enjoy Elsie Oxenham’s books, too, although not as much as those of the other two.  There was no competition for the one I’d take with me to my desert island (actually, I was going to Westray, one of the Orkney Islands).  It had to be The Secrets of Vairy.  I borrowed it when I was a teenager just beginning to collect EJO and for years afterwards it was the title I aspired to own.  For that reason alone, I wouldn’t be able to leave it behind but I think it’s my favourite anyway.  I was probably about the same age as Patricia, the main character, when I first read it and I could relate quite well to her even though it was set between the wars.  It takes place in Scotland, on the Clyde coast, and I can picture the setting which adds to my enjoyment.


These books are my hardcore comfort reads – at least as far as children’s books are concerned.  Another day I’ll tell you about some of the newer children’s books that I return to time and again.  And I’d be interested to know what you read in times of stress…