Thursday, 14 April 2016

After the tea party, more children's books

When I wrote the last post, I never thought I had so many comments upon the books I liked or disliked when I was a child. Therefore I searched in my memories for what I did read or, at the very beginning, was read to me at bed time.

One and only one book comes to mind: "Le Chat dans la Lune" (The cat in the moon). Why, I don't know. I don't even remember the story. But I remember vividly the cover of the booklet - the cat with its hat and feather, playing the mandolin. Perhaps, it is no mandolin but a guitar. However, Father played the mandolin among other instruments, and I found the whole thing fascinating: the word, the instrument itself, the sound, and the fact that Father used it to accompany himself while he was singing. In my mind, I saw Father dressed as the cat on the book cover, with the hat and feather, a dark cape, like the mousquetaires or Cyrano whose statue I had been shown in Bergerac - a small town nearby - singing to Roxane under her balcony.

I was a precocious child. I had to be: I was "sandwiched" between a disabled brother who suffered from myopathy, and a disabled sister who "suffered" from Down Syndrome. There was no great place for childhood.

One of my first memories was being awoken to watch Aeschylus' "The Persians" on TV when I was four. My parents thought it was a great rendition of the play - half play and half opera - and they were right. I treasure this memory; I have the DVD and I watched it with The Girls a year or so ago. But this was not really childhood literature indeed. Eccentric education.

After "Le Chat dans la Lune", I remember a book that belonged to my sister, over which I puzzled a lot. There was no text but images only. It was a fat book with nine "boxes" per page and they were supposed to tell a story. But there was no separation between the stories and it irritated me not to find a clear, defined beginning and end to each tale. I understood much later that it was a means to make my sister speak, describe the images, and eventually find the link between them.

But I was soon put to my first primer. It prided itself on addressing itself to children from to 0 (!) to 6 years old. I was early but not very much when I started, although I do not truly remember myself without this book. 

It was very complete, with realistic images from the 1950s/1960s, little sentences, examples to learn to write and count as well as read. It was an easy method or it worked particularly well with me. I learnt with Mother and these daily lessons were a pleasure. At the end of the book, I could read the little stories - quite moral - and learn the poems. I discovered later at school that the poems might have been rather difficult and from "good" poets as what I learnt there (at school) seemed too simple. In fact, I was bored at school. I was bored nearly until my second year of university. Home was the real place where I learnt and school was a rehash of notions I already knew.

When I knew how to read, I was given books. The first ones, unless I mention the old story books coming down from great-grand-mothers/fathers/aunts/uncles from the 19th and the very beginning of the 20th centuries, were series about two little girls, "Caroline" and "Martine", both in the 1960s editions.

"Caroline" was the favourite. She was the only human being in charge and she did things adults might have done. She had friends who were all animals. We never had pets at home and we still have none. We have always welcomed the stray cat who would keep his dignity and distance with us. We never had dogs and we still flee from them: my sister was bitten by a vicious small basset who belonged to a great-uncle and a great-aunt who treated him as their child. This accounts for his jealousy towards us when we were petted during our visits. My sister being the one he could reach easily bore the brunt of his feelings. 

"Caroline’s" friends were different. There were dogs and cats but a little lion as well and other exotic animals. They were anthropomorphic and reacted as human beings, eating spaghetti (one of my most favourite ever illustrations, as I loved solid food when I was a child), skiing, bicycling, moving house, etc. The whole under Caroline's strict supervising. As I liked her, I must have been a bossy child...

"Martine" was very, very different. She had a family with parents and a brother. She had friends. She was going to school and she had lots of adventures within the strict compass of a saccharin reality suited for children - well, for girls - well, for middle-class girls - well for middle-class, white girls. She was tedious and tiresome. She did everything perfectly right. She could take care of a whole house in one morning while her mother was out, cleaning up, washing up and washing, having the whole clothes and linen dry, cooking - even profiterolles! -, setting the table, adding flowers to the house, taking care of her dog, and putting herself to rights, all before her family came back!

"Martine" knew all about the seasons and enjoyed them all. The year went round without a hitch: she cared for the birds in winter, did gardening in the spring, spent nice holidays during summer and went back happy to school in autumn. 

Everybody loved "Martine". She was the one and only star among her friends who looked up to her. She was loved and praised unconditionally by her parents. She never started a feud with her brother. Even her dog adored her and did tricks - I mean useful tricks - to help her. This girl was no girl: she was a lay saint.

I much preferred "Titounet et Titounette" who appeared in the first newspaper to which I was subscribed. It arrived every week and I could not wait for it! There was a gender role separation between "Titounet" the boy and "Titounette" the girl. But, as with "Caroline", their friends were animals who reacted like human beings. They lived with an undescribed adult, probably their grand-mother as she was referred to as Mamie (Grannie), in a remote place called Le Bois Joli (The Lovely Wood). Their friends were a family of rabbits, another of bears (more like teddy bears), a cub, squirrels, little birds, spring (the spring season was represented as a boy dressed in a somewhat Renaissance green costume), a fawn, an owl, two mischievous white mice that I loved, etc. I shared their stories with my sister and we were given albums of their adventures. The newspapers were later on bound, year by year, and we still have them. They belonged - and still belong - to our private world.

And then, came my two great loves, not in the 1960s edition but in the beginning of the 20th century editions: "Bécassine" and the novels by the Comtesse de Ségur, the latter with the illustrations of André Pécoud. Of course, they were old books. And "Bécassine" was appearing in her beginnings in 1905 as "Titounet et Titounette" did in the 1960s: as features of a weekly magazine for children - mostly girls. The newspapers had been bound with leather covers and I had the hardback albums of the complete adventures as well. A whole post should be dedicated to "Bécassine": she is such a cultural phenomenon that I shall not try to explain her here today.

I do not know whether the children's books by la Comtesse de Ségur, née Rostopchine, are known in English speaking countries. They are a whole phenomenon in themselves also. Even if they are firmly set in the mid-nineteenth century, they are still read today as classics for children. And yet, moral is heavy within them as well. Add to this, class division, gender division, corporal punishment, a pinch of Sadistic treatments, a jingoistic vision of society and cultures, and the personal history of la Comtesse, and you have something that should be repellent to any normal child. They were my joy; they are my joy. I reread part of them each year. Not with the same eyes and attitude. I think the illustrations did a lot for my enjoyment when I was a child. They are not at all 19th century; we have books with the initial drawings or etchings; they are totally different. No. I loved the lightness of line in the drawings. They were like sketches and nothing more was needed to give life to the characters because a space was left to my imagination. 

I was so bored when I started the elementary schooling at five that, while the class (where the average age was six) was learning to read, I chose a seat at the back of the room, and started writing follow-ups of la Comtesse's novels. I got caught of course and it was the first of the numerous times when my parents were called in by the teacher to be told that their daughter was not attending but doing things on her own. I was always scolded, but I skipped classes, finished elementary school earlier than usual - the same with secondary school.

I should really never have watched Aeschylus at four: perhaps it would have been more natural to stick with “Le Chat dans la Lune”!

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Tea Parties, Children's Books and Mythology

Last Friday, The Girls and I gave a tea party. 

In fact, in French it is more properly called un goûter (a snack you give children when they come back from school around five o'clock, or that adults eat either alone or together or as a party, also around five o'clock, with cake and coffee or other refreshment; tea is not the mandatory beverage). But for the sake of clarity, let us say we gave a tea party.

Friday is the day of important shopping for the week to come. The Shopping Lady comes for two hours and takes The Girls, with my shopping list. She comes again on Tuesday, but it is more for the sake of buying magazines, fresh baguettes, meat and fish, milk and the things that were either forgotten on  the previous Friday or are now missing.

But after the shopping, if my Shoppers hurry a little, there is still time left for other activities. 

Some time ago, there was quite a discussion about the merits of an almond cake that The Shopping-cum-Cleaning Lady in Training (remember the S-c-C-i-T?) had baked according to a new recipe, and its compatibility with tea from a great French House of Teas in Paris, which I was making them taste.

I have to say that the tea we find in French supermarkets and use to make tea is close to washing up water. It comes in teabags and is mostly flavoured - fortunately! Without being flavoured, it is... Better not attempt to qualify it. Well, France has never been a country for tea. It is a country for coffee, good strong coffee, rather Italian-like. Nevertheless, with the influx of British expats and tourists, most of our supermarkets in la Dordogne have part of an aisle dedicated to Anglo-Saxon products, among which at least two brands of tea. But they are of course much more expensive. So the French mostly stand staunchly by their washing-up water tea.

During winter, I brewed some British tea from the supermarket for The Shopping Lady to show her there was a difference and it was really worthwhile buying something more expensive when I requested a special brand of tea on my shopping list. She discovered I was right and she loved good tea. The next time, I tried loose leaf tea from this Paris House of Tea and she delighted in it. The week after was one of the first of the Lady in Training who joined the Shopping Lady in tasting another tea from the same House. And she discussed her almond cake.

This is how the Lady in Training decided there and then that she would bake another cake that we would eat all together after a shopping session. The Shopping Lady said she would provide les oeufs fermiers de sa cousine (the eggs from the farm belonging to her cousin), and I said I would provide another tea.

There were delays with colds, bronchitis, the Lady in Training's schooling part of her training, holidays, and other impedimenta, but it was finally decided that the goûter/tea party would take place last Friday.  

While The Ladies and The Girls were out shopping, I set the table with care and felt like a kind of tea seller with my tea caddy and its various containers of loose leaves! But I don't know who was happier from The Girls or The Ladies, to come back, let down the shopping bags, wash hands and sit down round the table. The Lady in Training had baked a perfect cake, golden brown and tasting delicately of almond; everybody chose the same tea; the tea cosy was something of a curiosity; but soon there was only the shushed clink of cutlery and china, the hushed noise of gentle chat, and the gurgle of the kettle to refill the teapot. 

Of course, amidst this very civilised occasion, I could not but think with a smile and some nostalgia of the tea parties Mother had held in her time, or the tea parties of older days when I was a child and even before, as they were told to me. And I thought of the mad tea party in "Alice in Wonderland".

The latter was uppermost in my mind, as a friend and I talked at some length some time ago about our childhood books, about Alice and about a film ("Dreamchild") he recommended to me.

I have always been frightened by "Alice in Wonderland". I guess I was already too rational for fairy tales and nonsense tales. I was told Alice as a bedtime story and was scared by the very beginning: how could someone disappear in a hole in the earth and then change from being over-tall to over-tiny by drinking and eating? How could one chat with a caterpillar that was obviously  completely drugged and talked nonsense? How could babies turn into piglets? How could kings and queens be so dumb and frightening? What was this story where rabbits had fobs and animals were so extraordinary as to talk and make daft things? What about a cat that disappeared leaving behind it his large grin? And what about this mad tea party?

It was more than a nonsense tale for me ("Le Petit Prince" by Saint-Exupéry was enough of that); it was a nightmarish tale. Add to it my fear of my teddy bear and you will have the perfect image of the dreaded bedtime I lived every night. I guess the illustrations by Tenniel were another trigger for my terror.

It took me years to be reconciled with Alice. I read comments, exegesis, paratextes or metatextes about the books, and then - then only - I could go back to the text as to any text and rationalise it. I am aware that I must have lost much of its immediate poetry. My friend reminded me that it was a tale told on a sunny afternoon to children to amuse and not to frighten them. The film of which he gives me the link for a long trailer shows all this:

Dreamchild - extract 38 minutes

And yet, when I look at the March Hare with his yellowing teeth, and the poor dormouse, or the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon, I still feel the hair on my neck bristling.

This led me to think about children's book in Britain and France (my Anglo-Saxon friends all told me that "Alice" was a delightful book - well books, with "Through the Looking Glass"-, and that they revelled in both and rather wanted to meet the characters), and British and French mythologies. 

To talk of both would take too long for such a blog but it seems that there are less fairies and elves and "little people" in French tales and myths, unless it is in Brittany - but Brittany is a Celtic country. The French are more at ease with the solar Greek and Latin/Roman myths, their gods, goddesses and minor divinities. The Gallic roots (I mean the roots of the Gauls) have been slowly erased by the Roman civilisation, itself carrying Greek traditions. The invasions from the East and North (Vandals, Visigoths, Franks et al.) did nothing to rekindle the Celtic ground. Christianity had come over the Roman gods. By the end of the fifth century, the core of what would become the Realm of France was officially Christian with the christening of the Frank King Clovis. A breach of civilisation was irredeemably dug between France and Britain.

Meanwhile, oblivious of all these more or less idle considerations, our tea party was a very reasonable one, not mad at all but greatly enjoyed. "Alice" was in my sole and only mind. Thus we all said we would make another occasion soon: so many cakes to bake and so many brands of tea to taste! 

Would we be on our way to seal the breach between "two nations" by way of tea parties?