WORLD of ELEANOR FARJEON
4 4 UR Christmas ses absolutely glowed," said Miss Farjeon. "They were extremely Dickensian. About the middle of each December, father would go down to the Army and Navy Stores and buy the biggest Christmas tree available. When the tree was delivered, the drawing-room door was locked : Santa Claus was dressing the tree in secret, and he would tell us so with an occasional trumpet blast! "Father revelled in entertaining gloriously: His Christmas parties swelled with years to phenomenal proportions. His Christmas trees grew bigger and bigger. " From each party half a hundred children bore off boxfuls of toys and treasures to last the round. und. The trees were laden with thousands of entrancing little gifts and ,curios purchased wholesale from January to January, collected in France and Switzerland wherever father spent a week in foreign lands 431141; w ssgr HERE were Venetian beads in strings by the dozen, French scent bottles, silver chains, toy watches, pencil cases, compasses, purses, trinkets, lovely glass birds and _ baskets. and sweet
All through her writing life, Eleanor Farjeon—she is nearly 80—has held a high and honoured position among storytellers for children.
She was awarded in 1956 the Carnegie Medal "for the best children's book of the year", and the Hans Andersen Medal "for the most distinguished contribution to international children's literature". A convert, she received in 1959 the American Catholic Regina Medal "in recognition of a lifetime's work for children".
The following article was written after an exclusive interview with Miss Farjeon (she rarely opens her door to pressmen) at her Hampstead (North-West London) home, the quaintest little house this side of fairyland.
The interview took place in a room which was the hayloft in the days when the premises were the coachhouse and stables of the big Georgian house at the rear.
Here, where some of the finest children's works have been born, Eleanor Farjeon reminisced on the rich Bohemian atmosphere in which she and her three brothers were brought up. Talk of Christmas brought from her one of those enchanting wordpictures which young and old have learned to recognise as the hall-mark of Eleanor Farjeon.
meats in all manner of forms. " And around the tree, for half the space of the room, were piled such stacks of hooks and boxes of toys as the branches would not bear—boxes of soldiers. farms,
tea sets, bricks, doll's furniture. Noah's Arks, kaleidoscopes, telescopes, microscopes. picture books for babes of two or three, storybooks for schoolchildren of 12 to 14. And dolls! Glorious dolls— some bought ready-dressed in Paris or Interlaken. bevies of others dressed through the year by Mama."
By TERENCE McQUEEN
HE '` mama of this bursting household was Margaret Jefferson, eldest daughter of the American actor Joseph Jefferson. The father was B. L. Farjeon, born into a Jewish household midst the poverty of London's East End, a year after Queen Victoria's coronation. B. L. Farjeon had not accepted his father's strict Jewish faith. At the age of 16 he had left home and travelled to Australia and New Zealand in search of gold. He had finally staked his claim not in the goldfields but in a newspaper born of the gold rush: the Otago Daily Times ". On this paper, now the leading daily in Dunedin, he had served as manager, sub-editor, feature-writer, printer, and finally co-proprietor. He wrote all the time in the manner of Charles Dickens, his idol whom he met later and whose son became a close friend. He had numerous novels and stories to his credit when, after his return to England, he married Margaret Jefferson.
irOUR children were born of the marriage: Harry, Nellie [Eleanor], Joe, and Bertie. They were born in a house which overflowed with books-8,000 of them! The nurseries upstairs were full of books. The study downstairs was full of books. Books lined the dining room walls. Even the bedrooms were stacked with books. The dusty overflow volumes of Mr. Farjeon's library were stacked in a room ambiguously named The Little Bookroom. This was regarded by the small Eleanor as her very own treasure house of delight. There was no selection or sense of order here. Old plays and histories were crammed between old romances, superstitions, legends, " and what are called the Curiosities of Literature ". The Farjeon children eagerly waded through the lot.
THE young Eleanor never went to school, and received only a slight elementary schooling from a nursery governess. "Miss Milton of the The illustrations on this page are from children's books by Eleanor Farjeon and are reproduced by kind permission of the authoress and of her publisher — Oxford University Press Ltd. pale red hair took me and Harry through our pothooks and hangers, our 'Reading Without Tears', and 'Little Arthur's History of England', But pothooks and hangers did not interest me, the reading that could be acquired without tears did not capture my imagination (if a book did I was only too glad to weep with it), the dates of Kings and Queens became a sort of dutiful nuisance. "Father thought education consisted of the best books, the best paintings, the best theatre, the best music," she explains. "We absorbed ourselves in the creative arts. We were given everything that would mean something to us later on, everything that would help us to develop our talents."
THE Farjeons knew everybody who was anybody in the Bohemian literary and dramatic world. From the age of four Eleanor was frequently taken with her brothers to the theatre and opera, meeting backstage or at house-parties such top people of the times as Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, William Terriss, Genevieve Ward and Charles Wyndham At the ape of seven, Eleanor was writing fairy tales and plays and verses on her father's great typewriter. if she wasn't writing she was reading. Then the bombshell dropped. Shortly before her eighth birthday, Eleanor was taken to Harley Street for an eye test. The eye specialist prescribed spectacles for life, and gave stringent orders as to the size of print permissible for reading. If Eleanor had been left for another year, he said, she would have gone blind.
"t°1 -• IT HE warning did not MI' dissuade Mr. Farjeon from hunting his shelves and the salesrooms for more books that might please his little Eleanor. He placed in her way everything he thought she was ready for. "When I first read Plato," Miss Farjeon recalls, "the nature of the soul was brought home to me". But her main spiritual response, she admits, was to pretty wild-flowers, woods and fields, and the sky — the sky most of all. Although she was afraid of Hell and the Devil — nurses saw to that — and obediently said her prayers every night, it was the fairies who really controlled her. In her earliest, most credulous years, she "believed" more in Santa Claus than she did in God.
IA. tie /15 HEN one Christmas she went to Italy and attended Midnight Mass in the ancient basilica at Fiesole. "I understood nothing. but just sat and heard the bells ring, watched the peasants praying, the children playing," she told me. "But I felt most certainly that I was in the presence of an Absolute Mystery. Looking back now, I know that that Christmas Eve was one of the supreme turning
points in my journey to the Church".
The final turning point came when she met Denys Blakelock in the Christmas production of her widely-acclaimed play "The Silver Curlew" at the Arts Theatre, London, 1949. (This play was first produced in Liverpool --The Play House — in 1948.) That meeting with Denys Blakelock did the trick.
64U R friendship and 14.4 many talks led me to much thinking and reading", Miss Farjeon told me. "I realized that if I carried my faith anywhere it could only be to the Catholic Church.' It was St. Augustine, she thinks, who finally took her to Farm Street in January, 1951. Seven months later she was baptised at Spanish Place by Fr. Richard Mangan, S.J. Denys Blakelock was her sponsor.
/MISS FARJEON was then 70, and one might have expected that having reached that age she would have felt obliged to put down her pen and close her door against book publishers' demands But no! She has continued to collect stories and ideas of earlier years, revising here, elaborating there, transporting her readers all the time into a world of wonderful surprises. Today, on her crowded bookshelves, over a hundred works carry the line: "by Eleanor Farjeon", and each one is hacked with rapturous press comments . . . "Here is a model of what a book for children should be" . . . "A work of unquestionable genius" . . "A marvellous thing" . . "Written with rare distinction" . . "Pure delight
AILLIONS of readers spread over 13 different countries, make a bee-line for everything written by Eleanor Farjeon. They see in her writings, no doubt, that "rarest kind of best" which Walter de la Marc spoke of as the only kind of best good enough for the young.