Lately I’ve noticed online I’m enjoying the company of many people from the UK. Although it’s probably because they happen to be lovely and entertaining, there’s something more, something until recently I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It has come to my attention that my mother may have raised me to be secretly British.
First, there are the obvious things. My maternal grandfather was born in England and lived in Birmingham for the first 6 months of his life before his family made their way to America where the streets are paved with designer knockoffs. For some unexplainable reason the result of this pitstop in the land of Dickens, is that my grandfather acquired certain verbal mannerisms, and a fondness for afternoon tea. His daughter, my mother, then passed these anglophile words and behaviors down to me.
There are other things of course, like my genetic predisposition to rain, also passed down to me by my mother. If you live in a state struggling with drought, give me a call. And please, never invite either of us to a garden party, I’m warning you.
Also, there was the almost religious viewing of Masterpiece Theater’s, Upstairs, Downstairs. For those of you unfamiliar, this was a hugely popular TV series that ran in the UK during the 70’s about a family in a London Townhouse; the tawdry trials of the well-to-do upstairs, and the comic sometimes scandalous activities of the butler, maids, cook, and chauffeur, downstairs.
Here is a photo of the wealthy Major James and Hazel Bellamy dancing joyously as all rich people do. Here’s the hard working head house parlor maid Rose Buck pouring M’lady some tea.Here is Heidi age ten polishing her father’s shoes.
From this we can deduce my mother groomed me to be a parlor maid which, given my propensity for leaving the bed unmade, was folly at best. Also, I use terms like folly at best, which ought to be a clue about the secret British upbringing. .
How about my fondness for marmalade, Earl Grey Tea, and Dr. Who? I’ve seen My Fair Lady at least 20 times, does that count? Did I mention there’s a fairly good chance I’m the reincarnation of The Avengers, Emma Peel?
I feel somehow you remain unconvinced. Still, it doesn’t answer the question what is this strong kinship I feel with those across the pond? Not until I look at the best loved books of my childhood, that is. Here now, my favorite books from ages 4 – 10:
- A Bear Called Paddington – Michael Bond
- The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
- The Little Princess – Frances Hodgson Burnett
- Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
- Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne
- When We Were Very Young – A.A. Milne
- The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
- Peter Pan – J.M. Barrie
- The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien
- Watership Down – Richard Adams
- Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
- Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
- A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
- From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – E.L. Konigsburg
Notice anything? The first eleven on the list are all British authors. I got to thinking about this because someone online mentioned treacle toffee and I vividly recalled a description of this delicacy from a story I’d read in my childhood. At the time, I imagined it to be the most exquisite candy ever made. It wasn’t just the candy, it was the tale as well. In an enchanted wood children climbed a tree filled with magical creatures. At the very top, worlds spun around them, some dark and scary others, happy and carefree. The mention of that treacle toffee and I was back there again, in this fantastical place that had meant so much to me growing up.
I tried to describe the book, as I could not remember it’s title, only the gold embossed binding that had so attracted me in the school library. My friend Peter Wilkin figured it out and sent me the link to author Enid Blyton and The Faraway Tree collection. This kind gesture unearthed a treasure trove of memories.
It all makes sense now. My new found UK friends speak the language of my childhood, no wonder I feel such warmth. But it’s so much more than that. I think up there in that lovely list of books is the reason I write. The Magic Faraway Tree left an imprint on my heart, just as Charlotte, Peter, Alice, Mary and all the rest did as well. The worlds built in those books were transformative. They taught me the beauty and power of the written word, although at the time I wouldn’t have known it. But here I am many years later and, like a worn stuffed bear, I pull the memory of those books close, recalling again the feel of words casting their spell over me.
Do you remember books from your childhood that had this kind of impact? I would love to hear about it.
Marvellous (spelled the English way, of course) posting Heidi. And – despite the eons of time that have passed – yes, I do fondly remember the books of my childhood: the ‘Just William’ series of books by Richmal Crompton, the ‘Billy Bunter’ series by Charles Hamilton … & all the old favourites (English spelling again), some of which you’ve mentioned, in particular ‘The Secret Garden’ & Enid Blyton’s many books. All of them kept treasures locked safely inside my soul. So, there is nothing else for it, my dear – you must come to England & explore what is clearly your heritage. We can eat fish & chips out of newspaper, sit by the sea with knotted hankies on our heads, try to make the guardsmen laugh at Liz & Phil’s place … & I can teach you how to speak the Queen’s English. Nethen now, thas’ll ne’er geet a better offer ner that, lass! It’ll be reet gradely, tha nuzz 🙂
What a fantastic invitation. I’m one of those people who picks up accents like a sponge, I’m sure you’ll have me speaking proper english in no time. 🙂 You know Peter, funny enough, I have a photo of me with a knotted hanky on my head, almost used it in this post, actually. I feel so fortunate to count you among my friends across the pond, mate. Your words always inspire and make me smile.
I was in love with the Madeline series as a kid. The first thing I would do every time my mother took me to the library was run to see if there was a new one there that I hadn’t read. I still remember exactly the spot in the library that those books were shelved. Madeline was of course from France, so this makes perfect sense to me! I have always thought life would be so much sweeter if I was French. I didn’t make the connection until I read your post.
Als0— I was totally obsessed with “A Wrinkle In Time”.
I love this. Not only had I forgotten the Madeline series which I adored as well. But the fact that this memory includes exactly where the books were in your library completely resonates with me. One of the things about The Faraway Tree series is that they were on a shelf in the elementary school library high above my little head. I got fixated about those shiny looking books up top. We were supposed to get a librarian to climb the step ladder and reach them. But I had no patience for such things so I climbed the ladder myself, up on tip toe snatching them down with excitement.
Oh I knew I loved you…those were MY favorite books (even the non-british Wrinkle in Time, but we’ll let that go) and I watched Upstairs Downstairs (and thought I was the only kid who did…)
Sorry about all the elipses. I wonder if that’s a British thing, too – to want to leave people wondering? Like I’m a big mystery and was about to say something VERY clever. Or British?
I love this post, Heidi. Can’t wait to share…(see. there i go again).
You know I’ve kept some of those books all these years? Have a dog eared cloth copy of House at Pooh Corner & When We Were Very Young. Also Secret Garden, Charlotte’s Web & Paddington. Either I have deep affection for these novels of my youth or they may be a serious pack rat issue requiring medication. Ah well, we’ll never know.
I’m amazed anyone’s heard of Upstairs Downstairs! This is yet another in a series of odd things we have in common. Thanks so much for coming to visit my blog again. I’m honor and thrilled.
There is a new series from the UK called Downton Abbey. It’s on PBS Sunday evenings at 9. The second episode is this coming Sunday. It’s another great visit to the time of Upstairs Downstairs, probably just before World War I. It’s a large country house and of course there is a full cast, both upstairs and down. You and your readers will love it and we did.
I’m looking forward to it, Dad. Rachel was talking to me about it. She vividly remembered her mom watching Upstairs Downstairs religiously as well.
As an American descendant of the Anglo Tango myself, I understand your predilection.
My Grandfather’s last name was Wightman, he of the Wightmans of the Isle of Wight, so I was introduced to the Brit Shit fairly early on. But while my young reading tastes tended toward those mid-western heroes, the Hardy Boys, I spent a lot of time sucking up all the English Horror Hammer films and British Invasion Rock n Roll that I possibly could.
I have no doubt rock n roll boy that you were the cool kid who brought the British Invasion to the US before any of your little friends. Also, I have it on very good authority that Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson filled your mind along with all those slasher movies. I think I didn’t know the Isle of Wight story. You’ll have to tell me more one day.
Love this post! Having married into a British family so much of this rings true. We are also madly addicted to BBC and Masterpiece Theatre. Thanks for bringing a smile to my day!
You’re welcome Sandi. What a sweet message. Thanks for stopping by.
Enid Blyton! I’d totally forgotten about her, loved those fun mysteries with all those kids and the dog. I’ll admit it, I’m enough of a dork to look it up: http://www.enidblyton.net/famous-five/five-on-a-treasure-island.html. Just the same!
Those are a bunch of my other favorites too. Wuthering Heights and The Secret Garden were high on my list. I must admit, I just read The Secret Garden to my kids and Colin kind of freaked me out as an adult (so, so angry). A Wrinkle in Time is one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve even dressed up as Mrs. Which for Halloween, but I’m the only one who really got it. Wouldn’t it be lovely to Tesser? On another note, I ran a student/parent book club with The Mixed Up Files of MBEF and was surprised how that parents hated that book. They couldn’t get past how the kids ran away. Total stinkers. I adore it.
It’s amazing how books speak to us as children. It’s like they are tattooed into our souls or something. Magic.
Ooooo your response made me smile. Thanks so much for sharing your book memories. This is really a subject near and dear to my heart. The Mixed Up Files was phenomenal. I never forgot that idea of sleeping in one of the canopy beds at the Met and getting coins from the fountain. What a shame the parents got fixated on the running away part. You know what was the one book I realized I left off? Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Ha. Suffice it to say I owned multiple copies. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂
I have loved 8 of the books on your list and all things Jane Austen. Of course, I must admit, The Little Princess was my all time favorite childhood book and I have read it to my girls. Plus, I have a very odd predisposition to British television. They just seem to “get me” . You’ve made me realize it may be my maternal Grandfather and all his Tomlinson roots that are to blame. But spotted dick, I could never do. So even though I could totally watch their tv, dance my ass off to their techno, and frolic through their ample meadows I could not ever eat their spotted dick:)
I remember Upstairs, Downstairs with Rose and Mr. Hudson. I watched the series as a child, because my mom was watching it, and I was fascinated by it. I guess I was a weird kid 🙂 Maybe you were English in a prior life? Or perhaps it was the undue influence of PBS? Whatever the reason it seems like a wonderful thing and I’m glad it has helped to inspire a top-drawer writer such as yourself.
What a sweet message. Thanks so much Jason. I’m so surprised to hear that lots of people remember Upstairs Downstairs. I didn’t think it was that popular. I’m almost positive I was English in another life, also Greek, but that’s a different story.
It’s uncanny how many of our favorite books from childhood were the same! The only one on your list that I never did read was Watership Down. Tried two or three times and just never finished.
I lived in Britain as a girl and know that my time there molded my literature preferences. An thanks for the bringing to the surface of my tired suburban brain the Enid Blyton memories. Childhood bliss! 🙂
I’m glad someone besides me knows those amazing Enid Blyton books. You are of course doubly confirming my theory that my mother raised me to be secretly British what with the living in Britain as a girl and liking the same childhood books as me. Thanks so much for stopping by. 🙂
Again, I can relate to this post for I too as a young, impressionable, southern girl had British leanings… towards Benny Hill. AND my in my real non-writer life I was named after – get this… the actress who REPLACED Miss Emma Peal on the Avengers.
Your list of favorite books speaks VOLUMES (ha!) about how and why your writing style emerged and its a pedigree you could not go wrong with. Once again, I enjoyed this post, especially the picture of you polishing shoes. Me thinks I will have to read more.
A southern girl with Benny Hill leanings it ALL makes sense now. Also now I’m on a mission to figure out which actress replaced Diana Rigg. Although I must say IdaBel Allen is an awfully good writerly name.
You know I do believe those books did influence my writing, so did certain kinds of art and theater growing up. I’m so glad you’re liking the blog. You already know what a big fan I am of yours.
Roughly 90% percent of my family on my father’s side is still in Scotland, and I grew up in the Midwestern US, so I know about the secret Britishness. It made me weird back then, but now I embrace it. Growing up, I loved pretty much all the books on your list, plus The Wind in the Willows, which my parents read to me constantly (poor things). Decades later, in my MA program I am (in)famous for taking every Brit lit course I can get my hands on and the bare minimum of American. I consistently type things like “dialogue,” “colour,” and “criticise” and am astonished when spell checker argues with me (like right now). And I make a mean mince and tatties. 🙂
So glad you stopped by Lynn! Clearly you understand where I’m coming from. I really do think the language of those books from my childhood is ingrained in me. There are so many phrases folks in the UK say that sound so pleasing to my ear. Meanwhile we have to listen to children on the Jersey Shore butcher the english language. *sigh* And yes, I know I sounded like a a 150 year old woman just then, but still… Glad you enjoyed the post. 😉
Have you ever had “Sticky toffee pudding”?
My first experience was when it was a popular flavor won in a ice cream making contest, that the ice cream maker then massed produced (for a limited time).
I think a small sample of it everyday would either extend your life by the joy it would bring, or perhaps, shorten it by the cream and sugar in it.
Who knows, it sure was good while it lasted.
That’s a great picture of you cleaning your Dad’s shoes. Was it the last time you did any domestic work . Sorry, couldn’t resist!