Lucy M. Boston

Lucy M. Boston was one of my favorite writers. I have a couple of files to put up relating to her work, primarily my paper on her third Green Knowe book, River. I’d be delighted to list other web-sites, but don’t know of any. For now, here’s my paper, which was presented at the ’89 ChLA (Children’s Literature Association) conference, and later appeared in its Selected Proceedings. –David Lenander

Here are a couple of links, current as of January 2006

Most importantly, a web-site for the Manor at Hemingford Grey, Lucy Boston’s home, which inspired the Green Knowe books:

There is a petition to get the BBC television “Children of Green Knowe” released as a dvd:

Then there’re another discussion of the books:

Please let me know of any other web-sites of note.  thanks.

David Lenander

(612) 292-8887
Children’s Literature Association Conference
12-14 May 1989

Crosscurrents in
The River at Green Knowe by L.M. Boston

The central importance of the manor house in the six Green Knowe books has led most critics to focus on themes associated with the house of Green Noah/Knowe, to the exclusion of other important themes. [1] The river, and water in general, is a principal symbolic foil to the house in this series. [2] This is especially true of the third book of the series, to which the river gives a title. Yet the river has received less attention from Boston’s critics than one might expect. [3] Perhaps this is why The River at Green Knowe is, as Boston put it, “the least liked of [her] books” (“Message”), and the least discussed. Eleanor Cameron provides the closest reading of River in her Green and Burning Tree. Although she is a careful and perceptive critic, where she finds the book a failure (108-113), Cameron suffers from the blinders of her critical premises. She fails to look at what Boston accomplished, instead focusing on what Boston never attempted.

Less dependant than An Enemy at Green Knowe or The Stones of Green Knowe upon the rest of the series, The River at Green Knowe is more fundamentally a part of its series than the remaining three volumes, Children, Treasure and Stranger, which can more easily be read independently. As the third book in a series of six, River gains depth and meaning beyond that which it could encompass on its own. At the same time, because it is in some ways the most unlike its companion books, River brings a necessary counterpoint to the entire series. To fully appreciate the achievement of the book it is necessary to consider it both on its own, and in its series context.

The River at Green Knowe may be seen as a book belonging to that genre of children’s story in which several children possess some magic, often in the form of a talisman, and use it to pursue adventures. Examples include E. Nesbit’s books, Kipling’s Puck books, and others by Mrs. Molesworth, Edward Eager or Hilda Lewis, and a host of lesser imitators. Often these adventures are episodic, usually each contained in a single chapter, and sometimes bearing little relationship between these-in effect-separate short stories. River is also an odyssey of discovery, and in this aspect, a river story like many others from Huckleberry Finn to Derleth’s Moon Tenders or (most like) Mayne’s Blue Boat. Just as in the original Odyssey, the islands visited by the explorers of such books prove to be quite different, one from another, and present very different adventures.

Metaphorically, the first two Green Knowe books might be seen as similar stories, with Tolly exploring the river of time, and listening to the chapter-length stories told by his grandmother, which then come together in a timeless fusion of past and present. Along the way, Tolly makes discoveries about the house and his family, but he is always shielded from the outside world by the safety of the hearth and home that is Green Knowe.

Unlike those earlier books, the episodes of River are not unified by the adult perspective of Mrs. Oldknow, and/or the character and setting of the dominant manor house itself. Even the child protagonist’s perspective is refracted into three, and these are divided in various ways, by sex, size, race and culture. Where the first two books are contained within a hortus conclusus of home and family, River is the only book in which all Oldknows are absent, and in which the house itself is but one island within the river, perceived from the outside by visitors who are not themselves part of its centuries-old enchantment. That these visitors become participants in the magic is important, that they turn to the house for refuge validates the other books, but that they discover other islands, and incidentally other magics is no less important: their perspective and experiences throw Green Knowe into relief, defining it more clearly than before, and setting up the movement beyond the first two books that occurs in the later installments. The River at Green Knowe is told in a different key, on a flatter canvas, with an outward exploration, that discovers not so much the meaningful interior but the possibly meaningless exterior-the existential surfaces which the world presents to the discerning if uncultured child’s eye. Here movement is outward, away from unity. The earlier books featured an inwardly spiralling movement which united members of the same Oldknow family across centuries in a single geographic locale.

The absence of Mrs. Oldknow, present in all of the other books, leaves the children and the reader without an authoritative interpreter of the events that occur in The River at Green Knowe. [4] There is no integration of the adult and child vision. Some questions are left open and unresolved at the end of the book. Several of these questions are resolved in later books, but others go unanswered. This is a reflection of the kinds of childhood experiences common to its protagonists, three displaced children who find a temporary haven in this marvelous old house. Unlike the Oldknow protagonists of the other books, these children must learn to construct their own islands in the stream of time, rafts upon the river of experience. Ping, Oskar and Ida must internalize the idea of home and refuge represented in the manor house even more than Tolly, because Green Knowe will no longer be theirs after the summer holidays.

The opening scene of the first book, The Children of Green Knowe, finds Tolly in a train on his way to Green Noah, his ancestral home, which proves to be on an island in the midst of the river in flood. The world he leaves behind, with grotesque ladies clicking knitting needles on the train, and a remote stepmother and boarding school, is summed up in that amorphous and threatening body of water. Once in the house, described repeatedly as an “ark,” Tolly is able to feel secure and, apparently for the first time, at home. Most of the story describes Tolly’s developing relationship with his great-grandmother and how he becomes self-confident while discovering and embracing his heritage-he becomes more himself. It is a portrayal of the secure child’s discovery of the world around him, in which the chief peril, symbolized in the 17th century curse of the witch Petronella and the animated yew Noah, is at once the external danger of the wild other, Nature, and the original sin of human Culture, both also destructive aspects of Tolly’s internalized psyche. Time and time travel are important in this story, but less so than the discovery of wonder and the flowering of childhood in the safety and refuge of his grandmother’s care. Besides the river in flood that represents the chaos of the 20th century world outside Green Noah, the river is also a barrier to be crossed for a doctor in one of Mrs. Oldknow’s stories of the 17th century. But the river is also beautiful, “sparkling blue” (24), and it washes and replenishes the countryside when it floods.

In Treasure of Green Knowe the river has a smaller role, because Nature is aligned with the old stone manor home in opposition to the 18th century brick mansion that the foolish and worldly Maria Oldknow has built up around the original manor. Other symbols, like trees in the garden, and Jacob, the freed black slave boy, represent natural goodness in opposition to the cultural constructs of clothing, manners and puritanical religion, symbolized in Maria, her son, servants and mother-in-law. Meanwhile, in the 20th century, the chief threat to the manor is not so much its leaking roof, but the debts preventing its repair. The river again represents the perilous side of Nature, but as that is a lesser danger in this book where the Cultural side is so dominant, it plays a minor role. The river is specifically linked at one point with the “relentless” passage of time (146), but in this book, purification comes by fire, when the brick excrescence on the old stone manor is burned.

Cameron criticizes River for “its extreme looseness of structure,” the factor to which she attributes the book’s “failure” (108). She thinks that the fantasy in the book is “reckless,” that it “gets out of hand,” and that the book fails to be “an integrated, single-minded work of art” (109). The children’s adventures “are bound together by no one compelling theme; they fall into disparate parts; ‘the centre cannot hold,’ the vision of the writer being divided during most of the book between timelessness and dispossession” (110). She also complains that Boston fails to fully exploit one of her characters, and that another character, a giant, is inappropriate and unbelievable, and that only twice do the themes of dispossession and timelessness coalesce.

Most of Cameron’s disappointment in River seems to be due to the fact that this book, unlike the other books in the series, does not easily fit into the critical framework she is constructing in her study of time fantasies for children. Her most serious charge, that the book is not an “integrated, single-minded work of art” illustrates the New Critical bias that interferes with her appreciation of this book. River is not a story, like the other Green Knowe books, primarily about the timeless refuge symbolized in the great manor (which might be characterized as childhood, or as a Blakean Innocence), but about the necessary reaching out from a secure base into the world of experience. Cameron finds that River fails to be like the first two Green Knowe books, but this is precisely opposite of the book’s intention. Instead of Nesbit’s Story of the Amulet, which Cameron praises so highly in her essay, Boston is writing in the tradition of Five Children and It.

If Children and Treasure are composed of individual episodes, like emeralds, strung upon strands of unifying plot and theme, the events in River tumble from a small leather sack, sparkling in rainbow colors. Without Mrs. Oldknow and Tolly providing direction, the reader must string these gemstones together-and this may be accomplished in different orders, according to any one of a number of designs. The integrity of this work is thematic, its loose plot structure is a part of its design, no more a flaw than the gaps between strings in a net. Cameron’s “single-mindedness” is a New Critical ideal that (fortunately) is rarely actually present in a work of art, and is no more present in Children (as previously suggested) than it is in River. The difference is that the tighter plotting and narrower theme of Children allows it to fit more comfortably into Cameron’s theory and discussion of time fantasy. Selecting the time fantasy portions of River for discussion, as if these are the principal and entire purpose of the book, leads her into trouble when she attempts to account for the portions of the book that are not related to her interest.

Cameron proposed to discuss the theme of the “Green and Burning Tree” as it occurs in children’s time fantasy. She described this (in John Ackerman’s words) as “an awareness of the dual nature of reality, of unity in disunity, of the simultaneity of life and death, of time as an eternal moment rather than as something with a separate past and future” (74). She actually limited herself to the last aspect of this definition, “time as an eternal moment,” which she also called the “Globe of Time.” River, like the other Green Knowe books, deals with the broader theme, with time and timelessness being only a part of its concern. But more than the other books, River focuses on the disunity, the “burning” side of dual nature.

Cameron’s discomfort with the book is not due to thematic disorganization. She is most disturbed by the episode of the giant. This is where she sees reckless fantasy threatening the unity of the book. Perhaps this is because it is at this point that Boston moves her story closest to nonsense. [5] Both the giant and the hermit sequences are nonsensical in a way that is at variance with the prevailing Green Knowe mood of sublime mystery and wonder. These episodes also present social satire in a mode that is foreign to this prevalent mood.

Neither the giant nor the hermit episodes are as “recklessly” fantastic as is Oskar’s shrinking to the size of a mouse, or the children’s experience with the flying horses. Yet these events are presented in the mood of Tolly’s discoveries in the earlier books: marvelously. Significantly, the hermit and giant sequences occur farther away from Green Knowe. The giant episode takes the children farther than any other, when the river in flood sweeps them almost to the sea. These episodes are presented mundanely, with the stories and characters of hermit and giant seeming absurdist, flat and comical, rather like caricatures in political cartoons. More appropriate illustrations for such work might have been done by Tenniel, instead of Peter Boston’s delicate, dappled sketches of Green Knowe. Except for the hermit’s account of his vision of prehistory, these episodes lack the quiet mystery that dominates events at Green Knowe. Some readers might argue that Lucy Boston is lost away from her house, unable to convincingly portray any other setting. [6] However, the near-nonsense, the disorder implicit in the events away from Green Knowe, reflects a thematic development which may be traced throughout the several books. Boston’s most characteristic style would be ill-suited to the portrayal of these episodes and ironic themes. For this reader, her gentle satire here succeeds admirably.

The River at Green Knowe develops the portrayal of Green Knowe, the house, as sanctuary and as timeless island by painting a contrasting portrait of the world outside the estate, represented in the river. The estate provides sanctuary to three displaced children, as it has in the earlier books to Tolly, Jacob and creatures such as birds fleeing an owl. Again Green Knowe’s timelessness dominates the mood of the book, but this time the focus is not trained on the heritage of the past. Instead that heritage is subsumed in the overall odyssey as one strand in the mesh of experience. The book illustrates that while the house may hold within its past many secrets, timelessness and magic, it requires an active perception to fully make use of its power. Bun and Biggin are blind to most of what the house might show them, although even they eventually feel its effect: when Sybilla Bun feels the spell of the full moon, and when Dr. Biggin finally sees the giant’s tooth.

The three children are fully perceptive, and they turn their eyes away from Green Knowe-though always with its safe retreat at their backs-and see many wonders in the river of time, change and diversity from which Green Knowe is an island apart. Perhaps they discover so little of Green Knowe itself because Mrs. Oldknow, its guardian (the sanctuary priestess?) is away and cannot initiate them into its mysteries. The episodes of the hermit and of the giant show the children other, less satisfactory retreats from the river of activity and change. Green Knowe contrasts with the society that the hermit has fled, and which the giant, a child shielded from that society by his overprotective mother, ultimately embraces-represented in this case by the circus. This circus, in turn, is contrasted and compared with the archaeologists’ meeting, significantly held inside the walls of Green Knowe. The same forces of duality and opposition exist in and out of Green Knowe; in all things are both unity and variety, time and timelessness, beauty and ugliness, Truth and many truths, but it takes a special kind of perception to see this. Green Knowe fosters this perception, and teaches it. It is, as are all old monuments, equipped as an obvious representative of the past in the present. It is unchanged and unchanging while everything changes around it. As a sanctuary and retreat, it provides a vantage from which diversity may be more easily observed. This perception is a wonderful gift, providing C.S. Lewis’s perilous desire or aeskesis, but it may also be terrifying, even dangerous.

In their most marvellous adventure the children see an ancient wickerwork Green Knowe and a pre-Christian revel and ceremony. The children are inspired to hunt for this vision after reading a cryptic note with a chart left by the 17th century Piers Madely. Part of the note and its explanation are in Latin, which the children cannot read (in any of the other books Mrs. Oldknow would have obtained a translation, in fact this comes in Enemy). Searching for the island on which the vision will be available, the children are so outwardly directed from Green Knowe that it takes them considerable effort to discover that the Island of the Throning Moon is that of Green Knowe itself. Only after exploring other islands are the children able to gain the necessary perspective to recognize their own island as the object of their search. The ensuing vision is the closest in feeling to the other books, and the only scene that meets with Cameron’s full approval. This mystical vision is shared with both the hermit-whose vision was achieved through asceticism-and to a lesser degree with Sybilla Bun-whose vision was achieved by the opposite path, sensuality (her immersion in food). The experience terrified Piers Madely, because he could not explain it. The children cannot explain their vision, but they can accept it, even though it frightens them (so that they momentarily turn to Green Knowe for reassurance). Dr. Biggin could explain the children’s vision (and indirectly does, at least for the reader, in answering some of the children’s questions), but she could never see the vision. (Mrs. Oldknow could have seen, accepted and explained this vision, but she is absent in River. In absence her character, and that of Green Knowe, become clearer).

Cameron criticizes the characterizations of Dr. Maud Biggin and Sybilla Bun in River, saying that they are “grotesques,” and unbelievable (108). The first charge is true, so far as it goes. So are many of Dickens’ or Shakespeare’s characters grotesques, including some principal characters, and including even the protagonists in novels by writers like T.L. Peacock or Mervyn Peake. Certainly Biggin and Bun are not developed much beyond the roles they play in River. But to compare them unfavorably with Mrs. Oldknow, as Cameron does, is unfair. Mrs. Oldknow participates in the activities of the children in the five other books, hers is a sympathetic and rounded portrait. The two maiden aunts are stock figures from the genre of story to which I have suggested that River belongs. Their lives are separate from the children’s, and if they provide some comedy, their portraits are more sympathetic than those of James’ aunts in Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. They are better rounded than such figures as the great-aunt in Eager’s The Time Garden, or the parents in such realistic stories as Blume’s Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. A reader does not expect every single character to be fully developed–as in life, one only expects to become intimately acquainted with a few. We see the aunts in only two dimensions because we only see them acting in limited roles (and largely through the children’s eyes). Boston makes this clear on page twelve when Dr. Biggin brusquely says “Enjoy yourselves. Be off now . I’m busy.” and “She firmly closed the study door between them.” The children act on their own, and the world they explore is one belonging to childhood, in which most adults are interlopers. Correspondingly, if these adults appear a little strange to the children, it is because the adult world is strange to children. Boston occasionally surprises the reader with sudden flashes of a third dimension to the aunts’ characters–again, as in life. For example, when Sybilla unexpectedly recites poetry, and shows that she has unknowingly shared the children’s adventures of the night before.

Considered in the context of the series, in an obvious sense Bun and Biggin are two halves of a single character. These halves represent feeling and understanding, fragmented in this book, but united in the other books in the character of Mrs. Oldknow. In another sense, Bun and Biggin are the clicking, knitting ladies in the train car with Tolly in the first book, adults who really don’t understand or participate in the child’s world, however kindly they may be in intention. At least they are not obstacles to the children as were Maria and Mother-in-law Oldknow in Treasure, but they provide little help to the three children in pursuing the kind of learning that Tolly achieves with his great-grandmother. Of course, Bun and Biggin miss out on the obvious benefits of Mrs. Oldknow’s openness to the childlike perception. She is still learning at an advanced age, while Dr. Biggin is incapable of perceiving or accepting from the children the most astonishing proof of her scientific theories, the living existence of the prehistoric giants she believes extinct. (She does at least accept the giant tooth as a miraculously preserved fossil, tangibly benefitting from her generosity towards the children). In this book, it is Terak the giant who is best able to make the transition from childhood to adulthood, from which his mother has shrunk and attempted to protect him. Even in the midst of the circus, a metaphor for the adult world of experience, which the children visit with Dr. Biggin, Terak is still able to look back and wink at the children. Meanwhile, Dr. Biggin refuses the evidence of her eyes, and dismisses Terak’s giant size as a circus trick, mere fantasy. Terak is like Mrs. Oldknow in his ability to see and communicate both with adult and child sensibility.

Like Tove Jansson in Moominvalley in November, Lucy Boston found it necessary to suspend her usual cast of characters and bring in others to explore new themes and aspects of her fictional world in The River at Green Knowe. For Boston some of those themes are further developed in the later books, for example when the most “displaced” of the three children, Ping, is brought together with Mrs. Oldknow in the stunning A Stranger at Green Knowe. Here Ping’s private fantasies of a refuge for the natural forces embodied in the gorilla, Hanno, prove impossible to realize for more than a few days even within the hortus conclusus of Green Knowe, and terrible Experience bursts through its hedge. Ping’s maturation is continued in the fifth book, Enemy. This time he is united with Tolly in working to preserve the house from another witch’s curse, in a story that explains one of the previously unexplained events in River. The boys succeed in saving Green Knowe, but it is clear that it is only with continual effort that the timeless refuge can be maintained against the relentless river of time. At last, in the final book of the series, The Stones of Green Knowe, the end of Green Knowe itself is perhaps foreshadowed. After a family reunion of generations of Oldknows under the copper beech tree, Roger realizes that whatever the future holds, his place and home in his 12th century present is secure. He has internalized Green Knowe. Through his descendants, that internalized security is handed down to Tolly, who faces an uncertain future with confidence in his own abilities. [7]


1. See Cameron, Hollindale, Robbins, Rose, Stott, and Townshend for instance.

2. Rose comes the closest to grasping this symbolic importance in a brief statement about the book: ” it straggles and twists, sometimes sluggish but shimmering, sometimes swift and turbulent, very much like the river round which it is written.” (39). Likewise, Townshend: “The river flows through the heart of the story, and to some extent takes the central place occupied by the house in the previous two books.” (29). Hollindale speaks generally about the series setting: “The effect is of continuum, of a place that flows like water from its centre to horizons. Not for nothing is the house so often called the ‘Ark’: its natural element is as much water as land .” (27). Yet Hollindale fails to realize the implications of this observation in his discussion of River (29-30).

3. An exception to this general observation would be Rosenthal’s essay, which provides a good discussion of the flood as chaos in Children, but does not consider the flood’s origin as part of the river, nor discuss River.

4. Even in some of the quasi-Green Knowe books like A Castle of Yew and The Guardians of the House, where the house and grandmother are unnamed.

5. On first reading, I was similarly uncomfortable with the old hermit sequence that Cameron praises. Somehow, an aspiring Thoreau threatens my apprehension of the mystery of Green Knowe far more than a prehistoric giant.

6. Nearly all of her writing is built around the house she lived in and restored, as detailed in her 1973 Memory In a House. Two stories that would seem exceptions, The Sea Egg and Nothing Said are both built around creatures who inhabit the water, a sea triton and a naid. The latter creature appears in a stream that may be the same river running behind Green Knowe, while the former seems a cousin to the naid. Three other exceptions include Boston’s memoir of her early years (before she came to the manor house), Perverse and Foolish, her play, The Horned Man, and perhaps her book of poems, Time is Undone (where only a couple of poems seem to invoke the house). Even her adult novels, Strongholds (“Persephone” in the U.K.) and Yew Hall feature the manor house.

7. Underlying this paper is a critical approach dependant upon (among others) Reader-Response critical approaches derived from the work of Stanley Fish and others. See, for instance, Tompkins’ Reader-Response Criticism. Here, of course, the next phenomenological step is to follow the D’Aulneaux inheritance from Tolly to the child reader. In a larger context, this enterprise and the ability of a critic to re-evaluate or reread a book like River, to disagree with a critic-reader like Cameron, is dependant upon a different vantage in an “interpretive community” changed by time and subsequent theoretical development. We read the same text, but understand it differently. Lois Kuznets accomplished a similar rereading in her fascinating paper on The Return of the Twelves, also presented at this conference.

Works Cited

Boston, Lucy M. The Castle of Yew. 1965. Harmondsworth, England: Puffin, 1968.

—. The Children of Green Knowe. 1954. New York: Voyager-Harcourt, 1977.

—. An Enemy at Green Knowe. 1964. Harmondsworth, England: Puffin, 1977.

—. The Guardians of the House. New York: Atheneum. 1989.

—. The Horned Man. London: Faber, 1971.

—. Memory in a House. London: Bodley Head, 1973.

—. “A Message from Green Knowe.” Horn Book, 39 (1963): 259-264.

—. Nothing Said. New York: Harcourt, 1971.

—. Perverse and Foolish: A memoir of childhood and youth. London: Bodley Head, 1979.

—. The River at Green Knowe. 1959. New York: Voyager-Harcourt, n.d.

—. The Sea Egg. New York: Harcourt, 1967.

—. The Stones of Green Knowe. 1976. Harmondsworth, England: Puffin, 1979.

—. Strongholds. New York: Harcourt. 1967.

—. A Stranger at Green Knowe. New York: Harcourt, 1961.

—. Treasure of Green Knowe. 1958. New York: Voyager-Harcourt, 1978.

—. Time Is Undone: twenty-five poems. Cambridge, England: Rampant Lions Pr, 1977.

—. Yew Hall. 1954. London: Bodley Head, 1972.

Cameron, Eleanor. The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children’s Books. Boston: Atlantic-Little, 1969.

Hollindale, Peter. “The Novels of L M Boston.” Good Writers for Young Readers. ed. Butts, Dennis. St. Albans, England: Hart-Davis Educational, 1977. 25-33.

Lewis, C.S. “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” Children and Literature. ed. Haviland, Virginia. 232.

Robbins, Sidney. “A nip of otherness, like life: the novels of Lucy Boston.” Children’s Literature in Education, 6 (Winter, 1971).

Rose, Jasper. Lucy Boston. New York: Walck, 1966.

Rosenthal, Lynne “The Development of Consciousness in Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe.” Children’s Literature, 8 (1980): 53-67.

Stott, Jon C. “From Here to Eternity: Aspects of Pastoralism in L.M. Boston’s Green Knowe Series.” Children’s Literature, 11 (1983): 145-155.

Tompkins, Jane P. :Reader-Response Criticism From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Pr, 1980.

Townshend, John Rowe. A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children. Philidelphia: Lippincot, 1971. 28-38.