Between 1949 and 1971 Cynthia Harnett wrote and illustrated six historical novels for children. The first in order of writing, The Great House, was in fact the last in order of setting, taking place in the late 17th century. The second to be written, The Wool-Pack, is set in the Cotswolds in 1493 and won the Carnegie Medal in 1951. The others span the years between the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (Ring Out Bow Bells!) and 1554 when the Princess Elizabeth was imprisoned at Woodstock during the reign of her sister Mary Tudor (Stars of Fortune). There’s little attempt at continuity: none of the principal characters appears in more than one story and only a handful of the supporting cast. (William Caxton, for example, is an apprentice in The Writing on the Hearth in 1439 and by 1482 is a successful mercer and pioneer of printing in The Load of Unicorn). Oddly, some of the books changed title as they crossed the Atlantic. The Load of Unicorn is named The Cargo of the Maddalena, while Ring Out Bow Bells! became At the Sign of the Green Falcon.
During her lifetime, Harnett’s books were tremendously popular with schools and libraries. They were published at a time when juvenile historical fiction was undergoing a resurgence. While other authors were more interested in miltary and political history, Cynthia Harnett was fascinated by social history and that at the micro level. A sense of lively affection is a notable feature of Cynthia Harnett’s stories, most often shown in the quiet bustle of family life and the respectful affection of the children for their parents. Her families are mostly what might be termed upper middle-class: well-to-do landowners, architects, merchants in good standing, the owners of small but profitable businesses. The gentle currents of family life and the small crises of home and district provide the tension in these stories: a lost mortgage deed, a dishonest fleece-packer, a marriage alliance between two local families, fights between two sets of apprentices. People and places of the wider world form a backdrop, sometimes explained as the causes for the actions or attitudes of characters. The children of Harnett’s stories are rarely left in doubt as to the moral import and consequences of their actions. What the author’s own faith and beliefs were is an open question. That said, she certainly has a respect for and an understanding of the beliefs of her characters.
A trained artist, Harnett was able to illustrate her own stories and did so for the most part by highlighting tiny homely details from the narrative. The illustrations are full of activity, sometimes depicting a specific scene from the story, sometimes a general picture of the people or places being described or an object which is mentioned. In every case there is a delightful combination of simplicity of line and liveliness of action. People are always right in the middle of something: pulling a tooth, dancing a round, saddling a horse, or pointing the way. Everyday items are shown as though they were in use and not merely exhibits in a museum.
There is a gently didactic feel to all the stories. No opportunity goes by without some aspect of late-mediaeval life being explained: the construction of hose on a wooden cross; the way of life in the University of Oxford; the tenets of heraldry; the need for a head of water when running a water-mill; the trend towards pasturing sheep in the rich grass of the Cotswolds. A postscript to each volume details the real history behind the fictional story: which buildings are still in existence, which were real once, and which were invented; which people were real and which incidents were based on documentary evidence. The books might be discounted as How-We-Used-To-Live schoolbooks disguised as stories. But in fact the vivid characters, the charming illustrations, and the storylines themselves, however lightweight, ensure that the books are enjoyable in their own right.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of goodtoread.org.