I first read Alison Uttley’s The Country Child over thirty years ago, when I was already in my twenties. I have always remembered it fondly, for it described a way of life that did not then seem so very far away. My grandmother was born in 1897 and I could still remember her stories of life on a remote Devon farm. When the book was reissued recently I read it again, this time with the eyes of a children’s librarian, wondering whether it would appeal to those brought up in very different times and from very different backgrounds.
Alison Uttley – author, too, of the much-loved Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig books – was born in 1884, at Castle Top Farm near Cromford in Derbyshire, and her novel evokes, in magical detail, a childhood in late Victorian rural England. It is a world where farm work is done by men and horses and seasonal Irish labourers, where the servants sit below the salt and the farmhand at the dresser; where the local squire may take over your land and house for a day while he and his guests go hunting. Here, water comes from clean-flowing streams, and larders are full of home-brewed, home-preserved, homebaked and home-bottled food.
The story, which follows a year in the life of the farm, is told from the viewpoint of Susan Garland, an only child living at remote Windystone Hall, for which Alison Uttley’s own Castle Top Farm was the model. Having no other children to play with, Susan relies on the daily routines of the farm, the adults around her, the minute details of animal and plant-life in the fields and woods and hedges, for her amusement and education. The house and farm seem charged with life, and with the presence of those who have gone before, stretching right back to the Saxons and the Romans.
But though the book is set in another age, the feelings it describes are timeless. How superficially unlike a modern child’s visit to the circus is the outing Susan’s family takes, all dressed in
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