One of the consequences – and perhaps advantages – of being brought up during and just after the war was that due to a shortage of paper there were very few new books for children, so we were thrown back on the classics of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The fairy stories of Andrew Lang, The Cuckoo Clock, The Princess and Curdie, The Secret Garden – these opened up enchanted worlds. But I liked the historical novels best of all. I devoured the works of G. A. Henty, Conan Doyle, Baroness Orczy – what better introduction to the French Revolution than The Scarlet Pimpernel? – and, later, Walter Scott, whom I now find dauntingly long-winded. (Another effect of a wartime upbringing was that with little in the way of outside entertainment there was endless time for reading.)
My first introduction to historical fiction, however, came when I was too young for any of these. Richard of Normandy, the hero of Charlotte Mary Yonge’s The Little Duke, is only 8 when the story begins. I must have been about the same age when I first read it and some of its scenes, with their rugged Norman settings, have remained with me ever since. My children loved it too, but when I came across it again the other day I wondered if I dared reread it. Would it be too moralistic, too old-fashioned? Why disturb my childhood memories? I soon found I needn’t have worried. The Little Duke is as exciting and moving as ever. And it is amazing how much historical knowledge the simply told story conveys.
Charlotte Mary Yonge was one of the most popular writers of the nineteenth century, outselling even Dickens and Thackeray in her time. Her novels for adults were usually dramas of family life, notable for their skilfully drawn characters and high moral tone: Keble, a leading figure in the Oxford Movement, was a neighbour and close friend. Many of her stories were touched by tragedy – consumption and o
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