As a child I wore a lot of brightly coloured jumpers, frequently hand-knitted by my grandmother. They were itchy and they tended to shrink. Whenever I became trapped in one, arms waving helplessly above my head, my mother would tug it off crying, ‘I can’t breve! And the sleeves is all wrong!’ The line comes from a scene in The Family from One End Street, in which a young boy named Jo becomes trapped in a shrunken jumper and multiple members of the family have to ease him out of it. The accompanying line drawing illustrates the problem perfectly. I don’t know how old I was when my mother first read the book to me, but ‘I can’t breve!’ soon became a family catchphrase.
Eve Garnett’s children’s novel was first published in 1937, with her own illustrations. At least eight publishers had rejected it on account of its supposed ‘grittiness’. Here was a story about an urban working-class family that detailed the endless struggles of Mr and Mrs Ruggles – a dustman and a washerwoman – to feed, clothe and shoe their seven children. In fact the book was probably the first ever British children’s book with working-class protagonists. Despite publishers’ initial reluctance, it was an immediate success. Serialized by the BBC in 1939, it won the Library Association’s prestigious Carnegie Medal – beating The Hobbit – and has been in print ever since. In a market saturated with stories about boarding-schools, nannies and improbable Swallows and Amazons-type adventures, parents and children alike warmed to the novelty of the Ruggles.
Ironically, Eve Garnett’s own childhood was more country house than One End Street. She was born at the manor house in a Worcestershire village and her father was a gentleman of independent means. She had a governess and later trained as an artist, including a stint at the Royal Academy. Despite her privileged upbringing Garnett became very aware of the social conditions of the poor. In
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