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BOOKS / Classic Thoughts: For love of Edward Beverley: Angela Lambert on a classic of her childhood, Children of the New Forest, by Captain Marryat

IT IS always tempting to think that the books one read as a child must therefore be classics, when they have only achieved classic status on one's own mental bookshelf. My mother (she claims) taught me how to read when I was three. Being a physically lazy little girl and disinclined to girlish tasks like helping Mummy wash up, I read the few dozen books in my parents' bookcase over and over again. Some I almost know by heart to this day.

One, given me by a godparent, was Captain Marryat's Children of the New Forest. The author's very name inspired me . . . naval rank coupled with that mysterious, romantic surname; it was nearly as good as 'Baroness Orczy'. The book lived up to these expectations. Starting with the convenient death of all presiding adults in the first few chapters, it is about four children hidden in the New Forest during the English civil war, who not only manage to live off the land but survive and prosper. Their story is one of courage, resourcefulness and loyalty with a thoroughly satisfactory ending.

Re-reading the book now, my first reaction is amazement that I was gripped by its ponderous sentences and understood their orotund vocabulary when I was quite a small child. Taking a sentence at random I find this: 'That the body was that of some superior person disguised as a rustic was evident, and this was corroborated by the conversation which took place between the two robbers.' Such class divisions but oh] such melodrama and excitement]

The book would fail every test of 'political correctness' today. Children of the New Forest treats social inferiors as though they were coarse, deceitful half-wits, while gypsies speak like negro slaves, complete with the salutation 'Massa]' The royalist children who are its four heroes, nobly born of Beverley and Villiers stock, are forced to disguise themselves not only as Levellers but also as foresters. They are at least as humiliated by this apparently humble status as by seeming disloyal to their father's cause.

The book has many surprises, too. One is that it has no trace of that sentimental anthropomorphising of animals which pervaded Victorian children's books from Black Beauty on. Captain Marryat died in 1848 and Black Beauty was published in 1877. During the intervening decades kitsch spread across the land.

I can't imagine a child today, accustomed to the instant gratification of television reading Children of the New Forest without parental blackmail and access to a large dictionary. Yet as a glimpse into the lost world (and Conan Doyle's book of that title was another of my favourites) of a wild and forested England, it is an eyeopener - and how I worshipped Edward Beverley when I was fat, bespectacled and nine]