It was a formative moment in my literary life – and not in a good way. For my seventh birthday, my sister gave me as a present The Princess and Curdie by the Victorian Scottish fantasy writer, George MacDonald (1824-1905). My memory is that I was very excited to be given a book, but very confused that it was this one. Wasn't this dark, dense, moralistic novel a bit advanced for me?
I was already reading Lewis Carroll, fair enough; but otherwise I was very happy with illustrated stories about Sammie the Seagull in quite big print. "Pam Webster read it when she was seven," my sister said flatly, to make matters worse, as I miserably turned the pages of this handsome, serious-looking hardback which appeared to have no pictures or conversations. (And what is the use of a book, as Alice says, without pictures or conversations?)
Working things out, I now realise that my sister would have been only 14 herself at the time of this fateful gift, which I find quite hard to take in. Being so much older than me, she always had the authority of an adult as far as I was concerned; it's astonishing that she exercised so much power over my sense of self-worth while she was still at school, wearing regulation royal-blue beret and blazer, long grey socks, and so on.
She is no longer alive, so I can't ask her what exactly she was playing at with The Princess and Curdie, but it seems bathetically obvious to me now that she just made a mistake, and having spent ten whole shillings of pocket-money on a hardback children's book which happened to be a sequel to another book anyway (The Princess and the Goblin), she decided the easiest thing was to blame me for not being sophisticated enough to read it.
It hung around on my shelves for years, reminding me of both my outrageous ingratitude and my inexplicable failure to increase my reading age by about five years overnight. As time went by, I was also very conscious of how much it had cost, at a time when ten bob would have bought several volumes of The Borrowers in attractive Aldine paperback editions, or loads of Puffin poetry. I now know that MacDonald was a huge influence on other Christian fantasy writers, especially CS Lewis, who said that reading The Princess and the Goblin made a difference to his "whole existence".
Children's author Elizabeth Yates wrote of being moved and thrilled by MacDonald's work "when, as a child, the great gates of literature began to open" – and I know what she means by this, and am happy for her. But for me George MacDonald will always be associated with how implausibly advanced Pam Webster was when she was seven (compared with me), and I've never really recovered from the shame.
Lynne Truss's 'Get Her Off the Pitch' is published by Fourth EstateReuse content