Elinor Lyon: Author of 'camping and tramping' adventure tales peopled with feisty, fearless girls and boys

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The Independent Online

Author of 20 well received children's novels, Elinor Lyon ceased writing in 1975, at a time when the new emphasis on urban social realism in junior fiction had made her own stories seem increasingly out of date. But for many older readers, her holiday adventure tales will be fondly remembered for the way her child characters consistently and fearlessly take on whatever natural hazards are in their path, always just coming out on top, however many mistakes they make along the way. The freedom they are allowed, to go where they want day and sometimes night unsupervised, and then do more or less what they like, must seem to children today almost as big a fantasy as anything they read in Tolkien or C.S. Lewis.

Born in Yorkshire, but spending five years in Edinburgh before leaving at the age of 10, Elinor Lyon was highly conscious of her Scottish roots. She was distantly related to Robert the Bruce, but there was a more direct line extending over 400 years to David Lyon of Baky, the younger son of Lord Glamis. With her father headmaster of Rugby School up to 1948, and her future husband also a teacher there, Elinor Lyon spent much of her life in the Midlands, which she found "very dull country; no hills, no sea". But regular holidays in the Highlands fuelled the love of Britain's wildest scenery which was later so evident in her children's stories.

She went up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in 1940 to read English, and stayed for four terms before volunteering for the WRNS as a radar operator. In 1946 she married Peter Wright after he was demobbed from the RAF with a DFC, and became in time the mother of two sons and two daughters.

Taking to writing in the evenings while her husband was busy with his corrections, her first book, Hilary's Island, illustrated by Eileen Soper as well as by the author, appeared in 1948. But it was The House in Hiding (1950) that attracted more widespread attention. Republished by Fidra Books in 2006, it was written as an antidote to Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. Irritated by the way Ransome's characters are always so good and competent, Elinor Lyon chose to write instead about children who sometimes quarrel and often get things wrong.

The result is a charming story revolving around young Ian and Sovra – the Gaelic word for Primrose – the son and daughter of gruff but kind Dr Kennedy and his wife, otherwise referred to as Daddy and Mummy. Tension erupts with the arrival of a lonely but stuck-up outsider Ann, who at one point swears, "Now they've been so beastly I'll jolly well pay them back." Getting their own rowing boat, the children make a series of journeys across the loch near their home on the west coast of Scotland, frequently in danger of capsizing, with no life-belts or safety jackets in sight. As illustrated by the author in line drawings and some full-colour illustrations, the characters stand proud if a little woodenly, just as they now seem to do in the text.

More adventures for the junior duo follow in We Daren't Go A'Hunting (1951), this time on the track of deer-poachers. Altogether, eight full-length novels and two shorter ones feature Ian and Sovra, whose adventures range from helping rescue a well-born orphan on the run to recreating the flight of a former Jacobite fugitive.

Other novels written in what has since been termed the "camping and tramping" genre include Dragon Castle (1956), Rider's Rock (1958) and Echo Valley (1965), all set on the rugged west coast of Wales. There was also The Golden Shore (1957), a time-travel story featuring the Ancient Greeks, first shown to her husband Peter, who taught classics, for his approval. But although Elinor was ahead of her time in including genuinely feisty girl characters, her books, while popular with critics, failed with one exception to break through into the paperback market. Moving to Harlech in 1975 on her husband's retirement, Elinor Lyon was happy to give up writing at the same time that her publishers were giving up on her.

What followed instead were many happy years with her beloved husband walking and hill climbing. Involved with the Women's Institute and church affairs and endlessly hospitable to her 12 grandchildren, Elinor's warm and affectionate character made her universally popular. She lost her husband to a stroke in 1996, but continued gardening and writing poems for her parish magazine, and was delighted when Fidra Books republished three of her novels, with plans for several more. Leading the active life she always described so vividly, she took her last swim in Cardigan Bay in summer 2007.

Nicholas Tucker

Elinor Bruce Lyon, children's writer: born Guisborough, Yorkshire 17 August 1921; married 1944 Peter Wright (two sons, two daughters); died Harlech, Gwynedd 28 May 2008.

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