The author of more than a hundred books plus hosts of television plays and adaptations, Helen Cresswell was a bright star in the general revival of children's literature over the last 50 years. Never a prize-winner but often a runner-up, she wrote stories that mixed high fantasy with anarchic good-humour. The best of them are now recognised as classics that continue to appeal to generations of new readers.
Born in 1934, the middle of three children, Helen grew up in the suburbs of Nottingham. Her warm, argumentative family was later to provide plenty of copy for her popular Bagthorpe series, written about a similarly eccentric household. During a year in hospital following spinal trouble at the age of 12, she was taught Greek by a clergyman sent in by her Christian Scientist mother to provide intellectual uplift. But Helen preferred to read, taking in everything from Enid Blyton to Turgenev. She also wrote vast numbers of poems, one of which - "The Seagull" - was published in the Mickey Mouse Comic, earning its author 10 shillings.
A clever but cheerfully subversive pupil at Nottingham Girls' High School, she went on to read English at King's College London. But, as she wrote later,
Because I'd already read most of the stuff I spent all my time in the Students' Union talking. I was nearly thrown out for not attending tutorials and lectures.
There followed brief spells as a literary assistant, an unlikely fashion buyer and a teacher before she wrote her first book, Sonya-by-the-Shore (1960), mainly to amuse herself when she was ill. Always assuming she would be a poet rather than an author, she was surprised and encouraged by its success. After that, writing stories became her way of life, with marriage to her former childhood sweetheart Brian Rowe in 1962 and then two daughters taking up what time there was left. The couple lived in Old Church Farm, a handsome Georgian house set in the tiny village of Eakring, deep in Robin Hood country. This was to be Cresswell's much-loved home for the rest of her life.
Fame came with the publication of what is still her best book, The Piemakers (1967). This is set in an undefined, imaginary period of British history, so saving its author from having to do any research, a policy she maintained in her writing career. It tells the story of the Roller family of Danby Dale and how its members won a prize of a hundred guineas offered by the King for the biggest and best pie ever created. So huge it has to be floated down the river in a boat-size pie-dish, it is finally devoured by the 2,000 spectators gathered to witness the end of this culinary contest. Soaked in loving nostalgia for an idealised rural way of life where craftsmen live and work contentedly in a society without want or poverty, this novel stayed one of the author's own favourites.
Quite as memorable, although different in tone, is her 1969 book The Night-Watchmen. This is about two elderly wanderers, Josh and Caleb, in permanent retreat from the attentions of their mysterious and never clearly defined persecutors known as the Greeneyes. What Josh and Caleb do by way of disguise is find a likely pavement, dig a hole in it, and then erect a portable hut in which they can then live in undisturbed peace. Their cover is blown by Henry, a local boy recovering from a serious illness. He is eventually welcomed in by the two, one of whom is a would-be writer and the other a brilliant cook. But, with the Greeneyes closing in once more, it is finally time to escape via the special Night Train that only runs for them, leaving Henry glad about their rescue but missing their friendship.
Much discussed though it was for its ultimate meaning, the author herself had nothing to add when questioned, saying that, as far as she was concerned, "You don't choose symbols - they choose you."
This spontaneity was characteristic of all Cresswell's early writing. Impatient with plot, she would start each novel with no fixed idea of what was going to happen. In The Bongleweed (1973) the author as well as her young heroine Becky seem equally surprised when the beautiful plant of the title, once created, proves to have a strong mind of its own. It eventually threatens to take over the whole of Britain before it is killed off by a sharp attack of frost.
But more order began to creep in as Cresswell increasingly wrote for the screen as well, often producing a novel and its script adapted for television at the same time. Such was the case with her popular Lizzie Dripping (1973), about a dreamy adolescent girl who invents as her special companion an imaginary witch living in a nearby graveyard.
Cresswell wrote "The Bagthorpe Saga" to cheer herself up after the death of both her parents in the same year. It starts with Ordinary Jack (1977), which concentrates on the only normal member of this brilliant but wayward family. Longing to be treated as an equal, Jack poses as a prophet, pretending to have visions of events pre-planned by himself with the help of his Uncle Parker. Much mayhem and general slapstick follow in a text packed with literary allusions. Many more Bagthorpe adventures were to follow, culminating in Bagthorpes Battered (2001), the 10th volume in a series still going strong at the end.
In later life Cresswell successfully adapted authors as varied as E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton and Gillian Cross for television. Living on her own following her divorce in 1995, she revelled in her daughters and her two grandchildren. When not writing there was always gardening, an interest inherited from her father. Starting off with a patch of bare ground, she and her then husband created over the years a truly beautiful garden. Once on her own again, Cresswell totally re-designed this to become "romantic and rambling with foaming roses and clematis, pools and lots of statuary". There was also walking, painting in watercolours, collecting antiques and excursions into philosophy. On those days when a lifetime's depressive streak threatened to get the better of her, there might also be a fast, mind-clearing trip in her Audi TT.
Forthright in her opinions, Helen Cresswell was critical of current trends in children's literature towards what she saw as excessive realism. She much preferred the gentler, more protected image of childhood explicit in her novels, bar the few that explored some frightening science fiction territory, such as her haunting The Winter of the Birds (1975). Not given to false modesty, she dedicating her fourth Bagthorpe book to herself under her married name of E.H. Rowe.
A constant attender at book events, she was also as generous with her time and to her many friends as she had been with the fruits of her unpredictable but constantly entertaining imagination. Bravely fighting cancer in her last years and grieving over the mean theft of most of her garden statues, she still somehow managed to remain indomitable.
Nicholas TuckerReuse content