Naomi Lewis: Poet and celebrated anthologist of British children's literature
Friday 18 September 2009
Petite, continuing to wear her greying hair long and often dressed in clothes that had seen better days, Naomi Lewis stood out in more ways than one as the leading anthologist of British children's literature over the past 50 years. Formidably well read, she was a searching critic and a published poet. Hesitant in manner but confident in her opinions, her elfin presence at literary gatherings was a guarantee of lively and enlightening conversation.
Born in Great Yarmouth in 1911, the second of four children, Lewis was the daughter of a dreamy Russian-Jewish fish merchant. Originally hailing from Latvia, he took the surname of his English wife, a talented artist and musician. While the family was never well-off, with the children from necessity dressed in home-made clothes, there was plenty of time for good talk and piano playing, and over the years many interesting visitors gravitated to the modest terraced house where the family lived. Acting out games in the tiny front garden with her sister and two brothers, to whom she was always close, and reading voraciously from the stacks of books dotted around the house from the attic to the cellar, Lewis enjoyed a happy childhood. Winning a scholarship to Westfield College to read English, she put her excellent French to use after graduation by teaching briefly at a finishing school in Switzerland.
Returning to London, where her parents had moved, she tried her hand unsuccessfully as an advertising copy-writer. More teaching followed in various state schools, with her breakthrough into criticism happening through the New Statesman's weekly competitions, then at the height of their game and often involving literary pastiche. Like Edward Blishen, another brilliant literary outsider and future children's critic writing at the same time, Lewis made a habit of winning these competitions week after week, employing a variety of pseudonyms. Finally presenting herself at the magazine's office as a potential reviewer, she was immediately taken on as a contributor in what she later des-cribed as her "born again" moment.
The best of her criticism was collected in A Visit to Mrs Wilcox (1957). Long out of print, this still reads supremely well, with Lewis mixing her extraordinary scholarship with a nice line in epigrams, at one time describing the mother-child character prevalent in the writings of J.M. Barrie as a "monstrous maternal marshmallow". She also refers in her introduction to having set a foot in the "curious literary underworld" of children's literature. This came about after V.S. Pritchett, the New Statesman's celebrated literary editor, passed her some children's books pleading lack of time to review them himself. Eschewing the effervescent mocking tone so inimitably adopted by Arthur Marshall, another reviewer of children's books for the magazine, Lewis applied her formidable memory and critical acuity to such effect that very soon she was seen as a leading authority in the subject. Now writing for many other publications and frequently appearing on the radio, she was also asked to provide introductions for anthologies before becoming an eminent compiler in her own right. Some original poetry also followed, notably The Butterfly Collector (1978) and Leaves (1980). An expert on the life and works of Hans Andersen, her illustrated translations of his fairy tales were a high point in British post-war children's publishing.
During all this time Lewis taught classes in creative writing and poetry appreciation at London's City Institute, going on well into her seventies. Always concerned with animal welfare, she listed her principal recreation in Who's Who as "trying in practical ways to alleviate the lot of horses, camels, bears, sheep, wolves, cows and other ill-used mortals of the animal kind". This concern was to take an increasingly hands-on direction, with Lewis using her already overcrowded flat in Red Lion Square, where she lived by herself, as a temporary hospital for stray cats and injured pigeons snatched from London streets.
This activity was extensively covered in a television film made about her; it also helped explain why she preferred to meet friends and acquaintances on neutral ground. In her introductions to the series The Best Children's Books of the Year (Hamish Hamilton, 1963-69) she usually put in a word for animals, lamenting the plight of caged birds or wondering aloud whether the Fatted Calf necessarily shared in the general enthusiasm generated by the return of the Prodigal Son. Awarded the Eleanor Farjeon prize in 1975 for distinguished services to British children's literature, she was subsequently made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1981.
Still active in old age, Lewis produced her own delightfully witty collection of poems The Mardi Gras Cat in 1993, which A.N. Wilson, writing in the Evening Standard, described as "absolutely magical". She also oversaw another widely praised anthology: Rocking Horse Land and Other Classic Tales of Dolls and Toys in 2000. Increasingly bent over, she continued as long as possible to deliver her notoriously illegible and much-corrected handwritten copy by bicycle. Such was her standing that her publishers and literary editors were still prepared to wait, whatever the deadline, in the certain knowledge that what they would finally get would be both utterly individual and of the highest standard.
Naomi Lewis, poet, anthologist and critic: born Great Yarmouth 3 September 1911; died London 5 July 2009.
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