Obituary: Monica Edwards

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Monica Newton, writer: born Belper, Derbyshire 8 November 1912; married 1933 Bill Edwards (died 1990; one son, one daughter); died 18 January 1998.

Monica Edwards was a prolific and popular writer, fully deserving the choice of Children's Author of the Year made by Foyle's Children's Book Club in 1960 (along with Captain W.E. Johns of Biggles fame). Described by the magazine Junior Bookshelf as "wholesome books, full of practical activity and a sensible interest in outdoor life", her fiction was always more than a cut above the facile effusions of Enid Blyton. Characters were better developed, plots less unlikely, and the supporting cast of local people respected rather than patronised.

By the time she stopped writing for children, the massive convulsions in the 1960s about what was expected of modern children's books in terms both of their subject matter and their intended audience were beginning to make her work look old-fashioned. But in her day the well-crafted stories she wrote proved just the thing for those children who either shared the same type of middle-class background and assumptions, or else wished that they and their families did.

Born in Belper, Derbyshire, in 1912, the daughter of a vicar, her childhood was spent at Rye harbour in Sussex. On holiday from boarding school, Monica passed the time with local fishermen, once climbing down a drainpipe to join in some night sailing - a detail repeated in The Summer of the Great Secret (1948).

When she married Bill Edwards in 1933, she found the perfect consort: someone who shared her love of the countryside and a strong sense of fun (the couple practised acrobatics for some time, selling postcards of their most spectacular balancing acts). A son and a daughter followed, and eventually a first book, Wish for a Pony (1947).

This was written for her daughter, who was transformed into one of the two heroines Tamzin and Rissa, the other based on her best friend. The huge success of this book later irritated its author, unwilling to have herself written off as just another hack producing pony stories. But it provided her with a set of characters situated in the Romney Marsh that was to last through another 14 titles, reaching out into other topics such as smuggling, floods and storms at sea. The Romney Marsh was already celebrated among adults as a setting for Russell Thorndyke's racy Dr Syn stories: Edwards made it doubly celebrated for younger readers.

In 1947 she bid at an auction for a derelict farm in Surrey. Very much to her surprise this was successful and she and her husband became first- time farmers, learning as they went. She was always very concerned with a sense of place (many of her adventures can be followed on an Ordnance Survey map), and Punchbowl Farm, Thursley, became the setting for a parallel series of 11 more adventures.

The child characters of the farm help out with daily chores such as rounding up the sheep, stumbling across occasional buried treasure or episodes of time travel to liven things up. Like Arthur Ransome, she primarily wrote about holidays: a time for gulping down breakfast, brushing moss and leaves off jodhpurs before going on to buckle the pony's throat lash, chatting to friends or planning picnics. Interjections rarely got fiercer than "Great Snakes!", and when the thoroughly competent young heroines were untypically at a loss they admitted to "not having the foggiest".

She was never a great writer but always a hard-working and honest one, much preferring gritty details of farming life to an unreal world of cops and robbers where child characters always know best. In her last children's book, A Wind is Blowing (1969), adolescence itself becomes the topic, with Tamzin realising that her feelings for Meryon Fairbrass go beyond the chumminess experienced in earlier stories.

With the author's own family grown up, this was a natural time to stop writing about her fictional children, themselves now at the threshold of adulthood. Instead, she produced five more autobiographical books about Punchbowl Farm, describing animal life based on her own field notes and nocturnal photographs. She also wrote about her husband's serious tractor accident and the decision eventually to sell the farm. The couple stayed on in a small house built in the valley they both loved. Bill died in 1990, and with his wife's death the land is to be donated to the Woodland Trust - a characteristically generous gift from an author whose unaffected love of the countryside shone through everything she wrote.

Comments