The man who told the people’s stories
Friday 26 February 2010
When Geoffrey Trease began writing historical fiction for children, it was a minor and despised field, treasured not for any literary merit but because it helped to “nurture” the children of Britain.
When Trease began writing, historical fiction for children was a patriotic exercise in which children travelled with Drake to see the New World, served with Nelson or discovered gold mines in Africa.
The aim of its greatest proponents RM Ballantyne and GA Henty, both writing in the latter part of the 19th century, was to turn out citizens of the empire.
Most children’s adventure fiction followed in their footsteps, but in his very first children’s novel Bows Against The Barons (1934), which retold the story of Robin Hood as a suppressed peasant’s revolt, Trease set out to do something different.
His aim was to tell the history of ordinary people and to persuade children to work for a future very different from the past, a future of and for the people.
Trease, the youngest of three sons of a wine merchant in Nottingham, left Oxford after his first year without a degree.
At the age of 16 he had been turned from history, his first love, and more or less coerced into the classics.
This was at the time the accepted route for the brightest boys — but his apparently less academic middle brother still ended up as a research scientist.
When he left Oxford he went to Kingsley Hall, a settlement in the East End, which was then at the height of its activism.
Yet Trease was not really an activist.
He acknowledged as much in his first autobiography A Whiff of Burnt Boats, where he confessed that his heart wasn’t really in it.
But he was already leaning towards the left and his time at Kingsley Hall and the contact he made there with the young and passionate people he met there known as the Prometheans radicalised him further.
His sentiments were so strong that his first novel The Anvil was rejected by agents and publishers as too shocking and his prospective father-in-law regarded it with such abhorrence that the engagement was broken off.
He never joined the Communist Party, but his output between 1934 and 1945 was clearly pro-Soviet.
When Trease left Kingsley Hall to find writing work he found himself first exploited and then involved in exploiting others.
In the 1930s however he had been asked to review children’s books for the New Statesmen and the experience depressed him.
Where were the books which prepared children for the coming world? Where were the books that he and his friends would want to give to their children?
In 1934 he secured a contract to write a series of books for the radical publisher Martin Lawrence including two children’s books and a collection of short stories — Bows Against The Barons, Comrades For The Charter and The Unsleeping Sword.
Of the three, Comrades For The Charter is hardly known and The Unsleeping Sword, a collection of polemical short stories exploring a range of social ills, has disappeared both in print and from Trease’s biography.
But Bows Against The Barons, an explicitly Marxist retelling of the Robin Hood legend, was very different indeed. Although it initially did poorly in Britain, it was reprinted four times and sold very well indeed in the USSR. This was enough to enable Trease and his wife Marion to spend a year in the Soviet Union working and travelling.
Trease wrote fast because he always saw himself as a commercial writer and he followed the success of Bows Against The Barons with a number of children’s adventure stories including Mystery On The Moors and The Detectives Of The Dales, which in some ways anticipate Enid Blyton’s work and offer a much more radical view of England.
Alongside these were also two travel books for children, both published in 1937. Red Comet: A Tale Of Travel In The USSR has never been printed in Britain but was intended to show British children what the Soviet Union was really like through the adventures of two children accompanying a working class inventor to the USSR.
Missing From Home is about two middle-class children, a boy and a girl — because Trease insisted that girls could play their part too — who run away from their disinterested aunt and uncle.
Their journey through England leads to encounters with the reality of the job market. Hoping to be thought of as 16, they discover that prospective employers prefer younger and cheaper workers and they experience the cost of living, the poverty of the farmers and the appalling conditions in the factories.
By the end of the book they are helping striking workers and have discovered that their own comfortable lives were supported by slum rents.
Over the next 10 years Trease produced a number of novels. Some were for adults such as North Sea Spy in which two friends prevent a submarine sinking an aid ship to Spain and Black Night Red Morning, written while Trease was in the army education corps, which is a spy thriller set in wartime Kiev.
But the strength of his voice was emerging in the children’s historical novels he continued to write.
In 1940 he published Cue For Treason, a spy story set in Tudor England in which the cause of unrest is the enclosures and the growing powers of the landed gentry.And in 1942 he published The Grey Adventurer, the first of what would become a sequence of books about the English Commonwealth.
He wrote Trumpets In The West at the very end of the second world war when he was surrounded by arguments about what the future election would bring and the possibilities of socialism.
It tells of an ordinary boy caught up in the political arguments of 1685-3 — one inglorious revolution representing a much hoped for more glorious one.
When Trease died in 1997, 100 of his books had been published. Reading the still in print Cue For Treason today it is hard to believe that this book was once a radical revision of English history.
Writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece followed Trease’s footsteps in the 1960s, when EP Thompson wrote The Making of The English Working Class and Christopher Hill The World Turned Upside Down.
In schools, the Schools Council history curriculums of the 1970s and 1980s could have come straight out of the ideals Trease put in his books: history from below, history as argued for by the participating working man and woman.