The Nottingham Essay: Geoffrey Trease (11 August 1909 – 27 January 1998)

Geoffrey Trease dropped out of Oxford to concentrate on a career as a writer. He banged out 113 books, covered every historical period going, and transformed children’s historical fiction. The former Nottingham High School pupil is another reason why Nottingham is a UNESCO City of Literature.

Alcohol is often cited as the main muse of the writer. From Kingsley Amis to Dylan Thomas, pen monkeys have literally been drunk on words. Alcohol was also influential for Geoffrey Trease. But he wasn’t a literary lush who got into Bukowskian brawls. His parents ran a family wine and spirit shop at No 1 Castle Gate, the narrow Georgian street leading to the castle, just a few doors away from a surgical appliance firm where DH Lawrence did a brief stint as a clerk. It’s now called Weavers and, if you ask nicely, they might show you the rooms that kick-started the career of one of Nottingham’s most prolific, yet least celebrated, writers.

As a nipper, Trease would accompany his father to work and pass his time “taking the stamps off the violet-inked envelopes from the shippers of Bordeaux.” Perhaps this fostered his intrigue of travel that later manifested itself in his children’s fiction, which spanned the globe depicting almost every major historical event from ancient Athens to the Bolshevik revolution. The family business also gave him access to paper, then an expensive commodity. It was here he wrote his first stories.

Trease grew up in three houses in Nottingham, but the family home in the Arboretum area – 142 Portland Road – would have a profound effect on his imagination. The surrounding roads were named after the likes of Cromwell, Raleigh, Chaucer and Shakespeare – a constant reminder of the men who had defined history and culture. As the first world war drew to a close in 1918, nine-year-old Trease was reminded that the glory of great men came with brutal consequences, “I lay in bed with the influenza that was raging across Europe and listened to the horse-drawn funerals rumbling and clattering down our cobbled road on their way to the cemetery.”

One body not on the cart was his uncle Syd, a second lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters who’d gone missing at the Front. Trease’s grandmother was so distraught at his disappearance that she refused to allow his name to appear on the school war memorial, in the hope that one day he would return. All they ever found was his helmet. The seeds were being sown for a writer who would prioritise human feelings above national interests in his depictions of conflict.

Trease did well at school and won an honorary Foundation Scholarship to Nottingham High School. The school’s Boys’ Library gave access to a treasure trove of adventure stories, introducing the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne. This was important as his father had banned visits to the public library because he believed it was “infested with noxious germs”.

Early on, Trease demonstrated a flair for business as well as creativity when he started a school magazine. Issues were loaned out at a penny a night. When he won the Junior Sir Thomas White Scholarship, he persuaded his father to buy him a Remington typewriter that was “as heavy as a piece of artillery”. Now he could up his output and publish a school paper for private circulation. Kerching. His first paid commission came at thirteen when he sold an article to a popular boys’ weekly for half a guinea. Soon afterwards, he had a poetry collection accepted for publication, albeit by a dubious company who insisted he cough up half of the printing costs.

Trease excelled at the High School and regularly won prizes, the profits of which went on books, such as a Roget’s Thesaurus, having read that every serious writer should have one on his desk. He won a scholarship to Oxford to study Classics but dropped out after his first year in 1929. “I was bored to death with this musty scholarship, this wearisome gibberish concocted by the pedants. One year of Oxford at its driest, unrelieved by one flash of inspiration, humour or understanding from any don concerned with me, had suffocated the enthusiasm with which I had gone up from school. I told myself that if I went on like this for another three years I should hate the Classics for the rest of my life.”

He swapped Oxford for London’s East End slums, working at a settlement which “for an aspiring writer, anxious to study human nature, was a living laboratory.” The settlement was run by the Lester sisters, one of whom was a personal friend of Gandhi and had the philosophy that “one must approach the poor with the mind of the poor”, informing her approach to community service. Consequently, the most important task Trease was given was keeping the building clean and tidy. A lot of the people coming into the building in the evening had laboured hard that day and it was felt they were more likely to respect those with equally dirty hands.

Aside from cleaning and stoking fires, Trease ran library supervision sessions and escorted children to theatre productions. For his services he received his board, lodgings and seven shillings a week. The experience offered a grounding in humanity that was absent from Oxford and no doubt went some way into shaping the drive for equality that would see him revolutionise children’s stories by giving meaningful roles to both male and female characters.

Trease’s general philosophy was to avoid abstractions and generalisations and treat children as intelligent readers. Up to 1945 it was an unacknowledged preconception that children lacked experience. Historical accuracy was fundamental to his principle, but not to the extent that the enjoyment of the story was suffocated. As Margaret Meek has noted, “A familiar theme in his work is the way that men will defend their homes and the places they have built their roots, which is the basis for just about every historical story from the civil war to the French Revolution.”

Trease was ahead of his time in recognising that the stories we tell children significantly impact on their view of the world as an adult, particularly the jingoism that presents war as glorious and the victors superior. He offered more complex portrayals of people and communities. In Mist over Athelney we see how the divisions created by the Roman Empire live long after the conquerors have left.

In arguably his most famous novel, Bows Against The Barons (1934), Trease gave the Hood legend a do-over. He was frustrated that “Robin Hood is about the only proletarian hero our children are permitted to admire. Yet even he is not allowed to remain an ordinary working man! He has to be really Earl of Huntingdon.” He set out to demonstrate that harsh winters left the likes of Robin Hood starving and frail and that life wasn’t always merry in the emerald forest. It would lead to George Orwell complimenting Trease as “that creature we have long been needing, a ‘light’ left-wing writer, rebellious but human, a sort of PG Wodehouse after a course of Marx.”

As he developed his craft and became more aware of the responsibilities of a writer, Trease would renounce his earlier propagandist novels such as Comrades for the Charter (1934) and The Call to Arms (1935), arguing that a children’s writer “should have the same sort of professional ethic as a teacher – whatever his personal beliefs, he mustn’t use his position of professional advantage to press party politics on readers too immature to argue with him on fair terms.”

These principles would be cemented in Tales out of School (1949), the first wide-ranging survey of twentieth century children’s literature, which concluded that the best books confirm and extend the child’s own experience. A good book, he wrote “uses language skilfully to entertain and represent reality, to stimulate the imagination or to educate the emotions”. The book, along with his others, would be instrumental in driving up literacy levels, encouraging reading and bridging the gap between the comic and the classics.

This article was originally published in LeftLion, March 2015. The video was produced by Richard Weare, a Nottingham Trent University student on a placement at Dawn of the Unread. Geoffrey Trease featured in Issue 11 of Dawn of the Unread, Nottingham’s literary graphic novel.  

The Nottingham Essay : Margaret Cavendish (1623-73)

Flamboyant, theatrical and a staunch fighter for women’s rights, 17th century writer, poet and general all round smart-arse (1623-73) Margaret Cavendish is yet another example of Nottingham’s rich literary history and why we were made a UNESCO City of Literature in 2015.

Ok. Yes, Margaret Cavendish was born into a wealthy Essex family, but we can claim her as one of our own as she married William Cavendish, the Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire, and spent many years here helping to tart up Bolsover Castle and Welbeck Abbey.

Margaret was raised by her mother as her father passed away when she was two. This meant she avoided the strict parenting of the age and was instead encouraged to play and use her imagination, both of which would be pivotal in shaping her moral and mental outlook. In 1642, the family moved to the Royalist military stronghold of Oxford, where Margaret became a Maid of Honour to Queen Henrietta Maria. But when the Civil War started to properly hot up in 1644, Mary and the Royal entourage fled across the channel to the safety of Paris. Life as a courtier wasn’t quite as glamorous as you would imagine. It was full of back-stabbing bitches all eager to up their social status and was in stark contrast to the freedom and love of her childhood. It would shape in Margaret a lifelong distaste for fashionable society that she would satirise in her play The Presence, as well as other stories.

The following year she got hitched to the widowed William Cavendish, thirty years her senior. As the Marquis of Newcastle, William was one of the most powerful men in England, so Margaret quickly jacked in her job as a courtier. William, in addition to being a commander of Charles I, was a well-known patron of the arts and loved grand building projects, transforming traditional aristocratic households into centres of artistic patronage, with guests such as Thomas Hobbes and Descartes regularly invited over. Unfortunately, due to the Civil War, the couple would have to wait until the Restoration of 1660 before they could return back and develop their cribs.

During their enforced exile they travelled across Europe, living mainly off credit and reputation. Access to cosmopolitan culture and an educational elite would have a profound effect on Margaret. In Utrecht, she encountered Anna Maria van Schurmann, author of The Learned Maid (1639), which argued for the improvement of women’s education. In Paris, she discovered Pierre Le Moyne’s Gallerie des Femmes Fortes, a new movement that idealised strong women in possession of ‘male’ virtues (courage, moral strength) while retaining their femininity (beauty). Paris was also home to the emerging feminine salon culture, where women debated hot topics such as whether it’s better to be intelligent or beautiful, and what constitutes a good conversation. For maximum kudos, responses were given in allegories, similes or compact character sketches and was basically a testing ground for wit and wordplay, kind of like a seventeenth century version of Radio 4’s The News Quiz, but for aristocratic women.

Margaret could quite easily have moped around in relative luxury during her exile. Instead she embarked on a prolific writing career that constantly challenged accepted norms. Poems, and Fancies (1653) was the first book of English poetry deliberately published by a woman in her own name. To put this into context, historian Katie Whitaker found that in the first forty years of the seventeenth century there were eighty books published by women, equating to about 0.5% of all published work, and most of them were published posthumously or in pirated copies without the author’s consent. It was rare for even aristocratic women to be properly educated as their focus was normally housewifery. It was even suggested that education was dangerous for the inferior female brain which was deemed soft and incapable of absorbing information. Consequently, Margaret was educated at home in basic literacy. For her to dare to have an opinion was in itself an act of rebellion – to make this public was scandalous.

Poetry was the commonest genre of writing by women and was generally used to celebrate social occasions such as marriage. Yet exceptionally, for either a male or female, Margaret never once produced love poetry, deeming it too obvious and “a tree whereon all poets climb”. Instead she opted for philosophical verse that challenged the Christian-Judaism tradition of man’s superiority over nature. A Dialogue of Birds, for instance, critiqued man’s obsession with hunting and killing birds that dared eat the tiniest of fruits. She went on to argue that animals may have intelligence too. As she moved to other genres, she was keen to broach masculine subjects, debating the role of religion, law and philosophy. She advocated the celibacy of monks on the grounds that it helped keep the population down. Then she exposed the folly of religion, arguing that if men based their supremacy over women on the grounds that Jesus was a male, then men were by implication inferior to a dove, given that this is how the Holy Spirit is represented. The men didn’t like this smart arse, and negative rumours started to spread.

For a long time, people didn’t accept that Margaret had written her books herself because she was addressing male topics, and therefore they must have come from a male mind. Her poetry was slated for its poor rhyme and metre but she shrugged this off, arguing there was an obsession with form to the detriment of imagination. Other works were criticised for their poor grammar, punctuation and spelling. There’s been some fanciful claims that this was deliberate, that Margaret was simply appropriating language and creating her own unique style, a bit like txt spk. But it was more likely that she was dyslexic. The fact that she had no formal education or training in quill writing would have further exacerbated the problem.

A lot of these prejudices, particularly male expectations and social conventions, recur throughout her writing. In Assaulted and Pursued Chastity, the heroine Lady Travellia saves herself from a Prince by dressing as a male and fleeing aboard a ship. At her destination she encounters cannibals but she is able to save herself by learning their language and communicating on an equal level, something more achievable in the novel than in real life. In The Blazing World, a kind of Utopian political thriller which is seen by many as the first science fiction story, Margaret appears and strikes up an intimate friendship with an Empress, suggesting there is more to life than heterosexual relationships.

Margaret exuded as much individuality in her clothing as she did on the page. She wasn’t content to go along with the latest trends and instead designed her own costumes that strived to symbolise her revolutionary identity as a female intellectual. People would flock from miles around to see her, often attracting crowds usually reserved for Royalty. Diarist Samuel Pepys tracked her down in 1667 but was disappointed at seeing the myth in the flesh, dismissing her as “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman” but this criticism may tell us more about Pepys. He was authoritarian in his own marriage and came down hard on his wife when she dared to wear clothes he did not approve of. Unsurprisingly, Margaret wasn’t a fan of slap either, finding it oily on her skin and generally disgusting. Her only compromise was a bit of powder on her face and painting her nipples scarlet. The mindless following of fashion was just another form of oppression as far as she was concerned. This attitude didn’t bode well with other women, who saw her as betraying her gender. But she had come to expect snobbery, idle gossip and backstabbing from her class. She would take her revenge on the page.

2014 is the Year of Reading Women and it is hard to think of a more inspirational figure from Nottingham’s past for modern writers. Yes, she was a toff. But a toff who turned her back on an easy life and instead strived to change perceptions. She made many enemies and many friends during her fifty years of life and was essentially an Epicurean at heart, in search of personal pleasures. If society would not allow a woman equal rights then she would create her own through words, “Though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First… I have made a world of my own: for which nobody, I hope, will blame me, since it is in everyone’s power to do the like.”

This article was based on two superb books: Mad Madge by Katie Whitaker and Margaret Cavendish: The Blazing World and Other Writings, Ed. Kate Lilley. It was originally published in LeftLion magazine Jan 2015