11 October 2006

Visiting Storybook England

A little over a decade ago, I made my first visit to good friends in England. They were living in an apartment in Christ Church College at Oxford, and they arranged for me to sleep in a spare room in the deanery below. That's the same deanery where Alice Liddell, daughter of Dean Henry Liddell, grew up.

My bedroom window overlooked the garden where Alice and her sisters had played, including a tree said to be the model for the Cheshire Cat's. In a common room nearby was a fire screen that the Rev. Charles L. Dodgson used to introduce youngsters to his Hunting of the Snark (on which I wrote my undergraduate thesis). And to light my way to the bathroom at night, the most convenient lamp was the little one over a Hans Holbein portrait of Henry VIII. It was a most impressive arrangement for an Anglophilic visitor.

Now the UK's National Tourist Office has recognized that children's literature is one of the country's most valuable exports, and has created a new website to lure travelers: StorybookEngland.com. It offers pointers to scores of sites around Britain associated with children's literature. For instance, Dorney Court was the childhood inspiration for Susan Cooper's Huntercombe Hall in The Dark Is Rising.

I have a few grumbles about this site. It seems impossible to navigate around without stumbling back into the annoying animated introduction. There are two non-overlapping lists of authors, both alphabetical by first name; then the Bookstore section is alphabetical by last name. Finally, I once backed into the "First Page," only to find that its lists of authors and works was completely "undefined." In short, there are still more than a few bugs to be shunted away.

More worrisome in the long run, a lot of the locations recommended for visiting aren't where great books were written, set, or inspired, but sites where those books are commemorated (such as the statue of Paddington Bear in Paddington Station) or where TV or movie adaptations were filmed. We move closer and closer to a culture in which nothing really matters unless it's been on TV.

For example, the only E. Nesbit sites are where The Railway Children was filmed thirty-five years ago, and that's the only Nesbit novel in the bookstore. I don't particularly like The Railway Children. [And I will sneer at all emails from fans of that soppy tale of upper-middle-class deprivation and trainspotting, reading them aloud in a high, twee voice for my own amusement.]

Surely in all England there must be a worthwhile site associated with Nesbit herself, such as the church where she's buried, and her superior fantasy and humor novels. Is there no sandpit where the Psammead might have buried itself? Or estate with statuary that inspired The Enchanted Castle?

(And as long as you're heading to Storybook England, check out the new ride at the Tate Modern!)


Anonymous said...

I ran across the website this summer, and wasn't much impressed, not compared to most of the books on the subject (some of which I listed in this post.

Christina Hardyment's is the most lyrical of the books though sadly it doesn't include England. "Once Upon a Time in Great Britain" by Wentz is quite nice and gives information on the authors themselves, not just their works.

I found it at Bookcloseouts about a year ago, and would love to give it a proper workout with our three kids.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the recommendation. The StorybookEngland.com credits page lists Wentz's book along with three others as its main sources. Looks like that book and at least one more are available in the US.

The downside of a book compared to a website, of course, is that it's harder to update. And a website can offer direct links to the tourist sites and storybooks that it mentions. But it's a lot harder to carry a website in a car.