24 August 2007

Mapping Mystery Manor

Thanks to Strange Maps, I visited the Culture Archive's collection of maps that appeared on British endpapers, a most evocative ingredient in books. The same site archives a variety of other fictitious maps from literature and advertising, including charts from Arthur Ransome's books.

The thumbnail at left comes from the endpapers map from Mystery Manor, a children's novel by Mary Evelyn Atkinson in 1939. The illustrations, including this map, are by Harold Jones.

The title Mystery Manor is, of course, intriguing. What story lurks behind the details on that map? Who are the four children pictured in the endpapers? (Two boys and two girls, naturally.) Why is the cat named Lady Archibald?

Some Googling brought me to reports from a British homeschooling family who read this book last fall. And I'm even more confused now. In fact, it almost sounds like a writing exercise: can you create a plot that takes readers from this beginning to this end? Here's how the book starts:

Oliver and Bill, the main children in the book, go spying on Mr Hugh, the main suspect. It starts at Mr Hugh’s cottage, where he shows them his fly fishing equipment and tells them all about it. He then goes off saying that they can’t come with him. Of course they don’t believe he is really going fishing him, so they follow him. But much to their surprise he really does go fishing...
That blog characterizes the male leads as "Oliver the bookish boy studying for exams or Bill, the lively one that prefers to dig in streams and climb trees and for whom maths is a mystery." The endpapers show Oliver in necktie, jersey, and socks pulled up, and Bill in a casual shirt with no socks at all. The blog offers no word on the girls, Jane and Anna.

And this is what happens at the end of the book:
The children finally found the tru[th] about what had been going on, but there was just one thing that puzzled Oliver, the eldest. He still didn’t understand why Mr Hugh had attacked Bill while he was wearing the red school tie. He knew at the time that it was something to do with communism, but really didn’t understand it.

M.E. Atkinson often uses the lack of knowledge in her characters to inform children about current affairs, and communism was a current affair in 1937. So over the last two pages of the book Oliver explores communism...
What an exciting finish! From a fisherman who actually goes fishing to two pages on Communism in the late 1930s. We just don't write mysteries like that anymore.

1 comment:

Charlotte said...

Oh that's lovely! Thanks so much! I shall link to this.