You may remember I picked up a few second-hand books at our village’s May Fair:
One of these was a children’s book written by Eleanor Graham and originally published in 1938. ‘The Children who lived in a Barn’ had been on my wishlist for a while as it was republished by Persephone Books, a publishing house I really love. (I have blogged about them here)
Persephone Books re-printed ‘The Children who lived in a Barn’ in 2001, with a preface by renowned children’s author, Jacqueline Wilson. It tells the story of the five Dunnet children whose parents disappear on a plane trip and who are left to fend for themselves on the outskirts of a rural village.
The children move out of their rented house and into a deserted barn, loaned to them by a kindly farmer. The children range in age from 13 to seven and, while dodging the interfering ‘District Visitor’ (DV) and trying to make do on very little money, still manage to be fed, watered and attend school.
In her preface to the Persephone edition, Jacqueline Wilson writes:
‘Back in the fifties the book seemed entirely convincing. Reading it now I’m in my fifties it seems extraordinary.”
And it certainly does! The edition I picked up for 50p dates from 1965 and I’m not sure it would have seemed feasible even then for five children to be left to fend for themselves for months on end. Certainly, reading it as a parent in 2016 (and speaking as one who really does enjoy children’s literature) I find it astonishing.
The burden of running the new household falls on the shoulders of the eldest child, Sue, who is ‘thirteen and a bit’. She is the first one to rise in the morning, light the fire, make breakfast (and then wash up),and get the younger children ready for school. One morning a week she even gets up at five to wash all of their clothes – before going onto school herself. She also helps local shopkeepers with their bookkeeping, and the ‘District Visitor’ has plans for her to go into service. Her younger brother, Bob, takes on the role of ‘father’ and they become surrogate parents to the younger siblings.
The irony is that these are fairly well-off middle class children whose parents wouldn’t have dreamed of sending them to the local village school. However when they abruptly leave them all to visit a sick relative in France, the young Dunnets really are left alone.
Some could argue they experience a free-range childhood, without the constraints of parents (don’t all the best children’s books feature absent parents?). However there doesn’t seem to be much playing for the eldest child. As a parent of a 14 year old girl I can’t imagine her possessing half the skills that Sue has. But, in terms of modern day life, she can do the washing and cook tea using all the appliances that now save us time and remove us from the drudgery and sheer hard work of housework. However, if I had sons, I would expect the same of them.
The children’s adventures in the barn come to an end – and just in time before winter sets in and the ‘DV’s plans to separate the children.
I’m not sure I could say that I enjoyed reading this book, and am relieved I only spent 50p rather than £12 on it. However as an insight into pre-war childhood, and the roles and responsibilities of teenage girls, it is quite an eye-opener.