It was Christmas Eve. Outside, the fields lay quietly under the cold moon. When they had lifted the baby Angela up to the window to see the lovely night, she had said, "The stars are tingling!" Everyone knew at once what she meant, though Nick pretended not to.
From that first paragraph, at the age of nearly ten, I was captivated. It was 1962, and my family had just moved from a nasty modern housing estate in Mansfield to a parish -- more a collection of scattered hamlets than a village -- just south of the Lake District. It was magical. When we unpacked, there was a library book I'd forgotten to return before we moved, a fairy story, of all things, when (peering through my grimy National Health glasses) I was already graduating from SF-type adventure novels by John Pudney and Captain WE Johns to the real thing. But Annabel and Bryony by Marjorie Phillips was different. It was a fairy story, yes, but one that was a full-length novel -- 252 pages -- and set in the present day (well, almost; it was published in 1953, the year after my birth), with the sort of characters familiar from Malcolm Saville and Arthur Ransome: four children together for the holidays. Nick was the oldest, around 13, then his cousin Virginia, his brother Dick, and Virginia's sister, Annabel, the youngest at about ten.
After putting up the Christmas decorations the children find an imitation snowball on the mantelpiece. As Nick holds it, it grows in his arms, then falls to the floor and splits open to reveal a person "whose head didn't reach the top of the fireguard or the belt of Virginia's frock," very young, lost and frightened: "we Fairfolk cannot live in the Middle Kingdom in the winter." She has to get back to her own land, returning through a flower -- "I can ask for passage from the Captain of the Garrison" -- but when she tries, the children accompanying her, through one of the Christmas roses from the hall, they find the door locked. A cut flower is no use. From the beginning, magic has logic. And when they do travel down a living flower, they're captured by the terrifying Frost Fairies, and imprisoned with a group of fairies: Captain Cranesbill, Lieutenant Orchis, the two ensigns Berry and the irrepressible Cherry -- and Bryony, Lord Tamus, a lieutenant of the Company of Enchanters. After a series of adventures, in which Annabel is able to lend her strength to Bryony's magic, they eventually arrive at the realm of the Fair Folk -- and we're only half way through the book. Throughout, the story is excellent on relationships between people, human or fairy; Annabel learns much about friendship, trust, honour, responsibility-and courage. It's a wonderful book. I want to read more. The final words are "Till the summer!" There must be a sequel but there doesn't seem to be.
I write to Marjorie Phillips, via her publishers -- the first time I've ever done this -- and receive a reply. (Okay, so now we're all blasé about the number of authors we know, but imagine what this was like for a child!) It's a lovely letter (I kept it in the book, but sadly, I've mislaid it in the last year or so); she's really pleased I enjoyed Annabel and Bryony , and yes, she has written sequels -- the next one is Annabel and Tawny -- but OUP aren't interested in publishing them -- "not cost-effective in today's market" or some such (now horribly familiar) phrase; and she's sorry, but her children won't allow the MSS out of the house. Even then, I understood that last point. But it was frustrating to know that sequels existed, but that I would never read them.
Step ahead two decades. I'm a semi-detached member of Leeds fandom, not yet been to a con, not yet editing Vector . On some no-doubt fairly drunken evening (most of them were) I'm talking to a guy called Paul Annis, later to be an associate editor on Interzone , and for some reason I mention Annabel and Bryony , and its gorgeous illustrations by Pauline Baynes, famous for her Narnia and some Tolkien work. Step ahead again nearly two decades, to today. I receive a letter from Paul (who I'd not been in touch with inbetween) via my publishers. A few years after I'd left the Leeds area he'd found a secondhand copy of Annabel and Bryony . And now he's just learnt that the sequel Annabel and Tawny is about to be published! And astonishingly, he'd remembered that it was I who had first told him about Annabel some 18 years ago.
I'd thought several times in the last few years of writing to Marjorie Phillips again, to let her know I still love her book, and how much her letter meant to me as a child, and now I'm an author myself, and so on; but I didn't -- she'd have moved, she's probably no longer alive anyway. I wish I had, because now she isn't; and she would have been; she only died in 1998, aged 88. I'm sure she'd have loved to hear from me again, and now it's too late.
I've just read Annabel and Bryony again. It's still as delightful as ever, but now with an adult critic's eyes I'm very aware of the formality of the language and the author's habit of over-using colourful synonyms for "said"; as a children's novel it's very much a product of, ahem, the middle of the last century. But we still read the Narnia books with enjoyment, and the Borrowers books, and Alison Uttley's A Traveller in Time , and the rest. This is of a piece with those; times have changed, and children's fiction; but its very datedness has a certain charm. "On publication it received universally favourable reviews," says Marjorie Phillips' daughter Vivien Gambrill, but the sequels remained unpublished, though the author considered them all to be "better and more closely knit" than the first book. But now, 48 years after Annabel and Bryony first appeared in 1953, the sequel Annabel and Tawny will at last be published, in a small press edition; and if they manage to break even on it, there are two more Annabel novels to come.
There's more about Annabel and Bryony on a superb website by Susan Stepney, http://public.logica.com/~stepneys/sf/books/p/phillips.htm . Here's the info from the publishers; and before anyone asks, no, there's no connection with a certain progressive rock band! "Curved Air" is apparently what the sails of yachts do, and that's their main subject matter. I have no connection with them; I'm simply longing to read, at long, long last, the sequel to a beautiful book I first read nearly 40 years ago.
Annabel and Tawny by Marjorie Phillips (1910-1998)
Tawny is the Princess-Elect, who will some day replace the Queen, and she is under such strict discipline and is so lonely that Annabel, feeling sorry for her, insists on keeping her company. She is soon leading the Princess into mischief and even to what is regarded as High Treason when the two of them ignore the Queen's direct order and accompany Bryony on a dangerous mission
The book will be in A5 format, softback, perfect bound with a laminated picture cover, with 18 half or full page line illustrations. These are by Marjorie's daughter, Vivien Gambrill, and the cover design is by her granddaughter, Rachel Dunn. Pagination, with illustrations and introductory matter, c. 224 pages. ISBN: 1 873146 14 3. Price c. £10.
To contact the publishers, write, telephone, or e-mail: Russell &
Ghillian Potts The Curved Air Press 8 Sherard Road London SE9 6EP Tel: +
44 (0)20 8850 6805 E-mail: email@example.com
[SS, 24-08-2008: current email contact: firstname.lastname@example.org]
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Copyright © David V. Barrett 2001
This article appeared in Issue 217 (May/June 2001) of
David V. Barrett edited Vector from issue 126 (June/July 1985) to 150 (June/July 1989), and continued to be a reviewer and letter writer until summer 1995. After too long a silence, Vector is happy to welcome him back.