Today is the birthday of Geoffrey Trease, one of my all-time favourite writers for children. He was born in Nottingham on 11 August 1909, and died in January 1998.
In all, he wrote 100 books for children. I’ve been collecting his books since I was a teenager, but I’ve managed to find less than half of them. I hope to find them all in time.
My love for him began when I was about eleven, and I read his book Cue for Treason (first published in 1940).
It’s a wonderful adventure story set in Elizabethan England. A boy named Peter has to flee after throwing a rock at Sir Philip Morton, the local tyrant, in protest at his theft of the village’s common ground. He sees a troupe of travelling actors and pauses to watch, but then sees Sir Philip in the audience.
In desperation, Peter hides in a prop coffin and finds himself loaded on to the actors’ wagon. Desmond, the kind-hearted leader of the troupe, takes him on as a child actor, and he travels the roads with them. Another boy called Kit joins the troupe, and is given all the best female roles (which, of course, could only be played by boys).
Philip is jealous and fights him, only to discover Kit is really a girl in disguise. She is fleeing a forced marriage to the evil Sir Philip.
The troupe ends up in London, and Peter and Kit are accepted as actors by a young playwright named Shakespeare. They act in several of his plays, and then accidentally stumble upon a plot to murder the queen. A wild, fast-paced adventure follows as they race to unravel the plot and stop the assassin. All ends well, with the queen grateful to the young adventurers and Sir Philip unmasked as a traitor.
I loved Cue for Treason. It was one of the books that ignited my passion for historical fiction. The late 16th century world was so adeptly brought to life, and the characters seemed so real. Kit and Peter were both so brave and determined, and the developing romance between them was so deftly handed.
I began trying to find more books by him. Our library had a few, which I devoured hungrily, and every now and again I found one in a second-hand book stall.
What I loved about his books was how effortlessly the historical background was woven into the story. The pace never lags, the story never stumbles, the characters never sound awkward or anachronistic, and yet I finished each book feeling as if I had knew exactly how people of that time spoke and dressed and ate and fought.
He wrote books set in a number of different historical periods. My favourites include Cloak for a Spy (also set in Elizabethan times); The Popinjay Stairs, set in Restoration Times with Samuel Pepys as a character; Thunder of Valmy, set during the French revolution; and The White Nights of St Petersburg, set during the Russian revolution.
He began writing stories in an old desk diary as a child, and earned his first half-guinea as a writer at the age of 13 with an article on ‘Amateur Journalism’. He won a scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford - but dropped out, determined to be a writer. He worked to help the plight of slum children in the East End of London, and his books reflect his passionately held socialist beliefs.
In Bows Against the Barons (1934), his very first book, Robin Hood cries out: ‘There are only two classes, masters and men, haves and have-nots.’
Such beliefs were radical in children’s literature at the time, and contributed greatly to his international success. He was particularly beloved in Russia, where his first book sold 100,000 copies. At the time, royalties could not be taken out of the Soviet Union. Geoffrey and his wife, Marian, subsequently lives in Russia for a while, enjoying the fruits of his success. What he saw there may have tempered his beliefs, as his later books – including White Nights of St Petersburg (1967) - were more moderate in their politics.
From the beginning, Geoffrey set out to overthrow the heavy-handed archaism of historical fiction at the time. “Some of the merriment should be taken out of Merrie England,’ he wrote.
He did away with what he called ‘gadzookery’, with people saying ‘Zounds’ or ‘Prithee’ at every breath. His characters all talk as ordinary human beings.
Geoffrey was also determined to have the girls in his stories being as strong-willed and fully-rounded as the boys, something most unusual for the time in which he was writing.
My love for his books led me to discover other great children’s HF writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff, Leon Garfied, and Elizabeth George Speare. Eventually I read Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and the Baroness d’Orczy … and have been an avid reader of anything historical ever since.
It's always a pleasure to re-read old favourites (and endeavouring to do so is part of The 50/50 Project - in which I am trying to re-read the books of my Fifty Favourite Authors)