War and Trease

Young Dickon from Bows Against the Barons joins us in Issue 11
Young Dickon from ‘Bows Against the Barons’ joins us in Issue 11.

Geoffrey Trease changed the landscape of children’s fiction by treating his younger readers as mature and thoughtful individuals. Up to 1945 it was an unacknowledged preconception that children lacked experience. As Margaret Meek commented in her analysis of his work “the successful author presents children with an organised illusion which fits their stage of development, a world in which the experience is relevant”.

In his debut novel Bows Against The Barons (1934) Trease showed that harsh winters left the likes of Robin Hood starving and frail and that life wasn’t always merrie in the emerald forest. It would lead to George Orwell complimenting Trease as “that creature we have long been needing, a ‘light’ Left-wing writer, rebellious but human, a sort of P.G Wodehouse after a course of Marx.”

trease and orwell

Given the social context of the first half of the 20th century it was impossible to cocoon children in a bubble of innocence. WWI meant that everyone knew at least one relative who had been killed, the influenza pandemic of 1918-9, at a conservative estimate, wiped out at least 20 million people, and then the 1930s delivered the Wall Street Crash that meant mass unemployment and uncertainty. Trease’s self-proclaimed desire “to correct the old Henty bias with a partisan counterbalance on the Left” meant that Robin Hood could only be a role model to people if he was truly of the people; starvation affects us all.

It may have been the right time to prod the bubble of innocence but bursting it was a different matter. The novel was published by a left-wing press and contained an inside illustration of a mutilated corpse that inevitably caused offence and resulted in many parents refusing to buy it. Those that did purchase a copy ripped the illustration out before handing the book over to their kids.

Bows Against the Barons. Photo James Walker.

Trease’s means of coping with harsh realities was to head out into the countryside and lose himself in the landscape. This would inevitably result in a book, Walking in England (1935). For a while he ran a guest house at Castle Cottage in Somerset. At the time he was making a decent living from freelance but this was taking up so much of his time he didn’t have time to write his own novels and so employed a part-time secretary who took down his words in shorthand and then typed them up. It was a logical solution for a man bursting with ideas but not enough time to transfer them to paper, but it does seem to go against the very essence of writing. Be it pen to paper or fingers to keys, writing is a tactile process, a relationship between body, mind and technology. The absence of any of these elements feels like a completely different mode of expression. But I digress…

Freelancing brought about another problem: isolation from people. A writer requires stimulus and so Trease joined two organisations; the Abingdon Labour Party and an amateur dramatic society. Despite being a political person, he found the Labour Party difficult in that no party could ever be right on every issue. There was also something disingenuous about politicians whose job was to “safeguard themselves in ambiguity whereas a writer uses words to express truths”.

Pen is mightier than the sword according to Trease.
Pen is mightier than the sword according to Trease. Issue 11.

Drama offered socialisation as well as another platform for his writing. In The Land of The Mogul (1938) detailed the adventures of the East India Company and made it abundantly clear that Britain had gone to India not for Empire or God but to trade profitably. Another harsh truth. But it was a one-acter called After the Tempest which would gain him national recognition in J.W. Marriott’s annual volume, The Best One-Act Plays of 1938.

Things were going well for Trease as he hit thirty, but they were about to change. WWII was just around the corner and this would put an end to, or delay, many of his projects. Another script set for success was Colony, set on an imaginary island (a familiar staple of his work) and inhabited by disgruntled sugar workers, it highlighted the problems of colonialism through the abuse of labour. It received critical acclaim, with the theatre weekly Era enthusing it as “a piece of really effective theatre written by a young man who obviously has a political cause at heart; but who, nevertheless, is concerned with creating real characters”.

On the 30 August 1939 Trease signed a preliminary agreement with Unity Theatre (West End) Ltd but 48 hours later Hitler attacked Poland. The contract was cancelled. Nobody was going to put on a controversial play during wartime. Trease’s most successful book Cue for Treason (1940) would suffer a more radical form of censorship. Within two weeks of publication the Nazi’s bombed a warehouse containing all of the books. Soon after, another publication Only Natural (1940) suffered an identical fate. Echoing the sentiments of one of the many stoic characters of his books, Trease remained as determined as ever: “I knew I had to go on writing. All my life I had to write. Even a world war could not stop that itch”.

You can read about Geoffrey Trease in issue 11: Books And Bowstrings by Alan Gibbons and Steve Larder