Maddy Alone: Pamela Brown

★★★½

The Blue Door: Book II

In the wake of Mishima, I needed something totally different: something charming, cuddly and heartwarming. With relief, I turned to the second book in Pamela Brown’s Blue Door series (the first was The Swish of the Curtainwhich I reviewed some time ago), telling the story of a band of ambitious children who set up a theatre company in their small town of Fenchester. In this sequel, the older children have achieved their dreams and are now studying at stage school in London, but poor Maddy, the youngest, is only twelve years old and has been told she needs to stick with ordinary school for the time being. Pushed to her limits by the thought of all the fun the others are having, Maddy begins acting up; but soon she discovers a marvellous opportunity right on her doorstep, which will change her life once and for all.

To her excitement, Maddy finds out that a film crew have moved into the fields at Fennymead, just outside town, where they’re making a historical blockbuster about the local heroine Elizabeth of Fennymead. When she makes friends with Rodney, the film’s remarkably young composer, through a bout of dodgems at the local seaside town, Maddy is invited along to watch the filming. She is thrilled to see that Felicity Warren (the actress who played Juliet at Statford when the children visited with the Bishop in the first book) is in the film. However, she’s puzzled when she realises that the film crew have got a crucial fact about Elizabeth deeply wrong: she should be a child, not a grown woman. Having destabilised the filming by blurting this out to the neurotic and detail-obsessed Dutch director, Van Velden, Maddy is initially afraid that she’s spoiled all chances of being welcomed back to the set. But instead – thanks to Rodney’s knowledge of her acting ‘career’ in the Blue Door Theatre Company – she receives an extraordinary invitation, which suddenly makes the absence of her friends seem easier to bear.

Maddy is possibly the only one of the original gang who could sustain a book by herself (I may take that back later in the series, but at the moment she’s the one who has stood out most strongly as an independent spirit). She’s principled, indignant, outspoken, precocious (‘I expect my sorrows have aged me’) and entirely without guile. She’s able to wrap grown-ups round her little finger, which helps her get her own way even on the film set; although I suspect that any real-world confrontation between an established film director and a stubborn twelve-year-old actress would end firmly in the adult’s favour. And it’s Maddy who obstinately sets out to visit the real Fennymead Castle when the obstinacy of its owner, the current Lord Moulcester, seems to be putting the film at risk. Buoyant, cheerful, golden and optimistic, this is a world where pluck and integrity get things done, and children manage to save the day against the odds.

Brown, who was sixteen when she published The Swish of the Curtain (she wrote it at fourteen, but the Second World War got in the way), was twenty when her sequel was first printed. Those four years of growing up haven’t changed the remarkable innocence at the heart of the book – not, of course, that we would expect cynicism in a children’s book; but Brown lives in a vanished world, which perhaps never existed, in which film directors jovially take chances on children they’ve never met; lone children hitch rides in strangers’ lorries; bishops have the time to be generous confidants to small girls; and school is nothing but a background irritant. In the first book, I put this down to Brown’s remarkably young age; here, perhaps, it’s a conscious choice, to capture the perception of a better, vanished, golden world where it never rains, everything was jolly (except, obviously, the one neighbour who takes the role of Archvillain – here ably filled by the absurd Mrs Potter-Smith) – and there were always sticky buns for tea.

Perhaps it’s also Brown’s youth that led to the major historical boo-boo in the book. Her Elizabeth of Fennymead is a twelve-year old girl who’s brought to Fennymead Castle by her wicked uncle. As the Bishop explains:

Elizabeth of Fennymead was believed to be a daughter of Catherine of Aragon and Arthur, Prince of Wales. Catherine married him before she married Henry the Eighth, you know. The Maid was kidnapped by a second cousin, Richard, Lord Moulcester, when she was quite young, and held at Fennymead with the intention of placing her forcibly on the throne at the death of Henry the Seventh.

It doesn’t require me to wear my Pedantic Historian Hat in order to point out that this is a bizarre story to come up with (even though I understand that Brown needed to invent a historical character). Any moderately historically-aware child reading this would have known full well that Catherine was only able to marry Henry because it was pretty widely believed that she and Arthur hadn’t even consummated their marriage, let alone had a daughter. And a daughter who was twelve?! What a prodigy that would have been, given that Arthur died mere months after his marriage, and only seven years before his father died. However, I know this is not the point, so I’m going to take off the Pedantic Historian Hat – look, it’s over there – and just enjoy the nostalgia-tinted story.

If I had children (perhaps in the 7-11 range), I’d be sorely tempted to buy these books for them. They’re escapist fiction of the most charming kind and, even if the plot seems implausible to me as a grown-up, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and channel my inner child in order to enjoy them. And, I must stress, they are fun to read as a adult, even if you know full well that you aren’t the target audience. Luckily for me, I have several more review copies of the later books in the series, so we haven’t seen the last of the Blue Door yet. I can’t wait to see the chaos that ensues around Maddy in the next stage of her meteoric career.

P.S. There may now be a slight interruption in service as I scoot off on long-awaited holidays, but I’ll be back at the end of next week…

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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