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100 Ghosts: The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

I was first introduced to this gentle tale of an ancient haunted house via the 1986 television series, broadcast just before Christmas. I can even remember that I had a cold when it was on, which only seemed to make it better somehow, swaddled as I was in a duvet guzzling Lemsip and Lockets. Me and my brothers had been big fans of the BBCs adaptation of the Box of Delights a few years previously and this is very much in the same vein. Both feature an upper middle class boy whose parents live abroad, both go to stay with relations during the Christmas holidays and both make friends with uncanny types, and have brushes with ancient evil.

The Children of Green Knowe is an altogether more wistful, melancholy affair compared to the boisterous adventurousness of the Box of Delights. Even the approach to the Green Knowe, the house of the title is allegorically portentous - the fens have been flooded and our hero Toseland/Tolly is first carried á la St Christopher and then rowed to the house by the evocatively monickered retainer Boggis. Once sealed off from real life entirely, and in the safe custody of his great grandmother, Linnet Oldknowe, he is largely left alone to explore and make his own entertainment. In the evenings, his great-grandmother tells him stories of the house’s former inhabitants, all of whom were his relations, and particularly of three children who lived and died there in the 17th century. It becomes apparent that these three have never actually left Green Knowe and slowly reveal themselves to Tolly, befriending him, at least to the extent that a four hundred year old spirit can befriend you. As the story progresses, Tolly becomes to know more of the house’s history and his deep connection with it through the dozens of ancestors who have lived and died within its walls. Even his name resonates through the years - he’s only the latest of many Toselands of Green Knowe.

It’s a blanket of a story, a soothing wrinkle-handed stroke on the fevered modern brow for both reader and Tolly himself. He arrives alone at the house, apparently friendless, his mother dead, his father thousands of miles away, and finds that he is a part of the magnificent tapestry of the house’s history. Time itself becomes irrelevant, and the worries and bustle of the world outside fade, literally cut off by the rising floodwaters and then a heavy fall of snow. It’s a house which embraces its history to the extent that its past inhabitants forget to be dead. It’s not all sweetness and light though - the children that whisper and giggle in empty rooms died of the great plague, never to reach adulthood, and in the garden lowers the brooding demon tree Green Noah, a terrifying folkloric presence. But the easiest way to avoid him if I remember rightly is to run back inside where Granny is serving tea and cakes, just like her granny did and hers before that. Green Knowe itself was based on the 12th century (!!!) Cambridgeshire manor house that author Lucy M Boston bought in the 1930s and patently fell completely in love with to the extent that she set many of her books in it, and not only the Green Knowe series. I can’t say I blame her. After watching the series, and subsequently reading the book to my children, I’d quite like to move in myself and hang out with the ghosts, eventually becoming one myself. The TV series was not filmed there but at Crow’s Hall in Suffolk, which is Tudor in origin, but my picture does feature the original Green Knowe. As for the illustration, this was definitely one of those ones I just had to stop because it could have gone on forever. I’m not entirely happy with it, especially the ghosts who a) you can’t really see and b) look ridiculous if you zoom in on them so don’t bother. Hey ho! Onward.

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What a stunning illustration! I’m a great fan of the Green Knowe books, and of course quite attached to Peter Boston’s pictures; but your interpretation is wonderful — entirely your own, but also entirely in keeping with the story, and, if I may say so, with the spirit of the house. I visited Lucy Boston back in the late 1980s, and she was kind enough to give me a tour; her daughter-in-law, Diana Boston, is a worthy steward of the house, and L. M. Boston’s legacy. If you haven’t visited the Manor, I hope you will one day — an amazing place.

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