The Tenth Anniversary Lecture
Frances Hardinge: Peopling the Dark
“Is your book too scary?”
The only time she’s been asked this by a child, says Frances, was in an email from an eleven-year-old. Having been warned off one of her novels by a well-meaning relative, the young correspondent had decided to appeal to the author for adjudication. Adults, on the other hand, frequently express concern.
To those concerned adults, what Frances would like to say is, “it is as scary as it needs to be.”
A click and a flick through the blurbs on Frances’ website will leave readers in no doubt about what they’re in for. “Faith’s father has been found dead under mysterious circumstances” … “ New openings appear in the shadows, a black carriage rumbles through the streets” … “Twelve-year-old Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts” … You get the gist.
Bright and funny, the behatted figure at the lectern seems an unlikely conscript for the dark side. Yet stories from the shadows have always struck a deep chord with this children’s author. She describes vividly her childhood interest in terrifying tales, even as they “scared the stuffing out of me”. (An early work by the six-year-old Frances included an attempted poisoning, a faked death and a villain being thrown off a cliff.) And it becomes clear that over the years she’s built a voluminous inner library that has enriched her own writing – and this most compelling lecture.
Reflecting on the darkness found in various works of children’s literature, she observed that the menace often comes through suggestion and allusion. It may be half-heard, like the whistles in Philippa Pearce’s own short story, The Shadow Cage; or half-seen, like the stone watchers in Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams (Frances’ own childhood favourite); or shrouded in tricksy language, like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.
Why is it, Frances wondered, that grimness and monstrosity are delivered to children through glimpse and glance? Certainly, it allows these things to slither under the radar of adult gatekeepers. (Though, ironically, their shadowiness may render them even more worrisome.) But more to the point, she went on to argue, shadow is in their very nature.
“As adults,” she said, “we forget what the darkness once was to us. We forget what the child knows: that light is only a respite, and the return of the dark brings the return of the monster.”
As adults we tend to reach for the switch and bathe everything in the cold, hard light of rationality. And yet, asked Frances, why should the faculty of the imagination be any less enlightening? Carroll’s Humpty offers a rational interpretation of “Jabberwocky” – and we know he is wrong. “He is right about individual words but he is wrong about the poem; Alice is closer to capturing its essence.”
Another dreaming child, Marianne understands that the dreamworld and the ordinary world are both real. “An adult reading Marianne Dreams might understand the menacing stones as a facet of a child’s illness, a metaphor for a mundane threat. But this does not help the child.”
Children’s authors are, of course, adults, but they are, Frances believes, adults who remember and acknowledge the darkness that besets the minds of children, and who try to tell them that somebody understands. Sometimes, she says, we can just reach for the light switch – “Look! No monster under the bed.” But sometimes children need to be told, “You are not silly or weak, you are not alone in the darkness with the shadows – I can see them too.” Philippa Pearce herself understood this well, as Frances pointed out. In The Shadow Cage, the child is rescued at the last by an adult who is able to step outside of the adult mindset, and to hear and recognise the reality of the menace.
But most importantly, said Frances, children need to learn that “to fight the shadow, you need the right sort of light.” And so, she took us all with her into the shadows, shining her own brand of light into the dark.