The Chimneys of Green Knowe

Have you ever seen such a spoiler-y cover? Guess what, in the last chapter, the house burns down! In the US, the title is The Treasure of Green Knowe, which is just as revealing.

This book is a very old childhood favourite, first discovered in the Mt Hagen library. It was my favourite of all the Green Knowe books and I re-read it many times. For some reason, the first volume of the series, The Children of Green Knowe, wasn't in the library, and nor was A Stranger at Green Knowe, the one with the escaped gorilla -- many years later, when reading that one to a young Alice, she made me stop reading before the end, because she couldn't bear to hear what was to become of poor Hanno.

But I digress. The Convent book group is reading The Chimneys of Green Knowe because our theme next month is blindness. Young Tolly, staying with his great-grandmother at the ancient house of Green Knowe, is told the story of 18th century Susan, whose sea captain father brings her back Jacob as a companion. After many misadventures, and the final conflagration, the two triumph over their enemies, and Tolly uses what he's learned from their story to save the day.

There are several problematic elements of this book which didn't trouble me too much as a child, but which might make me think carefully before sharing it with a young person today. Jacob is purchased in a slave market in the Caribbean (though the author is careful to tell us that slavery is repugnant, and he is instantly set free -- however, he remains as a servant to the captain and to "Missy Susan" for the rest of his life.) He is described with every well-meaning but racist cliche you can think of: woolly hair, rolling eyes, sooty skin, the lot, and he is mercilessly bullied by Susan's older brother -- dressed in the livery of an organ-grinder's monkey, forced up a chimney and numerous other humiliations. But Jacob is no victim. He exacts his own revenges, both subtle and overt, and his lively spirit is never subdued.

There is a lot of racist language too, never explicitly condemned -- but as a child reader, I got the message that only the unpleasant characters used it. I wonder now if one reason I was so drawn to this book was because it dealt with friendship between black and white children, and at the time I was living in the heavily colonial atmosphere of 1970s PNG. There were black students at my international school, and I had some among my friends, but there weren't many of them. Perhaps unconsciously I was trying to make sense of it all?

One vivid image that stayed with me was the creepy embroidery that Susan's mother creates at the end of the book, made from human hair. That gave me the shivers. And she sews it at the behest of fortune-telling gypsies, who are described, by the way, in unambiguously racist terms that seriously disturbed me this time around. It's odd that Boston clearly feels sympathy for Jacob and the way he's treated, but can't seem to extend this same sympathy to the figures of the dirty, conniving, deceitful, greedy gypsies. Which is a shame.


  1. Oddly, I've never read this series. I think they may be out of print and I've not been able to get them in the library or in ebook.

    But it doesn't surprise me that a middle-class person born and brought up in the late Victorian/early Edwardian era would have that attitude. Ever read Enid Blyton's classist stuff? And yes, gypsies were never painted well in her books as far as I recall.
    As an adult, I finally read a couple of the Dr Doolittle books - ugh! There was an African prince presented in the first book as an idiot and then appearing in the second book, still an idiot, and a lazy good-for-nothing, the comic relief.
    And speaking of comc relief, what about the African character in one of Agatha Christie's Poirot novels? What was it, Hickory Dickory Dock? He is just there as comic relief, not even considered intelligent enough to be a potential murder suspect. I won't even start on her upper-crust anti-Semitism.

  2. Yes, Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton certainly make me wince sometimes.

    I think what struck me with this book was the contrast between the definite sympathy for Jacob (and in later books there is a lovely Chinese boy called Ping), and the utter lack of empathy for the Roma characters!