DOUBLE NOSTALGIA AND CLASS MATTERS: 1930s FICTION ON 1980s TV (THE BOX OF DELIGHTS)

A couple of months ago I came across a blog post on a book for children which apparently connects with Harry Potter, as a possible predecessor. This is John Masefield’s 1935 novel The Box of Delights (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/nov/30/long-before-harry-potter-the-box-of-delights-remade-childrens-fantasy). I had heard, vaguely, of Masefield (1878-1967) as a distinguished poet (he was appointed Poet Laureate in 1930, a post he held until his death) but not in relation to children’s literature. It turns out that The Box of Delights and its prequel, The Midnight Folk (1927) are, if not downright classics, at least well-known among genre connoisseurs.

Masefield appears to have been a very accomplished author, unafraid of trying his hand at many different literary pursuits. He wrote poems (both short and very long), plays, and a string of novels of varied types, with 12 appearing in just 15 years (1924-39). These included social novels (The Square Peg, The Hawbucks), adventures in exploration (Sard Harker, Odtaa), sea yarns (Victorious Troy, The Bird of Dawning), and the above named children’s fantasy. I make a first stop here to consider how difficult it is to keep a clear impression of whole stretches of English Literature and of whole personal careers which were important in the past, less than one century ago. No matter how hard you study, so much escapes our attention that it is a wonder we know anything at all! I will sound terribly obvious if I say that the only way to fix our memory of authors whose names we encounter in introductions and panoramic overviews is reading their works. Masefield is now more vividly present in my mind though, as happens with author you only see in old photos, perhaps not vividly enough.

The claim that The Box of Delights must have inspired some elements in Harry Potter is only of relative interest. There is a boy hero (Kay Harker), who has a dim but cute friend (Peter Jones), but they do not form with Peter’s sister Maria–a pert little girl too fond of revolvers–a triangular friendship in the style of Harry, Ron and Hermione. Two other Jones sisters, Jemima and Susan, are present in the tale but in very minor roles. Masefield’s story has an appealing magician at its core, one Cole Hawlings who turns out to be Majorcan all-talented, wise man Ramon Llull (or Lully, 1232-1315), still alive in 1935 thanks to an elixir. You might see shades of Hawlings in Dumbledore in a scene that has to do with a phoenix, and in his avuncular behaviour towards Kay, but Tolkien’s Gandalf seems a much relevant predecessor. Likewise, villain Abner Brown is not really in the same league as Lord Voldemort, being just a jewel thief thirsting after bigger booty, namely the titular box of delights, a singular magic contraption.

Judging a book according to whether it measures up to another one with which it might not really be connected is not a good idea. Let’s then get rid of Harry Potter (but do watch the Italian fan film Voldemort: Origins of the Heir, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6SZa5U8sIg) and enjoy the ‘delights’ Masefield has to offer. These are not few but I must confess that I struggled a little bit to get into the spirit of his novel. I attributed this to the fact that The Box of Delights is actually a sequel but the information I came across regarding The Midnight Folk confirmed that this is not a story in two books but two stories sharing a set of characters. The difficulties had to do, rather, with how characters speak, using a kind of dialogue which I found odd, not only because of the peculiarities of each character (one is always using ‘what?’ at the end of his sentences) but also because Kay and the Jones children use a formal register very different from what, um, Harry Potter and colleagues use. Kay does use school slang in one sentence but his guardian quickly bans this jargon, which suggests that the children use separate idiolects, one for themselves and one for the adults. Yet, this was not exactly the case, either (as you will see).

I just needed to hear them speak to get the right delivery and tone–and luckily for me I could use for that the charming six-part BBC version (broadcast between 21 November and 24 December in 1984). YouTube and its illegal uploads have very useful applications, as you can see. As I expected, the series ironed out all my difficulties and contributed, besides, not only very good performances by young and not so young actors but also a delicious use of special effects to materialize the magic that Masefield describes in his lovely book. This includes the metamorphosis of some characters into animals (or even a tree), Kay’s multiple size changes, a talking statue, a picture that opens up for Cole to walk in, etc. Masefield was also interested in technological fantasy and so, anticipating Ian Fleming’s James Bond, he gives the villains a car that transform into a sort of helicopter (nothing to do with the Weasleys lumbering flying car, then).

The comments by other YouTube spectators led in two enticing but quite different directions. One the one hand, many celebrate their second contact with a beloved Christmas classic of their own 1980s childhood (actually a few have repeatedly seen the series in this context). Others speculate about whether a new version is (over)due because of how fast special effects age. For The Box of Delights the BBC used cutting-edge video technology which did a very good job of reproducing Masefield’s gorgeous fantasy; this is visually demanding even for the plain reader, much more so for TV before cgi (computer-generated images). I found the fx ‘delightful’ as corresponds to the ‘box of delights’ that television was in the early days of video (and that gave us masterpieces such as David Bowie’s marvellous music video for “Ashes to Ashes”, 1980, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMThz7eQ6K0).

The BBC, then, went as far as it was possible to go for TV in 1984 yet I understand those in favour of an update, for I found myself thinking as I enjoyed the enchanting 6 hours how many scenes would look today. Ironically, I might call this ‘the Harry Potter’ syndrome, as the whole movie series adapting Rowling is cutting-edge for the early 21st century–just as The Box of Delights was for 1984. There is a scene in the novel, excluded from the BBC version possibly because of how expensive it would have been, in which people seen in paintings start moving and, beyond whether Rowling did take inspiration from that or not, the Harry Potter films mirrored spot on what she meant in a way that simply could not be done for Masefield. Arguably, the same fx ageing process will eventually affect Harry Potter in thirty years time, when films will all come in virtual reality devices.

The ‘double nostalgia’ of my title, then, refers to the combined experience of reading a 1930s book and seeing its 1980s TV adaptation at the same time, taking also into account that the series approaches the book nostalgically and that we, 21st century spectators, also enjoy the special effects with nostalgia. I should think that a most spectacular case of this effect was the 1981 Granada/ITV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, a story about the nostalgia which Charles Ryder feels for the 1920s, when, famously, he met spoilt child Sebastian Flyte and his contact with the very rich Flytes changed his life for ever. The Box of Delights is a sort of junior version of that compounded nostalgia (with appealing fx). That make-believe world of Masefield, Waugh and, later, Downtown Abbey (though with more servants) convinces us that the lifestyle of the rich is the rule, not the exception, and, oddly, despite having never enjoyed it, that we still feel it is somehow ours. Seeing the orphan Kay Harker do as he pleases with his friends under the very loose guardianship of the flexible Caroline Louisa, abused Harry Potter would surely have a fit. For the main delight of The Box of Delights is how Kay plunges into adventure without a worldly care. How refreshing.

It’s not, then, just plain nostalgia (or envy) but a yearning for the same carefree world that keeps us glued to the screen (or the book pages). In this, Masefield’s world could not be further from Rowling’s, where Kay would be a Slytherin, though he’s much nicer than Malfoy. And so, although I said that I would leave Harry Potter aside, it turns out that the heptalogy is indeed linked to Masefield’s fantasy world but not at all for the reasons suggested by other authors, the occasional borrowings. Kay and Harry would, I think, like each other instantaneously, as orphans keen on magic open to whatever it may bring. Also, because Kay is no snob (the series, however, conveniently eliminates the discomfort he feels in the novel before the hostile poor children in his rural community). The school which Kay attends, and that we don’t see since he is on holiday, is possibly similar to Hogwarts, or, rather, Hogwarts is similar to the establishments that 1930s upper-class kids would patronize. Rowling does operate her own kind of nostalgia but I wonder with what aim, as Harry battles Voldemort’s upper-class sycophantic Death Eaters but in the end Malfoy and his kind are still there, and nothing much changes in the Wizarding world, despite ‘mudbloods’ like Hermione.

I have finally realized, then, that my problem with The Box of Delights is not the challenge of visualizing the magic or my bad ear for dialogue but a class matter. Leaving aside the cultural distance between 1930s England and 2010s Catalonia, where I live, I had in the end fewer problems to accept the magic than the wonder of a household in which children are so comfortably well off. Harry’s broom cupboard under the stairs and his constant ill-treatment by the awful Dursleys have complicated very much the matter of class in children’s fiction. And, yes, I had to see the BBC version to make sense of what I know understand to be Kay’s upper-class (or upper-middle-class, I’m not sure) idiolect.

You can see that I’m a bit bitter here, and this is because my working-class childhood was full of BBC series like The Box of Delights and of their promise of a carefree world that was never fulfilled. Still, this is not Masefield’s fault but my own for having been born on the wrong side of the tracks, like the majority. He did what he had to do: tell a perfect tale of Christmas joy and makes us believe in magic for as long as it lasts. No mean feat.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *