Inspirations: Aunt Mable

Aunt Mable started out life as a joke, a portrait of an ugly woman whom nobody had seen for years. This portrait would always appear in some irrelevant incident, as a kind of Easter Egg. In a previous draft of Eboracvm she fell down the stairs and broke. In The Rebels she was found hanging upside down, exactly like the old bat she is. Her earliest appearance was my first attempt at writing Cythry, a book called Satan Claws. She dislodged herself from over the fireplace in an effort to throw in some foreshadowing, a portent of doom. I never had any intention of having her actually appear. She was to remain only as a portrait, a mystery to the reader with only vague hand waves as to who she was. That is no longer the case.

Last year I found myself watching a repeat of the Five Children & It TV adaptation on the iPlayer- For those too young to remember or who weren’t living in Britain before the turn of the century, the BBC used to make these TV serials of classic and modern children’s books, usually of about four or five half hour episodes each, and show them late on a Sunday afternoon/early evening. They did things like the Chronicles of Narnia, The Magicians House, Just William, Children of The New Forest, Stig Of The Dump… They did the sequel to Five Children as well, The Phoenix and The Carpet. I also have a recollection of one weird one about an Australian boy and some chocolate. Sometimes they also did them during the week as well, but that was nearly always modern books. The advent of digital television and twenty four hour children’s TV killed them off, as well as their weekday counterparts, but the BBC were always good at making them, always. They were some of the best, though sadly forgotten, pieces of television that were being made at the time. I had vague memories of Five Children, it must have been a memory of a repeat because I am far too young to remember the original airing, and felt the need to take a look.

Jeremy Corbyn unveils his new Shadow Cabinet. (Courtesy of the BBC)

Watching it through I was struck by a thought: ‘This family gets along far too well.’ There was something slightly off about the relationship the children had with each other. It was nowhere near realistic. They were too friendly and too well behaved. I then started seriously thinking about similar set ups, Swallows and Amazons, The Famous Five, The Railway Children… That whole branch of inter-war, Edwardian/Post Edwardian classic children’s literature where a family go off and have adventures together. Most of the time there are four of them. Any number above four will likely result in one of them being a baby (Five Children) or a dog (the Famous Five.) The eldest child is usually a boy and he’s all intelligent and mature, taking charge and demonstrating good leadership skills- The exception to this latter rule is The Railway Children, where there are also only three children instead of the usual four. The second boy is always a bit of a duffer and much less grown up than his brother, and the other two are girls, one of whom will be a perfect example of feminine gender roles and act as surrogate mother to the others. They all get along ‘frightfully well,’ arguments never being anything serious, and they always manage to run rings around the adults in charge. They win every time.

I suppose that they were written this way with the intention of setting an example, as a way of telling children how they should behave rather than as anything realistic, but that does also mean they comes off as being somewhat false. Real families don’t get along that well. They fight, they bicker, they argue, they wind each other up day and night. Most of the time they want to kill each other. And whilst I’m not saying that two boys and two girls is an impossible family, the eldest always being a boy is a bit of a stretch, especially so one who is more mature and sensible than the others. Adults will, most of the time, get the upper hand over the children as well. Triumph, in the real world, these children would frequently not. My point is that the representation of families in these books and their subsequent adaptations is far from a realistic representation. It’s as much of a fantasy as the adventures themselves.

Naturally the cogs of my mid began to whir and ‘would it be possible to write something similar, but with a realistic family?’ was the end thought. It occurred to me that I already had the perfect group of children sitting in my literary canon- The Morfasson boys. I came up with them when writing my first attempt (the lamentable Under The Fuhrer’s Control) and if I remember correctly the inspiration behind their introduction was that scene where Julie Andrews first enters the house in The Sound Of Music. Edward, the eldest of the eight, was the only one who had been given any kind of proper characterisation, even if he was an odious oik. He and Seamus would later get proper roundings in The Rebels, where both are middle aged men. Seamus is there the dirty old uncle, who in the end goes on the run for perjury, and Edward is a master manipulator, pulling various strings in order to teach youngest brother, Harry, a lesson.

So I had my children, though Harry, canonically not appearing until everyone is grown up, couldn’t be included. Knowing that the children were all born around the 1930s meant that my time period was restricted. Edward would have to be in his early teens so that meant I was limited to the Second World War, where I first introduced everyone. That also gave me a chance to bring in another staple of old Children’s literature, the absentee parent. My existing timeline had their Father, Monty, off doing important war work and whilst the original plan had his children with him I was starting to feel this was a stupid idea. In reality the children would all be kept well away from the war and they’d be stuck where they were safest, which in my case is their half ruined family seat in the Welsh mountains. This also meant that, in place of Harry, I could include Seb, whose father (though he doesn’t know it) is imprisoned somewhere in the Pyrenees (the subject of which I cover in next years Charlie Fuller.) Alright, the youngest two are still infants at the start of the war but it still left me with a nice subversion of six boys instead of the usual two boys and two girls.

They would bicker, they would argue. They would chase each other around the castle and threaten each other with beatings. That on its own wasn’t good enough, however. They needed a plot, something to rally around and unite them. It needed to be something serious but not so serious as to be deadly. The thing about all these old books was that the peril was always lighter than it was imagined to be. I needed a light but still frightening peril.

I found the answer hanging on the walls, Aunt Mable. What if, I questioned, at the start of the war she suddenly appeared out of the fog? There was my plot- Mable turns up and the children, appalled, attempt to get rid of her. It was a simple enough idea, simple enough to sit alongside the likes of Five Children or the Famous Five… But I could do a lot with it, especially with regards to subverting the ideas so ingrained by that old literature.

The Trunchbull (courtesy of Thebookseller.com/Illustration by Quentin Blake)

First up was all the things I could do with Mable. The only vile people in the old books were criminals and by the end they’d always be taken away to prison, but nastiness and criminality aren’t mutually exclusive. You can have one without the other. So Mable would be nasty, but she wouldn’t be criminal (at least by the standards of the time.) If she were criminal it would be too easy to get rid of her and solve the plot. In her crafting I made her a villainess Roald Dahl would be proud of, a bit Trunchbull, which I thinks help to keep things more contemporaneous than if I had just gone ahead and written something Famous Fiveesque. She prowls about, she forces the children to go to church (the horror!) and she inflicts sometimes brutal punishments on the children which no modern adult would get away with.

Take, for instance, her over the top reaction to Ti’s lack of obedience in the first story, The Coming of Aunt Mable. She threatens to remove his toys for the remainder of the war and in the second story, Aunt Mable Takes Over, she carries out that threat, even going so far as to throw his teddy bear out of the window when he refuses to let go of it. In Escape from Aunt Mable she beats Seamus so badly that he needs stitches in his head.

As a contrast, however, the children aren’t little darlings either. Those kids in the old books, though they got into mischief, were always impeccably well behaved. They hardly ever set foot out of line and if they did it was always justified. Forget that. Along with the idea that they aren’t going to get along, the Morfasson boys are going to cause mayhem wherever they go. The incident with Seamus mentioned in the above paragraph, for example, is caused by Seamus doing a lot of unnecessary swearing. The boys are disobedient, chafing at rules and regulations, and the younger ones throw more than a few strops. Edward, in an attempt to defend his brother, physically attacks Mable in the second story and gets a beating back in return. They aren’t angels and most adults will probably be able to sympathise with Mable’s reason for punishing the children, though not necessarily the punishments themselves.

The old books would have had the children triumph over Mable, of course. She’d be sent packing at Monty’s return, which would naturally happen at the end. I didn’t want that. For what I was after that was too unrealistic. I didn’t specifically want Mable to triumph but nor could I have the children claiming victory over her. Hence, they are always thwarted. The closest sympathetic adult they have is Mrs Violent, Seb’s mum, and though she isn’t Mable’s greatest fan she’s only got so much sympathy she can give. She knows there’s nothing she can do about Mable other than stand her ground as far as Seb is concerned. She knows better than anyone that the boys need keeping in check and she can completely see where Mable is coming from. There may even be a part of her that thinks Mable will actually do the boys some good. This serves to act as another foil for the boys. Their father, Monty, has very similar feelings after he finally turns up at the end of Escape. He curbs some of Mable’s more aggressive ideas (like sending the children away to boarding school) but like Mrs Violent he knows there’s not much he can do to dislodge Mable from under the table. To the horror of the children they even get along! The boys end up in a true no win situation.

Also subverting the traditions of the old style is Edward. Though he acts like the elder boys of old at only ten years he’s nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is. He tries to act all mature but he can be just as irresponsible and childish than all the others. He’s not yet the master manipulator he later becomes and so his plans to oust Mable, though his brothers go along with them, often fall flat. His brothers look to him for guidance, but his only interest in leading them is getting rid of Mable and serving himself. Gradually he has to turn into the master manipulator but there is a lot he needs to learn first. It’s called Character development, something which Enid Blyton never got the hang of.

Gwrych Castle (Image from Castlewales.com)

Aunt Mable is an idea that has mileage and if you read the stories you’ll find them very, very funny. You can sometimes see the influences in the stories, the E Nesbit bits and you can definitely see a touch of the Trunchbull in Aunt Mable. I can well imagine it having been one of those Sunday afternoon serials, perhaps with Maggie Smith as Aunt Mable. There’s a castle called Gwrych, near Abergele, which would be the perfect exterior for Cythry- It’s in the wrong place and there are too many trees around but that doesn’t matter too much. Adaptations always make changes.

I have several plans for going forwards. So far it has been about the children trying to get rid of Mable but now that their Father has returned they’re going to have to learn to live with her. The stories can become a bit more general, more about the children causing mischief and making Mable’s life a misery as a result. The upcoming fifth is called Aunt Mable and the Evacuees and involves exactly that, evacuees. Another idea involves a Nazi saboteur and one, which I really, really like, harks back to the original inspiration behind the children.

Originally stories like Five Children were serialised in magazines and they were very episodic as a result. With Mable that works very well and it means I have more scope to develop it as I go, let it grow organically. Once I’m done, and I already have the very last scene in mind, I might think about cleaning them up some more and going down the proper publishing route.

I’d strongly urge you to take ten minutes out of your day, give them a read and maybe a share. As you can probably insinuate from the above, I’m very proud of these stories and I want to get them as much attention as possible. Keep your eyes peeled for number five as well, it is the funniest so far.

The stories, in order, are:

  1. The Coming of Aunt Mable
  2. Aunt Mable Takes Over
  3. Aunt Mable and the School Mistress
  4. Escape from Aunt Mable
  5. Aunt Mable and the Evacuees
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