Marjorie Phillips: a Neglected Writer

This article first appeared in Issue 12 (Winter 1989) of Souvenir, the journal of the Violet Needham Society. Marjorie Phillips died in 1998.

Ghillian Potts

It is more than thirty years since I first came across Marjorie Phillips' children's novels and loved them. Unfortunately I was, I thought, too old to admit to enjoying children's books. I used to sneak into the children's section of the local public library, hoping that no one I knew would see me and armed with the excuse that my younger sister had asked me to find her something to read. I am a poor liar, so it was fortunate that I never had to use it. But because I was so ashamed of my childishness -- I was nineteen or so at the time -- I never attempted to buy a copy of any of Marjorie Phillips' works. I have regretted this ever since, for I have had some difficulty in finding copies of her novels since I gave up my pretence of being 'grown up' and began to collect children's books openly.

There were only five published in this country. In order of publication they are: Susanna Campaigns (1951), Felicity and the Secret Papers (1952), both published by Blackie; Annabel and Bryony (1953), published by Oxford University Press; Simona's Jewel (1954) and Two of Red and Two of Blue (1955), both published by Lutterworth Press. This last I only happened upon in 1963 when I was in the children's section of the public library, getting a book for my daughter (truly!); and Felicity and the Secret Papers I read only very recently when I acquired a reader's ticket for the British Library. So I was never the age (ten up) for which the books were intended. One other book, The Midshipman and the Rajah, came out in the United States in 1963 but this I knew nothing about until I got in touch with Marjorie Phillips herself, thanks to Lutterworth who gave me her last known address.

Born in 1910, with an English father and a Welsh mother, Marjorie Phillips lived in the Wirral as a child, married, spent the war on Merseyside, and began to write down the stories she told to her children when, after the war, she and her husband bought a small hill farm in Wales.

She says: 'It was glorious but we couldn't make a decent living so we gave it up (with tears) and resumed our former occupations.' (Mr Phillips was a Works Chemist, she took a local government job in Ruthin.) They bought a bungalow in the Clwdd valley between Ruthin and Denbigh, where she still lives.

Of the five books published in Britain, three are historical. Susanna Campaigns is set in England in 1708, Simona's Jewel in the imaginary Italian duchy of Montefiore in 1515, and Two of Red and Two of Blue in a country resembling northern Italy in an unspecified late medieval or early Renaissance period. The other two are contemporary. Felicity and the Secret Papers is an adventure with industrial spies, but Annabel and Bryony is a fantasy. It bears a (very distant) likeness to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a likeness deliberately heightened, I suspect, by Oxford University Press, who asked Pauline Baynes to do the excellent illustrations.

All Marjorie Phillips' books have in common a preoccupation with honour and the niceties of conscience which Violet Needham would certainly have found sympathetic. All but Annabel and Bryony are told in the first person, so that the reader gets the heroine's or hero's soul-searchings at first hand. They also have in common a strong leaning towards hero-worship on the part of the leading character. This is interesting because in four of the books the leading character is a girl, and girls are not usually portrayed as hero-worshipping any but other girls (generally in a school story situation) in children's books of the period. Marjorie Phillips' heroines hero-worship brothers or brother substitutes, always older than themselves, though not necessarily by much. Susanna, in Susanna Campaigns, aged twelve, regards her newly discovered fourteen year old cousin Peter as a hero, with some justification as he has been an ensign in Marlborough's army and wounded at the battle of Almanza. He is big, tough, competent and decisive, while she is small, delicate and sheltered, physically and mentally.

She matches him, however, in courage and determination; Peter first recognises her mettle when she defies her father, of whom she is greatly in awe, to save Peter from an unjust punishment. Later, when Susanna is kidnapped by a pair of brutal deserters, Peter, because of his army background, is able to fool them into taking him with them. Having knocked out one of the men, he and Susanna escape. Weak with cold and hunger, Susanna refuses to give in and trudges uncomplainingly beside him until they are found by her anxious father. Susanna herself has no idea that she is brave and has the utmost admiration for her cousin's courage, initiative and kindness. He, for his part, has learnt to respect and admire his sickly little cousin.

This is the pattern in the other books, too. Simona, in Simona's Jewel, is 'twelve years and two months' and her hero, the young page Michele, is about fourteen. When, trying to escape from imprisonment, he proposes to leave her behind, Simona says:

"Michele, do you think I am afraid to remain? Do you imagine I wish to come with you because I believe it will be safer?"
"But why else?"
"Because I cannot bear to part with you! Because I will go any where and brave anything, if only I may remain in your company."

As thoroughgoing a case of hero-worship as one could wish to meet.

Simona does not care that Michele (like Peter) also has a hero, his Duke. She does not care that she is the daughter of the Prince of Valerno, and that Michele is merely a page, or that, so far as she knows, she is betrothed to Tedesco, the son of Michele's Duke of Montefiore; simply, he has been kind to her. Her parents are cold opportunists who have already tried to seize the Duke treacherously; she remarks of her father that she does not really know what he looks like as she has never dared to raise her eyes higher than his chest. Her mother has rarely spoken to her except to criticise her looks. It is small wonder that she finds Michele's small kindnesses and the friendliness of the young lords who were escorting her to Montefiore overwhelming.

Unknown to Simona, Michele is in fact the very Tedesco to whom she is betrothed; his father, wary of treachery, has made his only son promise not to reveal his true state until he is back in Montefiore. Escaping from the bandit lord who is holding them to ransom, Michele and Simona are cast away upon a tiny island, which Simona names her 'jewel'. She and Michele help each other to survive until he can mend their boat and, regretfully, they leave. Reaching Montefiore, they discover that the Duke has indeed been set upon by the Prince, Simona's father, whom he has fought and killed. Michele's uncles, left as regents for the Duke, assume that the betrothal can now he set aside. This rouses Michele to utter fury. His honour, as well as his growing affection for Simona, is threatened. He protests vigorously and is punished for rudeness but when the Duke returns he, like his son, is too honourable to set Simona aside and she may at last be happy in the kindness of her father- in-law and the love of her adored Michele.

The pattern is a little different in Felicity and the Secret Papers, for Felicity is only ten (and two months) and her hero, at the start of the book, is her eldest brother, Henry. He is twenty-six and an archaeologist who has written a best-selling book and is well on the way to fame. He never appears in the story, being away on a dig, and Felicity (Felix to her family) is quite prepared to admire her other brothers, just home from school for the summer. But she is as honest in her view of others as she is in her own actions, and Edward, Freddie and Richard do not measure up to Henry. They in turn regard her, with some reason, as over-meticulous and prissy. She is, for example, cast into an agony of conscience when she thinks she has been given too much change in the village shop. Because Felix is telling the story herself, her anxious scrupulosity is neither ridiculous nor irritating. She literally cannot lie or cheat, even by implication or default. She is capable, however, of telling the exact truth in order to mislead! At the end of the book she is trapped into a situation where to explain herself means breaking her word. She satisfies her questioner, a busybody naval officer's wife, by saying truthfully that she is sorry to have caused everyone trouble. Since she has just, at great risk to her own life, saved some secret papers for the Navy, this restraint is as heroic as her previous actions.

Her brother Henry is still her touchstone of virtue but she has another hero in Lieutenant Redwood R.N., Pinkie to his friends, who has invented some secret process which will be of use to the Navy. Felix, having accidentally discovered his hiding place for his papers, characteristically at once tells Pinkie and is sworn to secrecy. Another child, the charming but spoilt Flan, youngest daughter of the admiral under whom Pinkie is working, has also found out that there are secrets and casually remarks on this in public. Pinkie believes that Felix has told Flan, and Felix, with great self-control stops herself denying it because she knows Flan will at once become curious. The existence of the secret must be played down. It is painful to be mistrusted but in the interests of keeping her word, she is willing to be misunderstood. Later, she is able to explain in private to Pinkie and he begs her pardon. Felix accepts his apology calmly. She is entirely rational about the whole affair but attributes this to her upbringing. Her father and her brother Henry, while making some allowance for her youth and physique, have treated her in all other ways as a rational adult. As she points out, Henry has been alive sixteen years longer than she has, so it is logical that he should know more than she can as yet; and consequently it is logical for her to obey him without question even when she does not understand his reasons. (One does, however, feel that brother Henry may be in for some surprises in another ten years or maybe less.)

In Two of Red and Two of Blue, the page-boy hero, James D'Albi, similarly hero-worships his eldest brother and, later, the knight, Prince Richard, who has become his master. The two of them are involved in a plot to restore the rightful king, although James is never told exactly what is going on. The book is largely occupied with a journey Prince Richard is making to rouse the country, taking James along because he has accidentally discovered more than is safe.

Then Richard is captured by a treacherous lord and James has to go on alone. He carries the message Richard has passed on to him safely, then is sent, to his great disgust, to the safety of a lonely fortress where, until it is besieged, he is bored by Latin lessons from the old lord of the castle. Here he meets a crippled page, Philip. James, like Peter in Susanna Campaigns, admires courage in the weak. Philip arouses his respect and love for his cheerful acceptance of his disability, to the point where, believing Philip to be the lost rightful king, James is ready to give himself up to the besieging army, claim to be the king, and die for him. It is not until he has successfully escaped from the castle, got through the lines of the besiegers and reached the opposing army that he discovers that he himself is the true king.

The Midshipman and the Rajah is not so preoccupied with conscience and hero-worship as the others. It is much more of a straight adventure tale. The first person hero, Tim, is a midshipman in the 18th century British Navy who discovers to his dismay that his father, lost at sea nine years before, is now the ruler of a small Indian state and insists on Tim's presence as his heir. Tim, heartbroken at leaving the Navy, finds that duty to his father involves him in quite as much adventure as his naval duty ever did but after he has saved his own ship and his father's state from an enemy army, he is allowed to return to the Navy until he is fully grown. His father fears that all the hero-worship which Tim now inspires in his future subjects will spoil him utterly.

Annabel and Bryony is quite unlike Marjorie Phillip's other books. Not only is it the only one which is not told in the first person but it is the only fantasy. The language is unusually formal and structured, the plot is relatively weak, and there are too many explanations. This is probably because the book had to be cut down from its original hundred thousand words to eighty thousand for publication.

The heroine, Annabel, is the youngest of the four children who enter the kingdom of the Fairfolk (through a flower) and the story is told throughout from her point of view. She appears to be about ten, her sister Virginia twelve or thirteen, and their cousins Dick and Nick eleven and thirteen respectively. Their ages, or rather their sizes, are of great importance; the Fairfolk they encounter after getting into the magic kingdom equate height with rank. They are captured by the Frost Fairies, the sworn enemies of the Flower Fairies, the Fairfolk. Imprisoned with some officers of the Fairfolk army, they find themselves being treated as responsible adults because they are the same size as the officers. The higher the rank, the taller the fairy, so Captain Cranesbill takes it for granted that Nick and Virginia are his equals and that Dick is a Lieutenant while Annabel must be an Ensign. The children rise to his expectations and Nick is soon organising their escape while Annabel makes friends with the two ensigns, Berry and Cherry, and startles them by chatting familiarly to one of the Lieutenants, Bryony, who as an Enchanter outranks everyone there. He and Annabel at once become friends and Annabel begins to hero-worship him. Bryony accepts her as a pupil and rapidly comes to respect her courage during their escape and journey to the Fairfolk domain, and her lack of vanity. Moreover, Annabel is one 'who can command the Violet Messengers', mysterious entities who seem to be intended for angels. But she has to be taught self-discipline. It comes hard at times; Annabel at one point says to Bryony, 'Oh dear! They seem to expect you to be perfect!' Bryony replies, 'But of course! What else?'

Later, when Bryony goes away to the Blue Hills, the Enchanters' land, without bidding her farewell, Annabel becomes distraught and weeps and talks so frantically that the soldier fairies are about to send for a magician 'to ease her pain'. At this, Annabel forces herself to be calm. She is rewarded by Bryony's return. She and the two ensigns get into a number of scrapes; each time Annabel learns more about self-discipline until she is promoted to Lieutenant by the Queen. Then the children must go home, with a promise that they may return.

Marjorie Phillips tells me that she literally dreamed her plots, sometimes long before she told the stories to her children or wrote them down, but Annabel and Bryony was based on her childhood ideas of fairyland and told to her seven year-old daughter during the war when the child asked her what she thought Heaven was like. Believing that the child was afraid of being bombed, she told her, to comfort her, of a land where, as she put it in a recent letter,

'children were never frightened or belittled, where, although conscious of a pervading Power, they were gently taught and guided, given a serious occupation and function, allowed to take part in dangerous enterprises, surrounded at all times with a host of companions and strong leaders, and all this in a world which never ended, where there was no death, where people simply grew wiser and wiser as they grew older -- and when they did attain the Blue Hills, who knew what lay beyond?'

Her eldest grand-daughter is hoping to publish the three sequels to Annabel and Bryony which Marjorie Phillips also wrote. Marjorie says that she considers them better and more closely knit than the first book but never bothered trying to get them published after Annabel and Tawny was turned down by Oxford University Press. I can only regret her decision and that of the publisher, especially since meeting Marjorie Phillips and being allowed to read Annabel and Tawny in typescript.

Tawny is the Princess-Elect, who will some day replace the Queen, and she is under such strict discipline and is so lonely that Annabel, when the children return to the land of the Fairfolk, feels extremely sorry for her and insists on keeping her company. Unfortunately she is soon leading the Princess into mischief and even to what is regarded as High Treason when the two of them ignore the Queen's direct order so as to accompany Bryony on a dangerous mission. They prove so useful that Bryony, on their return, pleads for them. They have to suffer several miserable days under close arrest before the Queen will see them, and then Annabel takes all the blame, insisting that Tawny has been over-persuaded by her own stronger spirit and begging the Queen, not for forgiveness, but for her acceptance of Annabel's penitence and love. They are both forgiven and the book ends with Annabel looking forward to a happy time for the rest of the visit.

This novel is a lively restatement of the themes of self-discipline and the love of and admiration for the best qualities of others which is the basis of all the books which Marjorie Phillips wrote. It seems to me that it might well speak more clearly to readers now than when it was originally written.