Original date of publication: 1895
My edition: 2007 (Persephone)
Why I decided to read: browsing on Persephone’s website
How I acquired my copy: the Persephone bookshop, LCS London, September 2009
The Young Pretenders is the story of two children, Babs and Teddy—or, more aptly, it’s about Babs, a five-year-old living in late Victorian London. Covering the space of about a year, the story follows Babs and her adventures living in London with Uncle Charley and Aunt Eleanor, while her father and mother are in India (collectively referred to as “Father-and-Mother-in-Inja.” Babs is no ordinary child, and she certainly defies the old maxim of “children should be seen and not heard.”
Babs is a little girl who’s unprepossessing in personal experience, but more than makes up for it in personality. I don’t I’ve ever come across a more engaging character in fiction in a very long time. Babs is constantly described as “merry,” and so she is, unhampered as she is by the same kinds of cares that adults are. She doesn’t have a malicious bone in her little body, but she’s constantly being pegged by her elders as “naughty”—simply because she doesn’t know how to filter what she says! In fact, there’s a hysterically funny scene where Babs copies something that her uncle Charley says, and unintentionally offends an older matron while asking her if she was born during the reign of Alfred the Great! In fact, the whole book is filled with Babs’s social gaffes, but she makes them so innocently that you can’t help but be charmed by her. And some of her lines are priceless, as in this exchange she has with her cousin Ronald during the Queen's procession:
“Wasn’t Britannia a queen?” Babs asked.
“Oh, yes! She rules the waves, you know.”
“Well, queens is all alike,” argued Babs triumphantly, and Ronald did not feel quite equal to gainsaying this statement.
There are a lot of great characters in this book: Uncle Charley and Aunt Eleanor, who are so selfish that they don’t understand their niece and nephew; the Draconian governess, aptly named Miss Grimstone (an positively ancient at the age of about fifty), and others. Teddy is a bit disappointing as a character, but Babs’s personality quite stole the show for me, so that didn’t matter in the end. The Young Pretenders is a lovely little book about life as told from a child’s perspective; it’s accompanied by a gorgeous set of illustrations at the beginning of each chapter (done by Philip Burne Jones).
This is Persephone #73. Endpaper below: