Hester Burton

This essay is the first part of an ongoing personal project, thinking about the British radical historical fiction writers of the mid twentieth century. Other essays will follow as I get round to them. It’s an open ended project. Comments are welcome.

Hester Burton’s first novel for children was barely a historical at all. The Great Gale, published in 1960, was published only seven years after the events it retells—the swamping of the east coast of the United Kingdom and the west coast of Holland with a tidal flood. But the novel  sets both the tone and the trajectory for subsequent books which mostly focus on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century (although Thomas, one of her best books, is one of three set in the seventeenth century).

Burton’s work could best be described as quiet and domestic. There are no adventures as in the work of Geoffrey Trease, Ronald Welch or Rosemary Sutcliff or indeed any of the other authors considered here. Exciting things happen, but in general they are like Mary and Mark’s experience of the Great Gale, exciting only in retrospect, or if they are exciting, as they are to young Tom Hencjman in Castor’s Away! (1962) or to ??? And ??? In When the Beacons Blazed (1978), it is because they are too immature to recognise the danger they are in.

Burton mostly paints on a very small canvas: her stories are less about those who leave home, than they are about those who remain home to cope (as in Kate Rider, 1974), or who in leaving home strive to recreate what they have lost (No Beat of Drum, 1966 or To Ravensrigg, 1976) but they are, nonetheless, gently but forcefully radical and strive to put the lie to the idea that a life lived radically is ipso facto the life of an activist.

The Great Gale (1960) tells the story of one of the villages caught in the path of the floods, that swept Norfolk (much of which, like the Netherlands, is below sea level) in 1953. It is focussed on twins, Mary and Mark. Mary considers herself a coward, Mark knows himself to be careless and disorganised. Mary will learn she is not, Mark will discover for himself—the urgent need to find a set of oars he has put away—the benefits of a place for everything, and everything in its place. When the flood arrives their parents are in town having dinner. The twins get the important possessions upstairs, and then head off to rescue two elderly neighbours. Later Mark goes out in the water with an American serviceman (there was a very large base in the area which built up strong ties with the locals of Norfolk and left an archive to the city) and rescues others, while Mary works with the other women to feed and clothe those drowned out. Her best friend ? And her mother lose their home and we see people rally around them. Although there is a hero in the book it is the American serviceman (based on Rod Cooper, who won the George Cross for his actions, the highest civilian honour in the UK), not either of the two children who are presented instead as taking their positions as adults within the community.

The story could have been written by anyone of any political persuasion, depicting the solidarity of a small village, but the radicalism of the book is in the quiet observation of social class, of the differing impact of the flood on different peoples. It shows who is and isn’t vulnerable, that the better off live on higher ground, and that some people will find it much harder to recover. When Mary and Mark leave for school at the end of the book it is with a much stronger sense of what differences of status mean in terms of opportunities and resilience.

Hester Burton’s first true historical was Castor’s Away! (1962) Like so many of Burton’s stories this is a family story (ref Attebery) of a kind popular in the contemporary fiction market of the period, and drawing on a piece of her own family history, the story of how Willam Henchman Crowfoot, a young surgeon from Beccles, found a drowned sailor on the shore after the wreck of the 28th Regiment of Foot, and detecting signs of life, refused to give up, succeeding  in resuscitating him after 14 hours.[1] Much of the story is just that of a family in the early nineteenth century going about their every day lives, although this is not strongly realised—the minutae of life is not one of Burton’s selling points. But in Edmund’s life training as a surgeon and Tom’s life as a midshipman at sea, Burton does get over the both the lived experience of experience of these professions and their horrors from modern eyes. Tom’s captain—his own uncle—of his wounds after the Battle of Trafalgar and the depiction of a wound killing through gangrene is vivid. The story however is the first foray into radical history, for the children discover that the sailor their father has saved has been sentenced to 500 strokes—a killing sentence—they conspire to assist his escape and smuggle him into the navy along with Tom, as a ship’s carpenter (in reality Burton did not know how the soldier escaped, only that he did and lived to thank her ancestor by letter.

Emerging is a narrative of radical patriotism in which the country is celebrated less through great events than the actions of its people often in defiance of its’ government.[2]

Castor’s Away! Is the first outing for what we might call Burton’s primary Concern[3], the evils of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century legal codes and judicial system. In Time of Trial (1963), The Rebel (1971), and Riders of the Storm (1972)Burton explored the repression of political debate. In Time of Trial Margaret Pargeter’s father is imprisoned for selling and writing radical works; he is presented almost as a holy innocent, whereas in The Rebel and Riders of the Storm, Stephen is a hot headed young student who—in part due to his presence in France during the revolution—grows less hot headed but no less radical. In his second (and more interesting) book, Stephen becomes a teacher in a factory school, and sees  a (perhaps a little too sympathetic) liberal manufacturer destroyed by mobs worked up in the King and Country riots that were egged on by conservatives at the end of the eighteenth century.

Burton’s depictions of radical Manchester are vivid.. Very few historical authors have set their fictions in any of the great industrial cities[4] She depicts industrial poverty and exploitation and in particular the way young children were effectively enslaved by the poor laws. In No Beat of Drum her focus is on the rural Swing riots. Again the poverty is depicted vividly, but also an explanation of the post-war depression, the consolidation of land holding and the steady impoverishment of rural labourers. In the narrative, Burton takes an approach that she uses a number of times—The Rebel and Riders of the Storm, whose main character is the protagonist of the wider story is the exception not the rule. Joe is peripheral to the action. It is his brother who starts the game that sees their foster sister Mary transported for stealing the lord’s horse (they had been daring each other to ride it and it ran away with her and was killed). It his brother who sets fire to the hay ricks and ensures they will be transported, Dick for life (he is sentenced to Death recorded, which is commuted to transportation), Joe for seven years. Seeing things through Joe’s eyes we see the labelling and dismissal of Mary as of unsound stock and the failure of a community to stick by its own. The impoverishment of lives is brought home when Joe sells his clarinet in order to give Mary something to take with her on the ship. One of the most moving portions of the book are the historical letters from the captain about the death of men on the ship on which Joe is eventually transported.

The section set in Australia is perhaps the least radical element of the book. Burton explains  the system set up by the governor  Colonel George Arthur in which—while those sentenced to life will work on the chain gangs—the transportees will get a chance at life. Joe is astonished snd bitter that he will be fed far better than he has experienced in his whole life, that ‘as despise and wretched convicts, they were given, as though by right, not only the food they had asked for in Stanton Vale but more—ten times more than they had ever dreamed of eating.’ (Chapter 8).

 Joe is assigned (sold) first to a settler who is failing and when he has made a success of the shepherd finds himself reassigned to a Major Rendell who treats him as a much valued colleague. By the end of the novel he has met Mary who has been married and widowed within a few months and settled down to work the land he has inherited (it goes without saying that the limits of the book’s radicalism ends with the white man. Although the Aborigjnals are spoken of sympathetically there is no actual objection to colonisation. Seen through Joe’s eyes and with no mitigating commentary, this fresh start for a white man emerges as an unmitigated good.

In 1969 Burton went back to the seventeenth century to produce two of her best novels (although this author is prejudiced towards that period as one of the most exciting in English history), Thomas (1969) and Kate Rider (1974) as well as Through the Fire (1969) a rather slight tale for younger readers which I will deal with towards the end of this chapter, for Burton was not a particularly good writer for the younger audience

Thomas is a story of a life lived through change, it is a domestic story and—radically—it is a story of multiple ways of loving. It takes place at the very end of the civil war. Thomas’s Royalist father is a fool. Richard’s Puritan mother and step father are unpleasant. Although the emphasis at first is on the collapse of Parliament, the main chapters of the book are about the inquities (and inequities) of the Restoration and its persecution of the Quakers. But as is now to be expected with a Burton novel this is played out in the domestic sphere.

Much of what is conveyed about the war is through the context. It is  also very realistic about the civilian experience of war.

“Richard had been born in the blackened ruin of his father’s house at Atheldene, a bare week after his father’s death in battle.” (1)

“The blare of trumpets, the distant booming of the guns, and the smell of smouldering farms were part and parcel of his early life.” (1)

And unusually this is a novel about the very end of Republican England, seeing it, as Ian Mortimer would stress, through the experience of people who do not know what is going t happen next.

“Her father–and Richard’s father–had died fighting against the last King. Their fathers’ friends had cut off the last King’s head. And that–as far as Richenda had been concerned–had been the end of England ever having kings  again. How was it even possible that King Charles II should come back from exile?” (45)

And as a boy at Oxford Richard follows the news of General Monck’s march, “Monck, surely, would call a free Parliament. Monck, surely, would restrain the pillaging of the armies. Monck would restore dignity and honour to a troubled land.” (56)

As is common in the historicals of this period as we have seen in the work of Geoffrey Trease and ?? There is a certain emphasis on children not taking after their fathers. For example, Richenda’s step father is a lovely man, “there was nothing but light and affection and the excitement of learning’ (23) he passes this love of learning to Richenda and it is also grabbed by the small, slight Thomas–a disappointment to his hey go mad Royalist father. This is then emphasised in the structure of the novel as a whole. Elsewhere I have written that many of the fictions of the English civil war are testing out ideas of loyalty (or not) to family and family principles and here Burton is one of the strongest. None of the children in this book follow the path of their birth parents.

Richard has no father and his mother does not love him, Richenda has a step father, Thomas has no mother. The first two are from Parliamentary families, Thomas from a Royalist family, but as children they all play together and when Richard is sent by a new Puritan step father to school Thomas follows him. Richard is a doer, and with little to love he ends up thrown out of university when he gets involved with a mob. Thomas is a dreamer and a scholar but he gives it all up when he and Richenda become Quakers. Thomas and Richenda marry, Richard—who for all his adventurous spirit is also intensely curious , full of questions such as “why the sunlight falling through the cracked window-pane of Wittendon church nave broke into orange and violet and green” (31) — becomes a doctor. Then they are all caught up in the plague and it is Thomas who dies.

This is a three way love story because although Richard loves Richenda, he can cope wth her marrying another as long as it is Thomas. Eventually, he, too, marries Richenda.It really is a stunning and moving book.

Kate Rider (1974) is set during the second Civil War of 1648. Whereas the first Civil War had been fought with a certain amount of courtesy between the participants, the rising of Royalists in 1648 infuriated the army who had considered the matter settled, and turned the war bitter. It was this rising that eventually led to the King’s execution. But the story is told, as is Burton’s wont, through the eyes of someone who regards the war as something which other people are engaged in. Kate Rider’s role in the war is just to sit and wait.

Kate lives on a small, rocky farm. Her father is fighting for Parliament, her older brother departs to fight for the King and Kate and her middle brother (who is apprenticed to his uncle’s boat) must help her mother survive. The first incident that warns Kate that her brother Adam is not a Parliament man is when she calls the King, “Charles Stuart” (19) Adam is furious. ‘Father hasn’t been fighting all these years to turn the King off his thrown. He’s been fighting to uphold our English law.” (19) but by the end of the book when Father is at home it’s clear that the division is wider than that.

The other problem is that Adam wants to marry a neighbour’s neice, Kate’s friend Tamsin. But Tamsin is a Royalist orphan. “Tamsin and her brother are not of us. They have been brought up in the King’s Party.” to which Adam responds, “It was you who fought against Captain Pascoe, Father’ Adam replied bluntly, “Not me”. (79) and the result is that once  (after he has retrieved her from her uncle, . 87) Adam and Tamsin do marry but they move away, to Colchester, even though Adam is the heir.

The decision to move to Colchester proves disastrous. While Kate is visiting, the Royalists take Colchester which was a Parliamentary town. In modern terms, they hold the inhabitants of the town as human shields. Fuelled by the bitterness this rebellion provokes, when the commander of the garrison, Sir Charles Lucas tries to extend the time he can stand the siege by ‘allowing’  women and children to leave, Fairfax refuses to allow them to proceed and they are trapped in no man’s land. The siege lasted ????? And at the end, as was his right, Fairfax executed Sir Charles Lucas and two other men who had broken their parole not to fight, an act which Royalists turned into an atrocity narrative.

But this is not that kind of political narrative. Burton’s emphasis, as it has always been, is on the small acts of stoicism and courage which are displayed by ordinary people in uncommon times, and it is Kate’s defiance of a soldier—dropping a jar of honey rather than handing it over—which allows Tamsin and her baby to survive. Burton is particularly good a showing both the limits on a young woman’s life, and the very real responsibilities: Kate’s story concludes with her growing up, developing her skills and finally,  when asked what kind of husband she wants, she says to her father “one like you”, and one who will not take her away from home.

The final novel Burton wrote for teens was To Ravensrigg, an essentially gothic tale of the eighteenth century which tackles the problem of a world that, by and large, thought slavery correct. It is one of her best, dense with detail, angry at the world.

At the end of the eighteenth century Emma Hesketh believes there is no slavery in England. When she helps a young black man escape through her garden she discovered this is untrue. Worse, she discovers that the one person she had thought would help her to uphold the law, the local minister, thinks only of the shame she has brought to her aunt. This is no white saviour narrative: while Emmie does assist, the young black man has already escaped when she returns with the minister.  But it is when she flirts gently with a soldier that her aunt decides to send her away. Her father, a merchant captain, lacks the capital to send her to school and in the end the decision is to take her to sea.

It is at sea that she discovers that her father is a friend of Mr. Wilberforce, MP, and at sea where she and the reader learn about the hard lives of merchant seamen. Mr. Hesketh is not a lucky captain. He hates the sea, and one voyage after another has over him further from his dream of retirement. When a storm hits, her father lashes her to the mast of the dinghy and tells her that if she survives, and not he, she is to go to Ravensrigg:”Tell them you are Mary’s child.” (C. 3, 49)

In a chapter reminiscent of the rescue in Jane Eyre, Emmie is rescued and succoured by a Vicar’s family, in mourning for the daughter who they have lost. But at the end of this time the news Emmie receives is not of an inheritance, but that the Company have no record of either her existence or her presence on the ship, and it dawns on Emmie that she is not her father’s child(Ch. 4).

The likeness to St. John Rivers continues in chapter 4: the Vicar has chosen such a lonely coastal outpost because he is a penitent. William, the eldest boy, explains to Emmie what he has seen in Jamaica.

‘Out came the dreadful tale of fogging and torture; the taking of wives from their husbands; and children from their mothers.the squalor; the degradation; the shame.’ (74)

The Vicar believes all his ill luck has been because he is being punished for the sins of slavery, and thus he is writing against the slave trade, and working for Mr. Wilberforce’s bill. Emmie’s enthusiastic assumption of success however is quickly dismissed by William: the planters and ship owners will oppose it and ‘Most ordinary decent people in England… don’t care a fig one way or the other.’ (75). This is no tale of British generosity and enthusiasm but, like The Rebel, a tale of a minority struggle against majority indifference under taken in threat and danger.

The Vicar contacts William Wilberforce, and through him James Kendall—a Quaker—comes to visit.  He is the one to hear about the story of Cato, and to tell the family and is also the one who sets out to search for Ravensrigg, and her mother’s family. When they hear that Emmie may have a grandmother alive, Kendall takes Emmie and the Vicar’s son to the north to seek them out. On the way they pass through other Meetings, and Emmie hears more of the horrors of slavery, and also discovers that the Quakers are not all warm and caring: there are rigidities among the late 18th century Quakers, as concerned with outward show of plainness as they are with the sins of the world. But in Bristol they meet ex-slave trader Harry Bright and his wife, and Emmie recognises for the first time her love for James Kendall and her increasingly conversion to the anti-slavery cause.

In Liverpool James Kendall seeks to take evidence from sailors about the slave trade, but he and William are spotted and harassed, by a man who has also seemed to recognise Emmie. Her presence risks a social scandal as well as a political one. They are chased out of town and caught by Captain Bradmore who shouts at them that they are taking the bread out of honest men’s mouths, and whips James before turning away.

Finally they make their way to Ravensrigg and discover that Emmie’s grandmother is alive. She relates the story of Mary and her lover Peter Hesketh and how they were forcibly separated and Mary married Captain Bradmore the slaver captain. And it is this that allows Burton to rush the 16 year old Emmie into marriage, because until she does, she is the property of her father.

By this time the reader will realise that Quakers appear disproportionately in the work of Burton. At this stage I do not know if Burton was herself a Quaker, only that she was a friend of Elfrida Vipont (acknowledgement in Through the Fire). The Friends appear in four books: Thomas, Through the Fire, Riders of the Storm, and To Ravensrigg. In all of them they are presented as the Quietest but activist Friends of the eighteenth century.

The best known of the books is Thomas, a book told almost entirely from the point of view of Richard. This is a book about contrasting childhoods and Thomas the quiet, the gentle is the sharp contrast to Richard the rambunctious. But in this it is a distortion of early Friends. Friends’ silent meetings were not silent because they were peaceable—that was to come later and was in part to do with signalling that they would not join the Fifth Monarchist rebellion against the crown. Friends’ meetings were silent to wait on the word of God, which they they distributed with passion, volume and not a little staged outrage in the streets of England’s cities. In historical reality, it is Richard who would have made the more typical  seventeenth century Friend, a ,an of action turned to contemplation. The results of this mischaracterisation which is very common to historical fiction (see Mendlesohn, 2013, pp.??) is that the Quakers in Through the Fire seem unjustly persecuted when they are imprisoned for meeting without a license: this narrative is very strong in Quaker hagiography but rather elides the issue that Quakers were tax refusers, deliberately broke the law, and were a general all round nuisance to the powers that be. Ironically it undermines the importance of what Quakers stood for and achieved in the seventeenth century (the right of a jury to disregard the direction of a judge being the most important) when they are set up as holy saints.

Both Riders of the Storm and To Ravensrigg are set in the late eighteenth century. In the first, Stephen from The Rebel finds himself a teacher in a small factory school in Manchester run by a liberal factory owner, and befriended by Quakers. In The second Emmie, as already discussed, is shipwrecked and falls with an Anglican minister and then his friends, Quaker abolitionists. In both books the Quakers as a group are presented as the classic quiet but concerned friends, actively involved in radical movements despite the threats they face. In To Ravensrigg,  James Kendall is beaten by those whose livelihood he threatens. But unlike in other novels in which Quakers appear, these are not saints: the quakers of Bristol intimidate Emmie with their disapproval of her dress (p 198), and Burton makes it clear that this focus—which will be challenged in the later nineteenth century-is itself a form of vanity.

Burton’s last two books, Tim at the Fur Fort (1977) and When the Beacons Blazed (1978) are like Through the Fire (1969) for much younger readers. By the late 1970s and early 1980s historical fiction for teens, which very much held to the attitudes of the juveniles of an earlier period—work experience mostly the focus, romance tacked on at the end (as in all of Burton’s books for teens)—was under pressure. As is very common as a genre fades out, the market shifted to younger readers. Burton simply was not particularly good at this. All three of these books lack the subtlety and the depth of her teen work, but more interesting is that the the final two lack the radicalism. Tim at the Fur Fort is a story of a young boy finding his place among the fur traders of North America. It’s a good career book, and Burton does slip in a little sympathy for the poor beavers, but that is about it. While When the Beacons Blazed, is an almost classically Second Elizabethan Age piece of patriotism about Kit Basset and Nick Hawkins (son of John) who sail out to take a barrel of gunpowder to Drake’s ship during the battle against the Armada. It is a very thin and very conventional Henty-ish text with which to finish her career.

[1] Recent medical research suggests that very low temperatures can, under certain circumstances, preserve life. See also events at ? civil war battle where a very cold night is said to have done the same.

[2] is this the introduction?

[3] Burton was not a Quaker but she was a friend of the Quaker author Elfrida Vipont.

[4] is this true?