Malcolm Saville

Leonard Malcolm Saville (1901-1982) was a popular author who wrote over ninety books for children. He was a contemporary of Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton and is most commonly remembered for his Lone Pine adventure series. Malcolm Saville wrote a mixture of fiction and non-fiction placing particular emphasis on real places, wildlife, mystery and family values; all these meant a great deal to him.

In 1994 a group of enthusiasts set up a Malcolm Saville Society which has now enrolled over 1,000 members – www.witchend.com.

There are two aspects of Malcolm Saville’s writing that have determined his popularity over the years since he wrote his first book for children, Mystery at Witchend, which was published in 1943. Without exception his novels incorporate strong characterisation and an even stronger sense of place. So firstly, what is the significance of ‘place’?

Although many of his early readers had not visited Shropshire prior to reading Mystery at Witchend, Saville had the ability to transfer the real atmosphere of the Shropshire hill country onto the page in a way that brought the feeling of the hills alive.

In an article for Signal (a children’s book industry journal) in September 1970, Rosemary Manning highlighted the importance of ‘place’ in Malcolm Saville’s writing. “In his novels, his acute feeling for atmosphere and for the peculiar quality of different places – an essence he can capture in a paragraph – makes the settings far more than a backcloth to the events. A village, a line of hills, or a solitary tower have the status almost of a character in the book.”

Part of his success at capturing a true feeling of ‘place’ can be accounted for by the fact that he visited all the places he wrote about. Sometimes he was inspired to visit a new area by newspaper reports and over the years he built up a file of cuttings to serve as a source of inspiration. On other occasions it was the chance recommendation of a friend (like his first introduction to Shropshire) that prompted a visit. Regardless of the influence, the common factor with all the locations he explored was that not only did he study maps and read the local guidebooks but he also set about the task of learning as much as possible of the area’s history. Only when he had grasped the flavour of a particular location did he set about putting pen to paper.

An important feature of his books was the inclusion of a sketch map, credited as having been drawn by one of the fictional child characters but in fact drawn (in most early cases) with considerable skill by Malcolm Saville’s brother David who was an art teacher. This, more than anything, complemented his written prose by confirming a visual image in the young reader’s mind that it was actually possible for the fictional places to exist. Those readers who took the trouble to compare the sketch maps with an Ordnance Survey map of the area were struck by the accuracy which, in other writers’ books, they could only wish to be true.

How many children finish reading a book and, as the cover closes, want to visit or be a part of the scenery they have just read about? With Malcolm Saville’s fiction, if they spotted the clues in his maps and introduction, there was little reason why they should not visit the areas they had so enjoyed reading about.  In an article for Books for your Children (October 1973) Saville made this observation about his readers: “They appreciate that I do my homework…”.

This technique for creating atmosphere and a strong, accurate sense of ‘place’ was something that Saville was able to use to great effect and became a hallmark of his skill in writing for children. In later years children would write to him and comment on their own explorations in Shropshire, Sussex and the other counties he went on to write about. “It is just like you said…” they would write in praise.

Returning to the other key ingredient of Malcolm Saville’s writing, that of characterisation, it is appropriate to use the Lone Pine adventures as an example of his craftsmanship in managing characterisation in this way.

The Lone Pine series, featuring nine main characters, had by far the most number of children in the ‘group’ compared with his later Michael and Mary, Jillies, Buckingham, Brown, Nettleford, Susan and Bill and Marston Baines series of adventures. This in itself was a calculated risk, enabling him to appeal to the widest audience possible, by providing a diverse array of characters for children to relate to. I refer to this as a ‘calculated risk’, because his plots could easily have been diluted through introducing too many characters, a mistake happily avoided by rarely featuring all the characters in the same story. In this way he was able to use the ‘group or club series’ to hold his readers’ loyalty.  Each reader, just like in reality, would relate best to a certain character and tolerate the others only as being friends of the ‘favourite’. The reader’s interest is then maintained in the series even when the ‘favourite’ plays a lesser part or is absent altogether, as he or she comes to identify the whole group as friends and in this way, maintains an interest in their exploits.

In, The Bright Face of Danger (1986), Margery Fisher explains. “Malcolm Saville defined his characters firmly at the outset, realising that the main attraction of a series is the fact that readers get to know them as friends, identifying with one or other of the group according to age or temperament.” So how did Saville manage to achieve this so successfully?

The Lone Pine characters come from a diverse cross-section of different backgrounds, be it working or middle class, one parent or two parent family, town or country background. They also each have different temperaments, skills and weaknesses which they bring to the group. It was this diversity which helped young readers relate to his writing as they weren’t all cast from the same mould.

All too often, adults like to prescribe to children what they should be reading.  But Malcolm Saville did not agree with this philosophy of dictation, preferring to give children what he knew they would like to read. From an adult perspective, many of the fictional characters do fit into a category of “too good to be true”:  the unrelenting loyalty to one another, the convenient pairing off into romantic couples, the ability to find adventure without adult influence and ultimately to see that adventure through to completion. However, from a child’s perspective, these were perfect ingredients.

The Lone Pine series offered a hint of romance which was gradually developed throughout the series. Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig in You’re a Brick, Angela!  A New Look at Girls’ Fiction from 1939-1975 (1976) suggested, “Like many other children’s authors he has put himself in a false position by confirming a group of adolescents in a setting which will allow of very little acknowledgement of the peculiar strains and tensions of adolescence. The children are paired off, they are aware of ‘special’ attitudes to one another, and this is conveyed by a coyness, a weakening, sanctimonious note in the writing.” But that was exactly what most of his readers wanted. They liked the security of the ‘couples’ and were happy to see the relationships develop to their natural finale in Home to Witchend with the engagement of the older children. It was this feature, handled in such a way as to be romantic enough to satisfy the young female readers and yet not so romantic that it put boys off reading the series, that was one of his successes in balancing what his readers wanted and enjoyed reading.

A criticism that could be levelled at Saville is that some of his characters are one-dimensional stereotypes. This is not to do him an injustice, however, for I refer here to the all-important relaxed parents who conveniently disappear until the end of the adventure and the criminal types who can be identified by their slack dress sense or scarred features. These are aspects which are essential for this genre of adventure story and give the young reader a sense of security in their predictability while in no way detracting from the enjoyment or suspense of the mystery.

Whether these assorted criticisms can be justified depends on which school of thought – child or adult – one subscribes to.  But let us not forget, at the end of the day Saville was writing children’s stories to be enjoyed and appreciated by children and in this he succeeded. If adults liked them as well then that was a bonus.

If there is any doubt about the success of his characterisation one only has to realise that today, many adults who read his books as children, have more detailed and fond recollections of his fictional characters than of some of their real-life and long-since forgotten contemporaries; an extraordinary accolade to his writing skill.

Ultimately Malcolm Saville’s success in the category of characterisation can be attributed to the fact that he wrote about credible characters who often made mistakes or errors of judgement but who had the determination to prevail regardless. The children in the stories often had arguments or misunderstandings and tempers were allowed to fly but loyalty to each other prevailed throughout. It was this realism tinted with the idealism of loyalty forever that was so appealing to Saville’s audience and this is what he gave them through all his fictional writing for children regardless of the particular adventure series. When mixed, as he did so well, with the atmosphere of ‘place’ Saville had a formidable writing formula which was able to survive the passage of time.

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