A Stranger at Green Knowe
The magical house of Green Knowe greets all strangers, human or otherwise
With three TV channels and no internet, we were raised by Puffins. For long stretches of our lives reading was the best (and, sometimes, the only) way to pass the time. In X Libris we return to the books that made us and analyse what makes them great.
A Stranger at Green Knowe (Lucy M. Boston, Faber & Faber, 1961)
Chinese refugee Ping has been invited by Mrs Oldknow to stay at her mediaeval manor house Green Knowe, where he discovers that Hanno, a gorilla who has escaped from Regent’s Park Zoo, is living in a bamboo thicket in the grounds. Ping tries to hide Hanno, but with the whole country searching for him, it is only a matter of time before the gorilla is discovered and tragedy comes to Green Knowe.
Lucy M. Boston wrote a whole series of books set around the house of Green Knowe, an eleventh century manor house in the village of Penny Soaky in deepest, leafiest, eiderdowniest southern England.
The books usually focus on the history of the house and the Oldknow family who have lived in it down the centuries, often in a fantastical or magical realist way, with timeslips and ghosts and occasionally an intrusion by older and more sinister English magicks.
A Stranger at Green Knowe is different in that it deals with the present only, and a protagonist who is not of the Oldknow family (although the archetypal grandmother, Mrs Oldknow, treats him as one, of course).
Subscribe to The Metropolitan to get essays like this deposited for free into your inbox every Saturday morning, like a gorilla crouching in the shrubbery.
One might, at first, feel a little queasy at the obvious equation of a Chinese refugee and an escaped gorilla, both lost in comfortable old England. Boston is using that alienation, of course. Ping first sees Hanno on a trip to a zoo, and is alive to the parallels with his own condition as Boston and the readers are:
“Before he had been displaced he had watched monkeys in his own forest… speckled with sun and shade, their bright eyes inquisitive and carefree. Certainly it had never occurred to him that an animal could be stripped of everything that went with it, of which its instincts were an inseparable part, and that you could have just its little body in a space of nothingness. As if looking at that told you anything but the nature of sorrow, which you knew anyway.”
What draws him to Hanno is the gorilla’s strength: his physical resistance and his insistent individuality. Boston is a terrific writer and both Ping and Hanno are drawn purposefully, as distinct personalities, never reduced to stereotypes. Ping’s background as the child of a Chinese timber merchant in Burma is given in careful detail, although from a small child’s view, so that we never quite know who kills his parents or the full bureaucratic apparatus that has landed him in the ‘International Relief Society’s Intermediate Hostel for Displaced Children’.
Hanno the gorilla is characterised just as determinedly. Indeed, the first part of the book is entirely an account of the life of a gorilla troupe in the African jungle and the events leading up to Hanno’s capture, all told from the gorilla’s point of view.
Boston gives a vivid picture of the environment but also of the complex social structures and behaviour of gorillas, all the more extraordinary not just for being extremely well written but because the study of gorillas was still very much a work in progress when this book was written. The first proper studies had been published in the ‘20s and ‘30s; Dian Fossey’s groundbreaking work was still to come.
There’s a disparity between the popular image of gorillas as rampaging, savage brutes and the reality of secretive, highly social great apes. Boston isn’t above using this disparity to make a point about xenophobia and bigotry, but she’s careful enough to place that all on Hanno and none of it on Ping.
The book is still, fundamentally, a call for tolerance, but it is wider than just anti-racist. It places the welcoming of a refugee within a wider culture that is just welcoming, full stop.
A Stranger at Green Knowe depicts almost no antagonistic racism aimed at Ping. There is an awful lot of patronising, beginning with a simpering middle class lady who thrusts a peach into his hand in a display of magnanimity. Ping immediately gives the peach to Hanno, sealing their friendship.
The book is vague about whether the ‘stranger’ of the title is Ping or Hanno (or perhaps someone or something else). What matters is that they are at Green Knowe. They are welcome there, because everyone is.
Green Knowe was built by a stranger - a Norman invader - and through its history has welcomed strangers of every kind. It is an image of an England that is comfortable in its motley history but also its global Imperial reach, which has brought both Ping and Hanno into the folding bosom of the Home Counties.
It is also an England that hasn’t quite yet felt the full impact of Empire’s collapse. It was written a decade after the Windrush generation arrived and a decade before the expulsion of Asians from Uganda and the war in Bangladesh. This is not yet a country of large scale immigration, and tolerance for refugees comes easy.
Children of any provenance are essentially out-of-place great apes: they find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, trying to understand a foreign country with strange traditions. Their senses are rawer and less scrutable, their desires fiercer and less conditional, their world more constrained and vivid. The parallel that Boston wants us to draw is not between refugees and gorillas, but between ourselves - young readers - and gorillas. A child is an immigrant, a wild thing in captivity, a stranger.
But Green Knowe is a safe space, and not just for refugees and gorillas. Just as Mrs Oldknow is the archetypal grandmother, Green Knowe is the archetypal grandparent’s house. My grandmother was fairly archetypal herself and lived in a rambling sixteenth century cottage, all low ceilings and odd nooks. Part of what I loved about Stranger at Green Knowe as a child was not just the promise of a gorilla among the raspberry canes, but the idea of the house itself as an adventure.
A grandparent’s house is a magical space to a child. It is not home, where there are chores and school runs and inscrutable adult rituals; but it is not entirely unfamiliar either. It is full of wonder, but is family; it is full of adventure, but is safe.
Like so many other wondrous houses in children’s literature - the Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Tove Jansson’s Moominhouse, or even Arthur’s Camelot - Green Knowe is the site of both the welcome home and the siege perilous, where adventures begin and end. It is a space of and for imagination, of escape and escapism. It is, in a way, a book.
For more on the role of the natural world in fiction for children:
Isn’t it a whoop of gorillas?