Pippa Goodhart began working in the book world with a Saturday job at Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge while she was still at school. She has now written over 80 books for children, ranging from picture books such as Three Little Ghosties to early readers, and novels such as Raven Boy. She has also written one short adult novel. Her picture book You Choose has just won an award from York Libraries for being 'The Best Picture Book Ever'! Pippa lives in Grantchester in a house designed by her husband, and she happily mixes writing with teaching those who want to write. Here she discusses Kathleen Hale's A Slender Reputation.
Pippa Goodhart on A Slender Reputation by Kathleen Hale
A Slender Reputation by Kathleen Hale is an exciting autobiography because Kathleen Hale was an exciting woman. She was insightful, brave and funny, and living through 'interesting times'. She was, of course, a wonderful artist, and a hero to a children's writer such as me because she developed children's picture books into the rich freedoms, fun and colour with her Orlando The Marmalade Cat books. But she is also, perhaps surprisingly, an exceptionally brilliant writer.
Kathleen lived between the years 1898 and 2000, through two World Wars and huge social change. Brought up to stuffy conventionality (in spite of a father dying young and mad from venereal disease), she kicked against the expectations for her own life, heading for art school and becoming a land girl in the First World War. She then worked for Augustus John, mixing with a wealth of artists and others (amazing that she knew both Brunel's and Oscar Wilde's sons), struggling as an impoverished artist, marrying the son of the man she was really in love with, setting-up home in the country and bringing up two boys through the next World War, all whilst developing her art. Throughout, she went on being experimental and brave in both her artwork and her personal life, in truly exciting and amusing ways.
But it is the way in which she tells her tales that really excites me the most. She observes the world acutely, and passes those observations on so very skilfully. Never indulging in overworked expression, she uses language in fresh ways that are just so exactly right that reading them is a delight...
'There was a pile of soot in the back yard which felt like black velvet.'
Her white kid gloves 'had the coolness and texture of button mushrooms'.
'... the liquid cooing of wood pigeons'.
'... bluminous gardens...'
'... a line of scented poplars which in the spring bore long fat crimson catkins like little ropes of chenille'.
A horse was 'as plump and glossy as a Greek olive'.
Seen from above, 'carthorses in the street below look like carrots, ears where the root would be and the tail as the leafy end'.
Her memory is astonishing and true. Big things are forgotten, but small hurts and delights fully remembered. Remembering when she was about nine, and talking of her mother, Kathleen writes, 'When I was full of ideas or schemes or was making up stories, she always pricked the bubble with some irrelevant remark like "Pass the marmalade", and I still remember how snubbed I felt.'
When lack of money after Father died forced them to take lodgers, the feeling of inferiority at having to take those lodgers 'still lurks in the dungeon of my being'. Isn't that wonderful - the dungeon of my being?
But she also observes society most acutely. I was struck with her telling of how a parade of ex-servicemen at the end of the First World War provoked laughter in the crowd because some of the men were missing limbs. Nice to feel that we've become more humane on some fronts.
Being of a nosy disposition, I loved reading of the family, friends and places included in the many Orlando books, adding another layer of fun to be found in them.
Kathleen Hale wrote A Slender Reputation in her nineties, when cataracts seemed to be putting an end to her painting and drawing. But the book ends with the cataract operations which reveal the world in full colour again, and we leave Kathleen greatly looking forward to getting back to her beloved painting.
She sums herself up thus:
I think of two ways that human beings live their lives. Those who are averse to forcing issues and would rather wait philosophically for what fate has in store for them, with its measures of anguish and joy, receive the fruit of experience when it is ripe for picking. But I am one of those who impatiently shake the metaphysical apple tree, eager for change and adventure, often bringing down immature fruit and trampling on some with my hasty feet.
I am so very glad that she shook that tree, and then generously shared the fruit that fell with the rest of us more timid mortals!
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]