Anne here, and the 'old friends' I am talking about are books. In the last few weeks I've been catching up with some books I haven't read since I was a teenager. Not that they're "young adult" books — no, they're written for adults, sure enough.
We moved a lot when I was a kid, and public libraries and school libraries kept me occupied and happy, and my imagination well-fed all through my childhood and adolescence. But the trouble with moving, and borrowing all the time from libraries is that it's very easy to lose track of authors and books that you loved. So rediscovering a beloved author after many years is a joy.
The author in this particular instance is Madeleine Brent, and I remember the first book of 'hers' I read — and the library in which I found it. I say 'hers' in inverted commas because a few years ago I learned she was a man, an Englishman called Peter O'Donnell. And recently I discovered he was also responsible for the creation of Modesty Blaise — which was originally a comic strip, and later a popular series of novels and a less successful movie. Modesty Blaise was described on wikipedia as "a female action hero/undercover trouble-shooter/enforcer."
I never read the Modesty Blaise books, but I adored the Madeleine Brent books, and in the last few months have been buying them up and rereading them — with, I have to say, as much enjoyment as when I first read them as an adolescent. And although I've often said that Georgette Heyer was a huge influence on my writing, I think I also need to add Madeleine Brent to that list.
I suppose you'd describe the books as Victorian era romantic adventure, with the emphasis on adventure, rather than romance. All the stories are narrated from the point of view of a young English woman, sometimes a child, orphaned and growing up in a culture not her own — Afghanistan, Tibet, China, Mexico, the Australian desert. The heroine usually has more affinity with the exotic local culture than England, and through her eyes we learn much about the local culture.
For instance in Merlin's Keep (which won the 1978 Romantic Novel of the Year Award in England) the heroine, Jani, has been raised by an old British soldier she calls Sembur. They live in a tiny village in the Himalayas, and Jani, like all children caught between two cultures understands and accepts both points of view. For instance:
Chela died when I was in my tenth year. Sembur said it was something called a busted appendix, but what had really happened was that a demon had entered her and made her belly swell up very painfully until her spirit was driven out and she died.
Sembur earns a precarious living — and a certain acceptance as a foreigner— by using his good English rifle to protect the trade caravans from marauding Khamba tribesmen. In Jani's words. . .
They had become used to travelling in safety under Sembur's protection, and this was why they were never unfriendly to us as foreigners for long, even when the omens said we brought bad fortune. They knew well enough that Sembur had brought good fortune with the caravans. They also knew that in his last life he had been a snow leopard, which was why the Khambas were so afraid of him.
Sembur himself did not know he had once been a snow leopard, and I never told him because I knew it would make him cross.
Madeleine Brent heroines are always admirable — courageous, tenacious, loyal and modest, though by no means perfect. They've usually been raised by some English person with strict moral codes, a missionary or an old soldier who was displaced by warfare or disaster of some kind in the far flung outposts of the British Empire or beyond.
Reading his obituaries — Peter O'Donnell died in 2010, aged 90 — his Madeleine Brent books are barely given a mention, possibly because as "gothic romances" they are judged to be some kind of lightweight fluff, mere women's stories. I don't know. I think they're wonderful.
The Guardian obituary described his creation of the Modesty Blaise character thus: She "was inspired by an incident during O'Donnell's second world war service in northern Persia. Camped at a Royal Signal Corps observation post, he and his comrades spied a young girl, obviously a refugee, who eyed them warily but accepted some food. Before she left, O'Donnell gave her two tins of stew and showed her how to use a tin opener. "To this day, I can see in my mind's eye the smile she gave us and the sight of that upright little figure walking like a princess as she moved away from us on those brave, skinny legs," he recalled."
To me, he might have been describing any one of his Madeleine Brent heroines.
So that's one of my old book friends. Do you have any beloved old books from your past? Have you read Madeleine Brent, or any of the Modesty Blaise books? What were you reading when you were sixteen?