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Game girl

Through the Magic Door: Ursula Moray Williams, Gobbolino and the

Little Wooden Horse Colin Davison

NORTHUMBRIA PRESS, 260PP, £18.99 ■Tablet bookshop price £17.10 Tel 01420 592974


uthor of 68 children’s books, Ursula Moray Williams died in 2006 aged 95.

Educated at home, hunting as a teenager, marrying a husband who expected to be called “Sir” by his sons, the undisputed queen bee of the Worcestershire village of Beckford where she lived for most of her life. Girl Guide leader, magistrate and chairman of the juvenile bench, she lived with all the confidence of an

upper-middle-class lady of her time, born into a number of truths so given that they need never be questioned. A strong belief in the Church of England; a strict view of social class (her sons when young were only allowed to consort with one other family in the village); an unwavering allegiance to the Conservative Party plus some of the conventionally racist assumptions of her time – Williams had them all. She was also, as this lovingly compiled and sympathetically told biography makes abundantly clear, kind and generous, extraordinarily creative, extremely hard- working and resolutely uncomplaining.

from personal hygiene, to Harold’s horror. The episode of Martin Luther King’s fountain pen demonstrates Bainbridge’s oblique method. The man who watched him die keeps it as a relic. After Rose and Harold have driven away, Rose, asked about her pen, replies: “It was my father’s. It was presented to him when he retired from the Corn Exchange, in recognition of his allegiance to commerce.” Later she wraps the pen in newspaper and hurls it into the undergrowth. Presumably this is King’s pen, but it is never made explicit: this will intrigue or irritate, according to taste. What does this tell us about Rose? That she is a petty thief; that she has no sense of historical resonance (“The only past that interests her is her own,” Harold remarks); that she is ungrateful; that her awful childhood has made her crave things? Or maybe it is her hated father’s pen and she simply doesn’t wish to be reminded of him. As foreseen, we end up at the Ambassador Hotel for a denouement heavily shadowed throughout the book. Only at the last did I falter, feeling there should be something more. I’m not sure that The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress is really Bainbridge’s “last masterpiece” as the publishers claim, but this bizarre and baffling book, so brilliantly poised between horror and laughter, is a macabre little gem. Suzi Feay

Ursula Moray Williams: ‘utterly determined and strong-minded’

Forming an alliance with Kaye Webb, the inspired head of Puffin Books, the two mounted regular Young Puffineers parties, often in Williams’ large and beautifully kept garden. These sound as much fun as they were sometimes hair-raising. Games included “Burnt mouth, burnt fingers”, involving the transportation of a potato protected only by a paper napkin straight from the oven into a young partygoer’s mouth. Williams’ own children shared in this general toughness, sent away on adventure holidays at an early age, with one of them once returning to find his parents puzzled to see him again, as they had forgotten he was due back. All four sons in later life – although not always their future wives – agreed that the constant treats, trips and sense of bustle in the home more than compensated for the occasionally over-dominating behaviour of parents both utterly determined and strong-minded. Williams’ writing career started at the

age of 20. Her clearly written fantasy stories, always aimed at a pre-adolescent audience, combined style, pace and humour with an occasional touch of melancholy in

the tradition of Hans Andersen. This is particularly true of her best-known title The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse, chosen by Time magazine as one of its Books for the Year 1939, along with Finnegans Wake, The Grapes of Wrath and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Williams’ tale describes how the initially

“gay fellow” of the title encounters numerous setbacks before finally arriving back with the toymaker who first brought him to life. Strongly influenced by Pinocchio, a favourite with Williams and her identical twin sister when they were young, this story has entranced children ever since it was published. Almost as successful, her Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat cleverly reverses the usual fairy-tale arrangement, with the kitten in question so longing to be good that he is finally abandoned by his evil family as a hopeless case. Once again, a story where a hero sticks it out before achieving happiness enshrined the author’s own belief in the possibility of ultimate contentment, but only if it is worked for first. Williams’ own life also had its reversals. Aged 38 she was blinded in one eye. The message she afterwards received from her aged publisher was little help: “I am extremely sorry to hear that you have lost an eye at tennis. This is quite unusual.” But she continued to think of others, regularly presenting the lavatory attendants at Paddington Station with home-made posies on her trips to London. Taking in her parents when they were aged and infirm persuaded her that she would never expect the same sacrifice from her children. When her own time came, by now blind as well as deaf, she booked herself into Mutual Household, an association offering private rooms and communal facilities in country houses. But, game to the last, she still took part in seven flights in her son Andrew’s microlight aircraft, the last when she was aged 91. Her biographer, Colin Davison, has done her proud in this delightful biography, which includes various examples of Williams’ enchanting illustrations that accompanied so many of her stories. Nicholas Tucker

18 June 2011 | THE TABLET | 23

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