Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Woods of Windri by Violet Needham

I meant (but forgot, and it's in Devon) to scan an image from this book to show you – I used to love the illustrations so. I managed to find the original cover on the website of the Violet Needham Society, so I’m afraid that will have to suffice for now. I was pleased, though, to see that it’s still available on Amazon.

I first read Violet Needham while staying with my grandmother and aunt – according to my mother all the books were hers and my aunt had ruthlessly appropriated them. As a schoolgirl, my mother adapted The Changeling of Monte Lucio and the class at her  convent school performed it, with her in the starring role as the unpopular Changeling, spitting cherry stones out of the window while her “brother” lay on his death bed. You can tell that high drama was involved and as the next generation along, I adored them too.  My favourite was The Horn of Merlyns, one of my two most wanted books ever – and oh bliss! the wonderful Girls Gone By has reprinted it recently and my copy is on the shelf by my bed, waiting to be a Christmas read. I have a Boxing Day appointment with it, a box of chocolates and a warm dog.

Back to The Woods of Windri, and more high drama. Roger, Lord of Windri has two daughters and a properly feudal attitude to their disposition. When he receives an offer for the hand of Phillippa, the elder, from the Count of Monte Lucio, he is pleased that an alliance will be politically advantageous, even though Phillippa is so unhappy about marriage to a man she has never met that she declares she will enter a nunnery. Her younger sister Magdalen is unhappy too, but it doesn’t stop her going out in the woods where she meets a runaway boy. Apparently a foundling, he has escaped from the Abbey where he was destined to be a monk, and where he was ill-treated. Fortunately Magdalen’s father takes a liking to the boy, whose name is Theodore Felix Amadeus, and decides to employ him as a page – there is no love lost between Roger and the Abbot and besides, there are some doubts about young Theo’s origins – there’s the little matter of a distinctive birthmark, for a start. With the arrival of Phillippa’s suitor, the Count - that's him you can see on the cover - events are put in train which will demand that Theo risks his life and faces his greatest enemy. With a little help from Magdalen, of course.

Revisiting this book after some 40 years (it was a regular read until my mid-teens) , I was fascinated to see what a cavalier approach Needham had to the Catholic Church – there is scarcely a good cleric to be seen. She has a robust attitude, too, to her villains, cheerfully consigning one to be “put to the question”. I don’t mean to imply that authors in the 1940s should be mealy-mouthed about such things – these books are supposed to be set in a period when nasty things happened – but just to note that it feels rather surprising in these days of political correctness in children’s books. Heaven forbid that we should upset the little dears, or mention anything which might cause a sleepless moment. Actually, I do remember a growing impression that Needham's Stormy Petrel series was maybe just a trifle right-wing, although I can’t recall that it spoilt my enjoyment much.

One of the fascinations about Violet Needham’s books was that they didn’t feel entirely English, and this seems to be borne out by her life – her mother was a Dutch heiress and she spent some time in Europe. Her books combine the exoticism of mid-European or Ruritanian locations with a Baden-Powell quality to her young heroes which brings them firmly back onto familiar territory, melodrama notwithstanding. Yes, it’s dated and no, I probably wouldn’t give it to a young reader, without a caveat, but oh, it was fun to explore the Woods of Windri again.


  1. I was totally confused by the first Violet Needham book I read. It seemed to be set in the past but suddenly the characters were driving motor cars and using the telephone!. I've read most of them, including The Horn of Merlyns but haven't kept any. I think perhaps you have to have loved them as a child. My favourite was probably The Changeling of Monte Lucio. I love Joyce Bruce's illustrations for the books.

    Hope your Boxing Day dream comes true; it sounds lovely.

  2. I've never heard of Violet Needham but I luuuurv high drama and people being put to the question! I'm so pleased you're bringing this to my attention. :D

  3. I loved Violet Needham's books as a child and have collected most of them over the years. I recently bought some of the GGB editions of the later ones. Apparently she wrote The Black Riders some time before WWI but it wasn't published till much later, which explains the timing. They deal quite starkly with love and loyalty and betrayal, don't they. The Emerald Crown is always the book I read on Christmas Day, have done for years; this year I'll have to sneak it in while cooking for 17!

  4. My first, and only, Needham was Changeling--I read it too young, and found it very distrubing! Someday I'll have to try more of her...

  5. Callmemadam, the illustrations are lovely, so atmospheric. I remember the oddity of the cars and telephones too!

    Jenny, do look out for them!

    Nicola, I haven't read The Emerald Crown - shall do so.

    Charlotte, worth a try, at least...

  6. This was my only Violet Needham book (that I can recall) and it was close to my favourite book of all as a child and young teen. Fifty plus years later, and I still love it - plenty of intrigue, action and romance set in an interesting and slightly exotic location, somewhere in Europe, but where? I guess you have to enjoy children's books, with their limitations, to stay with it as an adult, but i do!

    1. It's so atmospheric, isn't it! Coming back to it as an adult was a slightly curious but enjoyable experience, and I could still see why I'd adored it so much.

      I think children's books are often much more interesting than adults' books, so "limitations" isn't really a word I'd choose. In these days of crossover fiction it's often the writers for young adults who explore the really difficult themes while telling a good story at the same time. And one of the most sublime books I know is L.M. Boston's The River at Green Knowe.

  7. The exchange rate is horrendous, but today I found an affordable copy of Richard and the Golden Horseshoe, so soon I will have all of the Stormy Petrel books! I read some as a child and loved them, collected more for my daughter in the 70's, and re-read them, and now in my own senior years I've finally collected the last two, The Emerald Crown and this one. Such a pleasure to read still. I include in this collection The Changeling of Monte Lucio and The Woods of Windri, and have left a note for my heirs warning them that these books, battered though some may be, are sought after!