Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh

In the Nineties there were three new writers for children whose work I adored. At the start of that decade, when i was in my early twenties, there was Janni Howker, who i hope to read again some day soon. Then, at the end of the decade there was David Almond, whose fantasy stories for grown-ups I already knew well. But in the middle of the nineties there was Sylvia Waugh, who wrote a series of books about The Mennyms, who were an extended family of life-sized dolls who lived in seclusion somewhere in the north east. They did everything they could to hide their oddity and vulnerability from the rest of the world and the books had a strange, compelling magic to them.

The first in the series was my favourite, though I read them all, as they came out, one after the next and they make a fine sequence. There is a pleasing old-fashionedness about the whole thing, partly due to the nature of the members of this eccentric family itself - who have been frozen at the same age for fully forty years, living behind closed curtains and caught up in rituals and routines they have gradually evolved to occupy their endless lives. Also, there was an old-fashionedness to the style of the books, as well. While in the 1990s there was a vogue for finding the 'cutting edge' in children's fiction (godless Narnia's, dysfunctional families, teenagers on heroin) it was as if Waugh deliberately wrote a gentler saga that harkened back to a golden era populated by Mary Norton's 'Borrowers' or P L Travers' 'Mary Poppins.'

Not that any of those books - nor the Mennyms - are without their dangers and darkness. But all of the disturbing stuff is commuted through a fantasy that has a lot to with a very British tradition of whimsy that goes right back to Edith Nesbit and beyond. However, you just have to remember Nesbit's own talking life-sized human dolls - the Ugly-Wuglies in her 'Enchanted Castle' - to appreciate how close to the macabre the Mennyms' warm, familial, cosy fantasy often strays.

I was thrilled and disturbed and heartened and uplifted by this novel all over again. For me, just like back in 1995, the most vivid scenes are when Soobie - the blue-faced teenaged Mennym runs out in to the night, vowing to find his sister, Appleby, who has run away from home. Being outside for extended periods is, of course dangerous to the Mennyms - exposure to human sight and also to the elements are both potentially lethal.

We don't know why Soobie has a blue face. Perhaps his original 'maker' - Kate, the owner of the house where the Mennyms hide away - simply ran out of material. Either way, he's blue and conspicuous, but he stays out until Appleby is found.

There's so much that is fiercely, quietly brave in the Mennyms' stories. I also love Miss Quigley, who doggedly pretends she lives round the corner, in a house of her own. But when she waves goodbye after visiting for tea she quietly lets herself back indoors and goes to sit alone in a cupboard under the stairs for another week. Everyone in the family has tacitly agreed for all these years to indulge her in this sad pretence.

This book seems to come out of a different era. It did back then in 1995, and now it feels ever further ago. If you can get hold of a copy, and its sequels, do so. There's a loose, magical thread sticking out of this series - one that connects us with something marvellous in the long history of children's fiction. Something, perhaps, that can still counter all the crass Happy meal crap that the bookshops are currently keen to push.

If you can, grab that loose thread and ravel it back up, please!


  1. I was given a copy of this as a kid - by my godmother, I think - and for some reason I never got around to it (perhaps because someone else had recommended it). But for years I wondered, well, what is the secret of the Mennyms? Who was that coming up the stairs in that faintly eerie cover?

    I did read it in the end - but I gave up halfway through, I'm embarrassed to say. It seemed *too* forlorn for me (the bit about Miss Quigley that you mention above!). Perhaps I should give it another go...

    1. The difference between 'full on' and 'forlorn' in Children's fiction of the 1990s. That's a thesis!

      You should definitely read the series, Nick - at least the first one. I promise you will love it.

  2. These are superb books. I picked one up - the 3rd - in a secondhandshop on holiday last year, and have wound back to the start and moved forward. What a weird world of domestic normality, although pretending. What about our own rituals and devotions, what we hide from, what we love. I wonder how they'd seem to other beings.

  3. These are such wonderful books. An Waughs is such a clever writer. The plot flows without much fanfare, a brave saga that maybe nowadays would have it more diffficult to be published, because there's so much firework in every book nowadays (or so much naff plots).

  4. I've not long been diagnosed autistic, and the Mennyms world feels like my world. I could happily live under some stairs myself. :(

  5. I bought these books for my children and ended up reading them myself. I adored them and am tempted to re-read them now. They would be a wonderful escape from our present reality here in the U.S.