Eleanor Farjeon (1881 - 1965)

Born: 1881 | Died: 1965 | Grave: H 104 | Category: Literature | Tags: Cat Stevens, Children’s Books, Edward Thomas, Songs, Theatre, Writer

Author and poet, writer of children’s books and, with her brother Herbert, of musical plays and revues. Her poetry included Morning has broken, now a popular hymn. She won many literary awards.  Eleanor began her life in the Victorian Age and ended it in the fast-changing age of the 1960s. Educated at home, she spent much of her time in the attic and describes her family and childhood in the autobiographical novel, A Nursery in the Nineties(1935). Eleanor lived in many ways a modern life, willing to break convention and follow her own integrity, while retaining a child-like quality of innocence and joie de vivre which brought both children and adults to her feet. Eleanor adored children but had none of her own.

           Eleanor Farjeon’s gravestone

 

Personal History

Eleanor Farjeon, known to the family as ‘Nellie’, was born in February 1881 at 13 Adelaide Road . She is described as being small, shy and quiet, and she wore glasses from the age of eight. Her parents had an obvious influence on her career as a writer and poet. Her father, Benjamin Leopold Farjeon, was a successful writer and novelist and is described as being very high spirited and enthusiastic. Maggie (Jefferson) Farjeon, her mother, was the daughter of a well known American actor (his father and grandfather were also actors). Nellie’s two younger brothers, Joseph and Herbert Farjeon, also became writers. The eldest, Harry Farjeon, was a composer, and it was through her creative relationship with Harry that her early work came about. Through her brothers Eleanor was to meet and become friends with many of the great literary figures of her day, including D. H. Lawrence, Walter de la Mare and Robert Frost, and World War I poet Edward Thomas.

Early years and the influence of her family

In her childhood Eleanor was “home schooled” and she loved books, perhaps her frequent headaches and colds were contributed to by the dust of the “little bookroom” – an attic space piled with books. She was encouraged by her father to write from the age of five, and she wrote her first complete poem at the age of 6 – a valentine to a little boy her own age called Button (Wyndham Albery). He was called this because he swallowed a button as an infant and the name stuck!

She produced the lyrics for an operetta composed by her brother Harry when she was eighteen. She had a vigorous imaginary life, especially with Harry. Though very shy and emotionally immature into her thirties, she was well acquainted with a circle of talented artists, writers and musicians. She was an energetic, witty, kind and happy person – describing herself as “a cheerful suet pudding” – and she knew how to reach children with her writing.

Much of Eleanor’s inspiration came from her childhood and from family holidays. A holiday in France in 1907 inspired her to create a story of a troubadour, later refashioned as the wandering minstrel in her most famous book, Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard. During World War I, the family moved to Sussex where the landscape, villages and local traditions were to have a profound effect upon her later writing. It was in Sussex that the Martin Pippin stories were eventually located.

From a very early age Eleanor had been a voracious reader, with an insatiable appetite for words. Like all true readers, as she grew older she did not relinquish those earlier much-loved books, but went on absorbing more and more, apparently at random. She read greedily with an undisciplined mind that never learnt how to know all of one thing while it gleaned smatterings of a thousand others.

“When I crept out of the Little Bookroom with smarting eyes, no wonder that its mottled gold-dust still danced in my brain, its silver cobwebs still clung to the corners of my mind. No wonder that many years later when I came to write books myself, they were a muddle of fiction and fact and fantasy and truth. I have never quite succeeded in distinguishing one from the other.”

She never married, but had a contented thirty year relationship with an English teacher, George Earle (known as “Pod”); and, after his death in 1949, a long friendship with actor Denys Blakelock, who wrote a memoir Portrait of a Farjeon (1966). She died at her home at 20 Perrins Walk.

Her work as writer, poet and playwright

Eleanor was a regular contributor to Punch Magazine (1914-17); wrote verse (as Tomfool) for the Daily Herald, London (1917-30); and was also a staff member of Time and Tide in the 20’s. Her plays included The Glass Slipper (1944) and The Silver Curlew (1949), both based on well known fairytales. She is probably best known for her children’s verse and stories: though most volumes are out of print, Between the Earth and Sun: Poems will soon be republished. She wrote the words of the hymn “Morning has Broken” (1931), which was turned into a well known popular song by Cat Stevens and is also available as a picture book. The prestigious Eleanor Farjeon Award for children’s literature is presented annually in her memory by a society of publishers – the Children’s Book Circle.

The stories and other writings of Eleanor Farjeon for children include: 30 works of fiction (most were collections of stories), three plays based on fairy tales, 33 publications of verse, and eight other books. Writings for adults included 11 novels, as well as plays, verse, and biography. One critic wrote: “Joy is the keynote of all her stories, her poems and her music”. She was very well known in her day, but is now rather forgotten. Much of her work may be hard to find, although a number of her collections of poems and stories have recently been reprinted.

Literary and Artistic Links

Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard by Eleanor Farjeon (1921)

A Nursery in the Nineties by Eleanor Farjeon (1935)

The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon (1955)

The Children’s Bells by Eleanor Farjeon (OUP, 1957)

Edward Thomas: the Last Four Years – Book One of the Memoirs of Eleanor Farjeon (1958)

Eleanor Farjeon’s “Room with a View” – an essay by Frances Claire Sayers in The Horn Book (the Journal of American Children’s libraries), Oct 1956 – see http://www.eldrbarry.net/rabb/farj/room.htm

Sources

Morning has Broken: a biography of Eleanor Farjeon by Annabel Farjeon (niece) (Julia MacRae, 1986)

Eleanor Farjeon: A Story Writer – see http://www.eldrbarry.net/rabb/farj/farj.htm

Article on Annabel Farjeon’s biography of her aunt – Ruth Gorb, Ham & High, 25 April 1986

Further Resources

Eleanor Farjeon’s Books ~ Stories ~ Verses ~ Plays

Cat Stevens singing “Morning has broken” from his album Teaser and the Firecat (Island records, 1971) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0TInLOJuUM

 

This page was last updated on April 30th, 2012.

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