You’d think that Roald Dahl was the only author of children’s books for those living through the latter half of the 20th century, but the collections of curated folk tales by Ruth Manning-Sanders and illustrated by Robin Jacques were every bit as vital for those in the know. Though a noted poet and novelist in her own right, her collections of folk stories and fairytales from around the world were as focused on where they came from as the characters in them, making the world seem stuffed with possibilities and rife with terrible creatures.
Born in 1886 in Swansea, Wales, though relocating at a very early age to Cheshire, England, Ruth Manning was obsessed with the written word even as a child, writing plays with her two elder sisters. Her unitarian upbringing may well have ultimately been the biggest influence on her writing style – clear, moral dilemmas with obvious forks in the road leading to happy ever-afters or doom (they always took the first route). She was awarded a scholarship to Manchester University and graduated from English literature and Shakespearian studies, later moving to Devon where she met and married the artist, George Sanders – they both took each other’s names.
You might think that this is Edwardian froth at its most gruesome but the life the pair led was far from normal. Though ultimately being based in Land’s End, Cornwall, they roamed the land in a horse-drawn caravan, as George, a writer and painter, opted to join the circus. Circus Rosaire travelled the country with Ruth occasionally riding elephants but seemingly more than anything, just soaking up the experience to inspire their own work. George’s art – sketches and oil paintings of still life studies and romantic countryside scenes – was pleasant enough. His writing was also in the minor leagues but of more interest – his three novels and several plays, published between 1929 and 1932, show a far less gentle side to his imagination. Of particular note are ‘Drum and Monkey’ and ‘The Third Day’, not just for their contents but also their stunning cover art. George died in 1953 aged 72, in a bizarre incident which resulted in him being catapulted from his electric wheelchair.
Ruth’s life was less dramatic. She wrote throughout the period she and George were married, her poetry in particular finding an audience, not least with Virginia Woolf who released two of her collections. The relationship didn’t end on the highest of notes, with Woolf rejecting a long-form poem with the comment, “a long poem by a short fat poetess” (it later won the Blindman Poetry Prize in 1926). Her prose, though rarely struggling to find a publisher, now looks particularly dated, focusing on fairly threat-light adventures of largely female characters in rural surroundings which were doubtless influenced by her nomadic existence pre-War.
Her switch to prose was largely due to economic factors. A record of her entire bibliography continues to expand as there are still books turning up in collections of dusty hardbacks which have been hitherto unrecorded. Books written for children are a common theme, as are those which feature the circus in some capacity, in particular, ‘Circus Boy’ (1960) and the non-fiction history book, ‘The English Circus’ (1952). The need for a more reliable income was a result of Ruth and George’s young family, with Joan being born in 1913 and David, two years later.
Despite their children, the pair continued to travel the country widely and employed a governess to look after and teach them. This seems odd – Ruth was living her life as an eternally-wide-eyed child, marvelling at the world around her with the somewhat rose-tinted spectacles of her own novel’s protagonists, yet didn’t feel the need to bring her own young family into this world. They were certainly encouraged to appreciate their surroundings by their guardian but often with their parents absent. In one aspect at least, it did Joan no harm, becoming an artist of such skill that she had to lie about her age in order for exhibitions to accept her work (which they did readily when told she was 18, not 12). By the age of 14, she had become the youngest-ever artist to have their work displayed at the Royal Academy. The whole family seemed to exist in a bubble of Victorian nirvana, regarding each day as an adventure and encouraging others to escape from a world which was changing considerably to both their novels and paintings.
George’s death was something of a wake-up call to both wife and daughter. Neither had successfully changed their styles in either art or literature, and their popularity was seriously declining. Remarkably, their joint salvation came in the guise of perpetuating an even older art form – folk stories and fairytales. Perhaps their individual dogged refusal to abandon their delight in cosy whimsy and old-fashioned ideals pushed them in this direction; maybe it was their religious upbringing; possibly even a way to recycle old material in a time-efficient but lucrative way. Make no mistake, though, this was labour-intensive. The stories they curated were far from obvious Brothers Grimm material and genuinely came from the pages of forgotten lore from around the world…from exactly where is difficult to determine.
Ruth and Joan both took the proposition very seriously, to the extent that Joan taught herself French, German and Russian (and most likely at least one Scandinavian language) in order to widen the scope for material. They amassed an enviable and important collection of folk stories most likely doomed to fade into obscurity. There were volumes from Serbia, Greece, the Caucasus, stained periodicals of gipsy lore, and countries which had long since changed their names. As many were in their native language as were translations by forgotten reverends and avid collectors. I had long thought that Manning-Sanders wrote many tales and only passed themselves off as traditional, but it seems this is not the case, though it must be stressed that the success of Manning-Sanders’ collections is equally down to her ability to retell these stories in such an effortless, beguiling way.
The missing piece of the puzzle was Robin Jacques. Born in London in 1920, Jacques was, remarkably, completely self-taught as an artist, using anatomy books as guides for his sketches. Two years older than his sister, the actress Hattie Jacques, he joined the Royal Engineers after leaving school, serving in three different countries during World War II before being invalided out. His imaginative, figurative drawings caught the eye of the editor of The Strand, who offered Jacques the role of art editor. The Strand was an ideal spot for Jacques, a magazine whose track record of giving writers an opportunity to have their work read by a large audience for the first time, was cultured enough yet rebellious enough to really develop their style. Perhaps inevitably, this also led to him producing work for Punch, as well as Radio Times and The Listener.
Ironically, Jacques found the style he had adopted at an early stage rather stifling and bemoaned boxing himself into a corner. His sketches are highly-detailed, created using a stippling technique that added such depth to both the characters and backgrounds of his work that they didn’t just drag you in not just metaphorically but literally, forcing you to you closer to inspect the detail. Having begun to illustrate children’s books as an outlet for his vivid imagination, his partnership with Manning-Sanders lasted for over 20 years and proved the perfect foil.
Manning-Sanders’ simply-written and immediate prose in combination with Jacque’s vivid depiction of creatures and individuals with completely unique appearances and traits didn’t so much take you back to the time the stories were originally written but brought that period forward to you. Despite tales of kings, queens, peasants and native settlers, what should have been ridiculously archaic felt prescient, the allegories being relatable and the imagery practically allowing you to feel the breath of those written about on your face. Those with evil intentions always received their comeuppance in her books but you were left feeling that those who did survive were still out there in lands you’d never heard of – wizards still in their towers; lonely monsters still spending their days in remote forests; figures still patrolling crossroads, waiting to lead you astray.
Published by Methuen, Ruth Manning-Sanders and Robin Jacques collaborated on 22 anthologies, all prefixed ‘A Book of…’, the first being ‘A Book of Giants’, released in the UK in 1962. Leading you in gently with her own telling of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, we are introduced to a host of other giants, from Cornwall to Romania, all given such strong personalities that we begin not to simply consider their size but what they wear; where they live; how they live. The giants are presented as real – idiots maybe, but still something which people like you and me had to contend with in the past. The black and white imagery (the covers were inked in colour) showed them as truly gigantic, the detail giving the scale a bizarre credence.
The books came at the rate of one a year – from giants to dwarfs; witches to wizards; charms and changelings to ogres and trolls, the possibilities seemed limitless, the tales never less than expertly told, beautifully illustrated and, for the most part, completely unknown, beyond academics and scholars. There were volumes which stood out particularly – ‘A Book of Ghosts and Goblins’, published in 1968, contained the Estonian tale, ‘The Goblins at the Bath House’, something of a breakout one-hit wonder for the author, appearing on a spoken-word LP narrated by Vincent Price. Released by Caedmon in 1978, Ruth took the A-side with ‘The Calamander Chest’, a short story by Joseph Payne Brennan originally published in ‘Weird Tales’ takes the flipside.
It took until 1975 until ‘A Book of Monsters’ was released, a collection both author and illustrator must have been champing at the bit to put together. “There is something rather pathetic about monsters,” Manning-Sanders writes in her introduction. The 12 stories feature some of the most fantastical characters in the series, indeed any series of fairytale collections: Monster Copper Forehead from South Russia; Ubir, a famished female monster galloping after children in Tartary; the skin-shedding Prince Lindworm of Sweden. Some were misunderstood; some were simply violent gluttons, but all were far more than names – they had backgrounds and idiosyncrasies which gave the reader – often, of course, a child, a reason to invest their own imaginations and not forget the characters once the nightlight had been switched off.
The final release by the pair was 1984’s ‘A Book of Magic Horses’, though this signalled neither the end of the writer nor the illustrator’s work. Manning-Sanders continued to release children’s books and collections of folk tales up to 1988, the year of her death at the tremendous age of 102, only slightly more than the number of books she had published. Joan’s artwork never really came back into vogue and she passed away in 2002, though appreciation of her work has increased since (doesn’t it always?). Jacques continued to illustrate both children’s and adult’s books, up to his death aged 75 in 1995. Though his sister’s career overshadowed his own career in the mainstream, Jacque’s work has been seen, unwittingly, by millions, his Sherlock Holmes illustrations adorning the walls of Baker Street tube station.
- A Book of Giants, 1962
- A Book of Dwarfs, 1963
- A Book of Dragons, 1964
- A Book of Witches, 1965
- A Book of Wizards, 1966
- A Book of Mermaids, 1967
- A Book of Ghosts and Goblins, 1968
- A Book of Princes and Princesses, 1969
- A Book of Devils and Demons, 1970
- A Book of Charms and Changelings, 1971
- A Book of Ogres and Trolls, 1972
- A Book of Sorcerers and Spells, 1973
- A Book of Magic Animals, 1974
- A Book of Monsters, 1975
- A Book of Enchantments and Curses, 1976
- A Book of Kings and Queens, 1977
- A Book of Marvels and Magic, 1978
- A Book of Spooks and Spectres, 1979
- A Book of Cats and Creatures, 1981
- A Book of Heroes and Heroines, 1982
- A Book of Magic Adventures, 1983
- A Book of Magic Horses, 1984