I saw a passing mention of Elizabeth Enright on a blog the other day – and since then I’ve been remembering how much I loved her books as a child. My favourites were the four Melendy books, which were published in Puffin paperback in the UK (I read Puffins voraciously in those days and they must be a subject for another posting in the future!)
I’ve always remembered the opening of The Saturdays, which reminds me a bit of the start of Little Women, in the way that you are into the story right away, with one of the main characters moaning in a jokey way:
“It would have to rain today,” said Rush, lying flat on his back in front of the fire. “On a Saturday. Certainly. Naturally. Of course. What else would you expect? Good weather is for Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday; and rain’s for Saturday and Sunday, and Christmas vacation and Easter.”
I’m cheating a bit because I had to look it up on Amazon to get the exact wording, but I remembered that “Certainly. Naturally. Of course.” And I also remembered that a bit later in that first chapter Rush starts throwing plasticine at the ceiling to turn water marks from old leaks into pictures.
The book follows the four Melendy children, Rush, Randy (short for Miranda), Mona and Oliver, as they pool their pocket money so that each of them can take it in turns to have adventures on their own on a Saturday – and later on they start having adventures together instead. Randy was probably my favourite out of the characters as the more adventurous of the two girls – though all four of them are very independent. The Melendys are motherless, from a vaguely Bohemian middle-class family, and seem to have an amazing amount of freedom to wander on their own around New York during the Second World War. The fact that it is all set in the big city made it very exciting for me to read as a child in rural England. Enright included her own line drawings, which were an added attraction – I remember loving her drawings of the stray dog which the family takes in and names Isaac.
I think I first discovered Enright’s stories after seeing Noel Streatfeild refer to her, and their books have some similarities, like the enjoyable concrete details of the clothes the children wear and the food they eat – I’ve always remembered the petits fours that Mona (or was it Randy?) is served when she takes tea with an elderly Frenchwoman on her travels, and in my imagination they must be the best cakes anyone could ever taste. The main delight, though, is the interaction between the four children and the way in which each of them is a distinct character.
This was my favourite out of the four Melendy books, but I also liked The Four-Storey Mistake, the sequel where the children move out of the city to an eccentric old house, and Then There Were Five, the third book, where they meet a neglected boy, Mark, who becomes their adopted brother. Spiderweb for Two, last in the series, wasn’t quite so good because the older children went away to boarding school – but I still enjoyed it. I also liked Thimble Summer, a slightly earlier book of hers set in the 1930s, but I never managed to get hold of her other titles as they weren’t published in Puffin. My daughter put that right years later and got hold of the two Gone-Away Lake books, after reading my battered copy of The Saturdays until it finally fell to pieces.
As a child, I never knew anything much about Enright, except that she was a friend of Noel Streatfeild’s – but now, in the age of the internet, I have looked her up on the net and discovered that she was Frank Lloyd Wright’s niece. Indeed, her whole family sounds very interesting. Here’s a link to her entry on Wikipedia. I see from this that she did also write short stories for adults, and I know she also wrote poems, as I came across a listing of one on the Harper’s site, but sadly it was only available to subscribers.
I’ve chosen a couple of the Puffin covers I remember to illustrate this posting, featuring Enright’s own drawings, but it looks from Amazon as if the Melendy books are now back in print in new editions with modern covers – for another generation to discover.