Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Monica Dickens: World’s End Series

I borrowed books in this series repeatedly as a girl. I knew exactly which shelves they were on.

If that old library was still operational, I think I could find them in an instant.

What I wasn’t so sure of, was whether I would enjoy the stories as much as an adult.

Monica Dickens’ World’s End series was just as enjoyable this time around.

There is something timeless about the way in which the Fielding family makes a home for themselves at World’s End.

It’s really rather a gentle series, but it begins with a house-fire.

“After the fire, after they had stood on the potato patch in the rain and watched the firemen finish off with axes and hoses the bits of their home that the flames had not destroyed, the Fielding children had been taken to Uncle Rudolf’s house in London.”

This is how it happens. Because there has to be circumstances in which the children had to take on the responsibility of making a home for themselves, and for their parents, at World’s End.

“Tom was not a child. The others, Carrie, Em and Michael, did not feel like children that night. They had stood shivering in the mud, with the dog and the cats, and the fish and the box of the hibernating turtle. And nobody else. Their mother had been taken away to hospital in the ambulance, because a falling beam had broken her back. Their father was sailing around the world in a homemade boat. They did not know how far he had got. He had not come home in nearly a year. Now there was no home for him to come to.”

Tom, Carrie, Em, and Michael are not of an age to be living independently, but while their mother is recovering in the hospital, and because their father is away, they are stuck with Uncle Rudolf and Aunt Valentina.

These two, deliberately childless, go half-bonkers with the children, who are going half-bonkers living with these two.

When a client gives Uncle Rodolf the old World’s End inn as part of a payment for his services, the couple is relieved to help the children move in after the summer term is over.

  “Uncle Rudolf bought them sleeping-bags and tin mugs and plates and an iron kettle and cooking pot, since at first it would be more like camping out than living in a house. Aunt Val gave them fly spray and a half-gallon bottle of Milk of Magnesia, and a lot of advice about wet feet and not letting a dog lick your face.
Nobody listened. They were not listening to any voice from the past. They had their ears pricked forward to the new adventure ahead.”

Wasn’t that just the best kind of adventure? The one ahead.

And the one without parental supervisions. These were my favourite stories.

“The end of the world… Coming out of the wood into sudden sunlight, the old road took a turn round an overgrown hedge full of wild roses, and there it was.
It was a stone house with a tiled roof dipping in the middle and curling at the edges. It was very shabby, with damp green patches on the walls, broken windows, and rooks flying out of the chimneys. The path to the door was made of great flat millstones, grown over with grass and weeds, with half a millstone for the doorstep.”

World’s End was not an instant home for the children, but it was an instant refuge. After the first night, they immediately began to settle in, and the adventures weren’t long in coming.

The first is a mission to rescue a horse that is being mistreated by a man in the neighbourhood. You might think that Tom, being the eldest, would be leading this venture, but he is looking for work.

Instead, it’s Carrie — and eventually, Michael, the youngest — who carry out this plan. And it’s significant for setting the tone of the series.

For World’s End is not only a refuge for these four children, but for many four-legged creatures who need a haven as well. By the beginning of the second volume, there are 110 legs standing (or curled up) at World’s End.

All the creatures that had been standing outside watching their home build at the beginning of the first volume are still there, and many more besides.

Minor characters include Lester, whose mother occasionally fills in when someone parent-y is required. He is a spirited young fellow. “With Lester, you were always aware of living an adventure while it was going on.” (Winter)

He respects and protects all creatures, whereas some of the children overlook, say, the eight-legged. (I might have guessed that to be Lester alongside, on this cover image, but he is described as having darker skin, so I think the artist means this to be Michael.)

And Lester’s mother, Mrs. Figg, works at a girls’ home locally, Mount Pleasant.

Which is how the children meet Liza, who was a resident there for a time, and who offers, at an opportune moment, to hold the bridle of Carrie’s horse, and eventually gets to know the children on her own terms.

She and her mother, Mrs. Zlotkin, come into the story in the summer, along with four-legged Dusty, who was badly treated while Liza was away, who finds, like many others, refuge at World’s End, for a time.

There are many recurring characters who share the Fieldings’ love of and respect for the four-legged:

  • Mr. Mismo, who knows something about living on a farm, and his wife, who bakes biscuits and bread
  • Alec Harvey, the local vet, who necessarily gets to know the children rather well (He is “as poor as they were, since he was always treating animals free for people who were even poorer”.)
  • Jan Lynch, whose animal expertise lies in another direction (She looks after the zoo animals and she and Alec work together as required.)
  • Miss Etty, whose bungalow is built around a tree and houses her birds (She says: “There’s some people hear ghosts…and some that don’t.” And she is of the former sort.)
  • The Agnews, who have moved into the big red brick house on the edge of the village for the winter, with their two perfect (meaning, perfectly annoying ) children, Victor and Jane, and their other child, Priscilla (who is damaged somehow).

But the most significant characters in these stories are the four-legged ones. They are often as engaged in the story as the children.

Carrie explains: “You can’t own an animal, you see, any more than you can own a human being, since the days of slavery. An animal may live with you, but — well, it’s like if you call a person ‘my friend’, it doesn’t mean you own them….” (Winter)

This is the spirit of the story that I responded to so wholly and completely as a young reader, and it remains intact. This idea has remained integral to my way of engaging with the world ever since. (Well, it took me some years to adopt Lester’s protective efforts on behalf of the eight-legged, but I got there.)

This element of the narrative makes it stand out in my reader’s mind, but there was many other aspects of it which were more familiar and cozy, typical of the kinds of innocent English tales that I read as a girl.

For instance, Christmas comes around in World’s End in Winter. “The tree at World’s End was a small scrub pine dug out of the back of the hill, and decorated with strings of popcorn and nuts, painted fir cones, and real candles fixed on with clothes pegs.” The grown-ups drink eggnog with rum and nutmeg and the children play games.

It’s still all very simple, at Christmas and otherwise.

And it must be, because most of the year everyone at World’s End is “rubbing along somehow without grown-ups or ever enough money or food; but with horses, cats, dogs, a goat and a sheep, chickens, ducks, rabbits, a donkey, a guineapig, and wild mice in the feed shed who made jokes about the cats.” (Spring)

But it’s the four-legged that make this series resonate so strongly with me. And all the animals are loved, but Carrie’s relationship with horses, and particularly John, is especially touching: “While John browsed on the hedge, Carrie lay on his neck like a drowned corpse, arms and legs hanging, her face buried in his aromatic mane.”

Are there books that you read, in childhood, which resonated with you so strongly that you know they are somehow at the root of “who you are” today?

10 comments to Monica Dickens: World’s End Series

  • Oh these were a great favourite of mine, I always liked them more than the Follyfoot books. I have to say I’ve never read either series as an adult, I think partly because I read them SO much as a child.

    • So thrilled that someone else recognizes this series and loved it too! I would love to re-read the Follyfoot books too (but haven’t been able to find copies locally, yet), because I’m not really sure which series I read more often.

  • I’ve never read this although I’ve heard of Monica Dickens — the way you describe these books make me itch to read them — I bet I would have loved them as a child! I’m adding them to my TBR now, just in case I can find them — some gross days, I think this series would be a perfect read…

    • You can’t ignore the itch, then: I hope you can find copies, Audra. The series really is a comforting read in some ways; in other ways, I am amazed at their taking on situations — say, matters of animal cruelty — that I’m sure I wouldn’t have dared to handle at their ages.

  • Kat

    These sound wonderful. I love Monica Dickens’s books, but I missed out on these. There were SO many children’s books I loved. The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill? That was good.

    • I think you’d love them, Kat: the Fielding gang rides horses as enthusiastically as you ride your bicycle! I recognize the cover for The Pushcart War, but I don’t think I ever actually read it; I’ll have to take a closer look at a library copy and give it a go. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • I’ve not read any of her books, but I want to, particularly Two Hands, I think, which isn’t a children’s book or in a series, but sounds lovely. Assuming it’s the same author :-)

    • It’s definitely the same author, Aarti, but I think the title is slightly different; if you check out Kat’s site (via her name, above), you can search out various posts she has had on Monica Dickens’ work over the years (not the books written for kids, but many of her works for adults): good stuff!

  • I’ve never heard of this series but they look exactly like something I would have loved (OK, they still look appealing to me right now too ;)). I NEED to check these out!

    • Heheh. Why not?! There aren’t that many series that focus on strongly, in my opinion, on what makes a home, which is something we can appreciate at all ages. And it’s ironic that this one accomplishes it without any parental presence (for the most part), without casting the kids into the typical orphan or lost-soul role.

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