This is the second in a series of republished articles of mine on writers. This one is about the wonderful, influential yet shamefully neglected British children’s author, Nicholas Stuart Gray, whose lively, magical fantasy novels and short stories kept me spellbound as a child, and whose work I still love. This article is particularly focussed on my favourite novel of his, The Stone Cage, which is an absolutely wonderful riff on the fairytale of Rapunzel through the eyes of the witch’s familiars, a cat named Tomlyn and a raven named Marshall.
The article was first published under the title ‘A Cat’s Life’ in the lovely British books magazine Slightly Foxed in their summer 2008 edition.
Nicholas Stuart Gray
by Sophie Masson
If you were a bookworm as a child, your memories are measured not only in family or school or public events, but in stories you read. You remember vividly the smell, the touch, the sight of certain books. You clearly remember picking them up from the shelf—an ordinary act—and then the extraordinary happening, as you open the book and fall straight into another world. The pure pleasure of it, the immediate liberation. For me, who loved fairytales and fantasy, who longed to go through the looking-glass, the wardrobe, stepping through the borders into another world, where anything might happen, it was also a blessed escape from the confusing, disturbing and tumultuous family dramas that dominated my childhood. In those stories of other worlds, I found pleasure and consolation, transformation and possibility. And I found my own calling as a writer.
It can be dangerous revisiting those important, beloved stories, as an adult, for it’s not just a book that might be found wanting, but memory itself. And yet, when it works, when the barriers of time dissolve before the sheer magic of a real storyteller, it is probably the most thrilling experience a reader can have.
The Stone Cage, by Nicholas Stuart Gray, was one of those books that I remember clearly not only because they were so good to read, but because they were also so influential on me as a developing writer. Picking it up again after a gap of more than three decades was one of those magical moments that made me rediscover not only my childhood self, but also the reason why the book stands out in my memory. For from the very first sentence, you are plunged into a briskly unsentimental fairytale world, tartly guided by Tomlyn the witch’s cat:
Ever heard of a ‘dog’s life’? I’ll bet you have. Everyone has. Means a low, miserable kind of life. Full of kicks and curses, and nothing much to eat. I don’t know, I’m sure—what about a cat’s life, then? There’s not much said about that, is there? Nine lives, yes—but what sort of lives are these supposed to be? I’ll tell you the sort I had—a dog’s life.
I have to admit it isn’t every cat who lives with a witch, though.
And what a witch! Bad-tempered old —! No, it’s not fair to a cat or she-dog, to liken her to one of them. Let’s say she was a bad-tempered old beldam, and leave it at that. She hated people. She hated Marshall, her raven. She hated her bats and her toads. She hated me. Sometimes I think she even hated herself. A great old hater, was madam.
A naïve young stranger intrudes on this loveless, isolated mini-dictatorship, and is forced to pay a terrible price for his presumption, as he must give up his only child to the witch. And so the poor child is taken from her parents and put into a world where no-one trusts anyone else, love isn’t allowed to exist, and bitterness and cruelty reign. But all is not lost, for this is a very special child indeed, who will achieve an extraordinary miracle, greater than the greatest of spells, greater even than the most malevolent hatred.
As I read, I was swept along, just as in childhood, on the irresistible tide of a gripping story that for all its wit, humour, accessibility and clarity is also a compassionate, tender and complex evocation of the transforming power of love. But it’s certainly not all sweetness and light. Going way beyond a mere retelling of the fairytale of Rapunzel, on which it’s based, The Stone Cage reaches deep into the darkest, most painful aspects of life, as well as its most beautiful and joyous. In the way of the best children’s literature, it attains a profundity that’s all the more remarkable because of its sheer lucidity and unpretentiousness.
I finished The Stone Cage exactly as I’d done all those years ago: with tears in my eyes, and a thrilling heart, for the book also ends in one of the most perfectly judged, moving yet unsentimental scenes of its kind. Allied to my renewed love was a keenly increased admiration for the artistry of the author, which had easily stood the test of time. The characterisation is superb, the dialogue crisp, the pace good, the combination of light and dark subtly achieved. And the beauty of the style! Fluid, graceful, it is humble—in that it doesn’t draw attention to itself—and yet it’s fresh, distinctive, individual. The Stone Cage had been so important to me because everything in it worked. It was all so natural, so flowing, so multi-layered, its world richly imagined, yet delicately evoked. It was a real masterpiece, a novel just about perfect both in concept and execution, and timeless in its appeal, a novel that should have just as many young readers now as it did back then.
Aye, there’s the rub. For The Stone Cage is out of print, and has been for a long time. In fact, and rather astonishingly, in a culture like Britain’s that generally does value its children’s literature, all of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s books are presently out of print. Beautiful, original and accessible though The Stone Cage, Mainly in Moonlight, Grimbold’s Other World, Down in the Cellar, The Seventh Swan, and his other works are, they are unobtainable except through second-hand shops and the Internet, although some are still in libraries. It’s not as if modern children don’t like them, or don’t understand them, either; I know of lots of young readers who, introduced to Gray’s books by their parents, have loved them just as much, and have found them just as easy to read. It’s not as if there’s anything dated or offensive in them, no obvious or hidden misogyny or racism or class stuff or anything like that. There is nothing really to properly explain this puzzling situation, other than that they’ve simply been overlooked.
And yet, Gray’s work has deeply influenced many of today’s writers working in the fields of children’s literature and of fantasy—Garth Nix and Neil Gaiman and Cecila Dart-Thornton, for instance. I’m certainly not the only reader-turned-writer to remember Gray’s books with great love and respect. Australian children’s novelist Cassandra Golds, author of the acclaimed Clair de Lune, wrote to me about the huge impact on her of one of Gray’s books, Down in the Cellar :’I will never forget the Sunday afternoon on which I finished reading it. I remember feeling a kind of mysterious desolation, partly because I’d finished reading it and would never be able to read it for the first time again, but partly also because I KNEW I had now read the best book I was ever going to read. And I felt, then and still, that the only possible response to that experience was to become a children’s author myself.’ As an eighteen year old, Cassandra had written the author a fan letter, and she still treasures his modest, graceful reply, in which he said, amongst other things: ‘As all my books and plays are only written for myself and not for any imagined audiences, readers, age-groups, publishers, etc, it is always a delightful surprise to get proof that anyone BUT myself ever reads or sees them..’
Perhaps that answer gives a clue as to why Gray’s work is not recognised as it should be. This was not a man who blew his own trumpet, not a writer who sought publicity, but one who loved his work and felt privileged to be doing it, and who was too humble to thrust himself forward. Who was perhaps also at heart a rather private, reserved, even secretive person, despite his long association with theatre, which many people would consider the home of trumpet-blowing, egotistical extroverts. Certainly, when I went to research his life, I found precious little information.
Nicholas Stuart Gray was a Highland Scot, born in 1922, the eldest of four children. As a child, he wrote stories and plays for his siblings. Not one to bend easily to the routines of school, he left at the age of fifteen, to become an actor. He kept writing as well, and his first play was produced two years later. His first children’s play to be published was Beauty and the Beast(1951), and from then, he wrote and produced a good many plays for children, before turning his hand to novels and short stories(where I think his true gifts flowered). Some of his novels, like The Stone Cage (1963), he also adapted for the stage: he told Cassandra Golds that he himself played Tomlyn in the play’s premiere at the Edinburgh Festival and its subsequent successful seasons in London and on tour. (That would have been something to see! ) He never married or had children. His plays fell out of fashion, but his novels and short stories continued to be published until his untimely death from cancer in 1980, and right into the late 80’s, we were still seeing frequent reprintings of his books.
But in the last fifteen years or so, there have been no more new editions. In this new Golden Age of children’s literature, it’s more than time to bring his books back so that a whole new generation can fall under their spell. Any publishers out there listening?