The name of children’s author David Severn is most likely now to be welcomed by a rousing “who?”, but during the 40s and 50s he was highly successful, writing three broad types of book – holiday adventures in the countryside, picture books about animals for the very young, and a series of stories “for older children” (what would now be described as Young Adult) based on fantasy, paranormal and SF themes.
David Severn, who was born in 1918 and died in 2010, was in fact the pseudonym of David Storr Unwin, son of the publisher Sir Stanley Unwin, best known as Tolkien’s publisher – he took the name Severn from an uncle, to avoid trading on a well-known publishing name.
I wasn’t especially interested in the holiday adventure stories as a child, but I found my way to two of his YA novels – I had (and still have) a copy of one, but the other I’ve only just tracked down and reread after decades.
The Future Took Us, the book I’ve had for many years, was published in 1957, and tells of two teenagers being transported in time to approximately the year 3000 AD. They find a post-apocalyptic civilisation that mixes subsistence peasant farming with a passion for advanced mathematics. They discover, eventually, that the only learning to survive the destruction was an elementary maths text book, and that this forms not only their main pastime, but also their religion, in which the circle is the ultimate sacred symbol.
However, this isn’t the whole story. The boys find an autocratic police state, run by the Controller from the sinister Counting House, where mathematical experiments have reached the point of manipulating time. Many unsuspecting victims have been plucked from their times through history – and the idea of wasting calculating time in returning them is unthinkable. The boys must join a rebellion and bring down the regime, for their own sakes as well as that of 30th century England.
Besides being a fine adventure story, The Future Took Us has two ideas that have haunted me ever since I first read it. One is the cataclysmic war which, the boys learn, lasted a lot longer than might be expected. It’s explained to them that, The atom part of it must have been over very quickly. After the Great Powers had destroyed one another, the other countries couldn’t agree and went on fighting with guns and high explosives. As the years passed, the wars became more local and the weapons grew more and more primitive, until a century or so later, men were still fighting each other – but with clubs and pikes.
The second is an issue that most time-travel stories either ignore or shuffle round – the language of the future. English proves to have changed as much over the next thousand years as it has over the last thousand, and the boys are unable to make head or tail of it, except for identifying individual words. My only complaint is that Severn didn’t provide more of his future English, but he gives tantalising examples – brade for bread, drap for horse (they speculate it might derive from “quadruped”) and grancat for tiger. Even a friend from the 22nd century, though quite comprehensible, speaks a little strangely – perhaps as it would be to hear Jane Austen speak.
If The Future Took Us is fascinating, Dream Gold (1949) is absolutely riveting. I reread this last week for the first time since I was in my teens, and it hasn’t lost its power. This is what would now be described as paranormal. The main character, Peter Manning, meets a strange, disagreeable boy at school called Guy Trelawney. Though they don’t get on much of the time, they developed what passes for a friendship, and Guy invites Peter to his home on the Cornish coast for the winter holiday.
While there, Peter and Guy begins to share a series of dreams about a deserted tropical island, in which every sensory detail is real. Guy, who has been dreaming of the island for as long as he remembers, speculates that it’s equivalent to a stereoscopic effect, where two identical pictures, viewed through the right equipment, merged into one 3D image. (I remember having one of them as a kid).
It doesn’t end there, though. The island is the place where, three hundred years before, Guy’s ancestor had sailed to dig up buried treasure, which was reputedly lost in a shipwreck right by his house. Eventually, the boys witness the arrival of the ship, and their discovery of what really happened breaks apart their already fragile friendship.
The descriptions in this book are stunning – both of the searing heat and light of the tropical island and the Cornish coast in winter, where the forbidding house, Chyradoon, broods on a rock in the sea, linked to the land only by a causeway at low tide. The characters and relationships, too, are striking. The strange mixture of friendship, hatred and love between Peter, Guy and Elizabeth, the young daughter of Guy’s housekeeper, is most reminiscent of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, nearly two decades later.
These books were far ahead of their time, helping to establish the idea of YA contemporary fantasy before anyone else was writing it. The spectacular breakdown of Peter and Guy’s friendship in Dream Gold, still a little shocking, was utterly unlike the relationships expected in children’s books at the time, and the kind of ideas Severn was playing with wouldn’t be taken up again till the 60s and 70s.
That’s not to say the books fit seamlessly into modern YA fiction. For one thing, they share the unconscious snobbishness of much older children’s fiction, in which the characters, as a matter of course, attend posh boarding schools, and a family chauffeur is casually mentioned. And, of course, Severn could only go so far in the 40s and 50s. Although Dream Gold gives the modern reader a few hints of the kind of adolescent sexual tension explored in The Owl Service (Elizabeth certainly seems to have a crush on Peter) there was no way this could be explicit in a book for children.
Nevertheless, both these books deserve to be considerably more famous than they are. It would be good to think that, one day, an enterprising publisher might see fit to republish some of David Severn’s work. In the meantime, second-hand copies can be tracked down on line. If you’re interested in early YA fantasy, I’d definitely recommend you find these two.
More information about David Severn’s books can be found on the University of Worcester’s website.