The Adventures of Milly Molly Mandy can be enjoyed as charming little stories that evoke fond memories of childhood, or as a fascinating autobiographical document of rural English life at the turn of the century. With delightful illustrations by the author these stories are perfect in every way.
Recently a copy of The Adventures of Milly Molly Mandy came into my possession. This is not the type I book I would normally read – or so I thought – but their popularity in our store prompted me to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe our younger readers were onto something that I needed to investigate.
Joyce Lankester Brisley (1896 – 1978) was an illustrator and writer. It seems that drawing ran in the family, as her two sisters were also illustrators. The Milly Molly Mandy stories were first published in 1923, in the Christian Science Monitor, and eventually published in four collected volumes.
Milly Molly Mandy’s full name is Millicent Margaret Amanda, but her family has shortened it. She lives with her mother and father, uncle and auntie, grandmother and grandfather, in a little white cottage with a thatched roof. The family lives in a rural village, with meadows and brooks, small local stores, a school and a church.
Each individual story relates some childhood adventure. There are two main things about the stories that make them attractive (actually three, if you include the illustrations). Firstly, there is the skill in creating these delightful, self-contained little vignettes of rural life. They are so simple and so perfectly constructed, each describing a new childhood experience. Their innocence and joyful creativity (Milly Molly Mandy is forever learning a new skill or useful craft) recall what it is like growing up and discovering new things. It’s very easy to imagine yourself in Milly Molly Mandy’s world of planting seeds, meeting new people, joining gangs and adopting unusual pets.
The other aspect that recommends these stories is their clearly autobiographical nature. One can’t help but presume that Brisley had a happy childhood, and wanted to fictionalise all her memories. In many ways the Milly Molly Mandy stories are similar to the Little House on the Prairie series of autobiographical novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder – except without all the locust plagues, snow storms and Indian attacks.
There are so many delightful and unusual details in these stories that they are obviously based on personal recollections. For example, when Milly Molly Mandy has her photo taken, and the photographer pulls a bunch of flowers out of a vase and gives them to her to hold. She immediately notes how horribly clammy and wet they feel. Or when Milly Molly Mandy and her friend Billy Blunt discover an old train carriage hiding behind some bushes. They later learn that a tinker and his wife have bought it and turned it into a home. The tinker and his wife are poor and have been ‘tramping’, but hope to settle down and make some money from mending pots and other items. So in another way the Milly Molly Mandy stories can be enjoyed as a document of time and place – rural England at the turn of the century.
These happy little stories have a real power to bring back memories of childhood and the excitement of experiencing things for the first time. Each story, along with its three or four neat illustrations, is like a lovingly made miniature work of art – the very sort of creative endeavour that Milly Molly Mandy would apply herself to.