Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Prisoner of Happy Hansel – M. B. Paxton

I found this book on the curiosities shelf of an Age Concern shop in Leicester and had to buy it. Happy Hansel (meaning happy gift just-so-you-know) was the name of my primary school. ‘The Prisoner of Happy Hansel – A tale of Smuggling Days’ sounds promising doesn’t it? A quick look confirmed a Shetland connection, and really who more appropriate could have picked up this book...

It was part of something called the ‘Excelsior Library’ or select stories by authors of repute and looking at the officers and agents was available throughout the empire and America. I can’t find when it was written and the book itself is unhelpful in that respect but the overall feeling is late Victorian. By authors of repute the Excelsior Library means evangelically Christian and I have to say this was a truly terrible book by any standard I can think to measure it against, even an idea of Christian self sacrifice.

14 year old Maidie is sent to live with her Aunt Rachel and Uncle Occo on their Shetland estate whilst brother Jack heads of to Jamaica to try and sell some land to restore the family fortune and buy back the home they lost. After a few weeks of not being allowed to read Tennyson and being expected to be clean and tidy Maidie has a fight with her aunt and runs off to sulk in peace. She falls asleep in a handy fishing boat waking some hours later to find herself at sea with a group of smugglers, tenants of her uncle who has suspicions of their activities. When they find her she’s handed over to a saintly old grandmother and devout young fisher boy to be taken care of.

She stays with them for 10 months whilst her uncle and aunt assume she’s been drowned - this despite still being on the family estate and not really being a prisoner at all (this might be possible to imagine in the wilds of Canada or Australia, but I hope British children where less credulous). By and by Maidie learns to think of others, help around the croft, and to share Haco and his grandmother’s love of Jesus. The old lady’s faith was born of losing 7 sons and a husband to the sea in 6 months – the son she has left is the unsatisfactory smuggler Daniel.

The climax of the action comes with a storm and a wrecked ship. Maidie, Haco, and another young fisherman, Jarum, that Haco has managed to dissuade from his former smuggling ways set off to try and rescue some of the crew before the ship is totally broken up on the rocks. They manage to save a sailor and a gentleman (who turns out to be brother Jack returning to Shetland despite presumably being told that his sister had died and having no particular business there) and are just about to attempt to get back to shore when they realise that a child is still on board.

 On a clear suicide mission Haco jumps onto the foundered vessel to rescue the boy when the whole lot goes down and they’re both drowned. Returning to shore Maidie collapses into a faint for two weeks, the grandmother has died in the night (which saves her the grief of losing another family member) and everyone else becomes good Christians on the back of Haco’s example.

It was all very silly and as Christian messages go I’m clearly too much of an unreformed sinner to understand it. Paxton uses the place names of my childhood but not the geography – although I think he must have known Shetland a bit because a lot of the dialogue is in dialect which is much more convincing than the plot. Meanwhile I find myself very grateful for Enid Blyton and the generally much higher quality of children’s literature that I had when I grew up.


  1. Have you been out book buying alone again ?! Xxx

  2. not for ages. Got this months ago, honestly!

    1. I have also read this book after finding it in my late father's house. It is clearly a children's book. My father was presented with it for good conduct and good attendance when he was 10 years old. The year was 1923. I presume it was either at school or Sunday school.

      Does the name Melbourne Hall have any meaning to anybody, as that is where my father - presumably - received the book. He was living in Nottingham at the time.

    2. There is a Melbourne hall on the Derbyshire/Leicestershire/Nottinghamshire border which belonged to the one time prime minister Lord Melbourne. I think it's still a private house and don't know that it's ever been a school but the family may have given prizes at local schools?

    3. Thank you for replying. I have been in touch with Local Studies at the library and they can't help me. They just know about the Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire. I will probably never know - not to worry, but it does niggle!