Sunday 15 December 2013

The Underground River - Edith Olivier

Back when I discovered Edith Olivier's brilliant novel The Love-Child in a charity shop, I started raving about it to my friends in the dovegreybooks online book email list.  Little did I know that The Love-Child would go on to play an important role in my DPhil thesis, and that I'd present a few papers on it, but I did know that it was a really special book.  And so I very gratefully accepted the kind offer of a lady called Jane to send me a copy of The Underground River (1929) by Olivier.  That was in 2007 - and I finally got around to reading it in spring this year, while doing extra bits and pieces of research for my Olivier chapter.  And here's a quick little post about it...

It's a children's book, about Tony and Dinda who escape from their terrifying great-aunt by going underground and (you guessed it) finding a river.  Many are the adventures they find there... Surprisingly large numbers of people live alongside the river, lit only by candles in the gloom - and some of them are pretty terrifying.  Along the way are men who ask young ladies to dance... who can then never leave them (Dinda manages to avoid this fate).  There are smugglers, kindly magical folk, adventure, peril... it's the standard fare that I've come to expect from a childhood reared on Enid Blyton.  And some self-aware humour at times, maybe?
After a time they felt hungry, but they found it was very difficult to eat their meal in the dark.  They each had a knife and fork, but they had never guessed how hard it would be to cut slices for themselves off a sirloin of beef, with no butler to carve, no carving-knife and fork to carve with, and no light to carve by.
My favourite passage, of course, had to be the following - it's nice to know that we twins are up there with magical creatures in terms of wonderment.
Tony and Dinda were really delighted.  They had never seen twins before, and they had always longed to know some.  In vain had they begged their mother to give them twin brothers or sisters.  She had always refused, and now here was a family entirely consisting of twins.  It seemed too amusing to be true.
There are nice illustrations by Margaret Forbes throughout, and the edition itself is rather charming - part of 'The Enchantment Series', whatever that was, and it is indeed enchanting.

I've read quite a few of Olivier's novels (as always, you can see them all by selecting her from the author drop-down menu in the left-hand column) and none have lived up to the wonder of The Love-Child, but that is hardly surprising.  Whilst Googling The Underground River, though, I stumbled across someone else who has read her obscure books - Scott, of The Furrowed Middlebrow (that link will take you to all his Edith Olivier posts).  There is a coda to this gift-giving; I spotted that The Underground River was one of the few Olivier books Scott hadn't managed to get hold of, so thought I'd 'pay it forward' (if you will) - and now this little book is on its way across the Atlantic...


  1. I *did* adore "The Love Child" so I do intend to read more Olivier (oh, for more time.....) This sounds rather lovely, and I would have adored it as a child (and probably still would actually) - mysterious underground things (a la "The Silver Chair") are such fun!

  2. This post has only added fuel to my already considerable excitement about the book, Simon. It sounds really great, and I can't wait to fill in the last missing piece of my Olivier reading. Thanks so much for your generosity in paying it forward to me!


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