Antonia Perna is a Northern Bridge doctoral student at Durham University. She is currently undertaking a placement at Seven Stories, where she has been cataloguing the Robert Westall Correspondence in our Laura Cecil Collection.

          ‘I am writing to you on the advice of Diana Wynne Jones and Jessica Yates, because everybody thinks I need an agent, and you have been so warmly recommended that I can hardly believe it!’  (Quoted from Robert Westall to Laura Cecil, 23 March 1988, LC Box 16, 1988).*

When Robert Westall tentatively wrote to Laura Cecil for the first time, neither could perhaps have foreseen the solid partnership that would develop. The Robert Westall Correspondence makes up nine boxes of Seven Stories’ Laura Cecil Collection, which Cecil donated after her retirement in 2017. The first literary agent to specialise in children’s literature, she represented several well-known authors and illustrators, including Diana Wynne Jones, Edward Ardizzone and Adèle Geras; these papers are also in the collection. Although Cecil and Westall worked together for only five years, the collection shows that they developed an excellent working relationship, and Westall published prolifically in those years. He had already been awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal for two of his books, The Machine Gunners (Macmillan, 1975) and The Scarecrows (Chatto & Windus, 1981); he now published such bestselling works as Blitzcat (Macmillan, 1989), for which he won the Smarties Award, and The Kingdom by the Sea (Methuen, 1990), which won the Guardian Award.  Following Westall’s untimely death in 1993—of which this 15 April marked the twenty-sixth anniversary—Cecil became his literary executor and continued to work with his partner and heir, Lindy McKinnel, to represent his work. Westall left behind a significant amount of unpublished material, which was published posthumously through Cecil and McKinnel’s efforts.  In this blog post, I want to share some of the highlights of the Westall files.

 

The Laura Cecil Collection at Seven Stories

 

Robert Westall was a brilliant, witty letter writer: his talents were not confined to his books. One thing that really comes through in his correspondence is his genuine passion and dedication to his writing. He was devoted to a realistic portrayal of life—even in writing of the supernatural—and refused to mollycoddle his readers. As he wrote in a draft to his editor, ‘my message is my message, and I will not have it slowly sandpapered away or diluted. … I do not write for money.’ (Quoted from Robert Westall to Bobbie Whitcombe, 22 May 1990, LC Box 16, 1990 File 1.)

Cecil and McKinnel shared this dedication to his work. The collection demonstrates their commitment to representing Westall’s intentions when making editorial decisions and considering artwork for posthumous publications and re-issues. Unfortunately, they could not always control publishers’ interpretations: they were none too happy with this Danish cover for A Place for Me (below, right).

 

… it is not a book about sex or romance. So Mrs Mckinnel [sic] cannot understand why the artist has drawn a decadent looking girl walking on what appears to be a picture of a male torso!’ (Quoted from Laura Cecil, below.)

 

  

Left to right: UK edition of A Place for Me (Macmillan, 1993); Laura Cecil to Macmillan re. Danish cover, LC Box 21, 1995 File 1; Danish edition of A Place for Me (Sesam, 1995).

 

Westall’s young readers loved his books too: the collection contains several examples of fan mail. One particularly exciting example of this is a package of forty-seven messages from French children and teenagers. These letters were sent via the French magazine, Je bouquine, for which Westall had written a short story, ‘Le Coeur en bataille’ (Je bouquine, no 109, 1993; published in English as ‘Claudine’ in Love Match, Methuen, 1997).

The children’s engagement and enthusiasm is as conspicuous as the brightly coloured paper they wrote on. ‘Throughout the story,’ wrote one twelve-year-old girl, ‘I was in Ronnie’s skin and I felt his love, his fears, his hate and his jealousy.’

 

French children's letters to Robert Westall, March 1993, LC Box 18, 1993, File 1.

 

In the words of another, aged ‘141/2’,

‘I was fascinated from start to finish, recognising myself in all of the characters, as I turned the pages, whether in Claudine’s blazing love, or in Ronnie’s hidden feelings. For deep inside ourselves, we are everything at once: good, bad, in love, full of hate, brave and fearful; a person is uniquely made of contradictions and that’s what makes us love someone: because they are everything and nothing at once.’  (My translations.)

This identification with Westall’s characters is a recurring theme in the French children’s letters, and suggests his story had had a profound impact on them. For Westall himself, such enthusiasm for his work was very promising—and thrilling. As he wrote to Laura Cecil, ‘Sorry if I seem over-excited about these, but they give me the feeling of a possible real break-through in France’ (29 March 1993. LC Box 18, 1993 File 1).

However, readers weren’t always uncritical. I wonder what Westall would have made of this letter from a young American fan—or budding critic! Sadly, the letter was sent after Westall’s death, so he never had the chance to respond.

 

Letter to Robert Westall, LC Box 19, 1994 File 1 – enclosed with letter dated 14 October 1994.

 

No piece on Robert Westall would be complete without mentioning cats. Cats, which feature so prominently in so much of his work, were a genuine source of fascination. The correspondents frequently shared stories of their own cats, and pet cats seem to have signed some of the letters between Westall and Cecil’s assistant, Claire Bennett! Through Cecil and Westall’s correspondence, we can learn about the real cat that inspired Yaxley’s Cat: the real Yaxley appears to have been a stray who haunted Laura Cecil’s Norfolk holiday home. The collection also contains drafts of ‘Delicate the Jelly Cat’, an unpublished picture book for young children.

 

Correspondence between Robert Westall and Claire Bennett, December 1991, LC Box 17, 1991 File 3.

 

This collection, then, is a treasure trove of information on the conception, publication and reception of Westall’s work, and also provides insight into Westall as a person. As well as this, it is a valuable resource on Cecil’s work and highlights her commitment to her clients. There is significant scope for research using this collection alongside the Robert Westall Collection, which Lindy McKinnel donated to Seven Stories in 1995. Together these collections might have a lot to say to researchers, not only about Westall and Cecil, but about children’s engagement with books and authors and about the children’s/YA publishing industry at the turn of the century.

 

Antonia Perna, Department of History, Durham University

All images © Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books

*Cataloguing of this collection is incomplete, so references follow a temporary format.