Content warning: Fishing and fish cleaning
I’m interested in the boundaries these siblings set for each other. Titty doesn’t want John and Susan to know that she’s practicing being a cormorant, but she’s absolutely fine with telling them that she’s diving for pearls. I think her shyness comes from the slight possibility that the former might work: she wants to completely exclude the possibility of catching fish with her hands, even though she’s grown-up enough to know that it’s almost certainly a silly idea.
There’s a similar dynamic later, with the dowsing in “Pigeon Post”, and I think it is one of the reasons I love Titty so much. I spent quite a bit of time practising flying when I was about her age, just in case I could – and I certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone about it. I think I still have the same tendency, and I’ve been working hard at letting people see me try stuff I might actually succeed at, too.
We’ll just gloss over the fact that Susan gets stuck with the washing up AGAIN.
Catherine Garvey defined play as something which is inherently satisfying:
“Its motivations are intrinsic and serve no other objectives. In fact, it is more an enjoyment of means than an effort devoted to some particular end.”
The pearl diving definitely seems to fit this description. Even though the stones dry out quickly and lose their shine, Titty and Roger continue collecting them for the sheer joy of doing so. So outright playing is acceptable (particularly if little Roger is involved), but taking seriously something which “should” be a game is more of a private matter. The cleaning of the boat also occupies a kind of liminal space between playing and not-playing, as a complex and technical activity which is completely unnecessary but demonstrates all of the Swallows’ pride in their new life. This is the kind of play which can continue well into adulthood.
There’s not the slightest hint here that the water in the lake is really very very cold. I have swum in Lake Windermere. I wasn’t allowed in without a wetsuit. Granted, that was an organised event, so the regulations were a bit on the cautious side, but… this is the North of England. These children are tough – and, again, set the example to me that I should also splash uncomplainingly into the almost-freezing water on every family holiday. This may be my only claim to toughness. Thank you, Walkers: you have brought me a great deal of joy, in so many ways.
And then they go fishing, which is really real. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the kitchen counter watching my mother (who had wanted to train as a vet) gutting a trout, showing me each of its organs in turn and explaining its function. Susan doesn’t show quite the same analytical interest, but she does demonstrate a wonderfully matter-of-fact approach to the whole process, and admirable resourcefulness in the face of inadequate tools. She knows that she can Do Stuff: she has complete, quiet faith in herself, and everyone else shares this faith.
Full disclosure: The first few times I read this book I was completely absorbed in Titty, identified with her completely, literally dreamed as her. But I always sort of assumed, at the back of my mind, that I would be Susan when I grew up. And I was OK with that. Susan is wonderful.