Christine Orr (1899-1963) was a prolific novelist, poet, playwright and theatre-activist whose influence on Scottish cultural life in the first half of the 20th century is finally gaining recognition. Here, Susan Gardner, curator at the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh, introduces the creative and collaborative work of the young Christine through the magazine, Talks and Tales, produced from her Edinburgh home, and now the subject of a fascinating exhibition at the Writers’ Museum.
Few children today would choose to spend their spare time producing a magazine. But this is what Christine Orr did between the ages of eleven and sixteen (1911-1916). Her magazine, Talks and Tales (now part of the Museum of Childhood’s collection), was produced in monthly or quarterly editions with contributions from friends and family in the form of short stories, poems, pictures, factual articles, jokes and puzzles. Christine edited and compiled the magazine, as well as writing a great deal of the content, before sending it through the post to readers both in Edinburgh and further afield.
Talks and Tales has taken on a particular significance since the discovery that Christine Orr went on to write professionally, publishing 18 novels as well as poems and plays. We can see the embryonic talent of a future author and trace her early interests which were to feature in later published works. However, the magazines are, in themselves, a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those who produced them and just one example of a popular pastime for children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Museum of Childhood has several sets of magazines made by children, such as The Evergreen Chain (1892-99), The St. Bernard’s Budget (1892), Chuckles (1905) and The Pierrot (1911-15). Perhaps this creativity was inspired by school magazines or encouraged by competitions in publications such as Little Folks and Arthur Mee’s My Magazine? We know that the young Enid Blyton (born 1897) produced a magazine with two school friends — she wrote the stories and they contributed poems and illustrations. She became a famously prolific writer, and it seems that Christine Orr had a similar compulsion to tell stories.
Christine was certainly the driving force behind Talks and Tales. I’ve yet to identify all the other contributors but some were friends that she met at St. George’s School in Edinburgh — certainly Patricia Greig, Cicely Steven and Isabel Thomson – and some were relatives, such as Helen Orr, Hugh Millar and Grant Millar. Christine’s parents also contributed occasionally, taking an active interest in the hobby of their only child. Inevitably, the magazines reflect the lives of all these people and that’s what fascinates me most — this window into middle class Edinburgh in the early 20th century.
In 1911 Christine’s mother wrote an account of a reception at Holyrood Palace hosted by the newly crowned King George V and Queen Mary. She describes how earlier in the day “decorations were hastily completed, banners, flags and flowery wreaths hung out, and citizens rich and poor, old and young, hastened to don their best and rally in their hundreds to the streets through which the Royal couple, with the Prince of Wales and Princess Mary, should drive on their arrival in the evening.” Having set off for Holyrood at 7pm (and started getting dressed at 4pm!), there is a great deal of queuing and waiting until the ladies finally arrive at the ante room to the Throne Room two hours later, “a brilliantly lit apartment full of a dazzling, laughing throng representing the cream of Scottish nobility”. Mrs Orr’s presentation to the King and Queen takes on a dreamlike quality and she is overawed by “feelings of profound reverence and loyalty”.
In 1913 Christine contributed an account of the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland, describing in detail the United Free meeting on the Mound.
“It was an impressive sight – the huge sea of faces on every side, the stately moderator in his gown and fine lace ruffles; and then the grand music as a thousand voices rose on the old Scottish psalm, ‘When lion’s bondage God turned back’, unaccompanied but led by the venerable precentor, Mr Fraser. Then followed many stimulating addresses and the dedication of the young missionaries when all sang to its most beautiful tune, ‘The Lord bless thee and keep thee’.”
During the production of Talks and Tales lives everywhere were overshadowed by World War One and this is reflected in the children’s writing and drawing. There are poems and pictures on the theme of war interspersed with other stories and articles, all patriotic and positive in spirit, no doubt the prevailing attitude in their homes and schools. In May 1915 there is mention of a Soldiers’ Refreshment Lounge being provided in Edinburgh while Christine and some of the magazine contributors performed scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry V to raise funds for hospitals in Serbia.
In 1916 Christine begins the year with a stirring editorial message:
“A Happy New Year to all our readers, and may 1916 bring with it Peace! I think that is the uppermost wish in all our hearts this January, especially with those who have fathers, brothers or friends fighting in our Army and Navy. We at home can do our part best by working steadily & keeping cheery. It is to be hoped that ‘Talks & Tales’ may be a means, however small, to the latter end!”
Most of the content of Talks and Tales consists of short stories, serial stories and poems. The stories are a mixture of adventure and romance, often featuring children as the main characters. For short stories some of them are very long indeed! Presumably, the children were inspired by the books and magazines they were reading and this is a subject which is ripe for further investigation. In a feature called ‘Bedroom Book-Shelf’, Christine mentions her copies of Tennyson, Browning and Shakespeare, Miss Proctor’s Poems, A Child’s Garden of Verses and an anthology called English Poetry for the Young as well as George MacDonald’s fairy tales.
We know from an article written in 1915 that Christine was very familiar with Edinburgh’s literary heritage. She talks about Allan Ramsay, Sir Walter Scott, Dr. John Brown and Robert Louis Stevenson:
“Were there space and time we could go on indefinitely, recalling Edinburgh’s men of letters – ay, and women too, who lived and wrote long ago. The old streets are grey and dull now but what must it have been like to see and speak with these wonderful folk! Imagine a chat with Sir Walter or a ramble out by the Pentlands with RLS! They are gone alas! But they have left us a rich and goodly heritage.”
Christine Orr also left us with a rich heritage of novels, plays and poems, and I hope that many more people will be able to discover and enjoy her work in future.
This post by Susan Gardner
Susan Gardner has worked as a curator at the Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh since 1993. During that time she has built up an in-depth knowledge of the museum’s collections which chart the experiences of British children from the early 19th century to the present day. She has produced exhibitions on gender stereotyping in girls’ toys, children’s diet, developmental toys for babies and toddlers, outdoor play, fairy tales, school stories and needlework samplers among many others. She is very excited to have discovered material in the museum’s collection recently relating to Edinburgh author, Christine Orr, and is delighted that SELCIE are helping to share this new information.
Talks and Tales: the childhood writing of Christine Orr is showing at the Writers’ Museum until 22 March 2020. The exhibition features two volumes of Talks and Tales as well as some of Christine’s personal possessions and examples of her published works.