The Bagthorpe Saga was the creation of Helen Cresswell, an English writer of children’s books. She actually wrote more than 100 books! (Only ten are about the Bagthorpes.) She was born July 11, 1934 and died Sept. 26, 2005, at age 71, of ovarian cancer. Her marriage lasted about 32 years before it was “dissolved.” (Wikipedia) Here is how Wikipedia describes the Bagthorpe Saga:
“The saga follows the farcical, satirical and blackly comic lives of the eccentric, ultra-competitive, friendless, relentlessly self-absorbed and largely disloyal Bagthorpe family, who live at Unicorn House in the fictional village of Passingham, near the small market town of Aysham.”
Pretty close. The books are written for children, but I think most adults would would enjoy them–that is, if you enjoy dark humor. The ten books in the series are written over 24 years. I have read nine of them, while the tenth is notoriously elusive (read expensive) and so far I have not read it. I haven’t given up. Checking the inside cover, I see that I have read each of the first four, three times, while once each for the next five.
However, not all the Bagthorpes are self-absorbed and disloyal. Jack, age 11, is the third child of four. The other three, William (16), Tess (13), and Rosie (8) [all ages are as the first book opens, and I am sure about only three of them], all have specialties–often called “Strings to their Bows.” They are legends in their own minds. But Jack is “ordinary.” Hence the title of the first book in the series, Ordinary Jack. Jack, moreover, has a more kindly nature than his siblings, or his father. (His Uncle Parker calls Jack ‘”a pearl among swine.”‘) Most of us readers will probably find ourselves identifying with Jack–a boy ‘”who hasn’t got anything to boast about.”‘ (p. 6)
Jack has a dog, Zero. His name seems to sum up his accomplishments. Zero is even known to have been chased by cats. However, in volume two, Absolute Zero, Zero turns the tables on the arrogant Bagthorpes. You can find out exactly how if you read the book.
Beyond the four children, the household consists of the father Henry, the mother Laura, and the grandfather and grandmother. The grandfather is “selectively deaf”–choosing not to hear everything going on (showing great practical wisdom), while the grandmother is a force for chaos. Laura writes a newspaper advice column. Henry is a semi-successful writer of television plays. He is often sarcastic.
Uncle Russell Parker has married Celia, sister to Henry. Uncle Parker is financially successful, loves Celia, and annoys Henry constantly. Uncle Parker and Celia have a child, Daisy (age 4). Daisy has a genius for creating mayhem, and often joins forces with the grandmother in bringing misery to the lives of others. Daisy often blames Arry Awk, her imaginary friend, for the horrors she unleashes.
Mrs. Fosdyke comes in to work daily for the Bagthorpes. Here is one description of her, from Ordinary Jack:
“Mrs. Fosdyke had to a fine art the ability to move around fast without actually doing very much. Mr. Bagthorpe said a lot of people in the army had this gift, and in the civil service, but that it was rare in a Daily.” (p. 38)
In book three Daisy put some maggots in a box of chocolates for Mrs. Fosdyke. This does not go over well with Mrs. Fosdyke, as you can imagine. Daisy is encouraged to write an apology to Mrs. Fosdyke, which she does.
‘”Dear Miz Fozzy I am sorry you got my magots in your choclots and pleese can I have them back becos I reely love them and can play with them instead of bruthers and sisters becos mummy says I cant have anny bruthers and sisters. I hop your teef is beter and we al reely and trully luv you we reely do and reely mean it that we luv you. Daisy.”‘ (Bagthorpes Unlimited, p. 114)
In volume four, Daisy is described to Mrs. Fosdyke as ‘”original”‘ by Mrs. Bagthorpe. When Mrs. Fosdyke is unimpressed by that description, Mrs. Bagthorpe ungrudgingly adds ‘”tiresome,”‘ but Jack sees that for Mrs. Fosdyke, “even this description came nowhere near doing justice to the case.” (p. 59)
One of themes of the Bagthorpe family appears on the cover of volume three: ‘”If A Thing’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Overdoing.”‘ The Bagthorpes have a lot to do, and thus a lot to overdo.
I checked out the availability of the first four books in the series. I looked only at AbeBooks, usually the best place for such a search (but not always). The first two are very reasonably priced. Ordinary Jack was only $4.97 total (sales tax extra), Absolute Zero even less at $4.19 (sales tax extra). Volumes three and four started to climb in price, at about $10.72 or $10.76 before sales tax, shipping again included. No need to panic, however. Try Ordinary Jack and then Absolute Zero and you will know if you feel inclined to follow the series further.
There is actually a 6-part television series adaptation of the first two books. I have not seen that yet, but will explore its availability and price.
The Bagthorpe Saga is fun for children and adults–well at least for some children and adults. The humor can be dark. Jack and Zero are our ordinary allies as we watch the chaos unfold. I for one have enjoyed looking on from a safe distance.