Eleanor Farjeon was born in London, England on 13 February 1881. The daughter of popular novelist Benjamin Farjeon and Maggie (Jefferson) Farjeon, Eleanor came from a literary family, her two younger brothers, Joseph and Herbert Farjeon, being writers, while the oldest, Harry Farjeon, was a composer.
Eleanor, known to the family as "Nellie", was a small timid child, who had poor eyesight and suffered from ill-health throughout her childhood. She was educated at home, spending much of her time in the attic, surrounded by books. Her father encouraged her writing from the age of five. She describes her family and her childhood in the autobiographical, A Nursery in the Nineties (1935).
She and her brother Harry were especially close. Beginning when Eleanor was five, they began a sustained imaginative game in which they became various characters from theatrical plays and literature. This game, called T.A.R. after the initials of two of the original characters, lasted into their mid-twenties. Eleanor credited this game with giving her "the flow of ease which makes writing a delight".
Although she lived much of her life among the literary and theatrical circles of London, much of Eleanor's inspiration came from her childhood and from family holidays. A holiday in France in 1907 was to inspire her to create a story of a troubadour, later refashioned as the wandering minstrel of her most famous book, Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard. Among her earliest publications is a volume of poems called Pan Worship, published in 1908, and Nursery Rhymes of London Town from 1916. During World War I, the family moved to Sussex where the landscape, villages and local traditions were to have a profound effect upon her later writing. It was in Sussex that the Martin Pippin stories were eventually to be located.
At eighteen Eleanor wrote the libretto for an operetta, Floretta, to music by her older brother Harry, who later became a composer and teacher of music. She also collaborated with her youngest brother, Herbert, Shakespearian scholar and dramatic critic. Their productions include Kings and Queens (1932), The Two Bouquets (1938), An Elephant in Arcady (1939), and The Glass Slipper (1944).
Eleanor had a wide range of friends with great literary talent including D. H. Lawrence, Walter de la Mare and Robert Frost. For several years she had a close friendship with the poet Edward Thomas and his wife. After Thomas's death in April 1917 during the Battle of Arras, she remained close to his wife, Helen. She later published much of their correspondence, and gave a definitive account of their relationship in Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (1958).
After World War I Eleanor earned a living as a poet, journalist and broadcaster. Often published under a pseudonym, Eleanor's poems appeared in The Herald (Tomfool), Punch, Time and Tide (Chimaera), The New Leader (Merry Andrew), Reynolds News (Tomfool), and a number of other periodicals. Her topical work for The Herald, Reynolds News and New Leader was perhaps the most accomplished of any socialist poet of the 1920s and 30s.
Eleanor never married, but had a thirty-year friendship with George Earle, an English teacher. After his death in 1949, she had a long friendship with the actor Denys Blakelock, who wrote of it in the book, Eleanor, Portrait of a Farjeon (1966).
In 1951, she became a Roman Catholic. During the 1950s she received three major literary awards. The 1955 Carnegie Medal for British children's books and the inaugural, biennial Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1956 both cited The Little Bookroom. The inaugural, 1959 Regina Medal from the U.S.-based Catholic Library Association marks "continued, distinguished contribution to children's literature".
Farjeon died in Hampstead, London on 5 June 1965. She is buried in the north churchyard extension of St John-at-Hampstead.
The Children's Book Circle, a society of publishers, present the Eleanor Farjeon Award annually to individuals or organisations whose commitment and contribution to children's books is deemed to be outstanding.
Her work is cited as an influence by the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.
Today Eleanor Farjeon's most widely known work is the children's hymn "Morning has Broken", written in 1931 to an old Gaelic tune associated with the Scottish village Bunessan. Her other popular hymn is the Advent carol "People, Look East!", usually sung to an old French melody, and a favourite with children's choirs. "Morning has Broken" appears under its correct title "A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring)" in The Children's Bells (Oxford, 1957), which collects Farjeon's poems from many sources including the Martin Pippin books.
One of Farjeon's talents was to make history easy and memorable. In poetry that is varied, witty and picturesque, Farjeon presents the saints, the kings, the tyrants and the notable events in forms that fixed them in the minds of the young reader. The historical subjects of her poetry range from King Priam begging his son's body from Achilles in rhyming couplets, to King John being forced by the relentless barons to sign the Magna Carta, to Joseph the carpenter wondering over the future of the little Christ Child that he can hold in the span of his two hands.
Farjeon's plays for children, such as those to be found in Granny Gray, were popular for school performances throughout the 1950s and '60s because they were well within the capabilities of young children to perform and of teachers to direct. Several of the plays have a very large number of small parts, facilitating performance by a class, while others have only three or four performers and appear to be designed for the children of a single family.
Eleanor Farjeon's most notable books are Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard (1921) and its sequel, Martin Pippin in the Daisy Field (1937). These books, which had their origins in France when Farjeon was inspired to write about a troubadour, are actually set in Sussex and include descriptions of real villages and features such as the chalk cliffs and the Long Man of Wilmington.
In Apple Orchard, the wandering minstrel Martin Pippin finds a lovelorn ploughman who begs him to visit the orchard where his beloved has been locked in the mill-house with six sworn virgins to guard her. Martin Pippin goes to the rescue and wins the confidence of the young women by telling them love stories. Although ostensibly a children's book, the six love stories, which have much the form of Perrault's fairy tales such as Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella, have a depth which is adult in sentiment, and indeed they were written not for a child but for a young soldier, Victor Haslam, who had, like Farjeon, been a close friend of Edward Thomas. Among the stories, themes include the apparent loss of a loved one, betrayal, and the yearning of a woman for whom it appears that love will never come.
The sequel, Martin Pippin in the Daisy Field concerns six little girls whom Martin entertains while they are making daisy chains. The six stories, this time written for children, include Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep which has been published separately and is considered the finest of all Farjeon's stories. Also unforgettable is the hilarious adventure of an outrageous liar and failed magician in Tom Cobble and Oonie.
The Little Bookroom is a collection of what she considered her best stories, published by Oxford University Press in 1955 with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone. Farjeon won the annual Carnegie Medal from the Library Association for that work, recognising the year's best children's book by a British subject. She also received the first international Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1956. The biennial award from the International Board on Books for Young People, now considered the highest lifetime recognition available to creators of children's books, soon came to be called the Little Nobel Prize. Prior to 1962 it cited a single book published during the preceding two years.Pan-Worship and Other Poems (1908)The Soul of Kol Nikon (1914)Arthur Rackham: The Wizard at Home (1914), non-fiction about Arthur RackhamNursery Rhymes of London Town (1916)Gypsy and Ginger (1920)Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard (1921)Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard Illustrated by Richard Kennedy. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1921.Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922.Mighty Men: Achilles to Julius Caesar, Beowulf to Harold (1925)Nuts and May (1925)Faithful Jenny Dove and Other Tales (1925)Italian Peepshow (1926)Kaleidoscope (1928)The Tale of Tom Tiddler (1929)Tales from Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales Done in Prose (1930)The Old Nurse's Stocking Basket (1931)The Fair of St. James: A Fantasia (1932)Perkin the Pedlar (1932)Jim at the Corner and Other Stories (1934)A Nursery in the Nineties (1935), autobiographyHumming Bird: A Novel (1936)Ten Saints (1936)Martin Pippin in the Daisy Field (1937)The Wonders of Herodotus (1937)One Foot in Fairyland: Sixteen Tales (1938)Kings and Queens (1940), poetry by Eleanor and her brother Herbert FarjeonThe New Book of Days (1941)Brave Old Woman (1941)The Glass Slipper (1944), playAriadne and the Bull (1945)The Silver Curlew (1949), playThe Little Bookroom (1955)The Glass Slipper (1955), novelization of her 1944 playThe Children's Bells (Oxford, 1957), collected poems [including Advent hymn, "People, Look East", and "Morning Has Broken"]Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (1958), non-fiction