As Frances Hardinge’s seventh novel The Lie Tree opens, fourteen-year-old Faith and her family are approaching the fictional island of Vane, having suddenly left their home in Kent on the wings of scandal – Faith’s father the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a renowned naturalist, has been accused of fabricating his most famous finds. But Vane society is no kinder than that of the mainland, and the Sunderlys find themselves beset by gossip, rumours, secrets and lies. And when Erasmus Sunderly dies mysteriously, Faith finds among his papers an account of a miraculous plant, the Mendacity Tree. Whisper a lie to the Mendacity Tree (which thrives in darkness and shrinks from the light), and make as many people as possible believe that lie, and it will produce a fruit that gives the eater knowledge – the bigger the lie, the deeper and more consequential the knowledge.
There are several literary contexts The Lie Tree could be placed in (the Victorian novel is one; I also considered reading it alongside Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst, with which it has some striking similarities), but I think it’s most productively read as a work of children’s literature. Specifically, it’s a subversion of moralistic children’s stories in which young girls and women learn to be good, wise, patient and kind; to trust in God and other sources of paternal authority; in short, to conform to the restrictive gender roles British society traditionally assigns to women. I’m thinking of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden; Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (which is, however, American, not British).
Like many of Hardinge’s heroines, Faith is not good. She has a passion for secrets: for listening at doors, stealing furtive glances at paperwork, sneaking out at night. She’s also clever, having read her way through much of her father’s library and having acquired by herself a working knowledge of Ancient Greek.
These are traits that, at various points in the narrative, she actively seeks to suppress in herself, thanks to social conditioning that tells her that girls do not sneak around collecting secrets, they cannot have intelligent conversations about science without showing off or embarrassing people. Girls are good and quiet and dutiful and uncomplaining; they place the good of others (usually men) above their own. But it’s Faith’s cleverness, her unladylike boldness and her propensity for seeking out information that the adults around her would prefer to keep secret that allows her eventually to work out why her father died; in this text, then, those traits are coded as desirable, and the social pressures that encourage her to suppress them are shown as restrictive and wrong-headed.
One of the important things the novel does, then, is signal the bankruptcy of patriarchal authority. The Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, for example, far from being a shining example of Christian love and honesty, is cold and abusive to his family and lies to the entire scientific community because he is unable to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. Doctor Jacklers, the island’s resident physician and a craniometrist, claims that intelligence is tied to brain size and thus that women are less intelligent than men – having smaller skulls on average. Faith experiences a profound sense of betrayal on this pronouncement: science itself is telling her that she is lesser. We, knowing Doctor Jacklers’ theory to be incorrect, can see this as a denouncement of the scientific establishment – not science itself – as another source of self-righteous patriarchal authority.
And then there’s the Mendacity Tree itself, which, as Erasmus Sunderly himself acknowledges, has strong resemblances to the Christian Tree of Knowledge. The Mendacity Tree, though, is clearly an unwholesome thing in its distaste for light, the opium-like effects its fruits induce in their eaters, and in its overall air of menace, its uncanny reactions to Faith’s visits. If it is the Tree of Knowledge, then that says some fairly unpalatable things about Christianity itself, and again about the social and patriarchal authority it exerts upon Victorian society.
If The Lie Tree describes ways in which Victorian society is oppressive and wrong-headed, then it also presents strategies for resistance and survival. For instance, Faith despises her mother Myrtle for her focus on keeping up appearances, and her flirtations with various men on the island, after Erasmus’ death; but towards the end of the novel we discover that Myrtle’s aim has all along been to protect her family from the ruin and reputational loss that would follow if Erasmus was found to have died by suicide. She’s simply been using the few tools that society has given her to achieve that. There are other women, too, in these pages who have found ways to exist in the cracks: the brilliant and frail scientist who uses her dilettante husband as cover; the lesbians who must keep their relationship secret. These are imperfect acts of resistance, but they demonstrate to Faith that resistance is possible, even desirable – that society’s expectations of her and of all women are not reasonable or viable.
The Lie Tree, then, critiques a tradition of children’s literature that aims to initiate young girls and women into an oppressive social order by undermining that social order and showing that resistance to it is desirable. Instead of asking readers to accept arbitrary pronouncements from holders of patriarchal authority, it encourages them to think for themselves, to seek out knowledge and to be willing to change their minds; skills we could all benefit from in the times that lie ahead.