Leon Garfield (14 July 1921, Brighton, Sussex, England — 2 June 1996) was a British writer of fiction. He is best known for his historical novels for children, though he also wrote for adults. He wrote more than thirty books, and scripted The Animated Tales for television.
Garfield attended Brighton grammar school (1932-1938) and went on to study art at Regent Street Polytechnic, but his studies were interrupted first by lack of funds for fees, then by the outbreak of World War II. He married Lena Leah Davies in April, 1941, at Golders Green synagogue but they separated after only a few months. For his service in the war he joined the British Army Medical Corps. While posted in Belgium he met Vivien Alcock, then an ambulance driver, who would go on to become his second wife (in 1948) and a well-known children's author. She would also greatly influence Garfield's writing, giving him suggestions for his writing, including the original idea for Smith. After the war Garfield worked as a biochemical laboratory technician at the Whittington Hospital in Islington, writing in his spare time until the 1960s, when he was successful enough to write full time. In 1964, the couple adopted a baby girl, called Jane after Jane Austen, a favourite writer of both parents.
His first book, the pirate novel Jack Holborn, was submitted to Constable as an adult novel; but an editor saw its potential as a children’s novel and persuaded him to adapt it for a younger audience. In this form it was published in 1964. His second, Devil-in-the-Fog (1966), won the first ever Guardian Award and was serialised for television, as were several of his other books (see below). The book was another in a series of adventure stories, set typically in the late eighteenth century, with a character of humble origins (in this case a boy from a family of travelling actors) pushed into the midst of a threatening intrigue. Smith (1967), which won the Phoenix Award for children's literature in 1987, follows a similar pattern, with the eponymous hero, a young pickpocket, accepted into a wealthy household. So too does Black Jack (1968), in which a young apprentice is forced by accident and his conscience to accompany a murderous criminal. In 1970, Garfield's work started to move in new directions: The God Beneath the Sea, a re-telling of Greek myths co-written by Garfield and Edward Blishen and illustrated by Charles Keeping, won the Carnegie Medal for children's literature and was followed by a sequel, The Golden Shadow (1973); The Drummer Boy (1970) was another adventure story, but concerned more with a central moral problem, and apparently aimed at somewhat older readers, a trend continued in The Prisoners of September (1975), The Pleasure Garden (1976) and The Confidence Man (1978); The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris (1972) was a black comedy, in which two boys decide to test the plausibility of the story of Romulus and Remus with one of the boys' baby sister; most notable at the time was a series of linked long short stories about apprentices, published separately between 1976 and 1978, and then as a collection, The Apprentices. The more adult themed books of the mid seventies met with a mixed reception; and Garfield returned to the model of his earlier books with John Diamond, which won the Whitbread Award for best children's book in 1980, and The December Rose (1986). He also in 1980 wrote a completion to the unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Dickens, who had been a major influence on his own style.
He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1985. On June 2, 1996 he died of cancer at the Whittington Hospital, where he had once worked.
Garfield's novels for children all have a historical setting. In the early novels this is mostly the late eighteenth century, from John Diamond on, it is the nineteenth century. But they are not novels about historical events, which are rarely depicted, or social conditions, which provide only the starting point for the personal stories of the characters. In the few novels where Garfield handles actual events, he writes from the limited and subjective viewpoint of his characters.
The historical books owe much to Dickens and Stevenson. The latter's Treasure Island clearly provided a model for Jack Holborn, with its shifting alliances of manipulative characters in pursuit of a treasure; and Garfield also acknowledges the brothers from Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae as an inspiration for the book. Beyond these specific debts, Garfield shares Stevenson's fondness for binding a relatively conservative hero to a more forceful personality outside of conventional morality. Another recurring plot form (most evident in Smith and The December Rose), in which an outcast is integrated into a supporting household, owes more to Dickens. Garfield also shares with Dickens a strong preference for an urban setting, generally London.
Garfield's father had broken contact with him when he divorced his Jewish wife; and Garfield scholar Roni Natov sees this difficult relationship as a major influence on his work, giving particular significance to the fathers and father figures in the novels. This view is partly supported by Garfield's own commentary.
Many of Garfield's books have been adapted for film or television: Devil-in-the-Fog was televised in 1968; Smith in 1970; The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris was made into a 6 part BBC serial in 1979; Black Jack was made into a feature film by Ken Loach in the same year; John Diamond was made into a BBC television series in 1981; Jack Holborn was made into the German Christmas mini-series Jack Holborn by ZDF in 1982; The Ghost Downstairs was televised in 1982; "Mr Corbett's Ghost" was made into a television film with Paul Scofield and John Huston in 1987. In addition Garfield himself wrote the script for the 1986 television serial, The December Rose, afterwards adapting it as a novel, and for The Animated Tales (1992 and 1994), a well regarded Russian animation of Shakespeare, commissioned by the Welsh Channel Four, S4C; for this he was awarded the 1995 Sam Wanamaker Award.