Eleanor, known to the family as "Nellie", was a small timid child who was often sick and had poor eyesight. 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).
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". 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, whose maternal grandfather was the American actor Joseph Jefferson, 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), 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' 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 the 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 Portrait of a Farjeon (1966).
During the 1950s she was awarded three major literary prizes: The Carnegie Medal of the Library Association, The Hans Christian Andersen Award and the Regina Medal of the American Catholic Library Association.
Her work is cited as an influence by famous Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.
These days, Eleanor Farjeon's most widely known work is the popular children's hymn Morning has Broken, written in 1931 for an old Gaelic tune associated with the Scottish village Bunessan. It was later popularized by the folk singer Cat Stevens. 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" is one of the many poems to be found in the anthology "Children's Bells" under its correct title A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring), published by Oxford University Press in 1957 and bringing together poems from many sources, including the Martin Pippin books.
One of Farjeon's poetic 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. Her historic poems range from King Priam, who in rhyming couplets begs his son's body from Achilles, and 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 troubador, 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 the 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".