Archive for the ‘Noel Streatfeild’ Category

Babbacombe'sOn Friday afternoon, I returned home after work to that most delightful of things: a package of books.  A few weeks ago, I shamelessly begged Shirley at Greyladies to send me two of their Noel Streatfeild books and now here they were: It Pays to Be Good and, written under her penname of Susan Scarlett, Babbacombe’s.  Lacking any willpower whatsoever (reminder to self: spend rest of today studying), I curled up last night next to the fire and read Babbacombe’s start to finish.

The story begins as Beth Carson leaves school.  A well-respected and much admired Head Girl, she is now transitioning from the world of children into the world of adults.  She is, proudly but also nervously, about to start work at Babbacombe’s department store, where her father, George, has worked for more than thirty years.  George is delighted to share his work world with his much-beloved daughter and confident that she will do well as an assistant in the Gowns department.  Her mother, Janet, is glad of the contributions Beth will be able to make to the always-strapped family finances now that she is earning.  Beth’s four younger siblings are proud but also cheerfully indifferent towards their sister’s new career, more interested in their own lives (proving again that Scarlett/Streatfeild knew what she was doing when it came to writing children).

Into this happy family comes Dulcie, George’s seventeen year-old orphaned niece.  George and Janet take her in out of family feeling, however, it’s not long before they realise that Dulcie is a cheap, nasty piece of work.  With no interest in building a career at Babbacombe’s (why bother, she thinks, when she plans to marry young?), she takes a position as an elevator girl, enjoying the dashing uniform and the male admiration that comes with it.  At work she is merely lazy; at home, she needles, complains, and takes a particular dislike for Beth.  The two girls are similar in age but that is all they have in common.  When Dulcie discovers that David Babbacombe, the owner’s son, has taken an interest in Beth, her animosity only grows.

Beth is, essentially, an Anthony Trollope heroine.  She is, in the words of another Greyladies book featuring a Trollope-esque female (The Glenvarroch Gathering by Susan Pleydell), “very, very pretty and neat and you noticed how good her manners were, and yet she was comfortable and full of fun.”  She is honest, dependable, hard-working, devoted to her family, and, from the beginning of their relationship, deeply conscious of the social gulf that exists between her and David Babbacombe.  Indeed, like a true Trollope heroine Beth spends a significant amount of time halfheartedly pushing David away because she thinks he, despite his father’s humble origins, is too far above her touch.  David heartily disagrees and pursues her in a gentle way (assisted by his delightful dachshund – his most trusted confidante – and a friendly and romantic dentist ).  Dulcie does her best to get in the way (trying to attract David and create trouble for Beth) but generally fails: David is not divertible and Beth has confided to her parents all her romantic woes.  To Dulcie’s dismay, she discovers how difficult it is to create drama when everyone else is honest and straightforward.

I loved the warmth of the Carson family, the kindness of Mr. Babbacombe, the romance between Beth and David, and, yes, the awfulness of Dulcie.  It’s always so satisfying to have an odious character to loathe.  This was just the right sort of cosy, light book for this weekend.

Now back to studying.

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Gran-NannieI am slowly warming to Noel Streatfeild.  I wasn’t very impressed by our first encounter (Saplings) but everything I have read by her since then has, in varying ways, delighted me.  Gran-Nannie (recently reprinted as Tea By the Nursery Fire), which I read earlier this year, was no exception.

Based on the family’s stories about her father’s beloved nanny, Streatfeild has created a fictionalised account of the life of Emily Huckwell.  Emily, a gardener’s daughter born in the 1870s, goes into service when she is only eleven.  She starts as a nursery maid but over the years advances to under nurse, then nannie, and, in her old age, gran-nannie to the children of the boys and girls she once cared for.

Like Emily herself telling a bedtime story or a homily to the children, Streatfeild is absolutely matter-of-fact about the realities of Emily’s situation.  There is no question about getting to choose her life’s path – Emily knows that she, like her mother and grandmother before her, will go into service.  She does, however, go after the kind of work she wants and what she wants is to take care of children. Working briefly for one family, she is soon passed on to another younger and poorer family: the Burtons.  Emily comes just before Mrs. Burton has her first child and ends up staying with them for the rest of her life, caring for all of the Burton children: John, Henry, Thomas, Mary, Matthew, and Lucy.  Mrs. Burton is a disinterested mother and so it is Emily who sees the children through all the major events of their lives and it she who they run to with their news and their problems.  Emily never marries, her one romance having come to a tragic end, but the Burton children are her family and they adore her as much as she does them.

A very affectionate tribute to someone who was clearly a beloved member of the family.

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Rainy Day by George Ellis Carpenter

Rainy Day by George Ellis Carpenter

Few publishers provide as many excellent comfort reads – perfect for any season but especially the dark, cool days of autumn and winter – as the Edinburgh-based publishers Greyladies.  I own a handful of their books and have reviewed some here already (Eliza for Common, Summer Term, A Young Man’s Fancy) and have many more I can’t wait to read.  These are comfort books extraordinaire, the sort of reading that you long for when ill or upset, or simply too exhausted to focus on anything remotely challenging or clever.  Their two newest releases – The Glenvarroch Gathering by Susan Pleydell and Under the Rainbow by Susan Scarlett – arrived on my doorstep recently, though at the time I was too busy between work and studying for an exam to read them.  This week, having passed the exam and having somewhat settled into work, I read them both with delight.

Under the RainbowSusan Scarlett was the penname used by Noel Streatfeild for her light and formulaic but still enjoyable romances.  In Under the Rainbow, she writes about a young vicar, Martin Richards, who feels that it is his calling to work among the poor.  Spiritually, it is work he is well-suited for.  Physically, the harsh conditions in the London slums where he begins his career destroy his health.  Sent by his Bishop to an idyllic corner of Sussex, Martin is aghast when he sees his new home:

He nearly had a fit when he first saw the vicarage.  It was one of those enormous vicarages built in the early days of the last century, when the vicar always had a large family, when the cost of living was far lower, and when the vicar was usually a younger son with just sufficient allowed him by his father to enable him to keep a horse, officially for riding around his parish, but actually for hunting two days a week. 

Longing for a dirty tenement or a simple cottage, the vicarage is not at all the home he wants.  But it is the home he gets and, before long, it begins to fill up.  First, he acquires a housekeeper, the invaluable Bertha.  Then, an elderly and mean-spirited aunt arrives.  Shortly after that, his niece and nephew are orphaned and so they too come to live at the vicarage.  Finally, to take care of them and mediate the power struggles between Bertha and Aunt Connie, Judy Griffiths, a nice and extraordinarily capable young woman with a mysterious past, also moves into the vicarage.

It is a simple story and utterly predictable but I loved it.  I stumbled a bit over the more religious passages – something I don’t remember from the two or three other Streatfeild books I’ve read.  They are logically incorporated but still a bit surprisingly.

The Glenvarroch GatheringA little (but only a little) less cosy and altogether more energetic was The Glenvarroch Gathering by Susan Pleydell.  In order to make a little more money one summer, the McKechnie family (or, more specifically, the University-aged McKechnie children) decide to take in paying guests.  They have a large home by the sea in the West Highlands and, to the family’s surprise, they manage to find a group of people eager to come and stay: a good-natured American couple, a schoolboy who is classmates with the youngest McKechnie boy, a young University lecturer working on a grim novel, a schoolmistress longing for something more adventurous than her life in the Midlands, and a glamourous brother and sister from London.  The younger visitors are quickly taken up by the McKechnies and a busy summer begins, full of picnics, hikes, and flirtations.  But some of the visitors are not what they seem and the uncovering of sinister secrets leads to a dramatic (but relatively quickly and harmlessly resolved) sequence of events.  Everyone ends up with the person they should and it is all quite excellent.  Reels are danced, kilts are worn, bad guys are caught…what more could I ask for?

Though I enjoyed all of the characters in this book, I had a few particular favourites.  Pat McKechnie and Jo, both schoolboys of eighteen, were each a wonderful combination of childish enthusiasm and adult clear sightedness.  They admire the older girls they are surrounded by and Jo is rather taken with Fiona McKechnie but, unlike the older set, they do not get caught up in any messy flirtations, leaving them free for much more enjoyable activities.  But they are useful and Jo is particularly observant.  As a Trollope fan, I loved the moment when he realised who it was that one of the McKechnie’s friends reminded him of:

He searched his mind for what it was that made Maisie seem faintly familiar, and got it with some intellectual triumph.  He had lately discovered the works of Anthony Trollope, and Maisie was like some of those girls, very, very pretty and neat and you noticed how good her manners were, and yet she was comfortable and full of fun. 

My other favourite was Mrs McKechnie, the universally-beloved lady of the house.  Though her husband, the Professor, is rather distant and spends much of the book hidden in his study, Mrs McKechnie sees all without even interfering too much.  An ideal mother, really.  I also loved that she was an early riser; her early morning routine, possible thanks to a husband who is a very sound sleeper, sounds most appealing:

Mrs McKechnie very rarely did anything outside herself, so to speak, during her morning solitude.  She had developed a highly efficient routine, and the position of the pillows, easy accessibility of tea-tray and cigarettes, the ancient woolly, so familiar that it almost wrapped itself around her shoulders, and the replenished hot-water bottle if the morning were chilly made together a perfect, luxurious comfort in which she half sat, half lay blissfully alone and gave herself up to thought.  She enjoyed thinking, and she did it well, not after the fashion of her husband’s scholarly mind, concentrating on one subject to unfathomable depths, but with a wide range and a livelier imagination than his, though a similar capacity for immersing herself in the thought of the moment enabled her to understand his detachment. 

I had never heard of Pleydell before Greyladies started reprinting her books but, having now read three of them, I cannot wait to read the rest.  Please, please, please let her other books be in their sights for future publication!

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I have reviews of three excellent children’s books for you today, each containing those magic elements necessary in all good children’s books: new surroundings, limited adult supervision, and unlimited imagination.

The Magic SummerThe Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild actually made me understand why people love Streatfeild so much.  I had never read any of her children’s books before, just Saplings, which, though children feature as major characters, is definitely an adult book.  I had been told that Streatfeild wrote children’s voices exceptionally well, but there was little sign of it in that book.  Here, on the other hand, the children come alive.

With their parents in the Far East, the four Gareth children are sent to stay with an eccentric great-aunt in Ireland.  Great-aunt Dymphna has no interest in basic domestic chores or children and so, for the first time in their lives, the children are left to fend for themselves.  The two eldest, Alex and Penny (ages 13 and 12), do their best to keep up the standards they are used to a home while their younger siblings, Robin and Naomi (10 and 9), are much quicker to recognize and embrace the freedom their great-aunt is offering.  The summer is spent exploring and learning, occasionally terrifying themselves as they test the limits of their abilities.  There is nothing fantastical about their experiences, which is part of what I liked so much about this book: the Gareths’ experiences are the same ones any child could have, consisting as they do of decidedly mundane tasks like learning to cook or memorizing a bit of poetry.  No magic spell or secret portal necessary: just determination and a willingness to try new things.

The relationships between the children were especially wonderful.  Though they all, to some extent, strike out on their own, mostly we see them together.  They try to support one another but they also snap and bicker.  With none of the pastimes they are used to available in their new surroundings, they become bored and bad-tempered.  They act selfishly and then are ashamed when they realise they ought to apologize (but really don’t want to).  They feel, in short, like real children.

Tom's Midnight GardenYou want to know who doesn’t feel like a real child?  Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.  I know people adore this book and will hate to hear any criticism, however minor, but they will have to forgive me.  He is flat but the book is not.  It is a magical story, about a boy who, while staying with his aunt and uncle, discovers that when the clock strikes thirteen each night in the lobby of their apartment building he is able to slip into the past.  Rather than the dreary, rundown apartment building of modern times (“modern” here being the 1950s, as the book came out in 1958) he finds himself back in the days when the building was a family home, when it was surrounded by a large garden instead of other buildings, and when a young girl, Hatty, lived there.  Most people cannot see Tom when he appears in the past but Hatty can and they become playmates.  Night after night, Tom visits her but with each visit she grows a little older, years passing in what for him is a single day.  Thought the ending was clear from the very beginning of the book, it still made me tear up a little.  I am so glad I finally read this.

The Secret World of OgBut the book I am most glad to have read, the one that entertained me the most, was The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton.  Until recently, I had no idea that Berton, a Canadian historian, had written a children’s book.  Apparently, my father could have told me as much: this was one of his childhood favourites, having been published in 1961 when he was six years old.

When “The Pollywog” (otherwise known as Paul) disappears from the playhouse, his four older siblings set out to find him.  A manhole has been sawed in the playhouse floor and, lifting it, they find a tunnel descending into a mysterious underground world, full of green creatures who can only say “Og”.  Or can they?  As Penny, Pamela, Peter, and Patsy explore this foreign land, their fear and suspicion lessens with the more Ogs they meet.  Not only are the Ogs wearing familiar clothing – dress-up items that had gone missing over time from the playhouse, in fact – but some even appear to speak English, learned from the cowboy comic books that the children love so much and which, like the clothing, had been stored in the playhouse.

I loved everything about this book.   I loved the world of Og itself, with its giant tree-like mushrooms and its citizens who are happy to play make-believe all day, but mostly I loved the five Berton siblings.  Like any children, they love the idea of a world devoted to imaginative play and, even more, adore being authorities on subjects the Ogs are most eager to learn about.  But they also realise that sometimes fantasy needs limits and it can be just as exciting to discover real things as imaginary ones.  This book is so fun and clever and well written that I can understand why Berton considered it his favourite of his works and why it has remained a favourite among readers for fifty years.

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It’s been more than three months since I read Saplings by Noel Streatfeild and I think that tells you something about my feelings towards the book.  I enjoyed it but, the moment I put it down, I forgot all about it.  I was neither disappointed nor delighted by it, but it entertained me well enough while I was reading it for me to want to discuss it here.

Saplings chronicles the destruction of a once happy family as the Second World War intrudes and interrupts their contented existence.  The opening pages as the family vacations on the beach at Eastbourne in the summer of 1939 make for one of the most intriguing introductions I can remember.  You instantly known the characters of the four children (Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday), their parents (Alex and Lena), and their caregivers (Nanny and the governess Ruth).  The children’s perspectives, their anxieties and fears, their joy in having their father with them instead of at work, all seemed perfectly expressed.  Briefly but brilliantly, Streatfeild made the reader familiar with all aspects of the Wiltshires’ inner lives.

And then, slowly at first, their happy lives start to fall apart.  The children are evacuated to their grandparents’ house when the war begins, separated from their parents and, when school begins and the eldest children go off to their boarding schools, from each other.  Their comfortable, safe lives suddenly have no center and the stresses and tragedies of war only cause each child to drift more and more from the happy, stable childhood they had enjoyed before the war and from the happy, stable people they had once seemed destined to become. 

But it is not just the children Streatfeild considers, though they are the focus.  Their mother, Lena, is, for me, the most intriguing character of the novel.  She loves her well-ordered, pre-war life, with the children neatly taken care of by others, allowing her plenty of time with Alex.  From the opening pages, it is clear that Lena has no intuitive mothering side to her:

Lena, without looking up from her magazine, felt Alex leave her side.  He would have gone to the tent to put on his things.  When they were first married, or even a few years ago, she would have gone with him.  She would no have missed those seconds in the hot tent, the flash of passion that would have come from the closeness of his cool, naked body.  But he had got so self-conscious, always worrying about what the children were thinking.  She had faced that.  He wanted to switch things.  He wanted to be a family man, bless him.  The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on being just those things.

But the war takes all that happiness from her, leaving her devastated and unable to cope.  Just when her children need her to be strong, she falls apart.  The widowed Lena turns to alcohol and affairs to fill the void left by Alex’s death and, for me, she was the most consistently well-written, believable character as her carefully assembled perfect world crumbles around her: 

Lena was in an overwrought state.  She had attained happiness.  It had been a delicate matter to so balance her life that it reached near perfection, but with skill she had managed it.  The war had no use for delicate adjustments, it had torn most of her happiness to pieces.

A number of other readers have remarked on how authentic the children’s voices were but I found them strangely simplified.  The children evolve into bundles of neuroses and psychological clichés, too anxious and too articulate in their anxieties to feel real.  It’s fascinating to read about such self-aware children but not particularly believable when their entire character seems to consist of nothing else but these fears. 

Saplings is a very episodic book, which becomes a bit trying as you go on, jumping from one event to the next without preamble.  I also found it wildly uneven in its attentions to the children.  The eldest children, Laurel and Tony, are more examined than their younger siblings but, even though the focus is on them, they never seem to mature emotionally or intellectually, though the novel spans at least five years. Laurel becomes the bizarre focus of the final part of the novel, accused by a hysterical aunt of having had an affair with her husband, whoLaurel had innocently befriended and cared for and received a girlish pearl necklace from while he was recovery from illness at home. Laurel, at sixteen, is stupid enough not to understand the accusation.     

All in all, a very interesting examination of the psychological impact of the war on those far removed from the fighting but whose worlds are nonetheless changed.  I love reading social histories and memoirs about life on the home front during the war and this is a perfect fictional companion to those books.  The children’s reactions here are extreme but still fascinating and Streatfeild’s writing style is incredibly compelling, pulling me along even when I found some of her choices unbelievable.

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