I have just spent a very pleasant long weekend in the company of Noel Streatfeild, first rereading her children’s classic, Ballet Shoes, and then exploring for the first time her adult novel, Saplings. I thought it would be interesting to consider how the work of a writer for two contrasting audiences might be seen to both differ and to bear similarities and Streatfeild proved to be an excellent choice in this respect.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Ballet Shoes. I’m not sure why I was so fond of it as a child, because the world that was being described was completely alien to me; perhaps that’s why I found it so enticing. It was first published in 1936 and reading it now I have to wonder how much of it was wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. As I’m sure you all know it tells the story of the three Fossil girls, Pauline, Petrova and Posy, each of whom has been “collected“ by great uncle Matthew (GUM) and deposited with his niece Sylvia in a large house in London. When GUM fails to return from his travels, the money begins to run out and so Sylvia takes in boarders, one of whom, Theo Dane, suggests that the three girls be trained for the stage so that eventually they may also contribute to the family purse. For two of them this is an absolute delight, but for Petrova it represents something akin to one of Dantes’ circles of hell. Into the breach steps another of Sylvia‘s lodgers, Mr Simpson, who, with his car and eventually his garage, provides the outlet that she needs for her own talents.
In many respects it’s possible to read this as almost a proto-feminist work, given that what we have in the end is three young women who are able to dictate their own futures. But, as I’ve suggested, this may be wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. I wonder just how many young girls in the 1930s were able to manipulate their responsible adults in the way that the Fossil sisters do? Of course, the fact that those adults are not the girls’ actual parents is important. Already the significance of being able in someway to isolate children and thus give them a certain amount of independence is making itself felt in children’s literature.
The relationship between Pauline, Petrova and Posy is very tight, possibly idealistically so. The children at the heart of Streatfeild’s 1945 publication, Saplings, are perhaps a more realistic portrayal of sibling interaction. When we first meet them in the summer of 1939 Laurel, the eldest, is eleven, the two boys Tony and Kim, nine and seven and the younger daughter, Tuesday, four. They are spending a last idyllic holiday at Eastbourne and while they may not be aware of the dangers lurking on the horizon, it is clear that both their father, Alex Wiltshire, and the writer are. In his afterword for the Persephone edition, Dr Jeremy Holmes suggests that Streatfeild’s primary concern is the psychological damage that war does to children. Certainly the final words of Mrs Oliver, I was saying to my daughter only yesterday, “we got a lot to be thankful for in this country. Our kids ‘aven’t suffered ‘o-ever else ‘as” have to be seen as ironic given the trauma that at least three of the Wiltshire children have endured. And, it is true that while one of the chief issues for the adults in the novel is the question of physical safety, of where the children will live, questions initially to do with evacuation and eventually, given that we are dealing with a nice middle-class family, where they should spend the holidays when their boarding schools are closed, the consequences of the decisions that they make in this respect are given very little thought at all. And yet, they are frequently disastrous, especially for the mental well-being of Laurel, whose distress at being moved from pillar to post is rarely taken into account. However, it seems to me that Streatfeild is every bit as interested in the relationship between the children and the adult women in their lives and frequently the young Wiltshires are let down by the very people you would expect to offer them the most support.
There are many women, relatives and teachers for the most part, who are influential in the children’s experiences, but the primary contrast is between the children’s mother, Lena, and the governess, Ruth Glover. For Lena the children are darlings, charming decorations, but they must not interfere with her real life:
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 doing just those things.
Lena is not used to having to accommodate herself either to other people or to circumstance. The war hits Lena hard.
Ruth, on the other hand, has had a difficult childhood:
she was highly strung and acutely sensitive and, to defend herself drew away from her childhood, studying it with detachment, waiting patiently to be grown-up. As a legacy of these bitter school years she possessed a profound understanding of children.
As the war progresses and the children are successively sent away to boarding school, Ruth joins the ATS and from what we are told has a remarkably successful career there, but it is still to her that the children, Laurel in particular, turn in times of crisis. Lena, almost literally drowning in her own misery, is of no help to them at all, prepared to have them home only when it suits her needs. Not that she is capable of recognising this; she is a victim of muddled thinking, a problem from which the Fossil household suffers as well. The children’s grandfather defines this for us during a conversation about two young evacuees, Albert and Ernie, whose mother has demanded that they return to London, explaining
she didn’t get them home because she thinks the danger’s over but because she’s lonely without them…the reason isn’t the one she thinks it is…very important not to fool yourself.
Lena may think clearly at the beginning of the novel, but by the time the war has taken its toll she is incapable of doing anything other than fooling herself and damaging her children in the process.
I understand that this is the only one of Streatfeild’s adult novels available in print, which is a shame. Saplings is by no means a flawless work, but nevertheless it’s one that I enjoyed very much and I would have liked to have been able to explore more of her writing for this audience. It’s clear that her main interest is still children, how they interact with each other, and how they grow through childhood into young adults. Perhaps when it came to writing just about adult relationships she found herself at a loss, I’m not in a position to find out, but perhaps some of you have read other works by her intended for an older audience. If so, I would be very interested to know what you thought of them.