Number 87 on my Classics Club list, The Bell Family by Noel Streatfeild was first published in 1954. As I so adored Ballet Shoes when I read it for the first time a couple of years ago, I had very high hopes for Streatfeild’s other works. The Bell Family has recently been reissued by Vintage Children’s Classics, with a darling cover designed by Alice Tait, and I was able to borrow a copy from my local library.
The novel follows, as the title suggests, the Bell family, who are carrying out their ‘eventful lives’ against the busy backdrop of London. I adore the premise which is described in the blurb as follows: ‘Meet the big, happy Bell family who live in the vicarage at St Mark’s. Father is a reverend, Mother is as kind as kind can be. Then there are all the children – practical Paul, dancing Jane, mischievous Ginnie, and finally the baby of the family, Angus, whose ambition is to own a private zoo (he has already begun with his six boxes of caterpillars)’. Streatfeild sets the scene immediately: ‘The Thames is a very twisting sort of river. It is as if it had to force its way into London, and had become bent in the process… In the smaller bulge to the left is the part of south-east London in which the Bells lived. The people around where the Bells lived are not rich; mostly they live in small houses joined on to their next door neighbours. It is a very noisy part of the world. People shout a lot, and bang a lot, and laugh a lot’.
The novel is almost like a series of short stories; the family are followed throughout, but a different event takes precedence in each chapter. In this manner, I was reminded of Michael Bond’s delightful Paddington novels, which use a very similar structure, and Rumer Godden’s children’s stories, which are written in the same quaint and amusing way.
As with the other Vintage Children’s Classics, this edition of The Bell Family contains a wealth of extra information, ranging from an author biography to a quiz which you can take once you have finished reading. As a child, I would have been delighted by this interactive aspect, and it still charmed me somewhat as an adult reader.
Streatfeild is very perceptive of her characters, and The Bell Family is certainly a nice book to settle down with. However, there is not really much of substance within its pages. It did not have a memorable cast of characters such as those within Ballet Shoes, and it paled rather in comparison. Whilst the Bell children were quite sweet, there was nothing overly distinctive about them, and I doubt I will remember much about them in a year or so. I imagine that I would have enjoyed The Bell Family far more had I been a child on my first encounter with it.