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A Month of Favourites: ‘Saplings’ by Noel Streatfeild

As with most of the books which I blog about, it seems, I have wanted to read Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings for a very long time indeed.  I have heard only excellent things about it, and the fact that it is published by Persephone was another huge selling point as far as I was concerned.  I rather adored Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes when I read it a couple of years ago, and thought that Saplings would be the perfect summertime read.  (I can only apologise, therefore, that this post is going out in wintertime.)

Saplings, originally published in 1945, tells of the Wiltshires, a middle class London family whom, at the outset, are taking their annual summer holiday in Eastbourne.  As a unit, they are largely incredibly contented, and war seems like a proposition which is very far away.  Streatfeild thrusts us right into the heart of the family.  We meet the six almost simultaneously; parents Alex and Lena, and the four children – Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Thursday.  Streatfeild’s aim, says Dr Jeremy Holmes, the author of the book’s introduction, was to take a happy pre-war familial unit, and then track, ‘in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to thousands of such families’.

The novel’s beginning captivated me entirely: ‘As the outgoing tide uncovered the little stretch of sand amongst the pebbles, the children took possession of it, marking it as their own with their spades, pails, shrimping nets and their mother’s camp stool’.  Throughout, one of Streatfeild’s many strengths is the way in which she captures emotions so deftly: ‘The cool air, the fresh smell of the sea, the knowledge that it was another lovely day and there were no lessons and few restrictions, filled the children with that sort of happiness that starts in the solar plexus and rises to the throat, and then, before it can reach the top of the head, has to be given an outlet: anything will do, violent action, shouting or just silliness’.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, particularly with regard to the portrayal of her younger protagonists: ‘Laurel, back on the raft, attempted some more backward dives.  Each month or two she tried to be first-class at something.  She had discovered that if you were admittedly good at something, it seemed to allow you to be just ordinary about everything else’.

To continue with this theme, Streatfeild views many of her scenes from every possible angle, taking into account the thoughts and feelings of all involved at any given time.  Of Laurel, for example, her father thinks the following: ‘It was in his mind to tell her how proud he was.  How he loved her comic small face and her fair pig-tails, and her earnestness, and her elder sister ways which were such an endearing part of the family set-up; but he held back his thoughts.  No good going in for a lot of chat, making her self-conscious’.  Turning to Lena, the matriarch, Streatfeild writes the following: ‘Lena could see herself, fair and slim, little Tuesday lolling against her and exquisite Kim playing around, and she knew what a picture she must look, and the thought amused rather than pleased her.  There was nothing she liked better than to be envied and admired…  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 these things’.

Everything changes for the Wiltshires as soon as they return to their London home.  The children are split up, some going off to school, and others being sent to live with relatives in the country: ‘Laurel had alternated between tears and a kind of hectic pseudo-gaiety ever since the move to Gran’s and Grandfather’s was certain and her school uniform purchased.  She was scared. At eleven she understood what was going on around her. She had watched the hasty evacuation of other children.  She had heard scraps of conversation…  As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions’.

Streatfeild’s descriptions are gorgeous, particularly in those instances where she takes the hopes, thoughts and feelings of her characters into account.  A particularly striking example of this is as follows: ‘Now and again, when the sky was blue, and the trees glittered, incredibly green, and the scent of young bracken filled his nostrils, he forgot everything except the glory of the day and the fun of being alive’.  Incredibly well crafted, and utterly beautiful, Saplings is a novel which really gets into the psychology of wartime, and demonstrates just how much of a knock-on effect it had from the beginning.

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Classics Club #62: ‘Saplings’ by Noel Streatfeild *****

As with most of the books which I blog about, it seems, I have wanted to read Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings for a very long time indeed.  I have heard only excellent things about it, and the fact that it is published by Persephone was another huge selling point as far as I was concerned.  I rather adored Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes when I read it a couple of years ago, and thought that Saplings would be the perfect summertime read.  (I can only apologise, therefore, that this post is going out in Autumn.)

Saplings, originally published in 1945, tells of the Wiltshires, a middle class London family whom, at the outset, are taking their annual summer holiday in Eastbourne.  As a unit, they are largely incredibly contented, and war seems like a proposition which is very far away.  Streatfeild thrusts us right into the heart of the family.  We meet the six almost simultaneously; parents Alex and Lena, and the four children – Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Thursday.  Streatfeild’s aim, says Dr Jeremy Holmes, the author of the book’s introduction, was to take a happy pre-war familial unit, and then track, ‘in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to thousands of such families’.

The novel’s beginning captivated me entirely: ‘As the outgoing tide uncovered the little stretch of sand amongst the pebbles, the children took possession of it, marking it as their own with their spades, pails, shrimping nets and their mother’s camp stool’.  Throughout, one of Streatfeild’s many strengths is the way in which she captures emotions so deftly: ‘The cool air, the fresh smell of the sea, the knowledge that it was another lovely day and there were no lessons and few restrictions, filled the children with that sort of happiness that starts in the solar plexus and rises to the throat, and then, before it can reach the top of the head, has to be given an outlet: anything will do, violent action, shouting or just silliness’.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, particularly with regard to the portrayal of her younger protagonists: ‘Laurel, back on the raft, attempted some more backward dives.  Each month or two she tried to be first-class at something.  She had discovered that if you were admittedly good at something, it seemed to allow you to be just ordinary about everything else’.

To continue with this theme, Streatfeild views many of her scenes from every possible angle, taking into account the thoughts and feelings of all involved at any given time.  Of Laurel, for example, her father thinks the following: ‘It was in his mind to tell her how proud he was.  How he loved her comic small face and her fair pig-tails, and her earnestness, and her elder sister ways which were such an endearing part of the family set-up; but he held back his thoughts.  No good going in for a lot of chat, making her self-conscious’.  Turning to Lena, the matriarch, Streatfeild writes the following: ‘Lena could see herself, fair and slim, little Tuesday lolling against her and exquisite Kim playing around, and she knew what a picture she must look, and the thought amused rather than pleased her.  There was nothing she liked better than to be envied and admired…  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 these things’.

Everything changes for the Wiltshires as soon as they return to their London home.  The children are split up, some going off to school, and others being sent to live with relatives in the country: ‘Laurel had alternated between tears and a kind of hectic pseudo-gaiety ever since the move to Gran’s and Grandfather’s was certain and her school uniform purchased.  She was scared. At eleven she understood what was going on around her. She had watched the hasty evacuation of other children.  She had heard scraps of conversation…  As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions’.

Streatfeild’s descriptions are gorgeous, particularly in those instances where she takes the hopes, thoughts and feelings of her characters into account.  A particularly striking example of this is as follows: ‘Now and again, when the sky was blue, and the trees glittered, incredibly green, and the scent of young bracken filled his nostrils, he forgot everything except the glory of the day and the fun of being alive’.  Incredibly well crafted, and utterly beautiful, Saplings is a novel which really gets into the psychology of wartime, and demonstrates just how much of a knock-on affect it had from the beginning.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Classics Club #87: ‘The Bell Family’ by Noel Streatfeild ***

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.

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One From the Archive: ‘Tea by the Nursery Fire: A Children’s Nanny at the Turn of the Century’ by Noel Streatfeild ****

First published in October 2012.

Tea by the Nursery Fire tells the story of real-life figure Emily Huckwell, who went into domestic service when she was just eleven years old. Emily began her work as ‘a maid to wait on the nursery’, and soon had her position elevated to under nurse when her competency was realised by those she worked with and for. In this volume, Streatfeild tells Emily’s story, pieced together both from fact and family history.

The book is split into five different sections, beginning with ‘The Child’ and progressing to ‘Nursery Maid’ and ‘Gran-Nannie’. Born into ‘grinding’ poverty in Sussex in the 1870s, ‘near enough to the sea to smell it when the wind was right’, Emily was the eldest daughter of the Huckwell family. The Huckwells were, Emily told those in her charge, ‘a little better brought up than the other children in the hamlet, for her mother… knew what was what’. It was known from her birth that she would go to work in a grand house – ‘up would go her hair and off she would be sent to work’ – as her mother and grandmother had done before her.

We do not learn just about Emily, but of her family and those in her care. The third person perspective used throughout allows her memoirs to be read as something akin to a comforting story, which is a lovely touch. The sense of time and place in the book is evoked beautifully from the outset, and it is clear that Streatfeild has great compassion for Emily, who looked after her own father when he was young. Indeed, we as readers feel such sympathy for her, sent away at such a young age when she was ‘no bigger’n a gnat’.

This is not merely an important book from a social point of view. It also has regional information pertaining to Sussex in the period in which Emily lived there, and a wealth of historical details. We learn about the food commonly eaten in Victorian and Edwardian times and the standard of schooling in her small village – ‘there was provision for a clever boy or girl to stay on until they were eighteen, but this had never happened. Money was too badly needed in the cottages for such fancy nonsense’.

In fact, the book is wonderfully Victorian, both in its style and in terms of the language and dialogue used throughout. We enter a world of ‘gobbits’, the ‘tallyman’, ‘Pilgrim baskets’ and annual ‘gleaning’ in the cornfields. The divide between rich and poor is shown almost immediately, both above and below stairs. We learn what the staff thought about this great chasm between the standings of them and their masters, and the differences between the classes: ‘Funny gentry are, never seem to want their own children’.

With regard to Streatfeild’s writing style, Tea by the Nursery Fire is not always the easiest of books to read due to the lack of punctuation, and several sentences have to be read more than once. Still, the information which these sentences include is lovely in itself, both anecdotal and heartwarming. Small interwoven stories are included throughout, which has created a charming and interesting little book. Tea by the Nursery Fire is a must-read for anyone interested in Victorian and Edwardian history or the role of nannies, or for those looking to read a lovingly realised history of a marvellous woman.

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