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.