Review: Beyond the Vicarage, Noel Streatfeild

HaHA.  A while ago I read the first two volumes of Streatfeild’s slightly-fictionalized autobiography, and I could not get the third one.  I believe I rather fatalistically said the library didn’t have it and it was out of print and I’d never ever find out what happened to Noel Streatfeild.  Obvious nonsense because of course we know she became a classic writer of children’s books.  But anyway the public library here shocked me by having the third book, and I read it on Sunday after church.

I dunno.  My feelings were mixed.  I liked reading about Streatfeild’s becoming a writer.  At first when she decided to settle down and write for a living, she was always getting calls and dashing off to meet friends and do jolly things; so she decided to stay in her nightdress every morning so that she couldn’t go out even if she wanted to, until she’d finished her writing for the day.  And I was, as ever, intrigued by Streatfeild’s depiction of the changing role of class in British society during the World Wars.  Vicky’s mother could be said to be living in reduced circumstances after the death of her husband, but she persists in thinking of herself as “carriage people”.  There is this squirm-inducing scene when Vicky’s mother is living in lodgings kept by two women who were once a cook and a housemaid, and Mrs. Strangeway treats them as if they are her hired help.  “So funny,” she tells Victoria, “they like to be called Miss Baines and Miss Cook….I’m afraid I’m always forgetting about the ‘Miss’ and wanting to call them just Baines and Cook.”  Oh, and she refers to Vicky as “Miss Vicky” when she’s talking to them.  Yup, she does.

HOWEVER.  This book felt like a collection of anecdotes – not always good ones – the kind of autobiography people write when they do not really know what sort of a story they are telling.  Streatfeild talks about her service during the war, her initial disinterest in writing for children, and it’s not that any one of these aspects is uninteresting in itself.  But there’s no underlying order to them.  Streatfeild is intent on remarking on every single thing her past self did that she now realizes was immature, ignorant, self-indulgent, or otherwise unworthy of praise, and that gets old, as well.  Altogether, not her best effort.

On to happier things!

World War II.  Not actually happy at all, but bear with me.  When I was at the university library for the first time the other day, I checked out one of Juliet Gardiner’s books.  I think I read about her for the first time at Elaine’s blog, and since I am mad for social histories, and mad for Britain during World War II, I got out Gardiner’s Wartime.  Y’ALL.  This book is amazing.  I may not review it for ages and ages because it’s massively thick.  It’s so thick that if it were a sandwich, I wouldn’t be able to take a bite out of it.  But it’s wonderful!  She’s drawn from dozens of different accounts, so that you can see every event through numerous eyes.  I am not even two chapters in, and I already have the biggest book-crush on Juliet Gardiner.

A discontented blog post about quite a quantity of books

My sister kindly met me at the public library on Saturday and lent me her library card.  She also gave me a baseball cap, which she assures me I should use any time I visit the public library because it will ward off the attentions of creepy old dudes.  I did not take the baseball cap, nor was I bothered by creepy old dudes, but I mostly frequented the children & YA sections, which maybe is not where the creepy old dudes hang out.  I checked out loads of books, and none of the ones I have read so far have filled me with joy.  I am plainly reading the wrong books.

Hilary McKay’s The Exiles and The Exiles at Home

Not as good as the Casson books.  In particular, The Exiles was not as good as the Casson books.  The eponymous kids are not as fun and sympathetic as the Cassons, and I identified passionately with the paucity of books the poor girls were experiencing, though not to the enhanced enjoyment of the Exiles books themselves.  Only two books each for a summer vacation, they had.  It’s iniquitous to deprive children of books to that extent.  The Exiles at Home was touching, because the protagonists wanted something I also wanted them to have, and it made me cry.

Noel Streatfeild’s When The Sirens Wailed

Merciful God, this book was depressing.  Normally Noel Streatfeild’s books have fully realized children characters, but this did not.  Normally they allow a certain degree of stability for the children as far as housing is concerned, but this did not.  It was a vivid depiction of England’s suffering during World War II, and it made my heart sad.  Except occasionally there would be a particular detail that charmed me, like when all the boys in the village where the kids got evacuated were told to turn the street signs in the wrong directions, and the girls in the village were taught to tell Germans lies about how to get to London.  That sounds awesome.

Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth

The conclusion is inevitable.  Zombies are not for me.  Here I have seen all these reviews all over the blogosphere in love with The Forest of Hands and Teeth.  If I do not love it, what conclusion can be drawn?  Only that zombies, they are not for me.  Zombiepocalypses.  I do not love them.  Zombies are not all about redemption.  Dystopia and branding of sentient aliens and human women, I’m all over that (that was spoilers for something but I’m not saying what and thus it doesn’t count).  Zombies, no.

Trying to Get Some Dignity: Stories of Triumph Over Childhood Abuse, Richard & Ginger Rhodes

Yeah, I know.  There was no way this was going to be not depressing.  I was reading it for research, and it didn’t even tell me anything I didn’t already know.  I should have confined this weekend’s research to books about gender roles in fairy tales.  Because there is nothing at all depressing about gender roles in fairy tales.  If there’s one uplifting subject of study in this world, it’s gender roles in fairy tales.

Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories

Oh yes, and I read this as research too, not at the library but at Bongs & Noodles, in a comfy armchair in the Christian Inspiration section because it was the only free chair, and not really read it but more zipped through looking for things that I would find useful.  For a book about evolutionary psychology, I found this book to be surprisingly understandable, and of all the books herein mentioned, On the Origin of Stories is the one with which I was least discontented (by far).  My favorite thing that I wrote down for myself to remember from this book is that people find stories most memorable when the characters of the stories cross ontological boundaries.  That is an interesting fact.

Noel Streatfeild’s Tennis Shoes

I read this the night before leaving home, and I stomped around the house for a while carrying on about how disappointing I found it. I did find it extremely disappointing.  The father pressures his kids into playing tennis because he wants them to be tennis champions for the glory of England, and none of them are particularly fantastic at it.  There is no excuse for such blatant badness as there was in Tennis Shoes!  She wrote it in between two of her most excellent books, Ballet Shoes and Circus Shoes (or The Circus is Coming as it was also titled)!  Why, Noel Streatfeild?  Why?

Does it count as a reading slump if you are reading loads of things, and they are simply failing to satisfy you?  Also: Given my extreme dissatisfaction, might it not make sense to order Monsters of Men after all from England?  And just buy it again when it comes out here in the fall so that I will have matching copies of the whole series?

Mothering Sunday, Noel Streatfeild

Mothering Sunday is the first Streatfeild book I’ve read that was written for adults – unless you count On Tour, which I guess you maybe could since it talks (albeit obliquely) about Victoria’s shocking flirty behavior.  In Mothering Sunday, Anna, the mother of five grown-up children, has started acting strangely.  She refuses to allow her favorite granddaughter to visit anymore; there are rumors that she has taken to wandering around aimlessly at night; and she refuses to even mention the name of her youngest son, Tony, who is involved in some unnamed disgrace.  The four older children agree to get together with Anna to discuss her future, and to discuss with each other what’s to be done about Tony.  The first six chapters are each devoted to one member of the family – Anna, the pompous Conservative eldest son Henry, brisk, well-organized, impatient Jane, intuitive self-effacing social worker Margaret, flighty, beautiful Felicity, and careless, shallow Tony.

There are a lot of people to keep track of in this book, as three of the children are married with children, and their spouses also figure in the story.  I did occasionally find myself flipping back to try and remember who was married to whom and what children were whose.  But surprisingly, what works best is when the family is all together.  Noel Streatfeild creates a superb dynamic between the siblings, and between the family and the in-laws.  She captures that thing about having a big family where everyone has these ideas about each other: Margaret will make do with whatever she’s given, Jane has to have her own way when she’s planning, Felicity won’t pay proper attention to anything she’s meant to do; the in-laws all think Henry is no earthly use.  Lots of good family mythology, which gets affirmed or challenged by the other characters in the book.

Because there are so many characters, wanting so many different things, it’s difficult to develop them all properly.  I ended up in sympathy with some of them, while not caring if others went and jumped in a lake – including Anna and Tony, unfortunately.  The good characters didn’t get enough screen time, and the uninteresting ones too much.

So if this is anything to go by, I prefer Streatfeild’s books for younger readers.

Have you noticed that most authors who write books for children and books for adults are dramatically better at one of the two?  And often the same goes for authors who write in two or more different genres?  Or am I just imagining that this is a pattern?  Or is it all down to personal preference and nothing to do with the actual merit of the book?

Noel Streatfeild

I love me some Noel Streatfeild.  Turns out, she wrote several fictionalized autobiographical books about her life, and I just read two of them, A Vicarage Family and On Tour.  I think there is one more but my library very unobligingly does not have it.  She was the second of four children, and often felt out of place in her family.  Her older sister, Isobel, had asthma and as they had not yet invented the glory that is Albuterol, she was often an invalid.  The younger sister, Louise, was the beauty of the family and apparently never gave any trouble apart from tattling; and then the youngest one, Dick, was the boy.  Their father came from a posh family (“carriage folk” they used to say), but he was a vicar and there wasn’t much money when they were growing up.

I really felt for Victoria, which is what Noel Streatfeild calls herself in this book.  This passage sums up the general attitude towards her in her childhood:

Granny took Victoria’s other hand and pulled her gently nearer to her.  “Of course I love all my grandchildren, but I have a very special corner in my heart for you, Vicky.”

Victoria was amazed.  “Me!  But nobody likes me best!”

“That is what you think but you ae wrong.  I know somebody else who also keeps a special corner of his heart for you.”

Victoria was sure she knew the answer to that.  “God.”

Granny smiled.  “God loves us all.  No, I was thinking of your father.”

“Daddy!  But I’m the cross he has to bear.  Everybody says so.”

Oh dear.  Imagine growing up with everyone saying that about you.  It is no surprise (to me anyway) that Victoria grows up incredibly sensitive to other people not liking her.  As soon as she suspects an adult might not think well of her, she gets very proud and unfriendly – a bit like Jane in Movie Shoes, if you read Movie Shoes.  She grows up and becomes an actress, but after a while she decides to leave that behind (as she has gotten involved in some rather scandalous affairs about which I WANT TO HEAR MORE), go home, and become a writer instead.  And just as the plot thickens and I want to know all about her becoming a writer, On Tour ends and my library hasn’t got the last book and it’s out of print and I shall never know what happens.

Noel Streatfeild does a wonderful job portraying her family members.  The father is quite saintly and sounds like he would sometimes be very trying to live with – they get prayers and Bible verses to memorize and say when they’ve been bad, and when they get asked to a party during Lent, they’re told they can’t eat any sweets.  No sweets!  And they have to say no thank you to the cake and ask for only bread and butter.  LET ME TELL YOU, it is so uncomfortable when you are little to have dietary restrictions at a party.  I used to be allergic to cheese, and when we had pizza at parties everyone was all, Why are you taking the cheese off? and I felt stupid and I hated it.

And then sometimes things are just funny:

” ‘O come let us sing unto the Lord: Let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation..’ What’s the chances we’ve been asked to her party?  But if we have, bets I, Daddy won’t let us go.  I know he likes Mr. Sedman but he’s never let us go to parties in Lent.”

Victoria had a good ear, and she managed to fit the words perfectly to the plainsong of the Venite.

Isobel…began to giggle now, and to cover it pretended to be choking into her handkerchief.  Her mother looked anxiously at her.  She had seemed all right when they came out; the suspicion did stir in her – was Victoria being naughty? – but if she was there was no sign for there stood Victoria, prayer book properly held in two gloved hands, singing beautifully in her clear, choir-boy voice.  Their mother opened her bag and took out a box of cough lozenges and pushed it towards Isobel, who somehow mastered her giggles while with a shake of the head she denied the need for the lozenges.

“And that was pretty mean,” sang Victoria, “for I like them even if you do not.”

It’s also interesting to see the shifting of class boundaries over the course of the books.  Victoria’s parents – really all the adults in her lives – are extremely class-conscious.  Despite the fact that they can hardly afford dresses for the girls, her family has several servants to cook and clean and mind the children, and they distinguish between themselves and the tradesmen who come to the back (not front!) door.  As the book goes on, and World War I happens, these distinctions start to break down.  Victoria goes on the stage, where they don’t matter at all, and struggles to explain this to her family, who all want to know what sort of people she’s associating with on a day-to-day basis.  I am fascinated by the class thing in England.

Oh why is Noel Streatfeild all out of print?  I yearn and yearn for her books to be put all properly back in print and particularly Movie Shoes, which apparently my copy is heavily abridged and I want the proper version that was published in England, lo these many years ago.  The Book Depository, my new best friend and desperate temptation, has let me down.  By not having all of her books in print.  I guess it is not the Book Depository’s fault.

P.S. I went to the game last night, and we won so that was fun, but more importantly!  They honored my most favorite one of all our players, specially, and then right after they had done that he scored a touchdown (hooray!). They were all, the fastest ever player in all of college football, and I was sad because next year he will be gone.  Moreover, we screamed incredibly loudly enough to prevent the other team from getting a touchdown.  I like to feel that I have helped.