It Pays to be Good by Noel Streatfeild – An early cynical celebrity?

Noel Streatfeild’s 1936 novel features a character that was not at all likeable; she described her as “presented only to dislike and to entertain”. Flossie, or later “Virginia” is a dominant character in every sense, and this is a sort of biography of a girl whose self obsession is total. It is a novel of its time, when the differences between classes were changing and the world of entertainment becoming more cynical. The early cult of celebrity is held up for criticism, while black humour and dogged ambition changes lives and betrays the unsuspecting. This entertaining and enjoyable novel features some classic set pieces of poor girl made good, transformation by language and grooming, and an example of love in many forms.

Flossie is a baby born with great beauty and presence, but into a home where neither is understood. Yet she convinces her mother in her father’s absence to enter her into a photographic competition, then for dancing lessons. Mrs Elk, the interestingly named mother, is not a pushy stage mother, but is quite willing to fall in with Flossie’s tireless ambitions. She persuades her father to allow her to continue her stage work by a mixture of cunning and appeals, and she is taken in by a woman who is quite a realist in terms of preparing her for a new identity as “Virginia”. This woman, Mouse, is in a relationship with a married man, a situation which has implications for the end of the novel. Flossie becomes a incredibly controlled and controlling woman, attracting enough young men to keep her in funds. Her career becomes the central theme of the novel, her devious and conniving nature a demonstration of cynicism and power.

This is a most entertaining read, with a sort of convincing anti- heroine who plays off those around her to great effect. As Austen said about Emma, Flossie/Virginia is a character that only an author could love, but she is precisely constructed in every detail. The theatre setting is correct and atmospheric in detail, as would be expected from Streatfeild with her theatrical background. The special effects for every show which L.L. achieves are lovingly and indulgingly described as Streatfeild enjoys her depiction of show business. It is a sort of warning that “Beauty is the cause of much sorrow”, but is also mindful that Flossie deserves a sort of success. I found the descriptions of Flossie’s parents the most touching, with their baffled recognition of her beauty and Mrs Elk’s unreliable physical condition, yet their obsessions are meant to be funny as well as moving.  Her Pygmalion – like transformation into Virginia includes her speech, dress and whole manner, but this is a change with no room for sentiment. This book, reprinted by Greyladies and therefore made available to today’s readers, could be read as a book which depicts a woman using the only weapons available to her in order to get to the top. Her beauty is her only asset in a world where she does not come from a wealthy or influential background and the reader cannot help but admire her single minded determination at whatever the cost to those around her. I enjoyed reading this book with its consistent writing and black humour; I recommend it to both those who know Streatfeild’s adult novels and those who have previously just heard of the classic “Ballet Shoes”.

The Greyladies books are a really good way of rediscovering past classics, but I have struggled to get copies on occasions. Thank goodness for Heffers in Cambridge who made it so easy!

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