Under the Rainbow by Susan Scarlett – better known as Noel Streatfeild

Image result for under the rainbow noel streatfeild

This is a lovely book of small village life, full of the varied fortunes of people who live closely together, interrupted by secrets, jealousies and love. Its network of characters are far from simple, and it is not until the last page that we are assured of a world that has wobbled under pressure from misunderstandings and unspoken emotion. Originally published in 1942, this is a book which would have offered solace and distraction in wartime, recalling a time of innocence and generosity when peaceful times were common and women and men were not parted. The countryside was never better described as a peaceful backdrop to emotional drama, and the children are sensitively realised. The rich and poor are contrasted as the characters learn that money is not always the answer, but that genuine relationships may be the way forward.

Three villages in the south of England, Upper Saltings, Saltings and Lower Saltings lie side by side geographically, but socially and economically are miles apart. Upper Saltings is prosperous, while Lower Saltings is very poor. Into this idyllic setting, in some respects, comes a young and still idealistic clergyman, Martin,  who has been denied the opportunity to minister in more challenging urban areas, and he soon assumes responsibility for Aunt Connie, a querulous elderly lady who has been left penniless. She becomes increasingly difficult, and a long running feud develops between her and the friendly and sensible housekeeper, Bertha. Lady Veronica, a young and very rich widow is supposedly interested in church affairs, using her money to take over events when she really has her eyes on Martin, who is blissfully unaware of her ambitions. Everything becomes more complicated when he effectively adopts his newly orphaned niece and nephew, Polly and Andrew. Being clueless how to deal with them he approaches his wise friend who dispatches the mysterious but extremely capable and attractive Judy as a nanny, governess and companion. Judy soon attracts the attention of Martin’s best friend, the suspicion of Aunt Connie and the powerful jealousy of Veronica. Judy is a lovely and kind young woman, but can she survive with her secret past which threatens to destroy her peace and happiness?

This is a novel of small things, petty jealousies and attractive characters. It is predictable, but that is precisely why it is comforting. It exposes some aspects of rural poverty, but is also very funny at times, especially as the lady of the manor tries to rule the village, the postmistress has a communication network and Bertha always copes. If you can track down this book, you will find it memorable for the characters, smile at the romance and enjoy the tension of secrets revealed. Streatfeild handles families beautifully, especially the women and girls, and the men are perhaps a little hapless as more sophisticated currents and motives swirl around them. A real treat to read at any time of year, this is a splendid  example of Streatfield’s velvet writing with a hard core of realism underneath, and makes this book a welcome experience for any reader with a fondness for mid twentieth century novels.

I was shocked to see how much a copy of this book cost on a certain website, but I am sure that it is out there a bit cheaper somewhere. I borrowed the Greyladies edition from a local library, where I was pleased and surprised to find it.  Libraries can still be useful…

I realised that I forgot to add a book of 2018 to my previous post, so here is one which was shortlisted for a prize. “Pieces of Me” by Natalie Hart is quite a brutal but tremendously effective book of war and peace, a woman in a war zone and today’s America. Here is my review https://northernreader.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/pieces-of-me-by-natalie-hart-a-moving-novel-of-people-and-place/

I have been a bit silent owing to an essay crisis – yes, I am not too old! Though possibly my recovery time from late night writing sessions is a little impared….

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!

Parson’s Nine by Noel Streatfeild A most enjoyable book to read and savour

Image result for Parson's Nine Streatfeild

This 1932 book tells the story of a family through the eyes of various people within that family over a period of about twenty years, before, during and after the First World War. This is no experimental novel of different narrators or points of view; it is a straight narration of a family where nine children grow up, face the challenges of life, endure the War and some loss, and where that leaves them in a new world. This is not a book of war or tragedy; although a family with so many young people in 1914 suffer, there is much more to this book. This is a book of humour and the small things that make up family life, of women who want more, who make gestures of independence and protest. It is not a melodramatic saga, but a book of what feels like real life, by a writer skilled in pushing each character to the limit and not beyond.

Catherine is married to David, a spiritually minded vicar who needs to occasionally be challenged on his touching but sometimes misguided assumptions about his family and their real feelings. When her first child is born, David brings Catherine a list of nine names from the biblical apocrypha, and unsurprisingly she is taken aback to think of having nine children, let alone in the exact order as specified. It comes to pass that “God blessed them with nine exactly” in the correct order and Catherine is determined that there will be no more. It is at Christmas that we first see the busy Vicarage full of children, each displaying the characteristics that will stay with them, as they comment on church life, death and Christmas presents. Catherine finds herself with a legacy which will allow her a holiday alone, then send the older sons to school and engage a governess for the girls. Miss Crosby is determined that each daughter will have the opportunity to develop her talents, even go to college. She also becomes so interested in women’s suffrage that she gets into trouble; another event that must be interpreted for David. Each of the children as they grow up shows their particular traits, as one loves gardening, another the family dog, and Esdras finds biblical quotes for all occasions. As war approaches assumptions are made about who will take part in which way, and the implications of those choices continue to affect who is left.

The subject matter of the novel is not miserable, or over dramatic. The style is gently amusing, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps and grasp the implications of the written record. It is a carefully written book, generous to the characters, full of tiny details which make it a convincing story. It feels like a book of its time, but beautifully written and controlled. I really enjoyed reading this book, appreciated its subtle wit, and found that it carried me along with its fascinating story. This is a book to be savoured and a pleasure to read, and I was really pleased to find it in my local library in its Greyladies edition.

I have been finishing off plenty of books over the last few days, so I ought to have something to post about!