Under the Rainbow by Susan Scarlett – better known as 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….