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Noel Stretfeild

Noel Streatfeild (from the Lewisham Heritage collection)

One of my favourite books as a child was Noel Streatfeild’s Party Frock, inherited from my mother via my aunt, in an old hardcover edition, the pages brown with dust and age.  It was a book to ease gently into and wallow in, a book full of odd little characters trying to do something distinctly strange. It is wartime in England and a family of children is trying to put up a village pageant to give a 14-year-old cousin the chance to wear a lovely party frock sent over from America by a godmother who has no idea that such party frocks no longer have any uses in an England under rationing, where parties no longer happen on a grand style. The book is all about the details of how such a production comes to pass, no more. But it is charming and completely delightful, in an uneventful, calming sort of way, as a group of perfectly ordinary people start coming together in an effort to achieve a small success.

When I read Streatfeild’s most famous book, Ballet Shoes, I was a little older but not too young to realise that it was very different from Party Frock. The children of Ballet Shoes were also interested in the stage, but they were complete professionals, driven by ambition. To dance; to act; to sing;  to be the best at this and to earn money for doing it—that was what they wanted and it was a world very far from the slow village setting in which the pageant is attempted. I liked it but never loved it the way I loved Party Frock.

Streatfeild has never been easy to find, and I’ve read only a couple of her other books, also about highly ambitious little dancers and actresses. They are human, all right, but they’re all incredibly talented. And frankly, their earnestness  and drive was mildly alarming, almost an admonishment to the laidback child I was. I forgot about Streatfeild for years. Then, quite recently, I found The Painted Garden in a pile of used books being sold on the street and bought it on a whim. And this one, as stilted as it is in parts, finally takes me back in some sense to the ordinary children of Party Frock.

The Painted Garden is about Rachel, Jane, and Time Winter, who live in London but are just leaving for a trip to America; their father has been depressed after being involved in an accident that killed a child and the doctors believe that if he goes off to sunny California for the winter, he might get much better. The family is out of money, but the children’s governess (also their mother’s school chum) decides to spend all of an inheritance she has just received on their tickets. The children are reluctant to go at first; Rachel, a gifted dancer, has just got a part in a professional show, Tim, a prodigiously talented pianist, is going to be given lessons by a sought-after teacher, and Jane doesn’t want to leave her precious pet dog Chewing-gum behind. But they go, eventually. Rachel and Tim both manage to practice and learn, in some form or another, even so far away from home. But it’s Jane who is the surprise; the ordinary, untalented Jane, by a random chance, lands a leading role in a film of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. She’s delighted to finally be the important one, the one who can do something as well as the other two.

But acting  isn’t easy, and nor is being good-natured enough to work with lots of other people, even those you hate.  Suffice it to say that Streatfeild, with great insight, gives us a child character who is deeply flawed and yet lovable. Jane responds as a child would to the pressures of being a professional. She has a hard time at the studio and is child enough to throw a few tantrums and sulk considerably herself. Somewhere in the middle of the book, it is entirely uncertain whether Jane will finish her film. She isn’t like a lot of Streatfeild’s other child characters–for her the pressure is not what comes in the way of her career on the stage but rather the career itself, something she may have thought would bring her to an equal footing with her brother and sister, but which actually turns out to be something she doesn’t enjoy. For once, Streatfeild’s protagonist is an ordinary child. I enjoyed this and sympathised with her. And was surprised and pleased to find that Streatfeild, even when she writes about children in show business, knows better than to think that all of them ought to be there.

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