Saturday, January 3, 2009

Noel Streatfeild

In December 2007 was broadcast a beautiful adaptation of Ballet Shoes, a book written by Noel Streatfeild and published in 1936. This classic of children's literature is a gem that introduced me to an amazing writer. She wrote 23 books for children and 16 for adults and was very prolific till the 70s but it seems to me that she is now unjustly forgotten. Her stories never give in to sentimentalism - the characters in her children's books have an artistic gift or lack any artistic gift but want to succeed and need to succeed because they need the money to help their guardians. It it the case of the Fossil sisters in Ballet Shoes but also of Sorel, Mark and Holly un Curtain Up and of Rachel and Hillary in Wintle's Wonders. The rationing imposed by the Second World War are depicted through the crumpling of ballet skirts, children who repeat their lines, auditions to get a part that will pay for a proper dress.
It is perhaps the family portraits Noel Streatfeild does that are the most interesting aspect of her works - without realising this small revolution it seems, she describes in 1936 that of a family that is one not because it is conventional (the Fossil sisters have all been abandoned by their parents but don't seem affected by it), but because it is made of affinity and mutual tenderness (a family has nothing to do without a few chromosomes in common). Brilliant. It may be interesting to notice that the adaptation of Ballet Shoes is, in this regard, very convervative : in 2007, a final wedding (completely absent from the book) is still needed to recompose the traditional family pattern. We can say it happened after the girls decided what they wanted to know with their lives and therefore this marriage isn't for them but rather for Sylvia who finally thinks about herself after having thought about raising children for such a long while.
The minutiae of Streatfeild's depictions that have to do with showbusiness are among the best, if not the best, I have ever read. The characters in Noel Streatfeild's novels are not all endearing, sometimes they're quite the opposite - after all, it's children we're talking about. If their language is refined, they are often cruel towards one another but we care nonethelees because of the disarming proximity with which Noel Streatfeild deals with her story. It is perhaps more obvious in her adult book Saplings, published in 1945 and reprinted by the delicious publishing company Persephone Books (it is her only adult book still in print today). Streatfeild described the everyday life of a common family - the characters' psychology is rich and captivating, be it children's or adults'. And then one day, the father dies in battle. But their lives must go on, despite the feeling of abandon their all experience. Tony's feelings, before the cataclysm are best expressed by this sentence (he is twelve when he says that) :

Wars, and all that were attached to them, were passing inconveniences, but they did not change the pulse of his world.

Ballet Shoes, 2007, from left to right : Nana (Victoria Wood), Posy Fossil (Lucy Boynton), Petrova Fossil (Yasmin Paige) and Pauline Fossil (Emma Watson).

The adults are so precisely depicted and women's roles are not confined to the smiling posters encouraging the troops - they have a sexuality, take the initiative, try to make ends meet. Once again, a lot is asked of children - each and every one of them has a part to play in the household, a part even more important now that the adults are upset with the war and its human and material deprivation. School starts, and trivial crises (not having the same uniform as everybody else because the suitcase was packed in a hurry, for example) take extreme proportions. Streatfeild's world can best be summed up, undoubtedly, by these words in Saplings :

We're at war, and everybody, even children, must do their bit.

I recommend this website dedicated to the author and this forum where fans meet and discuss this impressive writer.