Saturday, 26 February 2011

From Tiny Acorns


I've been looking forward to Persephone Reading Weekend for ages, so apologies that I'm joining in quite late in the day - yesterday I was so tired that I went to bed at 8.30pm. The fact that I was still awake at 2am was not fun... nor did I read much of this book during those hours (my eyes always give up before the rest of my mind/body does) but it was a quiet day today, so read the rest of it - 'it' being Saplings by Noel Streatfeild. (And aren't the endpapers beautiful?)

I bought Saplings (1947) in 2004, I think, and somehow it has languished on my shelves since then. It even came on holiday with me once, but didn't get as far as being read - no real reason for this neglect. Perhaps because I haven't read any of Streatfeild's books for children? Perhaps simply because it came in over my 300pp bench-mark for ideal reads. But it finally came down from my bookcase, and I can report back.

I've got to confess - the first few pages didn't win me over. It would be nice to be completely positive during an Appreciation Weekend, but I'm afraid I'm going to pick a few holes in Streatfeild's work - although overall I was very impressed. Let's get that out there now, so that this doesn't feel too complainy a review. But those first few pages - we're on a beach with the Wiltshire family. Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Tuesday (yes, Tuesday - has this ever been a name?) are messing about, playing, and doing things like this:
Kim was singing to a tune of his own, 'The sea, the sea, the lovely sea.' His happiness was given a sharp edge by fright. The day was going to be very scrumptious. Dad and Mum were here, and there was going to be a picnic and prawning; but first there'd be the bathe and Dad would make him swim to the raft.
Oh. This felt very much like Streatfeild hadn't taken off her children's-writer hat, and was merely giving adult novel writing a go. My heart sank a little.

When the focus switches around to their parents Alex and Lena, however, things started to improve. Alex is a hands-on father, always conscious of what his children might be feeling, and doing his best to help them grow up properly and well-disciplined without being thwarted or unhappy. He is one of the best fathers I've come across in literature - rather better than E.H. Young's William, I'd say - and still fairly convincing. His major fault, in my eyes, is sending the children to boarding school. Lena, on the other hand, is not of a maternal disposition, and misses being her husband's sole object of affection. Through the eyes of the holiday governess Ruth, this is how Lena comes across:
On other counts Lena was not so good. She never even pretended the children came first. But did that matter? Was that not out-balanced by the perfect love always before the children's eyes? Ruth, helping herself to peas, knew one of her more noticeably amused flicks was crossing her eyes. Was it perfect love the children saw? Certainly Lena loved Alex, but perfect love in her philosophy was an ill-balanced affair, almost all body, the merest whiff of soul.
It is in her allusions to Lena's various, ahem, appetites that Streatfeild most prominently demonstrates that this is not a children's book. (P.134 made me gasp a little...) But alongside this we do get the bread and butter of children's lives - the four children are well-drawn, and certainly have formed and individual characters. Kim the show-off, who craves attention but can't control the way in which he seeks it; Laurel the dependable eldest sibling, but fraught on her own; Tuesday who wishes only to have her family around her; Tony who asks such pertinent questions, and worries too much. All painted convincingly with Streatfeild's brush - but still it feels a little like one is reading a children's book with longer words... There's even a Nanny of the indomitable variety.


But things are about to change. I shan't spoil the big event which changes the course of the novel, but suffice to say that a tragedy occurs to alter the lives of all concerned. And it's from here that Streatfeild comes into her own - we follow the children to their various schools as they cope with this tragedy in their various ways. They come home for holidays, and we see the reunions then. In the background is always the war - rarely creeping nearer than the background, but certainly getting no further away.

Somewhere towards the last third of the novel Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Tuesday are split up for the holiday and must each spend time with a different Aunt. There were definite overtones of Richmal Crompton's Matty and the Dearingroydes here - snapshots of various intriguing or eccentric family units. It should have been a different novel, really - they just came flitting past, and were gone before you could grasp hold of them. I'd happily read many more chapters, for instance, about the vicarage family where loving vicar's wife Sylvia lovingly makes up holy reasons to excuse her children doing things their father might find worrying. Since Streatfeild is, like me, a vicarage child, it would be fascinating. Structure isn't Streatfeild's strong suit - Saplings seems to explode somewhat, proliferating with characters and going off at tangents, right until the final pages.

Structure may not be her trump card, but there is still a lot to love in the novel. Chief amongst these is the way in which she demonstrates the damage done to families and children by war. A lot of this damage would have been done by separating them from each other and their parents in their schooling, but war still has its undeniable effects. There is a rather silly Afterword from Dr. Jeremy Holmes, a Psychiatrist who reads Saplings through the lens of child psychology. In doing so, he completely ignores the fun that Streatfeild pokes at this field - it is no coincidence that the Aunt who makes generalisations about child psychology is the only one who has no children of her own. Despite this misreading, it is true that Streatfeild is insightful into the child's mindset - although she would never, I am sure, have labelled this insight psychology.

Perhaps it is unfortunate for Saplings' sake that I have read so many good books this year. One can't help think how much better E.H. Young creates family dynamics; how much more insightfully Barbara Comyns gives the voice and mind of children; how much more poignant Marilynne Robinson can be. Comparisons, as Mrs. Malaprop intended to say, are odious - and on its own merits, Saplings is a fantastic read. It's engaging, occasionally moving, and certainly enjoyable. Maybe seven years on my shelf had built up its potential too greatly for me? I shall learn not to lament the novel Saplings was not, and heartily enjoy the novel that it is.


21 comments:

  1. Is it wrong that I want to reach over and check out p. 134?!

    Thank you for an intriguing review, Simon. This too has been languishing on my bookshelves.

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  2. That was my first thought, too! And I had it from the library so I can't check.
    I loved this - but I was an avid Streatfeild reader as a child, so for me it was like a sexed-up version of Apple Bough!

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  3. There is an American show (an old show I should say) called the Addams Family and one of the characters is called Wednesday. That's as close as I can come alas, I've yet to meet a Tuesday. I was going to read this this weekend, but I've been diverted by Penelope Mortimer, so it will have to wait. Since I've not read the other authors you mention, maybe it would fare better with me--it's really hard when you've read a string of really excellent books. I'll get to this one sometime this year, though.

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  4. Sorry, my link is wrong in my comment....let me try again...

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  5. Okay, yes, I too, am headed downstairs to see what is on p. 134 (I hope the page numbers are the same on the classic editions!). I appreciate your honest review. I had enjoyed many of Streatfeild's children's books and read this one on the heels of The Making of a Marchioness which I loved (having also enjoyed Burnett's children's lit), but I didn't love this one like I expected to. I think what kept me from loving it was my inability to identify with the mother.

    As for Tuesday as a name - seems like there are other famous movie/literature characters with that name. Over here in the 60's we had a sitcom (based on a comic strip) called the Addams Family and the daughters name was Wednesday... :)

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  6. Perhaps, Tuesday Weld? She was an actress from the 1960s, although I imagine it wasn't her real name.

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  7. Fascinating review Simon. I do enjoy Streatfeild's adult books writing as Susan Scarlett which are just light, fun reads really and was brought up reading all her children's books, many of which I still think are wonderful, but from what you say this one seems neither one thing nor another. You've intrigued me enough to give it a go in the near future though!

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  9. The endpapers are so lovely! What an interesting review - I have rather put off reading Sapling as I'm such a huge fan of Ballet Shoes and Saplings sounds so much darker! I really must give it a go though.

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  10. I've not come across any Tuesdays but recall Wednesday from The Addams Family films and there's Thursday Next from Jasper Fforde's novels. Such funny names!
    I enjoyed your balanced review and thank you for your honesty. I think I am intrigued enough to give it a go :-)

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  11. I never read any of Streatfeild's childrens books but see your point about this reading as sexed up childrens fiction. Lena was my favourite character, probably because she's so unsmpathetic, but is at least a convincing portrait of a certain type of woman. I thought Streatfeild was kinder to Lena than Laski is to Deborah in 'To Bed With Grand Music'.

    The other thing I remember is struggling with Tony's reactions, it wasn't clear to me why he took things so terribly badly when others around him were presumably coping rather better in similar circumstances.

    I didn't much care for the afterword either.

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  12. I loved Noel Streatfeild books as a child and would spend any money I had from birthdays buying them. Saplings was the second Persephone book I bought and read. It was a long time ago though and don't really remember much about it

    I knew a Tuesday,she went to my secondary school.

    Doesn't Nicole Kidman have a daughter called Sunday? I'm not really a follower of celebrity culture, but have a fascination for names probably because I thought mine was horrible when I was young.

    Esme

    PS hope it is ok to leave a comment as I'm not a blogger myself

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  13. I know a kitten called Wednesday! And did't G K Chesterton write about The Man Who Was Thursday? And of course there was Man Friday. And now I've run out of days :)

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  14. I never read Streatfeild's books as a child so I wonder how I would react. This is the very last of the Persephone classics on my shelf so I'm going to save it (though I have about another 70 dove-grey books so I'm in no danger). I think the length has put me off a bit too, I have so many books to read I keep gravitating to the short ones first.

    I also thought of Tuesday Weld, I don't know if it was her real name. And I forgot about Thursday Next, I love those books and I can't wait for the next one to be published. And I think The Man Who was Thursday has something to do with a code name for a spy or something like that. I haven't read it but it's on my list. Of course.

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  15. I'm just about to plunge into the world of Persephone and order my first books from them. Maybe I'll save this one for later, though I did enjoy her childrens books.
    I too thought of Tuesday Weld, but alas, according to Wikipedia it is not her real name. Her real name is Susan.

    Joanne

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  16. Thanks for the review, Simon! I read this book last year, and I thought it was good. I still appreciate your criticisms, though, but I can't remember the book well enough to agree or disagree. Thanks for refreshing my memory about Saplings!

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  17. I just finished Saplings and was very interested to see your thoughts/reactions. I wanted to like this book more than I did--while it realistically reflects the impact of WWII on a particular family and individual characters, the structure seemed to fall apart in the last third of the book (like the family perhaps) and the ending seemed almost arbitrary. Very interesting, though, in its portrayal of how life went on, and the human things remained unchanged despite the reality of the war. Susan E

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  18. I had something of the opposite reaction to you and Mary in that though I also thought 'oh, it's just like a sexed-up one of the children's books'; I quite enjoyed that fact! It felt a bit like she had just thought AHA, now I get to put in all the adult racy bits I've never been able to use before.
    What I also found interesting was that though Lena was allowed to be so naughty, Streatfeild was so judgemental about that. Of course, a real lady should not fancy her husband :)

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  19. I love how you gasped!

    I read this yonks ago and remember enjoying it but also being a bit disappointed. It wasn't as good as I had wanted it to be. Plus Lena was irritatingly selfish, and yes, Tuesday isn't a name, and it grated on me every time I read it.

    It did make me cry though!

    Wonderful even handed review, Simon!

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  20. For months I've had this book on my ever-growing list of vacation reads (planned for early summer)--mostly because I loved Streatfeild as a child. I'd never considered how much that might actually make it harder to read this book. Thanks for making me think about that.

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  21. Claire - yes, it is! ;) To be honest, it wasn't that naughty, just surprised me in context.

    Mary - I must read some of her children's books - although now I might not be able to get Lena's, erm, habits out of my mind when reading them!

    Danielle - Yes, we had the Addams Family here too - I almost mentioned it. Do give Saplings a go (I'm intrigued by the Mortimer myself - have it on my shelves) but also try Comyns, Robinson and Young!!

    Susan - haha, well I hope you weren't too shocked. Quite a few Persephone authors were more famous for their children's books - Streatfeild, FH Burnett, Barbara Euphan Todd, Richmal Crompton, Ruby Ferguson...

    Karyn - oo, not heard of her...

    ramblingfancy - I have one of the Susan Scarletts waiting for me... Pink Sugar, I think it's called.

    Miranda - definitely one of my favourite endpaper choices! Saplings isn't really all *that* dark, but it certainly has its moments...

    Cristina - Good good! Definitely give it a go - it was an enjoyable read. I think I just hoped for more.

    Hayley - I thought Lena was a very good character - a bad mother, but not a wicked or malicious one. I haven't read that Laski - in fact, I don't think I even own it!

    Esme - firstly, that is a lovely name! I'm sure you like it by now, though. And of course you've very welcome to comment as a non-blogger! Some of my favourite commenters are non-bloggers (I probably shouldn't have favourites! but I do...) I think you're right about Nicole K, now I think of it, but celebrities do tend to pick bizarre names for their children, don't they!

    Mum - Aww, little Wednesday, of course. It's different for cats...

    Karen - do you own all those unread Persephones? Beating me! I have a worry that, in ten or twenty years' time, I'll have read all my short books and none of my sohrt ones...

    Joanne> - oo, about to order your first! What did you get?

    Virginia - you're welcome! Isn't it sad how quickly details of books escape one...

    Susan E - I completely agree about the structure collapsing - maybe it was deliberate, but it seemed to me like she was running out of steam, brought in lots more characters, and then got rid of them all again. Although I did enjoy it, I think there are a lot of better novels from that period, doing a similar thing.

    Lyndsey - haha, at least you're honest! I did feel a bit sorry for Lena - it did seem to be almost improper to be in a, ahem, loving marriage.

    Rachel - I'm easily shocked ;) I think you had the same response as me. Oh, and early on it's mentioned that all of them have different names on their birth certificates - but we were only told what one of them was. I wonder what Tuesday's real name was...
    I so rarely cry at books - which is odd, because every film and most TV programmes set me off...

    LR - you're welcome; I look forward to hearing what you think.

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