Saplings – Noel Streatfeild


My reason for selecting this book is slightly odd. I wanted to buy three books from Persephone and so selected this as my third because I had recently watched an adaptation of Ballet Shoes. That being said, I enjoyed this novel. She has a wonderful way of getting inside peoples’ heads.

Here is what Persephone say about it:

Saplings(1945), her tenth book for adults, is also about children: a family with four of them, to whom we are first introduced in all their secure Englishness in the summer of 1939. ‘Her purpose is to take a happy, successful, middle-class pre-war family – and then track in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to tens of thousands of such families,’ writes the psychiatrist Dr Jeremy Holmes in his Afterword. Her ‘supreme gift was her ability to see the world from a child’s perspective’ and ‘she shows that children can remain serene in the midst of terrible events as long as they are handled with love and openness.’ She understood that ‘the psychological consequences of separating children from their parents was glossed over in the rush to ensure their physical survival… It is fascinating to watch Streatfeild casually and intuitively anticipate many of the findings of developmental psychology over the past fifty years.’ ‘A study of the disintegration of a middle-class family during the turmoil of the Second World War, and quite shocking’ wrote Sarah Waters in the Guardian.

At the start of the novel the family is a prosperous, middle-class family with a nanny, governess, parlour maids etc. There is a hint of war – Alex, the father, is changing his factories over for war work. When war breaks out the children are sent to live with their grandparents in the country. Lena, the mother, refuses to leave Alex – she is a wife first and then a mother. The two oldest children are sent to boarding school.  Alex dies in an air raid and the family falls to pieces. The progress of their decline is brilliantly portrayed. Lena is simply not able to cope on her own – first she turns to drink, and then to men and finally she tries to kill herself by overdosing on sleeping pills. If Lena was a stronger character the family might have kept it together. As it is, all of the children develop coping mechanisms that aren’t going to be good in the long term. For example, Kim is an incurable show off who needs to be the centre of attention, Tuesday has an imaginary friend and Tony just seems to have given up on everything. The other members of Alex’s family try to help (apart from Lindsey), but they are busy with war work and their own children and don’t have enough time or energy to spend on the Wiltshire children.

I thought the way Streatfeild wrote about behaviour and the motivations behind it was brilliant – for example:

Tony hung onto his point. The excitement of the move and the general fuss had exhilarated him all day, but underneath was a wretchedness that, now bedtime was near, had risen to the surface. He could not explain how he felt so he hung his need for expression on to a recognisable grievance.

‘I’ll simply have to come here because of all of my trains.’

Alex remembered in his childhood trying futilely to put off a long stay with relatives dyring some epidemic on the ground that his rabbits would die, that absoluoutely no one would feed them if he didn’t. He knew even as he answered that a solution of the train situation was not what Tony was asking.

‘It was hardly worth adding to your luggage taking them up now that your holiday’s almost over, but I think you can fix up with Gran to clear a space somwhere.’

Tony believed this to be true and grew angry as his legitimate ground for being miserable was being chipped away.

I also love the incidental social history (contemporary detail). All of the information about clothing coupons and evacuations.

I’ll be looking for more Noel Streatfeild novels to read.

Here are some other reviews …

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