21 December 2016

Beyond the Vicarage by Noel Streatfeild

While standing on the fourth rung of a library ladder at Ten Editions, a bookshop in Toronto, I was thrilled to find a book by Noel Streatfeild.  Pulling the hardcover from its spot, the cover featured an illustration of a young girl in Women's Volunteer Service garb including a tin hat.  This all happened over a year ago but I remember it well because the twenty dollars I paid for two books were tucked into the blouse of the woman behind the counter.  Well, perhaps her cash register was out of order, but I digress.

Published in 1971 Beyond the Vicarage is the third book in a trilogy and autobiographical.  There is a slightly odd component though - Streatfeild refers to herself as Victoria and uses a third person narrative.  She describes her reasoning in an author's note...

'I made, and make, no pretence that I am not the Victoria in the three books, but the thin shield of anonymity has helped me to feel unselfconscious when writing the story of my life.'

A swift reprise at the beginning brought me up to speed.  'Victoria' had three sisters: Isobel, Louise,  Theodora (who was seventeen years younger than the author) and a brother, Dick.  Isobel and Louise were married, and Dick was working in Bangkok.  Her father, a Bishop, dies while riding the train to see a dentist.  This tragic event happens on page four so apologies to anyone who considers that episode to be a bit of a spoiler.

'Victoria' feels an intense need to move on from the world of acting to try her hand at writing.  Her mother must have had plenty of patience and confidence as she secured a line of credit for one year so the aspiring author could live in a hostel on Cromwell Road.  Fortunately 'Victoria' finishes her first project called The Witcharts and signs a book deal in 1931 for £50.  Imagine her surprise when the plan is to move on to something else only to have the fine print pointed out - she is under contract to write two more books.

Being incredibly naive about the whole business, 'Victoria' makes the gaffe of her life.  While at a cocktail party she's introduced to a woman....

'The small woman looked at Victoria as if, Victoria told friends later, she was an earwig and asked: "Do you write?"  It happened, as it does at parties, that this question and Victoria's answer fell into a lull in the general conversation, so all around heard what Victoria replied.  "Yes.  Do you?".  The small woman moved gently on her way while an acquaintance hissed at Victoria:  "That, my poor ignoramus, was Rose Macaulay."'

By the time Streatfeild wrote Ballet Shoes she believed she was expected to live a certain lifestyle which didn't include living in a hostel so she moved to Mayfair.  Mind you, it was in 'the seedier parts of Mayfair'.  Being the first to admit her shortcomings in the world of domesticity, 'Victoria' goes through a series of women trying to find good help.  I laughed when she employed an Austrian refugee who complained that she needed space for her fur coats and ballgowns.  Also, Mrs Schmidt refused to do any work that required being on her hands and knees.  Once the bombs began to fall in earnest Mrs Schmidt acquired a doctor's note saying she needed 'many weeks of lying down' and left.

What follows is the recounting of various events during 'Victoria's' years of war service.  Organizing canteen trucks, meals, endless pots of tea, but also retrieving and identifying body parts after air raids. To bring a bit of levity to a horrible time, there was an occasion when a monkey was found among the rubble.  One of the air raid wardens, diagnosing a case of shock, gave the monkey a cup of hot milk and wrapped it in a rug.  The poor thing was eventually sent to a zoo to recuperate.

Once the war was over 'Victoria' takes a flat in Belgravia but it's worn and bare.  An Irish maid working for the woman who owned the house mentioned the name of a horse likely to win the Grand National; a tip from the maid's brother.  The odds were 66 - 1.  'Victoria' placed a bet and won.  With her winnings she created a lovely garden with the help of students from a nearby boys' school.

'She then raked the earth into beds which she marked out with stones from the ruins next door.  Then - and a great moment that was - she planted flowers starting with a border of pansies.'

Despite the somewhat precious tone of the writing and the fact that Streatfeild refers to herself in the third person, with a different name, I did enjoy the storytelling.  It would be interesting to read a biography about Noel Streatfeild as I'm sure there's more than meets the eye here.  She definitely was a woman of her time and found the seventies rolling towards an era she wasn't going to be comfortable in.  And yet she was feisty.  In her later sixties 'Victoria' was determined to go out on a lobster boat while visiting New England despite rolling seas and a bucket for nature's call.

The last few pages wrap up quite quickly, speeding through the time when 'Victoria' was in her later years.  She loved staying with friends but clearly learned very little along the way when it came to lending a hand around the house...

'Of course, you made your bed but what else?  Victoria made helpful noises to show willingness, but as a rule she was told "no". the hostess found strange help more trouble than it was worth.  But occasionally Victoria's noises were taken at their face value and she was told: "You really would be an angel if you would clean the bathroom."  Victoria all her life had been hopelessly incompetent in a house, so her idea of help had not gone beyond dead-heading the roses or picking the peas.'

Endearing and entertaining to the end.

Noel Streatfeild

1 comment:

  1. OK, you've sent me in search of another book (or three). Thanks a LOT. :)