AS THE actress (might have) said to the bishop, “I wonder if God knows how difficult it is being a saint’s family.”
The bishop was William Streatfeild, Bishop of Lewes for a few short months before his early death in 1929; his daughter, Noel, was at that time on the stage. She had achieved this childhood ambition through hard work and despite some family misgivings, but her career was unsuccessful. Not long after her father died, Noel abandoned acting for writing, and produced some 80 books in the next 50 years. She wrote novels for both adults and children; it was the latter that brought her fame at the age of 41, when Ballet Shoes (1936) became a bestseller.
The remark about the difficulties of a saint’s family is put into the mouth of Vicky, the misfit middle daughter in A Vicarage Family (1963). This is a fictionalised account of Noel Streatfeild’s own upbringing in the various Sussex parishes where the High Anglican William Streatfeild served, and where his wife had the unenviable task of running a household of five children plus two servants on inadequate means but still in a style befitting a clergyman’s position in pre-1914 England.
THE unworldly clerical father in A Vicarage Family is one of a long line throughout Streatfeild’s books. All are ardent in the spiritual life, devoted to their parishes, and at the service of all in need. Hence they are frequently termed saintly, and are recognised as being unlike other people. Not wholly without insight, they nevertheless tend to idealise the family as a concept and to ignore the particular characteristics of individuals — including their own offspring.
Streatfeild’s novels often emphasise the damaging effect of this extreme lack of perception, where wives and children conspire to shelter the beloved husbands and fathers from hurtful truths that would shatter their ideal. The adult writer conveys vividly how the child accepts and yet resents this saintly blindness.
Only a handful of Streatfeild’s books feature clergy households, but all of her fiction is concerned with families — both natural ones and those created by circumstance or deliberate choice.
This jumps out at a reader who knows Ballet Shoes (1936) and then later encounters Streatfeild’s debut novel The Whicharts (1931): the first words, the entire first page, and the whole situation, are the same. Three unrelated orphan girls are foisted by an absent male upon a youngish woman, who self-sacrificingly undertakes the task of bringing them up.
She keeps the home going by taking in boarders whose input into the children’s education proves crucial. They attend a stage school, training as professional dancers and ensuring the family unit’s survival. This career requires hard work and dedication; finances are tight, treats rare; clothes have to be saved for; hand-me-downs and sharing are required (as they were in the Streatfeild family).
The adult novel — deemed daring in its day — puts more emphasis on the seamy side of theatrical life, convincingly drawn from Streatfeild’s unsuccessful stage career. It has a less optimistic conclusion, for the Whicharts split up, whereas in Ballet Shoes the family cooperation of the three “sisters” triumphs over difficulties to sustain a continued joint aim.
But, even allowing for these differences of emphasis, it is apparent that Streatfeild’s first adult novel and her first one for children depict “alternative” family structures — ones in which women (siblings, mother-substitutes, and friends) play the most important roles and are shown as capable of achieving economic security and emotional support.
Streatfeild, who identified herself as a difficult child, handles with particular insight the problems that the misfits and the excluded encounter, as well as those that they pose for their carers. Each individual, whether clearly creative or seemingly not so, is important; and it is repeatedly emphasised that love and care entail a cost — often willingly undertaken, sometimes imposed.
IRONICALLY, Streatfeild was initially unwilling to take up the suggestion of Mabel Carey, children’s editor at the publishing firm Dent, that she write a children’s story set in the theatrical world. She did not expect it to bring in much money, and anyway regarded herself as an established author for adults, after five well-received novels.
She was to write 11 more adult books, but the enormous success of Ballet Shoes and subsequent stories, together with changing literary fashions, meant that after 1961 she produced no more fiction for adults. She became an ambassador for children’s literature, writing, reviewing, and lecturing. Her last book appeared in 1979, and, after several years of failing health, she died in 1986, aged 90.
STREATFEILD’S claim to be considered an Anglican woman novelist rests not on her depictions of clergy families, but on a handful of novels that address moral and spiritual issues from an Anglican point of view. The most thoroughgoing of these is Luke (1939).
Luke, a musical genius of 13, emotional and highly strung, is the child of divorced parents. His mother, Freda, holding strict High Anglican views about the sacrament of marriage, had agreed only reluctantly to divorce, but had then herself married again. She has come gradually to believe that this was wrong; and her priest tells her that, while she still has sexual relations with her husband, she may not present herself for holy communion. The book opens just after the discovery that Luke’s stepfather has been killed by poison.
But this is not a whodunnit, and the reader soon realises that Luke is the poisoner. He is the one character whose voice is not heard at first hand and to whose thoughts there is no access. Streatfeild set herself a considerable technical problem here: she uses conversation, reported speech, and free indirect discourse to convey the situation. None of the characters knows everything, but through their individual contributions the reader gradually learns the back story and is made privy to the investigation into the poisoning. Luke is never even considered by the police, but several people know or suspect that he is the guilty one.
The core theological issue, however, relates to Luke’s mother and the possibility of reparation for sin. This had initially arisen for Freda some years previously, over whether to allow her first husband a divorce. Her priest then observed in her a potentiality for spiritual growth by taking upon herself her (first) husband’s sin: “That since her husband was committing a sin for which he was not repenting, to atone for him would be her cross.” Freda, by marrying again, has since fallen short, but later she recalls the idea, envisaging the possibility of taking Luke’s sin upon herself.
Luke’s not unusual faults of temper, wilfulness, and spite are partly fostered by circumstance and by adults’ decisions; his overpowering need is to create the conditions necessary for him to flourish. To this extent, he resembles Streatfeild’s other gifted performer children, self-driven to achieve their peak, often at considerable cost to the siblings and carers who love them.
But by placing Luke at the genius end of this spectrum, and making the cost of his flourishing his stepfather’s life and his mother’s voluntary reparation for sin, Streatfeild moves the question to a wholly different plane from her other “talented child” novels. Luke himself (never termed “evil”) is ultimately opaque to the reader’s understanding.
The practical and moral concerns mooted by several characters in the course of the novel are of a different order from Freda’s willed decision to take her son’s sin upon herself. And among the unanswered questions at the end is whether Freda (unable to last out in “bearing the sin” of the divorce) will now have the resolution to do so from her love for Luke.
WHEN reading Luke, it is hard not to suppose that Streatfeild, who by the 1950s at the latest was again a practising Anglican, had in 1939 already started on her return journey from the agnosticism she sketches sympathetically in Confirmation and After (1963). Just as her High Anglican father would have applied the Doctrine of Reserve in speaking of religious matters, so does she, making it impossible to chart her journey.
Streatfeild, whose sexuality is ambivalent, may well have used her imagination in depicting Freda’s intensely heterosexual relationship with her second husband, just as she imagined Luke’s neatly planned act of murder, but the triggering factors in the situation are less significant than the issue raised: can an ordinary sinful person act in a Christlike way to make reparation for another’s sin?
In Luke, Streatfeild seems to be moving towards an Anglican novel of religious ideas, addressing a test case not of crime but of sin, in an attempt to explore the intersections of human and divine love. It was Streatfeild’s misfortune that the book coincided with the outbreak of war, and was almost ignored; the stock was bombed. And financial difficulties in the following years meant that she opted for less controversial themes.
Noel Streatfeild, unmarried, partnerless, and childless, worked from and with her own upbringing. She replays the events and emotions of her childhood, returning repeatedly to the question of the qualities required in parents and carers for successful nurturing. The answer is always the same: love; attentiveness; understanding; and its corollary the same, too: fail or succeed, there is a cost entailed.
Dr Clemence Schultze is a Lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University. Her essay on Noel Streatfeild, “Vicarage and other Families”, appears in Anglican Women Novelists, published this month by Bloomsbury at £27.99 (Church Times Bookshop Special Price £22.99).