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.