This is just a note to recommend Parson’s Nine, by Noel Streatfeild, a 1932 novel about a vicarage family whose lives are changed forever by the War.
Noel Streatfield is best known as a writer of children’s books, of course, but she started by writing novels for adults, and this was her second. It has recently been reprinted by Greyladies Books, an excellent outfit that specialises in publishing books for grown-ups by children’s authors. Some of these are very promising. I’ve got their bright new edition of Leadon Hill (1927) by Richmal Crompton on the top of my to-read pile.
Noel Streatfeild’s first novel had been The Whicharts (recently republished by Margin Notes Books, and you can read a sample here.
The Whicharts is a novel about a family of three adopted orphan girls who are given stage training. This will sound familiar to everyone who read Ballet Shoes when young (and to those dads like myself who did their duty and read it several times to young daughters who could never get enough of the book). But this is Ballet Shoes unexpurgated. The three girls are the illegitimate offspring of an amorous Army officer (by three different mothers), and the woman in charge of them is another of his ex-mistresses, whom he supports financially. The stage school is decidedly seedier than in Ballet Shoes, and the older girl’s acting career leads her into pretty louche behaviour. Before writing this book, Streatfield had recently given up her own stage career, and part of her design is obviously to show the darker side of the theatrical business. The book will fascinate anyone who knows Ballet Shoes (but it might be as well to keep it away from your nine-year-old daughter).
But back to Parson’s Nine. Like most of Streatfeild’s books, this is about a family – in this case the nine children of a vicar. When the first of them is born, Catherine asks her husband what they should call him, and he replies:
It’s always been a grief to me how few people read the Apocrypha. So while I was waiting on my knees for news of you, I told God that we would call our little ones after those from whom the books are named, so that people, speaking to the children, will call the books to mind.
So his long-suffering wife bears him nine children – Esdras, Tobit, Sirach, Baruch, Manasses, Maccabeus, Judith, Esther, and Susanna.
The character of the vicar is very well done. He is the kind of man who, since he comes to his opinion by prayer, cannot conceive that anyone else could have wishes different from his own – or if they do think differently, he gently lets them know they are mistaken. A soft-spoken tyrant who always gets his own way because nobody wants to offend him. Other characters I liked are the passionately feminist governess (a militant suffragette) and Mrs Denvel, the bossy committee-lady who thrives during the War (‘She had shken hands with royalty, while hard-working V.A.D.’s cheered in the backgound. She had her hands covered in kisses from grateful Belgians, while those who housed them looked on in surprise.’)
The children grow up in the years before the Great War, and it’s one of those books where you find yourself totting up the ages, to try to guess how the various characters will be involved. The quality of Streatfeild as a novelist is shown by the fact that she frequently manages to surpriseyou. Things don’t turn out as predicted.
For some of the family they turn out far worse, and the last third of the book is about how one of them tries to get over the trauma of loss. What started as a jolly family comedy turns into something much darker. This is not a great novel, but it’s a good one that communicates the pain of war.
Steatfeild herself worked as a nurse and as a munitions worker in the Great War. As well as being a children’s writer and a novelist for grown-ups, she also had a sideline in lighter romances, under the pen-name of Susan Scarlett. One of these, Murder While You Work, is set in a WWII munitions factory. I think I’d like to read it.