Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Vicarage Family, by Noel Streatfeild

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The first in a series of three autobiographical novels by Noel Streatfeild (Ballet Shoes), A Vicarage Family concentrates on the years leading up to the First World War.

The Strangeway family – Isobel, Victoria, Louise and the youngest, Dick – are moving to Eastborne. Their father, a local vicar, has received a new posting. This new job will be good for his career, as it's a bigger vicarage, and could even lead to him becoming a bishop. They are all good and well behaved children, except for Victoria (who we learn in the Streatfeild's author's note is based on herself.) Vicky is argumentative, rebellious and never quite happy. She's resentful of her teachers and somewhat jealous of her sisters, who she sees as being prettier and more talented than herself. For that's her major problem, a mildly existential one: she doesn't know what she's to be in life. Gradually, however, she begins to see that she might have talent as a writer. Her cousin, John, has been giving her books and Vicky has been secretly reading them, even memorising poetry.

While A Vicarage Family reads like a perfectly constructed children's novel, with its well defined characters, differing points of view and naturalistic prose, the book is often suffused with a realism and candour that has the power to shock. Streatfeild, while looking back to her youth during the 1910s, is critical of the mores and attitudes of the times. When Vicky's younger brother Dick is sent to boarding school, it is noted “To neither parent did it seem cruel to send little home-loving Dick to boarding school while still a mere baby.” In another passage Streatfeild writes with a groan of the simple, conservative ways of the vicarage. “God was in his Heaven; the King on his throne; you voted Conservative; the English were the finest people in the world; there was no grey about it - you were right or you were wrong.” The novel also discusses on many occasions the status of women, how little was expected of them, how they were to hope for little for themselves. When the children's father talks about the Suffragettes, active at that time, it is in an angry voice. “They want to behave like men and vote for members of Parliament – which would mean blue murder – the ruin of the country.”

Despite Vicky's many miseries and disappointments, her clashes with authority and self-inflicted wounds, A Vicarage Family still has an idyllic feel about it, of a time when things may have been frustrating, but family in the end was there to protect and cosset you from life's larger dangers. Streatfeild finishes her story in 1914. Suddenly the war appears and the cosy, quite normal world of the vicarage, is turned upside down with a horror never anticipated and little understood.

A Vicarage Family, by Noel Streatfeild. Published by Puffin. ISBN: 9780141368665 RRP: $19.99

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