Here follows, over several blog posts, the transcript of my talk at the Persephone Lunch last week...
Mothers and children in Persephone books...well it's now Wednesday (it was), I hope you have until at least next Tuesday because this could take us some time.
I came across some old copies of The Young Elizabethan magazine at a book sale, and this article by Noel Streatfeild entitled 'How I Write My Books' caught my eye...
'I am convinced if I do not know everything there is to know about my characters my readers will not know them at all. For this reason I start living with the people in my books, in my head, at least a year before I start to write about them...it is when I wake up one morning to find the people in my head more real than the people around me, that I know they are ready for hatching...'
Published in 1945, Saplings gets off to quite a pedestrian start plot-wise as Noel Streatfeild starts to hatch her characters from their year-long shells and onto the page. It would be easy to dismiss the book as too cosy as the aspirational middle-class Wiltshire family take to the beach for their annual summer holiday. But there is no question that every nuance of the family is cleverly revealed in these early stages to set the reader up for what is to follow, because war is on the horizon and with it will come great changes for this family, and no one better than Noel Streatfeild to delve beneath the surface, exposing the cracks and stresses on family life, and telling it like it was.
Angela Bull in her biography of Noel Streatfeild suggests that...
'Noel's crisp characterisation and witty style make her sombre narrative compulsive reading...'
and I would agree whole-heartedly. Once the preliminaries were established, and I had sorted out the children and their ages...Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday...Tuesday?
I once did a new birth visit to a baby called Tuesday the Fifteenth and I often wondered how that held up through life.
A clear picture emerges of the family dynamic as parents Lena and Alex along with Nannie and governess Ruth take their places in the big picture, before the Saplings action moves quickly onto the outbreak of war, and without giving too much away there will be proper turmoil for the family; separations, insecurities, meltdowns, misunderstandings, losses, tragedy, grief and more.
My focus in reading for the subject of this talk was very much on Lena and the children, but ultimately, taking as a baseline the 1950s theories of attachment formulated in the wake of the war by child psychologist John Bowlby, I ended up being interested in everyone, the satellite characters that nevertheless played an important part in all their lives.
The war must have been a gift to John Bowlby. Not one he would have wanted or asked for, but since it was there, when better to explore the impact of the separation of mother and child than through the process of wartime evacuation. Interestingly I came across a letter of warning sent by John Bowlby to the British Medical Journal in December 1939...
' It is quite possible for a child of any age to feel sad or upset at having to leave home, but...such an experience in the life of a little child can mean far more than the actual experience of sadness. It can in fact amount to an emotional blackout, and can lead to severe disturbance of the development of the personality which may persist throughout life...'
Bowlby goes on to argue that...
'... it follows that evacuation of small children without their mothers can lead to very serious and widespread psychological disorder. For instance it can lead to a big increase in juvenile delinquency in the next decade.'
As if to prove his theory, in 1944, Bowlby conducted a study entitled 44 Thieves. He identified and studied forty-four juvenile delinquents accused of stealing alongside forty-four controls who exhibited emotional problems but had committed no crime. The results were startling: 50% of the thieves had been separated from their mothers for longer than six months in their first five years, in the control group only two. 32% of the thieves displayed signs of affectionless psycopathy. Though flawed the study was laying down an evidence base for what was to follow.
It is little wonder that such evidence was eventually extrapolated into Bowlby's attachment theories of the 1950s. The findings published in the subsequent Child Care and the Growth of Love must have preyed on the mind of every post-war mother who ever considered going out to work.
Short term separation from an attachment figure who is available, loving and understanding leads to distress, and that central care-giver is the mother.
But forget evidence base and research, Noel Streatfeild had no need of any of this, she knew it already intuitively, and wouldn't I love to know whether John Bowlby ever read Saplings; he would have wanted to. It might be fiction but what truths lie therein as Noel prefigures all those theories as she juggles the impact of the war and separation on a range of age groups within one family, revealing the truths behind the ordeals of war and the super-human task of holding a family together.
The question is asked very early in the book...
'Was Lena a good mother, ' wonders governess Ruth, (generally considered to be Noel Streatfeild's alter-ego in this book and with a key role to play in the future welfare of the children) and it seemed a natural progression to then ask 'What is a good mother?'
Lena, though capable of performing a very good Mummy Act when required, lacks much maternal instinct and is not a family woman, she is 'utterly wife and mistress too,' with eyes and attention predominantly focused on her husband Alex...
'The children were enchanting but Alex was her life,'
and there is always something staged and posed about her mothering performances.
Compare this to Alex who could be described as a ‘mothering’ father, fulfilling more of the accepted role than Lena with his nurturing that comes so naturally and unconditionally. Alex shoulders the burden while Lena adds the frills and the gifts. The children worship them both and as a couple, with outside help, they succeed. Nanny is in charge of bowels and Ruth takes care of little minds.
When the wartime plot demands that Lena steps up to the plate alone I felt like hiding behind a cushion because it wasn't going to be pretty. We know already that she lacks resilience or resourcefulness and is highly dependent on others, and I could only wonder how courageous Noel Streatfeild might be in portraying this inevitable human disintegration. The answer is supremely adept as the descent into drink and drugs, the sexual deprivation that leads to torrid love affairs, the depression and disaster ensue, and on the periphery of Lena's life. when tradition dictates that they should be central to it, four needy children who cling to the flotsam and security of any attachment which floats by...school teachers, the cook, the gardener, a puppy.
But for all the accusations that might be levelled at Lena I find it possible, thanks to Noel Streatfeild's even-handed and non-judgemental approach, to identify mitigating circumstances and some sympathy for her actions. Lena is a dependent, a child herself and needs to find her own attachment figures to survive, and remember, Noel Streatfeild has thought her characters through with care…Lena was an only child herself, the centre of attention but she would also have lived through and experienced the distorted emotional reactions to grief during the Great War. That generation took some very fettered mourning practices into the next war.
But also might Noel Streatfeild be busting the myth of the blitz very early in the day, 1945?
There is an excellent book Death in War and Peace – A history of loss and grief in England 1914-1970 by Pat Jalland in which the author explores and explains much of relevance to a read of Saplings and in particular Lena’s reactions.
The civilian sacrifice, the stoicism, the good humour, defiance and solidarity, this was the behavioural norm reinforced by Churchill’s speeches, J.B.Priestley’s broadcasts and the BBC in general. We rarely hear of poor morale, hysteria, panic or cowardice. People conformed rather than allow themselves to be overcome by despair, whilst reported behaviour established a model of how people should behave, therefore they did. Mollie Panter Downes, with her journalistic hat on, was very critical of the ‘minimising effect of BBC reporting…
‘To someone newly facing grief, the chirpy statement that casualties “were slight” has a way of sounding callous.’
At the heart of the myth of the blitz were suppressed and sanitized stories and families wounded by sorrow that could not be expressed, all of which required outward displays of courage and coping. In a later study in 1965, Geoffrey Gorer declared…
‘a society which denies mourning and gives no ritual support to mourners is thereby producing maladaptive and neurotic responses in a number of its citizens.’
Lena Wiltshire is not a good advert for the myth of the blitz but a very good subject for Geoffrey Gorer’s study, and in the absence of official records, though there are many diaries, might Noel Streatfeild have consciously been aware that history might not offer accuracy and thus decided to provide us with a realistic fictional account of the impact of the war on a single family?
Part Two, about my next choice of book, to follow.