Noel Streatfeild is recalled by one of her editors, Susan Dickinson.
I first met Noel Streatfeild shortly after I joined Collins in 1960. New Town was soon to be published and she came in to return the page proofs and to meet her new editor. I was immediately drawn to her warmth and enthusiasm and the enormous feeling of compassion which she generated. But, of course, I had really ‘met’ her many years before when I lay under the bedclothes with a torch, reading Ballet Shoes and The Circus is Coming. Certainly the two writers whose books I had awaited most eagerly as a child were Arthur Ransome and Noel Streatfeild. Ransome, because the Swallows and Amazons and their Lake District holidays, their freedom, their amazing resourcefulness, and the whole atmosphere in the books was, I felt, only just over the horizon. And Noel Streatfeild because, although I knew I would never be any good at dancing or tennis or performing in a circus, I loved acting and I could identify with Pauline, Petrova and Posy and the others in a way that I had never previously experienced with characters in a book.
That was one of Noel’s secrets. She knew her characters implicitly before she ever started to write. They were totally credible, and because she was drawing on her own experiences every detail had the ring of truth. And by choosing for her first book for children the setting of a boarding house in London where money was tight and the children were expected to earn their living she touched a chord the other writers of children’s books had ignored.
Ballet Shoes is based largely on Noel’s own experiences in the theatre, and she was to draw on those experiences again and again. But one of the most interesting characters in the book is Petrova. Petrova can neither dance nor act. In that household her lack of performing ability presented something of a problem – for how else could the girls earn money? But by the end of the book Petrova has her career planned: she will be an aviation expert. Who but Noel would have thought of setting a girl along that road in 1936?
Throughout her long career as a novelist, Noel, once she grew used to the startling fact that it was as a writer for children that she was best known, threw herself into the whole business of being an ‘author’. She was totally professional in her approach to her work; she employed a secretary who came in daily, even during the war, when Noel, all the windows of her flat blown out, and with no gas for heating or cooking, would sit huddled in an eiderdown trying to write. She researched her subjects meticulously, to the extent of persuading her secretary to take a course of skating lessons when writing White Boots. She knew the details that would interest children – how much things cost, what the training involved. Her backgrounds were always authentic, usually a setting that she herself knew well. Nothing was skimped. If there was one thing she was unsure of, it was English grammar. Readers of her autobiographical novel A Vicarage Family and of her official biography by Angela Bull will know why. She had hated school.
Brought up in a vicarage at the beginning of the century it was natural that she should draw on her vicarage childhood as background for her books, and one of her best loved families is the Bells, whose father is a clergyman in South London. First broadcast as a radio play, The Bell Family was popular with both children and adults. The book and its sequel, New Town, contain some of Noel’s best characters. Noel was not a writer who got rid of the parents as fast as possible and let the children loose on their own. To her the family was all important. Even when the natural parents are totally absent (as in Ballet Shoes) the children are surrounded by loving, caring grown ups. She never attempted the `problem novel’.
Noel Streatfeild wrote thirty-three novels for children. Throughout her life her fan mail was enormous and every letter was answered individually. Many of her books have recently been reissued as paperbacks in America and their success there has been phenomenal. Known in the States as the ‘Shoe’ Books (each book has the word Shoes in the title), modern American children have once again taken to their hearts Noel’s very English young heroes and heroines.
Noel died on 11 September this year. Last Christmas she celebrated her 90th birthday. Throughout her life everything she did she did with great thoroughness; whether it was researching material for a next book, reviewing her regular ‘Book of the Month’ for the magazine The Elizabethan, encouraging anxious young writers with their first efforts, visiting a school or attending a special event of The Puffin Club. She never minded how dog-eared the pages or how old the edition of the book she was asked to autograph. Her great crusade was that children should read.
For further reading:
Noel Streatfeild: A Biography, Angela Bull, Collins, 0 00 195044 4, £8.95
Noel Streatfeild’s books are published in hardback by Collins and Dent and in paperback by Fontana Lions and Puffin.