Posted in 20 Books of Summer 2015!, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Whicharts – Noel Streatfeild

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Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction
5*s

I loved Noel Streatfeild’s first children’s book Ballet Shoes , a book that was re-read more times than I can recall throughout my childhood, so when I realised that this book was actually based on the author’s first attempt at an adult novel, The Whicharts, I knew I had to read this. Then as is so often the way it sat hidden away on my bookshelf, unopened, until now.

Reading The Whicharts is an odd experience with echoes of Ballet Shoes never far away and so it became a little like a game of spot the difference, with only my memory to depend upon. In The Whicharts we have a darker and seedier elder sister to the more uplifting Ballet Shoes, where childhood dreams can come true given enough grit and determination and as long as you remain loyal to those who love you.

Indeed both books start almost identically with the author clearly taking the earlier novel and superimposing the details for what would become a commended runner up for the Carnegie Medal on publication in 1936

 The Whicharts

The Whichart children lived in the Cromwell Road. At that end of it which is furthest from the Brompton Road, and yet sufficiently near it to be taken to look at the dolls’ houses in the Victoria and Albert every wet day, and if not too wet expected to “save the penny and walk”.

Saving the penny and walking was a great feature of their childhood.

“Our Father,” Maimie the eldest would say, “must have been a definitely taxi person; he couldn’t have known about walking, or he’d never have bought a house at the far end of the longest road in London.”

Ballet Shoes

The Fossil sisters lived in the Cromwell Road. At that end of it which is furthest away from the Brompton Road, and yet sufficiently near it to be taken to look at the dolls’ houses in the Victoria and Albert every wet day, and if not too wet expected to “save the penny and walk”.

Saving the penny and walking was a great feature of their childhood.

“Gum,” Pauline, the eldest would say, “must have been a very taxi person; he couldn’t have ever thought about walking or he’d never have bought a house at the far end of the longest road in London.”

For anyone who hasn’t read Ballet Shoes the story is one of three girls who use their talents to support their family in a loyal bid to keep them all together when the money from their nominal guardian, Gum, runs out. The eldest girl, Pauline was an actress, Posy the youngest was a talented dancer and Petrova hates everything to do with the stage but still participates to earn her keep. There are moral tales inserted such as ‘not getting too big for your boots’ when Pauline loses out to her understudy because of her high and mighty ways. The book presents a career on the stage as exciting and rewarding for those who have a passion and through thick and thin the girls stick together. Basically all the ingredients to keep a young reader entertained!

The Fossils were mysterious finds of Gum (Great Uncle Matthew), who were placed with his niece, the Whicharts are the more grubby illegitimate offspring of the Brigadier who dumps them on his long-discarded mistresses, Rose, who is ably assisted by Nannie and Cook. As the girls grow up a little and money is becoming shorter Nannie decides it is time for the girls to go to school, they will take in boarders to pay the fees and keep the household afloat. There is just one problem what name to use to enrol them with. In the end it is the middle sister, Tania who decides:

“By our Farver’s name in course.”
Rose was puzzled.
“What name darling?”
“Whichart in course.”
Rose must have looked hopelessly fogged, because Maimie said kindly as one helping an imbecile:
“Our Father Whichart.”

As in Ballet Shoes it is the youngest of the sisters, this time named Daisy, the daughter of a dancer from Balham, that has the talent for dancing. Her talent is spotted and encouraged by one of the boarders Violet, who introduces them to Madame Elise. And so it is that after some momentary pangs about the suitability of such a career, that all three attend the dancing academy which dusty and dirty. In this book I think we get a far more realistic idea of what life dancing for pantomimes and in dance troupes really would have been like for girls of tender years earning their keep in times of hardship. These details were no doubt the product of Noel’s own years on the stage prior to deciding to turn her hand to writing.

I really enjoyed the story, although at times what I loved and what I would hate in the hands of another writer were disconcertingly close. All the ‘lower-class’ characters drop their aitches which took me straight back to the books of my childhood, but also felt entirely out of place and patronising in an adult’s novel. The adult parts where the young Maimie, after an introduction into adult relations by a director, decides to uses her exquisite looks for money and favours, and sometimes out of sheer spite against another woman, was unexpected and not something that I expected to be inserted in such a blunt way in a book that was published in 1931.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of Ballet Shoes to hand, and nor have I read this for many years, but the characters of the girls right down to how the middle sister who has little talent for the stage longs to fly an aeroplane and would much rather help out as a mechanic than go near the stage appear to be more or less identical although nowhere near as glossy. It is this superficial characterisation which at times appear too trite for an adult novel, despite the fact that some of themes are definitely not childish.

The ending to this book is far less positive than that of Ballet Shoes, and whereas the children’s novel followed the three girls into adulthood, this stops short in a fairly depressing way where only one of the girls looking anywhere near likely to achieving their ‘happy-ever-after’ ending.

I’m so glad I have read this book although the pleasure was far more nostalgic rather than based on this rather unpolished debut adult novel. I do however fear it has tarnished my memory of Ballet Shoes forever although at the same time has added a layer of realism that has charms of its own. 

I’m so glad I added this to my 20 Books of Summer 2015! Challenge, it was so good even when it was truly terrible!

by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd), half-plate film negative, 11 January 1934
Noel Streatfeild by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd), half-plate film negative, 11 January 1934