Noel Streatfeild, Saplings (1945)
For fans of Noel Streatfeild’s children’s fiction, encountering her adult novel Saplings can be rather unsettling. We start out with a typical Streatfeild British family — two boys, two girls, of varying temperaments and characters — but instead of working out their talents and foibles in a heartwarming, positive way, they slowly unravel as their world is turned upside down by conflict and loss. The adult world reveals its sordid side, with glimpses of sex and addiction that begin to seep into the sacred precincts of childhood. We are left with uncertainty as to the children’s fate, and the ending, though not entirely tragic, is not a happy one.
I was not averse to seeing Streatfeild veer out of her cheery, uplifting mode, much as I’ve always loved her books (particularly the ones about actors and dancers). But although Saplings had moments of brilliance in its portrayal of the psychological effects of child abandonment and neglect, I was left with an oddly unfinished feeling. Streatfeild’s laconic writing style was sometimes effectively unsentimental, but sometimes blunt to the point of nullity, as when two characters look at each other and “know they are in love”. She seemed to be trying to do too many things at once, entering into the minds of both child and adult characters but not penetrating either deeply enough.
I was also struck that although the jacket copy emphasizes this as a novel that shows the devastating effects of war on children, the destruction of the family comes about not through war (something else could have caused a similar trauma), but through the selfishness and narcissism of the children’s mother. Evacuation isn’t even necessary for them to be separated from her, as she shuffles them off to boarding school as fast as possible so she can pursue her own proclivities. Her need of them as ornaments and reinforcements for her own self-image is sharply portrayed, forming a devastating, disturbing portrait of a woman utterly without self-knowledge. She doesn’t really mean to harm her children, but does so through her lack of understanding of how her actions affect others, her inability to truly care about anyone other than herself.
Members of a privileged class, the children remain somewhat elevated above the worst deprivations of wartime, and certainly far above what children on the continent were suffering. I found them quite unlikeably spoiled at times, as they threw fits about trivial things like having to sleep in a different room than they were used to or having to share a desk with another child in an overcrowded school. But such “poor little rich child” problems were ultimately signs of their deeply insecure, unstable foundation, their lack of real mother-love.
It’s a sad, bitter story, one I wish had ended differently — not necessarily in a happier way, but in stronger and less fragmented way. The characters still haunt me even as I’m frustrated by how they dissolve into sketchiness.
I am glad to have read this book even if I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. It casts light on a side of Streatfeild’s writing life of which I would otherwise have remained ignorant, and which brings an interesting dimension to her sometimes one-sided tendencies. It also brings an unusual degree of insight into children’s thoughts and feelings, though it was written at a time when these were not much regarded or understood. It’s always fascinating to see what books Persephone is bringing back, and I do think this one deserves its revival.