Friday, January 31, 2014

NOEL STREATFEILD (writing as SUSAN SCARLETT), Summer Pudding (1943)

Here in San Francisco, we are in the middle of what should be our rainy season but has in fact turned out to be a rather serious drought.  We should be getting rain at least once a week (and I've experienced whole months in the past where the rain barely seemed to stop and I felt mildewed through and through), but all we've gotten in the past two months were some light sprinkles yesterday.

Hopefully those sprinkles are a sign of a change in the weather, but at any rate they were enough to remind me how much the shift from months and months of sunshine (and a fair amount of fog) to months of grey and wet affects my personality.  Rainy weekend days especially always render me useless for all productive activity and compel me to spend a lazy day reading "cozy" fiction.

Which in turn reminded me that I had been meaning to write about this, my first Susan Scarlett acquisition from Greyladies, for quite some time.  Because I could hardly think of a more perfect book to read with the rain drumming against the windows and flollipiness coursing through my veins.  ("Flollipy" being an excellent word permanently added to my vocabulary during my youthful viewing of the classic BBC sitcom Good Neighbours, wherein Felicity Kendal used the word to describe that feeling of utter motivationlessness and dopey laziness that can irresistibly overtake one, particularly in inclement weather.)

Summer Pudding (and if you—like me—don't know what the title refers to, see here) is the utterly frivolous and fluffy tale of Janet Brain, who has been bombed out of her job in a London office and comes to the village of Worsingford (an example of things going from bad to Worsingford?), where her self-absorbed sister Sheila and ailing mother Maggie are already living.  The story takes place in 1941, soon after the worst of the Blitz has ended—though apart from a few references to the bombing, a mention or two of rationing, and a brief mention of an evacuee child in the village, the characters seem blissfully unconcerned about the war.

Maggie is supposed to be resting as a result of her bad heart, but is actually doing all the housework and gardening while Sheila flits about fancying herself a film star and dodging all responsibility (and all ethical behavior).  Sheila even manages to twist the rhetoric of war work to suit her laziness in trying to get out of going to the local Labour Exchange:

"There's not all that rush.  I suppose I can wait for a fine day.  It's the duty of everybody to keep well in wartime.  I heard that on the wireless.  It won't be any good my going to the Labour Exchange if I get a chill from it, and have to stop in bed for weeks."

Conveniently, nearby is a handsome young widower, Donald, and his adorable young daughter, Iris, as well as Barbara, a charming young girl in love with the Donald's half brother, Dick, who is on active service, and Barbara's curmudgeonly but likeable old father, a retired colonel.  The main obstacles are Gladys, Donald's possessive young housekeeper, who is in love with him—as everyone in the village but he knows—and a series of misunderstandings precipitated by Sheila's "every woman for herself, especially if she's young and pretty and oughta be in pictures" deceitfulness.  But despite these, one can see early on how the happy endings are likely to line up.  (So much so that Janet sometimes appears to be extraordinarily dense not to see it for herself long before she does, but that is, after all, part of the fun.)

Few of the characters here possess any real depth, but somehow I didn't mind because the story is such light, silly fun that depth seems irrelevant.  I will say though that Streatfeild's writing here is perhaps rather more Elizabeth Cadell, who often merely sketches out her characters, than D. E. Stevenson, whose great strength is that you feel most of her characters could walk off the page.  So if Cadell is too frivolous for you, then this book might be too.

Oddly, the character who seems to have the most depth is probably Gladys, Donald's dominatrix of a housekeeper, who has sacrificed herself for love of him but remains hopelessly unsuited for him.  And unsuited for Iris as well, to whom she behaves with schoolmarm-ish strictness and a complete lack of warmth.  Still, her own statements about her situation—and how she plotted to marry Donald even while his wife was dying—offer a darker, rather disturbing counterpoint to the more idealized romances of the novel:

"Ever since Anna died I've hoped and hoped.  Even before she died I was planning.  She knew.  She used to tease me.  'No harm in trying,' she used to say, 'but you're not his sort, you know.'  But Anna was fond of me, and I was good to her, and I have been good to Iris.  I knew ever since you came it was all up, I tried not to believe it, but you can't fool yourself, can you?  I'm not Sheila believing fairy tales.  It's a cruel world for lots of women."

Compare Gladys' heartbreak and hopelessness with Janet's first realization (better late than never!) of being in love.  Call me a softy, but I thought this was a pretty good way of putting into words how love can affect one's point of view:

Did all places look different, she wondered, because of the person you saw them with?  Probably yes.  She had seen girls meeting men under the clock at Charing Cross or in Piccadilly Tube Station, and had caught an expression on their faces which had remained with her, but until not unidentified.  Now she knew what it was.  Charing Cross was not the Charing Cross the hurrying crowd saw.  Piccadilly Tube was not a swarming mass pushing their way on to the escalators.  Each was a rarefied and lovely world born for lovers' meetings.

But it's interesting to read both of these passages alongside Maggie's statements, a bit later on, about her preferred reading:

"So long as it has a happy ending," said Maggie.  "I do like things to go right in life, and since reading is meant to be a pleasure, I don't see why I should upset myself over the girl who doesn't marry her man in the end.  It happens too often in real life."

Obviously, the kind of book Maggie likes is exactly the kind of book Streatfeild was (apparently reluctantly and mainly for financial reasons) striving to write with Summer Pudding and the other "Susan Scarlett" novels.  Now admittedly I might be trying too hard to make Streatfeild's disowned "romance" mean more than it does, but I wonder if there isn't just the tiniest veiled critique here of the kind of novel that gleefully accepts Janet's romantic bliss and refuses to "upset itself" over Gladys' heartbreak?  Perhaps Streatfeild's non-Susan Scarlett novels might have found Gladys' heartbreak of greater interest than Janet's bliss?  Or perhaps not, but hey, I had to try…

Even if Summer Pudding was merely tossed off in an effort to make money, Streatfeild's strong writing does come through.  In particular, her descriptions of the village and the Brains' house play in perfectly with my unrealistic fantasies of English country life:

The cottage lay across a field in which cattle were grazing.  It was whitewashed, and as Janet drew nearer she could see it was beautifully thatched.  The fence of the field and its gate were the entrance to a little garden, the garden of a Londoner's dream.  A flagged path bordered with lavender hedges, flower-beds behind blue with delphiniums and silver with lilies, a honeysuckle over the porch and roses everywhere.

Or how about this?:

Village life was new to Janet. … To Cockney Janet there was rest even in watching Worsingford.  The slow but methodical country way in which everything does get done in its proper season, but very much at the countryman's own tempo, was new to her, and enthralling.  The cows strolled, apparently aimlessly, the boy whooped and called "Get along up, Daisy," a suggestion in which none of the cows appeared to take any interest, and yet somehow the procession disappeared with no trouble through the proper gate, which, to Janet, was nothing less than miraculous.

I'm sure some readers even in 1943 would have been amused by how idyllic Streatfeild made country life sound.  But it's certainly a pleasant fantasy!

Streatfeild is not generally a hilarious writer, merely a cheerful one, but there is humor here and there throughout.  One of the funniest (and oddest) elements of the novel is the fact that the Colonel and his cook, Mincing, see ghosts in their house.  This is never developed into a major plot point, but the presence of ghosts seems to indicate the coming of major changes to life in the house.  It's an odd little twist, but Mincing's reactions to the ghosts are quite funny.  She seems not to find them frightening at all—only a bit inconvenient.  Here is the Colonel describing to Janet a conversation he and Mincing had:

"I said to Mincing one day, 'There's a lot of these people about, aren't there, Mincin'?' and she said, 'Yes indeed, sir, I had to undress last night with the light out because of the gentlemen in the room.'

A short while later, as the changes (such as, perhaps, a new mistress for the house?) approach, Mincing says of the ghosts:

"They're no subject for joking.  The house is so full just now that often I have to squeeze my way up the back stairs."

And finally, there was one scene featuring the implacably adorable Iris that I can't resist sharing.  In this scene, she actually does remind me of a D. E. Stevenson child.  Here, Sheila's selfish (and borderline criminal) machinations have come to light, and Iris is present as Maggie and her daughters discuss them:

Maggie became more severe.

"That's enough, Sheila.  Janet wanted to be a Wren.  She gave up the idea to stay with me."

"She's jolly glad now that she did."

Maggie glanced at Iris' interested face.

"I think you might go in the garden, Iris."

"I haven't finished my milk."

"Never mind, take it with you."

Iris got off her chair.  She looked disparagingly at Sheila.  "I don't want to be mean, but it isn't at all a nice day, and I'm being sent outside because of you.  Little pitchers have long ears."

Greyladies has now published most of the Susan Scarlett novels.  Streatfeild's serious fiction for adults, however, remains fairly inaccessible, with the exception of Saplings, which has been a popular Persephone title.  However, I have managed to track down a few more via Interlibrary Loan (thank you, Boston Athenaeum, and thank you to Chia, who emailed to let me know she'd seen the books while browsing there!).  I'm excited and ambivalent about them at the same time, as the consensus seems to be that Streatfeild's adult fiction tends to be a bit cold and bleak. But I'll soon see for myself, and hopefully I'll be writing about them here soon.

Regardless, although the Susan Scarlett novels are unlikely to be among my all-time favorites, I can see that I'll have to order two or three more very soon.  I have to be prepared if the drought breaks!


  1. Well, you're a danger to my purse! I just ordered this title from Greyladies. I think I'll enjoy it quite a bit. BTW, I want to mention my favorite Cadell, which is not at all frivolous - A Lion in the Way.

    1. Oh good Kristi, I do hope you enjoy it. I have three more Susan Scarletts on my shelf now, so I hope I continue to enjoy them too!

      Thanks so much for the Cadell recommendation. I always read her 1950s and 1960s novels and haven't looked much at the later ones, but I'm so intrigued by a non-frivolous Cadell. (And if it's not already clear, I should point out that when I call Cadell frivolous, it's not at all a critique. I love her for it, and -I can't imagine why her books aren't reprinted along with Heyer's, as they are some of the best rainy day reads around.)


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