Friday, April 25, 2014

GWENDOLINE COURTNEY, Sally’s Family (1946)

“Six of them!” Mrs. Rees exclaimed, staring aghast at her master, who, his damaged leg propped up on a stool, was lying back in his chair, looking up at his housekeeper—and quondam nurse—with apprehensive amusement.

“Yes, six of them.  And five of them under eighteen.”

Mrs. Rees sank down on a chair, as if unable to stand up to the shock of finding that Charles Selwood, having reached the age of thirty-six and still a confirmed bachelor, was now to stand in loco parentis to six—no, five children!

So begins Sally’s Family, and it’s a promising beginning for my first experience of a Girls Gone By reprint—the tale of 24-year-old Sally who, in the days immediately after the end of World War II, comes out of the A.T.S. and must try to make a home for her five orphaned brothers and sisters.

This is made more challenging by the fact that the children have been split up in different households for most of the war.  Their father has been killed in Burma, after having saved Charles’ life.  Sally joined the A.T.S. right after the beginning of the war.  Initially, the other children had been left with an elderly aunt, but when the Blitz began the school-age children had been evacuated with their separate schools.  The aunt took Robin and Jane to the countryside but died soon after, leaving Robin with a clergyman and his wife, while Jane went to live with an Oxford don and his wife.

The novel’s introduction by Jilly Day makes clear that this type of reunion was not particularly unusual, though I can't recall coming across it in any other novels of the time, and it’s a wonderfully intriguing premise for a family story.  Charles—who has resolved to help the family and make sure they’re okay, but nevertheless make them stand on their own feetfinds himself drawn to the whole family (and one member in particular).  He rents them a filthy, run-down house that has been commandeered by a Civil Defense Unit for the duration of the war, and Sally must dive in to make it livable.  Fortunately, she has some help from the redoubtable Mrs. Rees, from whom Sally begins to catch the joy of housekeeping, which here sounds a bit like a contagious disease—perhaps contracted from Kay Smallshaw in Persephone’s How to Run Your Home Without Help, published around the same time:

She was already filling a kettle that had been left standing in the hearth, and found that she was actually catching a little of Mrs. Rees’s enthusiasm as that admirable woman proceeded to disinter various cleaning materials from the basket that had held the overalls.  Even to make this room clean would be an achievement one could feel proud of.

The arrival of each of the children to the family’s ramshackle new home is entertaining, but none so much so as the final arrival—of the youngest daughter, Jane, who had always (before the war) been known as Pookum:

She opened the door wider, and a small, demure figure clad in quaker-like grey walked composedly in.  A long dark plait hung over each shoulder, and solemn blue eyes surveyed her elder brothers and sisters without the slightest trace of shyness.  While they all stared in dead silence the blue eyes singled out Sally, and Jane advanced towards her, a small hang—for she was very small for her ten years—held out with all the aplomb of a woman of forty.

“How are you, Sally?  I remember you per-fectly despite the fact that I was so young when our family was un-a-void-ably split up,” she said staidly, articulating each syllable with care.

It’s hard not to love Jane/Pookum, as she approaches life in such a calm, practical, prematurely intellectual way, and she was the high point of the novel for me.  (But perhaps that’s because I rather identify with her?)  And, although the entire novel is light and cheerful and entertaining, Jane is really the only proper, giggle-out-loud comic relief.  Her background does, however, provide some challenges—not least to her poor teacher at the local school:

“She’ll be all right once lessons start,” Miss Leigh said quietly as the girls parted from her at the door.  “If she’s never been to school before she’s bound to be a little nervous at first.  But she’ll soon settle down,” and she returned to her scholars, blissfully unconscious of just how soon Pookum, who was not customarily given to fits of panic, would recover and settle down.

When Jane gets home, she tells the girls of her critiques of the “babyish” stories Miss Leigh tells in history class, stories that “have been en-tire-ly dis-cred-it-ed and dis-proved by his-tor-ians.”  She even, as Miss Leigh tells them later, “started quoting Latin on one occasion.”  But fortunately Miss Leigh—like just about everyone else in the novel—is unflummoxable and immediately recognizes Jane’s intelligence and potential.

Obviously, we are not in the realm of hard-hitting, gritty, postwar realism here.  There is perhaps more than a little propaganda here about the joys of housework (not unlike the Smallshaw book), and each family member’s sterling character and enthusiasm for hard work might occasionally stretch the limits of credulity.  Some of the family’s lucky breaks are as convenient as those in E. Nesbit’s The Lark—finding furniture in the attic when they finally get around to taking down the lingering blackout there, receiving cases of handy materials salvaged from their bombed-out former home in London, Charles’ frequent gifts of chickens, eggs, and cream.

Cover of 1962 Collins reprint

On the other hand, this is not just an idealized “cozy” (though it is certainly cozy enough for any rainy day), and the difficulties Sally and her siblings face do contain some insight into the realities and hardships of postwar England.  Even better, the family dynamics and the children’s unique personalities from growing up in such different environments are believable and completely entertaining.  Perhaps they even contain a sort of underlying message about how this microcosm of Britain as a whole would have to work together and sacrifice in order to survive postwar austerity?

Oddly, Sally’s Family kept reminding me of a very, very different novel, but one which also manages to turn relatively uneventful day-to-day life into something that’s hard to put down.  RC Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September, about a middle-class family’s perfectly ordinary vacation to the seaside, is one of my favorite Persephones, and as in that novel, Courtney here manages to create a compelling story from the most mundane details of domestic life.  Kitty has been billeted with the well-to-do Mrs. Howard, who has spoiled her and given her a taste for the good life, and she must be brought around to the joys of housekeeping and family life.  The siblings play trivia games to help Jane and Robin with their schoolwork.  Guy and Lucy start cramming to try to win scholarships.  Sally badly injures her foot and brings Tom, a young doctor home on leave from the military, into the novel’s cast.  Not exactly the events from which page-turners are usually made. 

And yet, somehow, I found I could barely put it down.  For those of you interested in fiction about wartime and postwar England, and fiction about domestic life, this one should prove irresistible.  And now, of course, I’m itching to read more of Courtney’s work.  Fortunately, Girls Gone By have reprinted several of her other titles as well—and hopefully will continue to do so, since the ones they haven’t gotten to yet are often shockingly pricy.

Also, as an aside, I was interested to learn from the book’s introduction that Courtney was the only civilian to have worked on Operation Overlord, the code name for the D-Day invasion of Normandy.  And, more sadly, she is one of a fair number of the women on my Overwhelming List to have been injured in a bomb blast during the war: Courtney's hearing was damaged, and her resulting extreme sensitivity to noise affected her for the rest of her life.

Oh, and by the way, the original cover, which GGB uses for their edition (the back is shown below), is quite irresistible as well.  Sadly, however, Courtney herself seems to have been camera-shy, as I could locate no photo of her.

1 comment:

  1. I first read this book in England when I was about 10 years old and immediately fell in love with it. In the intervening (nearly) 50 years I have read it, well, maybe 50 more times! I couldn't even really say why - it's like a comfortable old sweater that you snuggle up in. From your review, you have obviously fallen under its spell and so has my 25 year old daughter. I introduced her to the book about 10 years ago or more and she is as much a fan. We quote pieces to each other. When I first read the book as a child I didn't know what half of the references to wartime events meant, but having parents who lived through and fought in the war, I learned a lot about post-war Britain. I think it's a classic, but maybe I biased!


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