When I posted my World War II Book List a while back, and included my own choices of my five favorite books in each subdivision of the list, I hadn't yet taken Noel Streatfeild's The Winter Is Past (1940) off of my TBR shelf and actually read it. It was reprinted by Greyladies at least a year ago, but for some reason I got sidetracked onto other things and took forever to read it. Had I already read Streatfeild's lovely, funny, but surprisingly gritty tale of a country house, its family and servants, and the evacuees (literal) and other refugees (figurative) who find shelter there during the drab, anticlimactic days of the "phony war", then I can guarantee that it would have made my top five for the "Approach and Early Days" section.
For me, what sets The Winter Is Past apart from other portrayals of the earliest days of the war, is that while it has all the hallmarks of a cozy, comforting bit of escapism (and indeed it is very, very entertaining and addictive, so it could really be read as such), Streatfeild's characters are undoubtedly real living breathing human beings, not idealized figures with only minor problems easily resolved at the end. Their flaws are shown and wrestled with, and reading about how they come to terms with them and with one another, one must come to terms with their failings too, and then forgive them and like them anyway.
This edginess in Streatfeild was to be taken to a bit of a bleak extreme a couple of years later in her Blitz novel I Ordered a Table for Six (1942)—the Blitz was bound to make one a bit cranky, I suppose. And although Saplings (1945), which follows one family through the entire war, is another favorite of mine (available from Persephone), it's certainly a bit darker than Winter as well. Perhaps Winter was simply as optimistic and energetic as Streatfeild could bring herself to be outside of her children's books or her Susan Scarlett romances. But it's the perfect balance for me.
Among the residents of and visitors to the country house are young Sara Laurence, a former actress, and her husband Bill (off doing war service during much of the novel), from whom she has become alienated following a miscarriage and its succeeding depression; her mother-in-law Lydia, who has left her London apartment as a result of the war, and who is posh and unflappably domineering in her polite and efficient way; the family servants Cook, Sims, Martin, elderly Nannie (who cared for Lydia as a child), and poor Irene, whose airheadedness is much commented on throughout; evacuee Mrs. Vidler and her children Tommy, Rosie, and Herbert; Sara's sister-in-law Saffron and husband Jim; G.N., an older playwright friend; Broom the gardener; and probably more I'm forgetting about.
Lots of things happen—the villagers gossip about Sara and G.N., Sara tries to find a purpose in life following her miscarriage, Mrs. Vidler frequently expresses her exaspertion with the ways of the upper classes—but the main plot consists of these disparate characters coming to terms with one another, facing tragedy, illness, hardship, and uncertainty about the future together, and even learning from each other.
|Greyladies back cover blurb|
One thing that struck me here was that Streatfeild consistently dodges the stereotypes about evacuees in her portrayals of Mrs. Vidler and her children. They are clean and well-behaved, Mrs. Vidler acknowledges how difficult it must be for the family to have strangers in their home, Tommy takes a surprising interest in gardening, and Mrs. Vidler is determined to make herself useful around the house. On the other hand, Lydia bemoans that Mrs. Vidler "never seemed to understand that she was an inferior," and she is hilariously allowed to vent her bewilderment about upper crust behavior:
Why people give themselves all that space to brush and scrub when they needn't, beats me. Not that, as she reminded herself, young Mrs. Laurence did anything in the way of brushing or scrubbing, but how that Annie Martin and that Minnie Sims had to get about! Annie Martin put her in mind of a cat with a tin tied to its tail. Minnie Sims was slower, but she never seemed to have a minute to call her own. Always saying she had to do her passages or turn down her beds or something. Lying back studying the windows, Mrs. Vidler puzzled at the queer ways of the rich, at the ideas they had of making work and wasting time. Turn down the beds indeed! The bed would turn itself down as soon as any one got into it and if that wasn't time enough, she didn't know what was. She looked up at the window behind which she knew Bill was lying and sighed. How dull life was for people like him and that young Mrs. Laurence. No wonder the poor little thing looked all of a jump.
And later, when her husband visits, she tells him about the trouble between Sara and Bill:
"Why does 'e put up with it?"
Mrs. Vidler puffed out an immense breath as if blowing from her soul the repressions of the house.
"Why? Always act genteel. My Gawd, must be awful to be a lady or gentleman. Never speak your mind; never act natural; never 'ave a good laugh, nor a good cry, nor a good row. Just on and on, all the days the same, all they get out of it is enough to eat. When this rationing gets goin' they won't 'ave even that, they won't 'ave anythin'."
Streatfeild obviously poured some of her own anxieties about the looming war—and what it would bring with it—into the novel. Lydia formulates her ideas of the role in women in wartime, while G.N. roundly condemns those writers and artists who chose to go abroad (mostly to the U.S.) when the war approached. And then there's Cook's memorable anxieties about the future of domestic work:
I remember the last war, I was in the W.A.A.C.'s then, that's the same as the A.T.S. now, and I didn't see anything much of what was going on. We always had plenty of everything in the W.A.A.C.'s, and were kept and paid, so I never saw how things were shaping. But I knew all right when I came out. Why, in my first place, there were twenty-three of us in the servants' hall, and I was third kitchen-maid. What food we had! The entertaining there was, you wouldn't believe. But after the war you couldn't get that kind of place, or at least I couldn't. I went where there were four in the kitchen, very nice it was, titled people and all that, but they had to squeeze to make ends meet, and they were no strangers to the tradesman standing on the doorstep asking when he was going to be paid. And things haven't been getting any better. Now this war, you read what it's costing. You read the taxes, and they'll be worse yet. Well, what's going to happen to people like this," she jerked her thumb at the roof, to represent all in the dining-room, "and if anything happens to them and their sort, what's going to happen to us?"
All of which is interesting and entertaining, but above all, what makes The Winter Is Past a favorite for me is its heart. Even Lydia, as conservative and domineering as she can be, is given her moments to shine, as in this touching scene with old Nannie:
Lydia smiled, for years she had been an exquisite needlewoman, but it was governesses who had taught her to be so, and Nannie had never forgotten a sticky fingered small girl attempting to embroider "God is Love" on a pin-cushion, and how she had lost patience and tried to cover the big letters more quickly and how each time she had done this the work had been taken from her and the "bogglers" unpicked. Now Nannie's stitches were becoming bogglers, all her life she had been neat with her needle and her failing eyesight hid from her work that she would never have passed a few years ago. Sara would have been startled if she could have seen the expression on Lydia's face as she examined the hem, and heard the warmth and love in her voice as she said:
"You mustn't expect us all to sew like you do. All the same I would rather you let me have these small things, I know it won't be as well done as if you did it, but you must take care of your eyes. I'll bring you up some of my knitting for Mr. Edward's men. I shall be glad to be rid of it for a time. Navy is a tiring colour."
If you're a fan of home front novels, or character-based comedy-dramas, or Noel Streatfeild, or just wonderfully entertaining reads, be sure to grab this one from Greyladies while you can! And next time, we move about six years into the future for a similarly amazing (if not quite so flawlessly characterized) look at the days immediately after the war's end.