Friday, February 18, 2022

The Scarlett Woman: NOEL STREATFEILD (as SUSAN SCARLETT), Clothes-Pegs (1939) & The Man in the Dark (1940)

It has recently come to my attention, through mentioning the Susan Scarlett novels on Twitter (@furrowedmiddle, if you haven't found me there yet), that many people are still unaware of the books' existence. Even passionate fans of Noel Streatfeild's children's books don't always know that she also wrote for adults, and even those who know she wrote novels for adults (16 by my count under her own name) often don't know about her 12 pseudonymous "romances", written just before, during, and for a few years after World War II. These were all reprinted by Greyladies Books a decade or so ago, but the new editions are now out of print.

These novels were light fiction, about which Streatfeild herself seemed to feel considerable embarrassment (they were never included in any of her official bibliographies), with relatively ordinary and more or less predictable romantic or light melodrama plots. The definitive website about Streatfeild, essential for fans (see here), notes that "[b]oth Angela Bull [Streatfeild biographer] and Nancy Huse [author of a critical text on Streatfeild's work] agree that Noel's romances use very conventional plots, and there is nothing to distinguish them from the general mass of books in this style."

Ah, but here I beg to differ.

It's true enough that you are unlikely to be astonished by any of the plot developments in these books—most can be summed up as cheerful takes on the adage about the course of true love never running smooth. It's true that most of them are fairly frivolous and even downright silly in terms of their plots, and that some are surprisingly conservative in regard to gender roles and career women. It's even true that many of the characters are obviously good or bad and get their just desserts accordingly, as one would expect from any bit of fluffy fiction.

BUT … they are also written by Noel Streatfeild, and they bear some of her unmistakable strengths, however little effort she may have put into them and however eagerly she disowned them in later years. She was too skillful a writer not to pour herself even into what she considered bits of fluff. She provided them with intriguing settings and situations and fascinating details that stem from her own personal experiences (war work, modeling, the film industry, theatre, ballet). And she couldn't help but people them with charming, likable (and loathable) characters who interact in lively, entertaining ways and are portrayed in psychologically astute ways even when behaving according to the romantic formula.

And what's more, by contrast with much of Streatfeild's "literary" fiction for adults—the novels she didn't disown—the Susan Scarlett novels tend to be cheerful and energetic, the perfect antidote for COVID blues or general malaise. I wouldn't recommend sampling Luke or I Ordered a Table for Six (to name two of her novels under her own name) as an antidote to anything, unless you're feeling too cheerful and would like to cut yourself down to size… (Though The Winter Is Past, by contrast, is absolutely lovely—I wrote about that one here).

I wrote about one of the Susan Scarlett novels, the wartime Summer Pudding, way back in 2014 (see here), but last October or November something brought them back to mind and I realized they were exactly what I needed to get through the winter. I promptly fleshed out my existing collection, so that I now have all 12 titles, and have been happily submerging myself now and again in their charm. So, to combat the lack of attention that has been paid to these novels, I present you with two of my favorites from my recent reading/re-reading.

First up, one of the first of the Scarletts, Clothes-Pegs (both it and Sally-Ann appeared in 1939):

"Goodness, how awful. Now me—I'm going to be the most famous doctor in the world, and Lisa is going to be a terrific woman flyer. And there's you just wants babies!"

Annabel was sorry her tastes were such a bore; but even to keep the good opinion of Lisa and Ann she could not change them. She didn't want to do anything grand.

Seventeen-year-old Annabel Brown has taken a job in the sewing room at Bertna's, a high-end dressmaker, to help her family's finances. When one of the "mannequins" employed downstairs quits unexpectedly, Tania Petoff, the shop's owner, decides to try lovely Annabel in her place, to the chagrin of her catty fellow models Elizabeth and Freda, who rather entertainingly take out their frustrations on her:

Freda would walk up and down beside her. Her eyes snapping over Annabel's figure.

"You're looking like a sack of coals. That aristocratic-slink has been dead for years. Do keep your back straight. Did you think you were going to a funeral in that dress? Miss Petoff designed it to dance in."

A third fellow model, Bernadette, is kinder, but has some secrets of her own…

Annabel's new position and improved status lead to tensions in her close-knit family, and even more problems arise when she catches the eye of wealthy Lord David de Bett, and the ire of dreadful Lady Octavia Glaye, who is keeping David in reserve as a potential future husband. Things take their course after Annabel has a wardrobe malfunction:

"Do you live permanently in yellow evening frocks and court gowns, or have you anything else?"

Annabel laughed shakily.

"Of course. My own clothes."

"Then go and put them on. Lovely ladies who fall over their trains need cocktails to restore them. And that's just what I'm going to take you to have."

Later on, Octavia drags David to Annabel's home for tea, hoping the realities of her drab little existence will put him off. Foolish girl! But who could resist the reaction of Annabel's mother, Ethel, to the fearsome Octavia:

"Dear me," thought Ethel, "don't care for her. Pity, with that lovely face. Looks like the Virgin on that church calendar we had last Christmas. Got a fit of sulks like Lorna gets. Liver, like as nor." If it was liver, she was sorry for Octavia, but she was not going to have her or anybody else spoiling Sunday tea. She gave her a friendly nod, as if she had said something nice, and turned to David.

There will be no surprises in how things turn out, but there's so much charm in the way it's all told that I found it irresistible, and the details of the dress shop are themselves worth the price of admission (with some lush descriptions of gowns, if that's your cup of tea). "Literary" it may not be, by Streatfeild's own standards, and it certainly doesn't resolve any of the world's problems. But great fun it certainly is, and quite effective at keeping those problems at bay for a few hours.

From there, I turned to 1940's The Man in the Dark, in which 26-year-old Marda Mayne agrees to move into the household of wealthy former racing car driver James Longford, blind as a result of an accident several years before, to serve as a companion to his newly-orphaned 17-year-old American ward, Shirley Kay. James has completely isolated himself since losing his vision, dismissing himself as "a useless bit of waste," and he wants Marda to provide for Shirley's needs so that he need not be bothered with her and can continue to stew in his own juices.

The plucky, practical Marda takes James' rather intimidating household staff in her stride:

"Yes, and then I'll go over Miss Kay's rooms with either you or the housekeeper."

The butler, as though watching the placing of a couple of coffins in the hall, watched the taxi-driver put down Marda's two suitcases. He waited till she had paid the man and shut the door, then he turned to her.

"There is no housekeeper, Miss."

From his voice it sounded as if the housekeeper had been strangled and her body put in the cellar; it nearly made Marda giggle.

Shirley turns out to be flirtatious scamp, but the two young women become fast friends. Naturally, they also make progress in loosening James up from his relentless self-pity, and Marda gains an unexpected ally from the aforementioned butler in an unexpected way. But the trio will have to brace themselves when James' self-absorbed, manipulative sister Vera—who sees James' fortune as destined for her own bank account—announces a visit:

"What's she like?"

Shirley considered.

"Well, I'd say outwardly she was like a cow suffering from flatulence, but inside I guess a couple of knives have nothing on her."

Again, you won't need three tries to guess how it all ends up, but getting there is like consuming bon-bon after bon-bon without gaining an ounce. It's a charming frolic with a touch of Streatfeild's usual psychological depth even in its less likable characters.

I've already devoured a couple more of these tasty morsels, but this is quite enough for one post, so most likely more to come soon.


  1. I love them all! For people looking to get copies of the Greyladies editions at something like the original prices, it is well worth looking through the catalogues of 'Girls Gone By' resellers. They sometimes have some old stock that haven't been priced up as much as secondhand dealers.

  2. I've known they existed for quite a while but I was afraid they might spoil NS for me so I avoided these books, particularly The Whicharts. Scott, I am relieved to know I can relax and try one a - Clothes Pegs sounds very appealing to me.

    1. Yes, some of her adult fiction under her own name can be a bit bleak, though The Winter Is Past is quite good. Definitely nothing bleak about Clothes-Pegs though, so you're safe!

  3. Ooooo this is exactly what I need! The Shoes books are literally my favorite children's books, but her adult fiction...too depressing for my life right now.

  4. Edited to add--oh no, these are impossible to find! $100s on Amazon and not available through Inter-library loan :-(...Any chance Dean Street Press might take them on?

    1. See my comment below re sellers. These are definitely "possibles" for FM reprints, but we'll see... :-)

    2. Thanks for the tip! I might squeeze one of those into my grad school budget--I guess I'm surprised that recent reprints are this pricey this fast!

  5. Following up on Rhiannon's comment, Girls Gone By has a list of dealers on their site, who often also sell Greyladies books:
    I ordered two of mine from Gill Bilski, who still has some left (as of this writing), and Sally Dore also has a few at very reasonable prices...

  6. The only one I can remember reading is the WWII novel, The Winter IS Past, which I liked very much, although there were parts that were almost unbearably poignant. But so well written!
    Thanks for bringing the others to light, Scott.

  7. These sound super, it's such a shame that the Greyladies folk did such short print runs and I hope DSP can be persuaded ...


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