Friday, March 18, 2022

The Scarlett Woman, Part 3: NOEL STREATFEILD (as SUSAN SCARLETT), Babbacombe's (1941) & Poppies for England (1948)

Just for a moment or two on her second day in the shop she sat down. A fellow-junior, called Jenny, gave her a horrified dig in the ribs.
"I say, get up before Mrs. Nunn or Miss Jones see you."
Beth sprang up.
"I thought we were allowed to sit. I mean I thought it was the Shop Act or something that we had to have something to sit on."
Jenny laughed.
"So they say, but it doesn't work out that way. You won't get sacked for sitting, but if you sit you'll get the sack."

For quite a while in my Susan Scarlett reading—both a decade or so ago when Greyladies first rediscovered them and more recently in my use of them to avoid reality—I resisted Babbacombe's. It has one of my least favorite plot elements—the utterly vicious, unredeemable, scheming girl who thinks herself "all that" and really should have been exposed on a hillside at birth. This was obvious even from the Greyladies blurb, and it led me to select other Scarlett titles instead. But it turns out this was a bit of a false alarm. Although there is such a character here, she is given delightfully little airtime, and her scheming is so obviously hopeless and without effect that one needn't really notice her at all.

The name of this character, however, will be quite familiar by the end of this post, as Streatfeild seems to have had a liberal recycling policy when it came to character names. Don't confuse the Dulcie of Babbacombe's with the Dulcie we'll meet in Poppies for England. But by all means do wonder if Streatfeild had at one time known someone named Dulcie and liked memorializing her every time she had a female character who was a pain in the neck.

At any rate…

Lovely young Beth Carson is just out of school and starting her first job at Babbacombe's department store, where her father has worked for donkey's years. Beth is pure as the driven snow, naturally, and always follows daddy's orders as far as knowing her place and keeping to it, but she can hardly be blamed for tripping over a charming young man's dog at the train station, can she? And how could she have helped getting trapped in an elevator with the same man a few days later, and giving him a piece of her mind about his attitudes, before learning that he just happens to be David Babbacombe, the ne'er-do-well son of the store's wealthy owner? How could she possibly have known that her careless words would inspire him to take a new lease on life? And is it her fault if he insists upon seeing her again despite her determined rejections due to knowing her place, etc.? 

Starting work at Babbacombe's at about the same time as Beth, but as a lowly elevator girl, is Beth's useless cousin Dulcie, who has just been dumped on the Carsons by her aunt who raised her and has now had quite enough of her. Dulcie is spoiled, has some of her own money, and is a cheap glamour queen who fancies herself a seductress. But fortunately for the reader, she, like the Wicked Witch of the West, has no power here except as a minor irritant.

It all unfolds just as you'd expect, and the Carsons and Babbacombes are a delight to hang around (though a threatened-blindness subplot involving Beth's brother might well seem a bit too familiar from The Man in the Dark). As obvious and silly as it all often is, somehow—and who knows how Streatfeild does it, particularly seeing as how she was clearly to some extent "phoning in" these Susan Scarlett novels—it all rings true enough to make the novel a delightful frolic, and here as in the other novels we get wonderful details, this time of the day-to-day running of a department store, including Beth's efforts as a saleswoman, a nefarious shoplifter (and the surprising methods of a store detective), the strenuous running about of a junior, and the rigorous expectations of employers of the time for their staff. Not to mention a fairly thorough run-down of appropriate tips to staff after a stay in a country house—you never know when that might come in handy!

From the department store we move, in Poppies for England, to the stage, a subject Streatfeild knows well:

This one week's holiday was all that most of the audience could get, they were free for one week from food queues, housework and even, for many hours a day, the care of their children. It was a week of absolute rest, but everybody in the audience knew that outside the camp lay the hard, difficult world of 1946.

We're in the rather provincial theatrical world of a holiday camp for families in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Corners and the Binns are show business families who are on the verge of dire straits due to the lack of jobs and the fact that both Arthur Binns and John Corners have spent much of the past several years as POWs in Japan. But the crisis is averted when they manage to adapt a show they conceived in their prison camp (sure, why not?) for the entertainment needs of vacationing families. All summer performing in the holiday camp, and with all their meals and accommodation provided, is quite a luxury after the difficult years of the war.

Dulcie Corners (there's that name again) has been the only member of the family with steady employment, but even she has been rather in a rut in the chorus of a West End show with no hope of stardom. She's ambitious, but also, of course, a bit of a diva, and when she sets her sights on the show's pianist and composer, Tom Pollard, gets not a flicker of interest out of him, then discovers that his interests really lie with Nella Binns, a dancer with real talent but no ability to "put herself over", danger signs start flashing.

Not a great image, but fun to see
the original cover

You can more or less imagine the rest, but the main attractions here are twofold, or perhaps threefold. There's a lush array of details of wartime and postwar life. For example, there's Alice Corner's concerns that John must feel rather lost in the family's inside jokes, having been gone for several years:

It was difficult; she and the three children had such a wealth of things they shared, it was hard not to get talking and cut him out of a conversation. Silly, wartime jokes. That time Dulcie got under the table when the flying bomb hit the end of the street, and that time she had stood in a queue for two hours to buy strawberries, only to find that she was in the wrong queue and had fetched up at that peculiar chemist who had such odd things in his window that she always looked the other way when she passed, and that time when the house was blasted and they stayed for a week with the Binns, and that time when the Binns lost their windows and part of the roof and stayed nearly four months with them.

Even the song which becomes the hit of the show and gives the book its title is inspired by the war: "An airman had told him that the crimson streak of poppies was one of the loveliest things he knew coming home from a bomb raid."

Then, of course, there's wonderful details of the problems and perils of putting on a stage show, obviously grounded in Streatfeild's exact knowledge of that life. Just little details that she must have added by instinct shine with the ring of truth, as when Muriel Binns, who has added some pounds due to the stresses of wartime (oh, how I can relate), worries about her figure and the subtleties of an audience's reactions—"An out-and-out laugh she could stand, but never a snigger." 

And finally, family stories are of course one of Streatfeild's best strengths as well, and the dynamics between the Binns and the Corners are completely charming. The Dulcie we meet this time is merely difficult and ambitious, not inhuman like the one in Babbacombe's, and the only really unfortunate element of this novel appears on the final page, with a rather unfortunate final line of "romantic" dialogue which might be seen as misogyny even though it's clearly intended as both humorous and loving. Some readers may find it jarring, others probably won't notice, but although I take it in the spirit it was intended, I rather wish it were worded a bit differently.

Similarly in terms of language, there's some unintentional irony in Dulcie's early comments on Tom's inexplicable lack of response to her charms: "Nobody can be like that really, can they? I mean, all men like women in the end, don't they, like all girls grow up to like boys?" And later: "I don't believe it's queer of me. I believe it's Tom that's queer."

Probably best if I refrain from comment…


  1. The anti-heroine in Wintle's Wonders/Dancing Shoes is also a Repulsive Dulcie! I thought there was a fourth Dulcie as well but I can't remember which book so maybe there is only three.

    1. Iirc there is a not-too-awful-but-not-that-nice Dulcie in When the Sirens Wailed.

  2. These sound wonderful, but when someone recommended Babbacombe's to me a long time ago, I couldn't find a copy anywhere... even with reprints!


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