Friday, June 17, 2022

The Scarlett Woman, Part 5: NOEL STREATFEILD (as SUSAN SCARLETT), Ten Way Street (1940) & Sally-Ann (1939)


"This is our new governess,'' said Meggie. " She's a nice sort of governess. She called us little horrors."
"And toads," David chimed in.
Betsy stood on one leg and held the other.
"And she said we were smug and detestable little beasts."

Wrapping up, after a slight delay, my writing about the fabulous Susan Scarlett novels by Noel Streatfeild, having now announced that we're reprinting them all come August (and having the delightful luxury of using our new covers as illustrations for this post), I have two real gems to finish up with. These are mood-brighteners for sure. To start, the fourth Scarlett, Ten Way Street (1940).

Beverley Shaw, raised in an orphanage and trained to be a governess, gets her long-awaited first job working for Margot Cardew, a brilliant stage actress (and a gloriously narcissistic diva to boot, a vibe we were channeling when selecting our cover image), whose three precocious children are accustomed to being used primarily as their mother's props—photo shoots demonstrating what a lovely mother she is, charity performances showing off their adorableness, and the like. Though initially frustrated that her first job is with such pampered brats, rather than the needier children she has imagined caring for, Beverley soon realizes that Meggie, David, and Betsy are genuinely in need of her care too.

Original cover of Ten Way Street, courtesy of my Fairy Godmother

Fortunately, Beverley has advice from her friend Sarah, also a governess to an impoverished vicar's children while their mother recovers from a long illness. And she certainly needs advice to navigate between Margot's kind but exhausted secretary Winkle, her sleazy French maid Marcelle, and the handsome Peter Crewdson, whom Margot loves but who is soon taking an interest in "Joan of Arc", the spirited young governess he first meets giving the children a piece of her mind (see above).

You won't get any prizes for guessing how it all turns out, but the ride is everything, and there are some wonderful moments along the way. Beverley is likely to earn considerable points from readers for her spirited defense of the work she does when Peter appears to disrespect it:

He chuckled.

"Poor Joan of Arc. It's a hard life."

She looked up at him, flushing.

"I'm just as keen on bringing up children as you are on your biochemistry. You know all about the chemicals that make an animal. I've studied the slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails, and the sugar and spice that make a child. It's my job and I'm going to do it well. So don't laugh at me."

You go girl! And when Beverley accompanies the children to one of their mother's performances, her first visit to a proper theatre, Streatfeild gets a chance to share her knowledge of show biz and her vivid sense of the magic it creates:

Thrilled as anybody must be who is unused to a theatre, she watched the wings fly up into the roof and the cottage front disappear and the whole stage hung in purple curtains. She watched rostrums built up and covered in purple cloth and a flight of steps put in place. Meanwhile all the actors who were to appear were streaming on to the stage.

It's really perfectly lovely and entertaining. I gulped it down. 


In fact, I loved
Ten Way Street almost as much as I loved my next Scarlett, 1939's Sally-Ann, the second of the books to appear (in book form, at least, though it had been serialized a little earlier).

The Marchioness’s face changed. “Well, that would be a way out of the difficulty.” She turned to Ann. “What is your name, dear?”

“Ann.”

“Would you mind being Sally for this one afternoon? The real Sally’s surname is Groot but you needn’t use that. Everyone will think you are Sally. They’ll probably call you Sally for they’ve all heard you were coming over for the wedding. You needn’t actually tell a lie about it. But just accept the name.”

Ann looked round the faces. Manners, Dennis, Mona, the Marchioness. They all eyed her expectantly.

“Very well, my lady.”

Charming young Ann Lane once aspired to become an analytical chemist, but when her father's business went bust and her brother Bunny developed a weak heart (heart and eye problems are an epidemic in Streatfeild's neck of the woods), she had to train to be a cosmetician. She was fortunate to find good employment at the Maison Pertinax, an elegant London hair and beauty salon originally founded by Thomas Pert (possibly killed off in the post-World War I years by the shock of women bobbing their hair). 

Ann is good at her job, and well-liked by her colleagues, who include Connie and Iris, two young women who are, as they say, no better than they ought to be, and who take full advantage of their assets to acquire more assets, but who become surprising allies for Ann despite bemoaning her naïveté; June, who fears herself a surplus woman while limiting herself to bread and butter to reduce her weight (for pete's sake, June, put down those carbs!), and the salon's manageress/receptionist, the rancid Lila Grey, known to staff as Nosey P.

On the day we first meet Ann, her superior falls ill with influenza on the day of a high society wedding at a castle near Lewes, and Ann must step in. And on a day when she's wearing her frumpiest clothes, no less! Fortunately, Lady Mona is not at all a Bridezilla and takes to Ann right away (after a temple massage that puts her into a blissful half hour nap, who could blame her?!). But then disaster strikes, in the form of a sudden "violent sickness" visited upon one of Mona's bridesmaids, a boozy girl from South Africa. Mona's Cousin Dennis (clearly flamboyantly gay, but apparently no less liked or appreciated for his abilities—points to Streatfeild there) is frantic that his elaborate plans for the wedding procession will be utterly ruined … if a replacement can't be found who can wear boozy Sally's dress.

Ann, of course, just happens to be the right size, and makes a hit at the wedding, with the result that Mona insists she shall come to the reception as well, in an elegant blue evening gown and an ermine fur (well, if she insists!). There, Ann makes a considerable impression on the best man, Sir Timothy Munster, and an equal, if rather more hostile, impression on the glamorous Cora Bolt, who grew up with Sir Timothy and has always taken for granted that he will marry her one day.

Oh what a tangled web we weave! And what fun we have along the way. This is as light and airy as a novel can come, and yet, as I've said ad nauseum about these Susan Scarlett novels, its characters are so plausible and likable (or loathable), that it couldn't matter less that it's a paint-by-numbers plot. Ann is a spirited, charming heroine, Sir Timothy witty and noble, and Lady Mona simply too good to be true. And surely I won't be the only reader who feels affection for the tarty Connie and Iris:

“That’s the trouble of being a nice girl. You get funny ideas. Marriage!”

“What is it?” said Iris. “Never heard of it.”

“It’s what girls like us come to when the bloom’s off.”

There's even a bit of late 1930s celebrity spotting when Sir Timothy takes Ann out on the town. We get singer Marie Tempest for starters, plus "This is a very literary and theatrical place. In the corner there is Dodie Smith. By the door is John Gielgud. And that’s Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale.” I loved the mention of Dodie Smith, at a time when she would have been known only as a playwright (her first novel appeared in 1949)—and there's a bit of an in-joke since John Gielgud and Marie Tempest were actually the stars of Smith's 1938 stage hit, Dear Octopus. Matthews and Hale, meanwhile, I had to look up—actors both, who presumably had bigger names in 1939 than they do now…

It's been such fun reading and writing about these novels that I wish Streatfeild had eschewed her "literary fiction" altogether and written about 40 more of these. (Word to the wise: do what you're good at, which in Streatfeild's case was clearly children's fiction and romance.) I realize these five posts have only covered ten of the twelve novels. Summer Pudding, as I think I mentioned before, I reviewed here way back in the dark ages. And Love in a Mist, the last of the Scarletts, from 1951, was actually the first one I read on this binge, late last year, before it had even occurred to me that we might reprint them, and I neglected to make good notes on it. Rest assured, however, that it's plot involving a spoiled child, a mother who has read too much child psychology, and a film company in search of a new child star, is (though perhaps slightly more melodramatic) just as deliciously readable as the others, with a memorably squabbling family elegantly brought to heel by a wise matriarch and the knowledge of the film industry, which Streatfeild had acquired from earlier book research, fully on display. Lights, camera, action indeed!

Now, all there is to do is wait till August when they're all available again at last.

10 comments:

  1. Elizabeth CrawfordJune 17, 2022 at 10:30 AM

    If I remember correctly the celeb spotting in ‘Sally Ann’ took place in The Ivy, then, as now, their natural home. And in the UK Jessie Matthews revived her career in the 1950s/60s as the eponymous heroine of ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’, a radio serial - the epitome of ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’. Loved all the Scarletts. Elizabeth

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    1. Oh how interesting, and I've just discovered that some samples of Mrs Dale's Diary are online. What fun!

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  2. I am SO excited these books are going to be available, and I am planning to a) buy them all for myself; and b) request all of them through the library "Add to Collection". Will her real name be listed on the covers along with Susan Scarlett?

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    1. The front cover will say "Susan Scarlett", but the blurb on the back will make clear that it's a pseudonym of Streatfeild. That was the preference of the estate (and also we don't have room for both names on our covers!). :-)

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  3. I am shocked -- SHOCKED! -- that you didn't recognize sweet, slightly-buck-toothed dancer Jessie Matthews. Sonnie Hale is slightly more understandable, although of course was MARRIED to Matthews. I think your Anglophile card is in danger of being REVOKED!
    yr fan Meredith Brody

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    1. On Twitter, someone recommended her movie First a Girl from 1935, and now I MUST see it! That should at least delay said revocation, right???

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  4. These sound so lovely! I was thrilled to be sent one of the new ones to review and can't wait to read it and the Elizabeth Fair. And then all the others will go on my Christmas and Birthday lists as usual!

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    1. Thanks Liz! Can't wait to hear what you think of them.

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  5. OH BOY! August? Why, what a coincidence! My birthday is in August, and I had been wondering what the cats might wish to buy for Daddy. And now that dilemma is settled! Thanks, Scott. I have read one or perhaps two of the Susan Scarlett novels - cannot remember which - and so looking forward to more.
    Tom

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    1. I always try to make your cats' dilemmas as easy as possible, Tom!

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