I thought I’d read all the “Shoes” books, but I’d somehow missed this one until now. It’s not one of Noel Streatfeild’s more interesting stories, being entirely based around preparations for a village pageant, something which wouldn’t merit more than a couple of chapters in any of her other books. However, the idea of an entire community, plus the American troops based nearby (it’s set in 1945), all getting involved in organising a local event, was rather lovely; and it was all pleasantly devoid of horribly annoying kids or morality-teaching mishaps.
The whole premise was pretty bonkers, though. Three and a half years into rationing, a young girl received a beautiful party frock as a Christmas present from her godmother in America, and the pageant was organised because she couldn’t wear it for an afternoon party and it wasn’t possible to organise an evening party because there were no night service buses to where the family lived! So the frock sat in the wardrobe for 9 months, by which time she’d nearly grown out of it. Whilst one would not wish to turn up at Buckingham Palace or Sandringham House wearing attire unsuitable for the time of day, would anyone really have been that bothered if a girl of about 12 had worn a long party frock for an afternoon party, once they knew that she’d just got it as a present and was dying to wear it?! And it was a shame that the children’s ideas for the pageant were hijacked by adults, and turned into something completely different. But still. It was a very nice, sweet story, the wartime setting worked well, and of course the pageant turned out to be a great success.
The idea for the story came from Noel Streatfeild’s niece receiving a party frock as a present from America during the war, and not having an occasion on which to wear it. In the book, Selina, the recipient of the dress, was living with her auntie, uncle and six cousins. Her parents, who’d been based in the Far East, had been taken prisoner by the Japanese, but we heard at the end of the book that they were safe and well. The uncle was a doctor, and probably over military age anyway, but I’m not sure why there seemed to be so many other men around, unless it was because it was a rural area and some of them were exempt due to being needed for farm work. All the references to clothes rationing and food rationing were interesting, though, and it was nice to see the community marking VE Day and VJ Day. It was rather sad, though when the children reflected that there’d been nothing to celebrate since the Coronation (in May 1937), when the younger ones hadn’t even been born and the older ones hadn’t been old enough to remember much.
It was classic Streatfeild in that the family claimed to be so poor that Phoebe, the youngest daughter (and the one likely to turn into a Lydia Robinson or Nicky Heath, although she was quite sweet as she was) had to wear clothes that barely covered her backside … and yet they could afford to send John, the eldest son, to Marlborough. Oh, pull the other one! But the fact this was set in a rural area meant that the entire social spectrum could be included. The pageant was performed in the grounds of the local stately home, a former abbey known as, er, the Abbey, owned by Squadron Leader and Mrs Day, who were shortly to sell up after it’d been in the Day family since the Dissolution. And all the kids from the village school (not, naturally, attended by Selina and her cousins) took part, as well as the family’s own friends. The idea of it, everyone getting involved, really was nice. Although the kids came up with the idea as an opportunity for Selina to wear her frock, they gave the profits to charity.
Selina’s cousins were all supposed to write scenes for the play. Well, four of them were: the other two were too young. Phoebe was very into poetry, and Sally, the other daughter, was very into ballet Selina herself was sidelined almost from the start. She was the stage manager and ran errands, and generally did a lot of work, but without getting much credit or attention. Then the Days’ nephew Philip, who was staying with them whilst he recovered from injuries sustained in the war, and had some experience in theatre, got involved, and took over, and, before long, the little pageant had become an enormous event involving hundreds of people.
Phoebe’s scene, which she’d put a lot of effort into, was scrapped completely, and replaced by something Philip had thought up, and Sally’s scene was taken over and reworked by the local ballet school. Whilst the kids did seem upset about this, the narrative was clearly in favour of it, and didn’t show the kids much sympathy. Yes, it all ended up being far better than anything that young children could have written and produced by themselves, and Sally was offered a place at a posh ballet school, and it was good that so many people got involved, but it was a shame that the children’s enthusiasm and the work they’d put in seemed to count for nothing.
That’s very Streatfeild, though. My all-time favourite Streatfeilds are the Gemma books, but I always feel sorry for Dulcie, the leading light of the local university drama society, when she’s deprived of the chance to play Juliet because Gemma, who isn’t even a student at the university, is parachuted into the role. The narrative shows no sympathy at all for Dulcie and her supporters, stressing that Gemma is the better actress. Again, the production was much better than it would have been without outside involvement, but I do feel sorry for the people who are pushed out.
Towards the end, the Abbey caught fire, and Selina heroically helped to put out the flames, thus proving what a heroine she was, even though everyone seemed to have forgotten that the pageant was originally meant to be about her and her party frock. That wasn’t very Streatfeild at all: it was the sort of thing that’d happen in an Enid Blyton book, or maybe an Elinor M Brent-Dyer book. But at least Selina got a bit of glory.
The pageant was a huge success on the day, and Philip Day – on whom I think Selina had a bit of a crush – made a point of saying what a great job Selina had done as stage manager. It still seemed a shame that the children’s own ideas had been taken over and turned into something else, though, and even more of a shame that Selina only got to wear the dress once, and said that it was getting tight so she was going to pass it on to Phoebe.
But it was all good fun, and everyone enjoyed themselves! No-one got conceited about their part and was punished by fate by breaking their leg just before the pageant, or annoyed everyone else by thinking that they were the most important person in it. And, hey, the American soldiers bought the Abbey to use as a youth hostel for American children wanting to holiday in post-war Britain – er, as armies do – so the Days were able to stay put. Happy endings all round. It wasn’t a very memorable book, but it was nice.