Mothering Sunday – other mothers

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This is Mothering Sunday – let’s use the correct, historical, term, please 🙂 .  Obviously there are lots of mothers in books, but, especially in older books, there are a lot of children who are brought up by grandmas, aunties, older sisters, stepmothers, female guardians, female cousins, foster mothers, nannies or governesses; and there are also a lot of other women, such as family friends and teachers, who play an important role in characters’ lives. So let’s hear it for all those fictional characters, many of whom gave up their own chances of careers or romance to look after our heroes/heroines, and also for *all* the women who play, or have played, an important role in our own lives.

Sometimes, these fictional ladies get a bad press.  Think about Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, or Jane Eyre’s villainous Aunt Reed.  But most of them are wonderful, and here are just five who sprang to mind:

  1. Madge Bettany in the Chalet School books.  At the start of the series, Madge, aged twenty-four, has sole reponsibility (her brother is unhelpfully working in India) for her twelve-year-old sister Joey, and their guardian’s just died after messing up their finances.  Unable to take a job and look after Joey at the same time, Madge starts her own school – but soon gets two pupils, one in her teens and one aged only six, dumped on her full time as well.  But she just gets on with it – and, happily, her having three kids in tow doesn’t put off Dr Jem Russell, whom she meets and eventually marries, and with whom she has six children.  And they end up looking after four nieces and two nephews as well
  2. Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables.  Marilla and her brother Matthew were looking to take on a boy to help on their farm.  Instead, they end up with Anne – and Marilla becomes a wonderful mother-figure to her.  It’s a lovely, lovely story.  I love the relationship between Anne and the Cuthberts.
  3. Sylvia Brown in Ballet Shoes.  I actually find Sylvia a bit annoying, because she takes freebies from friends and lets her servants go unpaid, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she, a young, single woman, somehow ends up bringing up three girls whom her great uncle bizarrely collects and leaves with her.  Let’s also hear it for Nana and for the two female academic doctors: they too play a big part in helping to bring up the Fossil girls.
  4. Izzie Carr in What Katy Did.  Aunt Izzie is one of many characters in books who go to live with a widowed brother or brother-in-law, act as his housekeeper and bring up his children.  We’re never really told whether or not they’re happy about this.  Maybe, for some of them, it was a good option.  For others, it probably wasn’t.  But a lot of them don’t seem to be appreciated as much as they should have been, and I think that Aunt Izzie’s probably one of those.
  5. Jo March Bhaer in Little Men.  Let’s not go into Louisa M Alcot’st family’s rather “interesting” ideas about life and education, and, instead, focus on the fact that Jo becomes a mother figure to several Lost Boys who end up at her boarding school/home.  Marmee March is often hailed as an ideal fictional mother figure, but she really does get on my nerves.  Sending Jo to a posh party in a burnt frock?  Letting Beth’s canary die?  Nah.  Her daughters do a much better job!  I prefer young Jo to adult Jo, but, even so, I think adult Jo is a great example of a mother figure in a scenario which isn’t that of a traditional family.
    I don’t think we get so many of these Other Mother figures now, because the Victorian trope of the Motherless Heroine has pretty much died out; but, even if there’s a loving mother around, grandmas, aunties and other older female relatives or friends can still play a huge part in a child’s life.Here’s to all the wonderful mother figures in fiction, and here’s too all the women who’ve influenced our lives xxx.

 

The Whicharts by Noel Streatfeild (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Reading this, the adult book which Noel Streatfeild adapted to create Ballet Shoes, was a very strange experience indeed.  It was a bit like finding out that your sweet little old auntie had a disreputable past about which you’d had no idea.  Sleaze.  Grooming.  Mistresses.  Illegitimate children.  Going after married men for their money.  This is not what I’m used to from Noel Streatfeild!  And, although it was meant as an adult book, some of the writing was quite simplistic, which made it even stranger.  As a stand alone book, it’s something that you’d read once, quite enjoy, but probably never read again.  As a Hall of Mirrors version of Ballet Shoes, it’s fascinating, in a rather weird kind of way.

Well, we’ve still got the three girls, although they’re Maimie, Tania and Daisy rather than Pauline, the ridiculously-named Petrova, and Posy.  And they’re still, respectively, an actress, a would-be mechanic and pilot who dislikes the stage, and a dancer.  But, rather than being three orphans whom GUM randomly collected, they’re the three illegitimate children of a rakish brigadier (a very Edwardian type – probably had mutton chop whiskers, used sandalwood aftershave, smoked expensive cigars and played billiards), by three different mistresses.  And, rather than being his niece, their guardian, Rose, is his discarded long-term mistress, whom he dumped when he met Maimie’s mother.  Rose takes in the first two women (not simultaneously!) and, after they’ve given birth, they ride off into the sunset and she takes on the babies.  She then also takes on Daisy, whose mother died of, presumably, childbirth fever.  I’m not sure what’s more unrealistic, GUM collecting orphans or this.  Where on earth is Rose’s self-respect?!

However, Rose is a very attractive character.  Like Sylvia, she’s devoted to the children.  Unlike Sylvia, when the money runs out – in this, darker, version of events, Mr Serial Seducer dies, whereas GUM just goes missing for a while and then turns up safe and well -, she gets a job.  It’s in a wartime munitions factory: this book starts in the Edwardian period, rather than the inter-war period.   There are boarders, but they don’t feature much, whereas they’re key characters in Ballet Shoes.  There is a kindly mechanic who helps out Tania, but he doesn’t live with them.  There is, however, still a devoted Nannie, who stays on even when there’s no money to pay her full salary (Noel Streatfeild is obsessed with devoted old nannies).  And a cook.

Rose herself then also dies, so the girls – and Nannie, of course – are left to fend for themselves.  As I said, this is a much darker version of events.  Daisy doesn’t feature much, unfortunately – and surprisingly.  Posy re-emerges in a different guise as Lydia in the Gemma books, Nicky in Tennis Shoes, and arguably as other characters too: she was obviously a character of whom Streatfeild thought a lot, so I’m surprised that Daisy isn’t a stronger character here.  Tania, however, is the one whose mind we really get into – she’s fascinating.  And very little changes from Tania to Petrova.

Maimie, on the other hand, is a big shock, though.  She’s certainly nothing like Pauline.  She decides early on that what she needs is a man with money.  Not a husband, or even a keeper – that’d mean being tied to one man.  Just a lover with money.  It’s not clear whether or not she deliberately goes after married men, but her men are all married.  There’s an uncomfortable episode in which she’s groomed by a sleazy theatre manager, to whom she succumbs.  In the MeToo era, this would be seen as abuse.  In a different time, it’s not, as she is not forced, but it’s not very pleasant.  We don’t get the detail, but we see her worrying in case she’s fallen pregnant.  I really wasn’t expecting all that in a Streatfeild book.  That was a long way from Ballet Shoes.

So was Maimie’s whole attitude.  Interestingly, we hear Phyllis, a wardrobe mistress with whom Tania becomes friendly, musing about how she herself has always stuck to the straight and narrow, and all she’s got out of it is a thankless, low-paid job, and the as yet unfulfilled hope that she might strike lucky and marry a nice man, who’ll probably also have a thankless, low-paid job … whereas Maimie, by using her face and figure to ensnare married men, breaking all sorts of moral codes and without doing any work, is living the Life of Riley.  Plenty of people must have thought that at one time or another …

A small note on diversity and religion.  Maimie’s main lover, one Herbert Rosen, is Jewish.  He doesn’t bother with religion any more, but (probably?) identifies as being Jewish.  Maimie’s first crush is also Jewish, although he hardly features at all: she goes off him when she finds out that he sells socks.  That doesn’t carry across into Ballet Shoes … well, obviously not, as Pauline doesn’t have any lovers, or even any crushes!  I just picked up on it because there’s not a lot of religious diversity in Girls’ Own books.  Elinor M Brent-Dyer is unusual in having so many Catholic characters. And one agnostic, although the poor girl is forced to attend church services.  Antonia Forest has one Jewish character.  And Noel Streatfeild has the kindly Jewish uncle in Curtain Up.  But there aren’t many characters who aren’t Protestant.

Oh, and there’s, there’s a strange episode in which Maimie temporarily goes very High Church because she’s got a girl crush on a teacher who’s very High Church, and Tania, Daisy and even the narrative make fun of her.  What was that about?  The bishop’s daughter making fun of someone’s religious beliefs and practices?!

So, the three girls are very different. As are the Fossils, but there’s much more of a bond between them than there is between the Whicharts.  The name, incidentally, comes about because they misunderstand the Lord’s Prayer and think that their father’s surname must have been Whichart – “Our Father Whichart in Heaven”.  That was quite good!   There’s no “let’s make the name famous and no-one will be able to say that it was because of our grandfathers” scene.  It’s a lovely scene, that one in Ballet Shoes, but there just isn’t that bond here.  Maimie and Daisy are both reluctant to move out because it’d mean leaving Tania on her own, but that’s only because of guilt, not because they don’t want to be parted from their sisters.

And, in the end, they do go their own ways.  Daisy goes to live with her maternal grandparents, who turn up looking for her.  Tania goes off to find her mother, in a totally bonkers episode which sees her, aged 16 and without a driving licence, drive all the way from London to somewhere near Carlisle, find out that her mother’s moved down south, sleep in the car overnight, and then drive all the way to the Sussex coast … whereupon her mother whisks her off on a cruise to Java.  No, me neither!  And Maimie, we presume, is set up in a nice flat by Herbert.  It’s quite sad, really – but, then again, it looks as if they’ll all be happy, in their own ways, so maybe it isn’t.

Life isn’t always easy, in Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books.  But it’s always fairly innocent.  It isn’t here.  I haven’t read any of her other adult books, so I don’t know what they’re like, but I can’t think of any other example of an adult book, especially one with a fair bit of sleaze and seediness (by the standards of 1931, when this was published), being adapted into a book for little girls.  And it’s such a classic, as well.  It’s very strange.

This is a rather silly book, to be honest.   Rose taking in the three kids, and Tania’s mad drive up and down the country, aren’t very convincing.  But it’s quite interesting, in its way.  However, it was impossible for me to read it without comparing it to Ballet Shoes every step of the way, and, as I’ve said, it was like being in a Hall of Mirrors.   I don’t think I’ll be reading it again, but I’m glad that I have read it, just to see what it was like.

 

Curtain Up/Theatre Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

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It’s over 35 years since I last read this book, and I’d forgotten how infuriating Noel Streatfeild’s over-use of Cockney rhyming slang is.  “I’m worn to a shred by the time I’ve laid the Cain and Abel, and when it comes to dishing up I never know how to drag my plates of meat up the apples and pears.”  Seriously?  Not even Mick Carter in EastEnders talks like that.  It sounds like a sketch by The Two Ronnies.  As for “putting your hand in your sky rocket” … don’t even go there.  However, if you can endeavour to ignore that, this is a very good book.  All three of the main characters are genuinely nice – the stock annoying brat, in this case their cousin, is only a minor character – and very realistic.  It’s also interesting because of the wartime setting, which includes the news that Petrova Fossil from Ballet Shoes is helping to build aircraft for the war effort.  Petrova is a star. I remember all the fuss about Charlene in Neighbours being a Girl Mechanic, and that was in the 1980s!  As a kid, I wanted to be Pauline, rather than Petrova, though.  Pauline, or Sorrel, or Gemma.  I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but (in those long-ago days when I actually had the confidence to stand up on a primary school stage) I used to think I could act.   I can’t.  But kids in Streatfeild books are always talented.

Our three kids – Streatfeild likes families with three or four kids – are Sorrel, Mark and Holly Forbes, who have been living a Terribly Respectable life with their vicar grandfather, their mum having died and their sailor dad being missing in action.  When their grandfather dies, they have to go to live with their unknown maternal grandmother, who turns out to be the matriarch of a theatrical dynasty.  The grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins are all fairly stereotypical theatre sorts, but, apart from the grandmother herself, they aren’t too OTT.  One of the cousins is a brat, As I’ve said, but there’s nearly always a brat in a Streatfeild book – think Lydia Robinson, Nicky Heath, etc..

The grandfather had been paying their school fees, and the schools apparently can’t wait until his will’s gone through probate and his funds have been released.  The grandmother, despite living in a large house and employing the rhyming-slang-talking housekeeper, and now the grandfather’s housekeeper as well, is broke.  So the children go to a theatre school run by a friend of hers, Madame Fidolia of Ballet Shoes fame, and receive financial assistance from the Fossils of Ballet Shoes fame (why??).  Sorrel turns out to be good at acting.  Mark is good at singing, but is eventually allowed to return to his original plan of following his dad into the Navy.  Holly is meant to be good at dancing, but turns out to be a comedienne, whilst their nice cousin Miriam, daughter of a comedian, turns out to be a dancer.  The nasty cousin, Miranda, is also an actress, but Sorrel outperforms her in The Tempest – hooray!!  My brain always gets the production of The Tempest in this book mixed up with the one in the Antonia Forest Kingscote books, for some reason.  Maybe it’s because they both involve characters called Miranda.

There’s a lot of whingeing about being poor, but, more interestingly, we see the effect of rationing and wartime shortages on their ability to buy the items required at a theatre school.  That’s surprisingly unusual in GO books.  However, there’s an absolutely cringeworthy scene in which Madame Fidolia tells the other pupils that they should feel sorry for the Forbes kids, because they’ve got no-one at home to see that they look nice (rather insulting to the two faithful family retainers, who bend over backwards to help the kids).  This is apparently meant to be a positive thing, but how mortified would you have been at your whole school being told to feel sorry for you?!  We also see the theatre school kids putting on performance for injured service personnel in hospitals, and for service personnel on leave – a nice wartime touch.

The three children all come across quite well, especially Sorrel.  I always quite like Streatfeild’s responsible older kids, and Sorrel is particularly appealing – sensible and responsible but without having any of Ann Robinson’s prissiness.  Mark refuses to be pushed into a career that he doesn’t want, and Holly is very stoic when told that Posy Fossil’s dancing scholarship is to go to Miriam rather than to her.  Everyone seems fairly realistic, despite the luvvie-ishness (is that a word?) and eccentricities of some of the family members: there’s nothing in the books that really grates.

I don’t know how I missed this one when I did my Streatfeild re-read around 10 years ago, but somehow I did.  Oh well, I’ve re-read it now.  Very good book!  Or do I mean “fish hook” 🙂 ?!