A Vicarage Family is the first of three parts of an autobiography by that man who curiously enough seemed to write books about girls and ballet.
Relax! I have long since found out that Noel Streatfeild was a woman, and although it’s a sexist thought, I feel this explains the ballet book. Yet again I have grown up in the wrong country, and have ended up knowing nothing about what everyone else grew up loving. A quick search tells me a few books were translated early, but Ballet Shoes not until I was an adult. I still haven’t read it, but I did watch the television adaptation a few years ago, which helped.
This first part of Noel’s autobiography has put me much more in the picture, and leaves me wanting the rest. It was a little confusing to begin with, because Noel chose to rename everyone, including herself. It’s a good idea in one way, as no one can actually know what life was like for the rest of the family. We only know our own thoughts and memories. On googling Noel, I found that she had done more than pick new names. She appears to have made herself younger, as well.
This volume deals with ‘Victoria’ at the age of about eleven to 15, in the years immediately before the war, ending in 1915 with the arrival of the telegram that the adult reader will have been expecting throughout the book. You do the numbers, and you know it’s not going to end well. Even when prepared, you cry.
Noel’s father was a vicar and the family of four children was always poor, and she and her sisters were the ones who had to go to parties badly dressed, and to eat only the bread and butter if it’s during Lent. But they were all talented in different ways, and with their cousin ‘John’ put on entertainment for the parishioners, and Noel’s writing skills got her into early trouble at school.
The parents are both imperfect, the way real people are. But mostly they are like this because of how they themselves have been brought up. Noel’s father didn’t know any better, and was frequently a little too naïve. Her mother married at 17 and had five children (one died) in quick succession. How could she be calm and mature? And although they could see how unhappy young Dick was at his boarding school, no one thought to question this.
Written in the 1960s it allowed Noel to look back to the beginning of the century, and to explain to modern children about the differences between then and ‘now.’ What I found most fascinating, however, was how very similar people were then, thinking about what we are like now, one hundred years later. You never know with fiction if the truth has been altered, but the way Noel describes her own feelings, and how the other girls at school behaved towards the sisters, it’s only the mobiles and laptops that are missing.
This is an altogether wonderful book.
(There is an introduction by Julia Donaldson in this Jane Nissen edition, which brings Noel Streatfeild much closer to the reader. Julia actually met Noel in the 1970s, and this almost makes me feel as if I did too.)