Beyond the Vicarage (by Noel Streatfeild)

Noel Streatfeild is best known for her children’s fiction, often featuring talented dancers or musicians. But she also wrote three fictionalised autobiographical books. I read ‘A Vicarage Family’ a few years ago, and liked it very much. I haven’t been able to find its first sequel, but have had the third in the series, ‘Beyond the Vicarage’ for some years. I must have picked it up at a charity shop at some point. So I decided, at last, to read it.

As with the first ‘Vicarage’ book, the author uses the third person rather than the first person. The main character is Victoria Strangeways, but Noel Streatfeild makes no secret of the fact that it is herself. However she states that her siblings are somewhat fictionalised, although all incidents are based on factual memories.

This volume begins at the point where Victoria is finishing her career as an actress, returning from a lengthy international tour. She is finding a strong urge to write, but first she takes a break, staying with her brother Dick in Thailand (or Siam, as it was known then).

The book is more a series of vignettes and observations rather than a chronological account of the author’s life. But it’s very readable, and I thought if flowed well. There are mildly humorous anecdotes here and there, and turns of phrase which I recognised from some of her children’s books.

There’s a lot of fascinating detail about the periods while Victoria is writing, too. I hadn’t realised that Noel Streatfeild began her writing career with three books for adults. She was persuaded, somewhat against her better judgement, to write a children’s book and was astonished when ‘Ballet Shoes’ was a runaway success. There are insights into the motivation and background of several of her books that I have enjoyed reading.

Much of the book takes place during the second World War, when Victoria works tirelessly in one of the women’s voluntary aid organisations. There are stark details about many of her experiences, demonstrating all too clearly the horrors and fears of ordinary people in London, going through the Blitz. Rationing is taken for granted, and everyone realises that their homes and possessions could be taken away from them at any point.

As a piece of social history, this is very readable, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to know some personal background to the war. It’s also interesting to those of us who have loved Streatfeild’s children’s books since childhood. Yet taken as a whole, I didn’t feel it was all that special. It’s a tad too rambling, and ends somewhat abruptly with the author feeling that middle age has set in; she has lost family, friends and many years due to the war.

I don’t think I missed anything by not having read the second book, as this one stands alone. Recommended (if you can find it) if you’re interested in war-years biographical accounts, or if you’re a fan of Streatfield’s books. Not in print, but sometimes available second-hand.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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