Meet the Maitlands (by Noel Streatfeild)

Noel Streatfeild was one of my favourite authors as a child, and through my teenage years - and I still return to her books, from time to time, for comfort reading. She’s best known for her classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, and many of her novels have been reprinted in recent years. Others are harder to find. A few years ago I managed to buy a copy of ‘Meet the Maitlands’, a book I had not previously read.

More recently I was able to find its sequel, but when I was about to pick it up I realised I had no recollection of the characters or storyline in ‘Meet the Maitlands’, even though it was only a little over four years since I read it. So I have just re-read it.

It was first published in 1978, and - unusually for Streatfeild - written as a historical novel set around the turn of the 20th century. The main protagonists are a family of five children who live in a rectory; their mother is an invalid, and their father, though pleasant enough, doesn’t much get involved with his children. The twins Selina and John are the oldest at ten. Selina is responsible and organised, and also quite academic. John is much more introspective and sensitive, and one thread running throughout the book is his terror of being sent to boarding school.

Chloe is seven, and there are two younger boys in the family, but they don’t play very much part in the book. The other main character is Violet, a fourteen-year-old girl from the village, who is desperate to get a grammar school education. Her parents don’t believe in education for girls beyond the primary level, so she’s been ‘in service’ working in the sick-room of a school for a couple of years. Then she finds out that the Rector and his wife are looking for a governess, so she fakes a reference and lies about her age… and, unlikely though it seems, is engaged.

There’s not a great deal of plot, and it’s not a long book, but Streatfeild had quite a gift of characterisation, and I quickly grew very fond of Selina and John. Violet is precocious and determined, and I liked her spirit. The point is made clearly that girls in this era were looking beyond traditional marriages or ‘service’, and could be quite as intelligent as boys; moreover not every middle-class boy was suited to the rigours of boarding school at ten.

The differences between the professional and village people become apparent too; as a piece of social history for older children and teens, I think this works extremely well. The author was born in 1895 so although she wrote the book much later, the attitudes and ways of speaking probably reflected those of her memory. It’s rather different from her usual stories of brilliantly gifted creative children, set in the 1960s and 70s.

The ending is rather abrupt, as is common with Streatfeild’s books; but as it’s character-based rather than having a strong plot, it doesn’t really matter.

All in all, I enjoyed it and look forward to reading the sequel.

Not in print, but can sometimes be found reasonably inexpensively second-hand.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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