Thursday, November 17, 2022

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Source of book: I own this


From time to time, I borrow one of my wife’s Persephone Books, for a change of pace. Here is what I wrote to introduce the last one:


My wife discovered the small British book publisher, Persephone Books, a few years back, when she was looking for her own copy of The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, if my memory serves. Although it could have been Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. In any event, the publisher describes its goal as:


Persephone Books reprints forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs by (mostly) women writers. They appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary nor too commercial, and are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget. 


From the three I have read so far, I would say this is accurate. These books aren’t in the pantheon of classics, but aren’t exactly fluff either. They are interesting, and represent a different kind of literature than either genre boilerplates or the heavy and turgid literary novels which characterized much of the 20th Century. One might say that they fall in a traditionally disrespected category: women’s literature. For much of history, women were given little shot at literacy - that was for men only. This wasn’t universal, of course, and it started to crack in a serious way with the Feminist movement, which insisted that women were the equals of men - and should be educated accordingly. That said, with the explosion of literate women, the fusty old men who had controlled social standards felt they had to denigrate “novels” as less worthy than the old Greek and Roman “classics” (which, conveniently, were taught only to men.) This prejudice against the things women read - and write - continues into our own time, with “chick lit” incurring particular dismissal, even as male-oriented boilerplate books feature the same (or worse) imaginative and formulaic writing.


In addition to the two listed above, I read Good Evening, Miss Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, and Mariana by Monica Dickens.




I have never before read any Noel Streatfeild (and yes, that is how it is spelled), although my wife informs me that her childrens book, Ballet Shoes, is considered a classic. My wife requested this book as a present a few years ago, but I ended up being the first one to read it. 


Streatfeild had an interesting life. She grew up as the daughter of a bishop, and the one considered to be “plain” in comparison to her sisters. World War One gave her the opportunity to break free from her regimented life, through her acting in charity performances. As an adult, she became a theater actor, but as she grew older, roles started drying up. She switch to a career as an author, and eventually became a significant success. She is most famous for her children’s books, but wrote a few dozen books for adults as well. Saplings is probably the best known, and many are out of print these days. Perhaps as copyright finally releases its hold on the 20th Century body of literature, others will be revived. 


Streatfeild was also notable for inclusion of same-sex relationships in her books, long before homosexuality was de-criminalized in her native England. There is significant evidence that she herself was a lesbian, although it does not appear she ever had a significant romantic relationship with anyone. Her crushes are recorded in her writings, and her books contain plenty of subtle references to a general fear of sexuality. 


Unlike her books for children, which are usually set in the Victorian Era, Saplings, published in 1945, has a very contemporary setting - World War Two. It is the story of the disintegration of a family due to the trauma of war and its own weaknesses. 


Alex and Lena are the parents of four young children: Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Tuesday. Alex is a loving and nurturing parent, the one who genuinely understands his children, and is close to them. Lena, on the other hand, is more concerned with performing the role of parent than she is comfortable with it. She has some narcissistic traits, although hardly the worst I have seen or experienced, but the real problem is that she sees herself primarily in relationship to a man. Her identity is as a wife or lover, and sex is necessary for her emotional well-being. 


Overall, the family is fairly happy at the start of the story. But the storm clouds are approaching in the form of unrest in Europe, with predictions that war will soon occur. 


And it certainly does, leading to a series of events that traumatize the children, particularly Laurel, as the oldest and the one whose self-esteem is the most fragile. Perhaps the one who survives the best is Kim, as he is handsome and highly intelligent and extroverted, and he finds a niche for himself wherever he goes, and thus doesn’t depend as much on affirmation from his family. 


As Jeremy Holmes puts it in the perceptive Afterword:


She takes a happy, successful, middle-class pre-war English family…’beautiful, orderly, full of children,’ with holidays at the seaside, a comfortable house in Regent’s Park, a glamorous mother and successful industrialist for a father, nannies and nurses, prep schools and public schools - and then tracks in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to tens of thousands of such families.


The first trauma is the removal of children from London in anticipation of the bombings. Alex is not able to leave, because he works for some sort of company who switches to munitions for the war effort. Lena also refuses to leave, because she cannot handle being away from Alex and just with the children. Initially, they go to Alex’s parents place, and boarding school for the older two. But when the home is requisitioned for a military headquarters, this stability is taken from them as well.


But the worst happens when Alex is killed by a bomb, which leads to a series of breakdowns by Lena, culminating in a suicide attempt. 


There is a lot more that happens too, that contributes to the problem. Laurel is removed from the school at which she is thriving, and placed in one where she doesn’t fit in - not least because Lena refuses to use a precious clothing coupon for the correct uniform. Tony believes that Alex was still alive in the rubble of the apartment, and is haunted by panic attacks, believing he is responsible for not saving his father. Tuesday starts wetting the bed. Only Kim seems able to thrive. 


The story follows the family until near the end of the war, a period of five years, that sees them grow up substantially. The ending is kind of ambiguous, because we never do see the outcome. There is the hope that Laurel will finally get the affirmation she needs from her grandfather, Tony is doing better, but Tuesday seems to be dissociating more and more. It isn’t all darkness, but Streatfeild is pretty clear that there is still a lot of unresolved trauma. 


Overall, the writing is pretty good, although the depth of characterization seemed like it was almost great, but not quite. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I would say good but not great, if that makes any sense. The characters are definitely compelling, and mostly very nuanced. 


Streatfeild isn’t a psychologist, so the effects of trauma are described - shown, not told, so to speak - and in ways that mostly avoid any clinical terms. The book shifts throughout between the different characters - all four children, and occasionally Lena - so the reader can get inside the heads of multiple people throughout the course of the story. Laurel probably gets the most attention, and her story is in many ways the most heart-rending, because she is a likable person who can’t seem to accept being modestly good at a variety of things as a positive. She feels she has to be “great” at something, or she is worthless. When Alex was alive, he was able to help her emotionally, but after he dies, everyone else just takes her for granted as a “good kid” until she isn’t, and then dismisses her as a “problem child” thereafter. One line stood out as a perfect description of her quandary. 


Each month or two she tried to be first-class at something. She had discovered that if you were admittedly good at something, it seemed to allow you to be just ordinary about everything else.


I sympathize a lot with Laurel. I have a few things I am decent at, but I am not truly great at anything. I am a good enough violinist (good enough to enjoy playing and have opportunities) but I know my limitations all too well. I do okay at law, but I am not brilliant. I am, as Alex tells Laurel, an “all-arounder.” I have a wide range of things I have some competence at, just like Laurel. Probably the difference is that I have, as I have gotten older, become more content with being ordinary. 


Alex is perceptive, and it is clear that he gets this from his father. I love his explanation to Tony about how parents (and everyone really) tend to do things that they think are for one reason, and often do not realize the real psychological reason behind things. 


“What I meant was that the reason isn’t the one she thinks it is.” 


In context, this explains the way Lena and another mother in the book react to their children and the separation from them due to the war. Lena claims to miss the children, but she doesn’t realize how deep her psychological need is to be connected to a man - in this case Alex, but later in the book, Walter, then Charles. 


One of the incidents that shows how trauma can be compounded by unthinking words is interesting to me. People (Lena particularly) keep saying “That’s what dad would have liked, isn’t it?” when telling the children what to do. And, to a degree, how to feel. A lot of the “stiff upper lip” stuff, when what the children really need is emotional support. 


Another incident that very much resonated with me is when Laurel, struggling with everything from school to puberty, finds temporary relief in pouring her heart into mothering Tuesday. But this too ends poorly. 


There was satisfaction for her ego in her mental picture of herself. She broke away from Laurel, the unsuccessful schoolgirl, and became Laurel the mother. The pain, when it was forced on her that Tuesday did not need her, was very great. 


I recognized something in this. I believe that my mother (who had a huge amount of childhood trauma) struggled with the same feeling as we grew up. Her identity was so wrapped up in motherhood (and very much in being a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom) that it was devastating for her when we started to be independent, to no longer need her. My teen years were a lot harder than they needed to be, and, looking back, this was a factor. Just like Lena didn’t understand why she did what she did, I think my parents never have understood how their fears of no longer being needed led to their involving us in a cult that limited our choices and futures, but promised a lifetime role for parents. Likewise, I believe that this need to be needed meant that it would never be possible for there to be a healthy adult relationship. Either I had to stay emotionally needy and thoroughly enmeshed, or my independence and emotional closeness with my spouse instead of my mother would be seen as a threat. Or at least as a devastating loss. As Streatfeild points out, this is a form of narcissism, the need to have the lives of one’s children be about the parent. 


As a parent, I understand this to a degree. It isn’t just joyful, but a bit sad when children grow up and leave the home, in a way. I will miss them terribly, and not being needed after being needed is a change. It is tempting to try to “fix” them even when we should leave well enough alone. But the transition needs to be made for a healthy relationship to survive.  


There are some other fascinating lines. One is an aside about the way men view women. 


The men had felt, without saying so, that Alex had done well for himself. Lena was smart, pretty, always had her house in perfect control. She was not clever like Lindsey and Dot, but she was a damn good wife and you did not really want women to be clever. 


I wish I could say this is an outdated viewpoint, but it seems to be all too alive and well. 


Another line is from Alice, the serene and competent cousin. She looks after Laurel to a degree, although she really cannot understand how to help her emotionally. (That is really too great of a burden for any child, but Alice’s strengths are elsewhere.) 


“Really! I wish I didn’t have to grow up. Do you know, Alice, I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve not been told things wrong. I mean, we’re told that children behave badly and grown-ups are always right. I wonder if we shan’t find that grown-ups do worse things than children.”

“I’ve thought that a long time,” Alice yawned. 


Isn’t that the truth. To a significant extent, the falsehood pushed by people from James Dobson to Bill Gothard (the two men who had the most poisonous effect in our family) is that children are inherently evil, and that only strict discipline (meaning beating and emotional manipulation) can cure them of it. Adults, in contrast, are always right. I mean that literally. The teaching was that God spoke to parents about their children, and thus were to be treated by their children as always right. 


Let’s just say that not only is this damaging to the children, it isn’t something you just switch off, which is why Fundie parents are rarely able to stop believing they are always right and should be able to continue to control their adult children. As a result, disagreement becomes personal. And appropriate boundaries are regularly violated. (That’s a whole post in and of itself.) I’m trying to remember where I read it (unsuccessfully) but the idea that parents “did their best” is problematic, and not just because it is usually bullshit. Instead, we need to realize that it is children who do their best - they are the vulnerable ones in the equation, not the parents, and the responsibility is on the parents to allow children to be who they are, not to try to “fix” them, or expect that they exist to not inconvenience their parents. 


I should mention one other line in connection with this. It also comes from the Afterward, and is a pretty good summary of the core issue with Lena and with so many parents.


The difference between them is that Mrs. Parker can imaginatively identify with her children and so see them as separate beings, whereas for Lena they are objects to be dealt with at her own convenience. 


A key feature of secure attachment is the capacity of parents to be attuned and responsive to their children when distressed or threatened.


This really hit home for me. Don’t get me wrong - there were definitely times when my parents could be responsive to my emotional needs, particularly when I was a small child. They did a pretty good job when we were young. It was during the teen years and after that things progressively went downhill. 


I think one particular incident in the book devastated me the most. Laurel thrives at her first boarding school, in part because of a sympathetic and emotionally intelligent teacher. After the first year, and after Alex is killed, Lena places her in a different one, for reasons that are selfish at best. Laurel protests, but Lena is unwilling or probably just unable to understand Laurel’s distress. This cavalier disregard of Laurel’s needs is really what triggers Laurel’s downward spiral. 


This reminded me too much of a similar incident in my teens. Before I started my senior year of high school, my parents decided to not just attend Gothard’s seminars, but actually join the homeschooling portion of his cult. 


I objected.


And my objections were overruled. 


Probably more than any other time, that was when I realized that my feelings and needs were not that important to my parents. That was the big one, the big decision that has profoundly affected my life. Not just emotionally either. 


Because Gothard did not permit families to remain in the program if a child went to college, I did not have a meaningful opportunity to get a normal higher education. My parents did not and do not understand how much I was looking forward to college, to learning a variety of things across a spectrum of disciplines. I knew that joining Gothard’s cult would be the end of that dream, and I was right. At that time, Gothard had nothing to offer besides working for minimum wage (or for free!) in his organization. He promised “apprenticeships” but it was all smoke and mirrors. There was nothing there, and anyone who hadn’t drunk the kool aid could see it. 


It wasn’t until nearly a year after I should have started college that the law school opened. That was my chance - really the only one realistically available to me - and took it. Yes, at 18 I could have moved out and paid my way through college with loans, but that was a huge step for someone who lacked access to high school guidance counselors, and would have had to do everything without parental support. 


And yes, I am a bit bitter that my sister got to thrive at college a few years later, but that favoritism is a whole other matter. 


So, I ended up in law, not by choice, but because that is what I had available. It isn’t a bad gig, at least the way I have done it, and the lack of student debt was certainly helpful. However, I really would have preferred a choice. And I very much would have preferred that my needs and desires be taken into account when it came to such an important life choice. 


Also, since one of the reasons law works for me is that my wife has a stable paycheck and health insurance, it sure would have been nice if my parents had appreciated that, rather than antagonize her over having a career. 


Back to that observation, a key reason I loathe Gothard and Dobson and the rest is that they taught parents like mine to view children as objects, rather than as separate beings. To these false teachers, we children existed to further their fucked-up culture war against other humans different from them, rather than as inherently valuable in ourselves. Our worth was tied to whether we furthered political goals - ones created by a bunch of racist and misogynist old men nostalgic for the days of Jim Crow. 


The thing that makes me saddest about all of this is that I do not believe my parents were inherently like this. Which is why they were good parents of small children. Without these toxic teachings, I think they may have been able to make a better transition to a healthy adult relationship. But they were taught from the start that the point of parenting was to break our wills, to make us obey, to form us into an ideal of “godliness” that was really about politics and culture. I cannot understand any other way that their acceptance of us as children could eventually become so conditional on our political and cultural preferences. That acceptance or rejection could turn on things like clothing and gender roles. 


It makes me sad, because it was avoidable, and because it was a choice. 


I’d like to end on a bit lighter of a note. After Alex is killed, Lena is introduced to a friend of her mother’s, an American paramilitary man named Walter. The kids adore him, and he seems to be a genuinely nice man. The problem? Well, he has an estranged wife and kids back in the States, and is thus unavailable for more than a fling. (Note: this is NOT adultery, because Lena isn’t married to (owned by) a man.) Walter is the one, in fact, who goes out of his way to never let the kids know he is more than a friend. 


Unfortunately, this eventually ends badly. A relative finds out what is going on and brutally confronts Lena, leading to her attempted suicide, and the farming out of the kids to relatives - yet another trauma. 


However, during the time the affair is going on, Grandfather hears of it. He pokes around a little, determines that the kids are doing as well as could be expected, and decides to do….nothing. 


As he puts it, “I feel this is an occasion for masterly inactivity.” 


That is outstanding. And it is the right decision. Now if only childless (and unhappily married) Aunt Lindsey could have done the same…


Saplings is an interesting book, neither entirely pessimistic or optimistic. The trauma is real and always will be. The mistakes Lena (and others) make will always have a negative impact - particularly for Lena, who may well end up estranged from her children when they grow up. The book is a reminder that children, however resilient we claim they are, will be damaged by trauma, damaged by being treated as objects rather than people, damaged by having their emotional needs ignored and dismissed. 


In that sense, this book was ahead of its time, written in an era when children were still largely expected to be seen and not heard, and to devote their childhoods to never inconveniencing the adults that brought them into the world. Streatfeild had the nerve to insist otherwise, to advocate for the emotional needs of children, and, we can only hope, help break the cycle of trauma that reverberates in so many families. 

No comments:

Post a Comment