Streatfeild, Noel (1895–1986)

views updated

Streatfeild, Noel (1895–1986)

British novelist and children's writer. Name variations: (pseudonyms) Noelle Sonning, Susan Scarlett. Born on December 24, 1895, in Amberley, near Arundel, Sussex, England; died on September 11, 1986, in London; daughter of William Champion Streatfeild (a vicar and later a bishop) and Janet Nancy (Venn) Streatfeild; attended St. Leonard's College and Laleham School in Eastbourne, Hastings; graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London; never married; no children.

Selected writings:

The Whicharts (1931); Parson's Nine (1932); Ballet Shoes: A Story of Three Children on the Stage (1936); Caroline England (1937); Tennis Shoes (1937); The Circus is Coming (1938, published in the U.S. as Circus Shoes); Clothes-Pegs (1939); The House in Cornwall (1940); The Children of Primrose Lane (1941); I Ordered a Table for Six (1942); Harlequinade (1943); Curtain Up (1944); Saplings (1945); Party Frock (1946); Grass in Piccadilly (1947); Pirouette (1948); The Painted Garden (1949, published in the U.S. as Movie Shoes); Mothering Sunday (1950); White Boots (1951); Aunt Clara (1952); The First Book of Ballet (1953); The Bell Family (1954); The Grey Family (1956); Wintle's Wonders (1957); The First Book of England (1958); Ballet Annual (1959); Look at the Circus (1960); The Silent Speaker (1961); Apple Bough (1962); A Vicarage Family (1963); The Children on the Top Floor (1964); Away from the Vicarage (1965); The Growing Summer (1966); Caldicott Place (1967); Gemma (1968); Gemma and Sisters (1968); Gemma Alone (1969); Goodbye Gemma (1969); Thursday's Child (1970); Beyond the Vicarage (1971); The Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamen (1972); When the Siren Wailed (1974); A Young Person's Guide to Ballet (1975); Gran-Nannie (1976); Meet the Maitlands (1978); The Maitlands: All Change at Cuckly Place (1979).

The rebellious daughter of a country vicar, Noel Streatfeild was born in 1895 in Sussex, England, towards the end of the Victorian era. Her mother Janet Venn Streatfeild , a descendant of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry , and father William Champion Streatfeild, who would later become a bishop in the Church of England, were careful to observe all the proprieties inherent to their status as representatives of the Church, and raised their six children with love, strictness, and an inculcation of duty to their social and moral responsibilities. She later wrote of her home environment, "bound as it was within the walls of the vicarage … everything was clear-cut. God was in his Heaven; the King on his throne; you voted Conservative; the English were the finest people in the world; there was no grey about it—you were right or you were wrong." While the family was by no means wealthy, their social status demanded that they employ help, and Streatfeild grew up with a governess and several household servants; kindly nannies and women servants who offer love and guidance to higher-class youngsters would later appear in many of her children's books.

Streatfeild was expelled for insubordination from her first high school and, after the family moved to her father's new parish in Eastbourne, attended Laleham School there with her sisters. It was at Laleham that she first received recognition for her talents as a writer, although around that time, having frequently acted in parish plays, she was becoming more interested in the theater. This interest was stimulated when, as a teenager, she saw Ninette de Valois perform with a traveling troupe of child dancers, a possible early influence on her later highly successful stories about young dancers and actors. Streatfeild worked in a munitions factory during World War I and following the Armistice moved to London to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Shortly after graduating, she signed a two-year contract with a Shakespearean repertory company. For the next ten years, she worked as an actress, including tours in South Africa and Australia, gaining detailed knowledge of the theater world that would later lend authenticity to such books as The Whicharts and Curtain Up. During that tour in Australia in 1929, however, Streatfeild found out through a newspaper article that her father unexpectedly had died. Deeply shaken, she quit the stage soon after, moved back to London and began to write.

Her first published novel, The Whicharts (1931), was written for adults, but focuses on three young girls working in the theater. She published four more novels for adults over the next five years before Mabel Carey , a children's book editor at J.M. Dent publishers who had read The Whicharts, suggested she try writing a similar book for children. Streatfeild was markedly unenthusiastic, but at her publisher's urging finally agreed to try. The result was 1936's Ballet Shoes: A Story of Three Children on the Stage. The story of Pauline, Petrova and Posy and their hard work on stage and off proved hugely popular with children—it had sold 10 million copies by the 1990s—and remains perhaps her most famous book. (At one London bookstore, it was advertised with a window full of ballet shoes, among them a pair once worn by Tamara Karsavina .) Again at Carey's suggestion, she next wrote the children's books Tennis Shoes (1937) and The Circus Is Coming (1938, published in the U.S. as Circus Shoes), having spent time with a traveling circus in America to research the book. The Circus Is Coming was awarded the Carnegie Medal as Best Children's Book of the Year. As Nancy Huse writes, Streatfeild is "credited with originating the widespread trend of 'career' and 'theater' novels for children, [but she] is more properly defined as a writer about vocation, especially about dedication to the arts. Her books include careful description of the work it takes to act Shakespearean roles, to dance in the chorus of a ballet, to sing in ways suited to a genre." Huse goes on to note how in many of Streatfeild's children's books, the child protagonists are working out of economic necessity, not sheer love of performing, and through their employment are supporting the family, biological or not, with whom they live.

Streatfeild lost her home and most of her possessions to bombs in the London Blitz during World War II. Working as a truck driver, an airraid warden, and a full-time member of the Women's Voluntary Service organizing food distribution centers, she nonetheless wrote prolifically during the war. Among her children's books from these years were The House in Cornwall (1940) as well as The Children of Primrose Lane (1941) and Harlequinade (1943), the latter two set during wartime. Between 1939 and 1951, she also wrote a series of novels for adults under the pseudonym Susan Scarlett, many of them dealing with such issues as illegitimacy and homosexuality, including The Man in the Dark (1941) and Murder While You Work (1944). Using her own name, she also published the adult novel I Ordered a Table for Six (1942), concerning the aftereffects of random, unexpected death. Streatfeild focused more deeply on writing for children after the war, although she would continue to write and publish adult novels through the beginning of the 1960s. The Painted Garden (1949, published in the U.S. as Movie Shoes), an unsentimental look at film acting, was inspired by a visit to Hollywood during which she watched child star Margaret O'Brien making the movie version of Frances Hodgson Burnett 's The Secret Garden. White Boots (1951) focused on child ice skaters.

During the 1950s, Streatfeild also worked in radio, with a popular serial about the Bells, the family of a small-town vicar. The story was later made into a television series, and also spawned two of Streatfeild's children's books, The Bell Family (1954) and New Town (1960). In 1958, she published biographies of Edith Nesbit , Magic and the Magician: E. Nesbit and Her Children's Books, and of Queen Victoria . Now fully reconciled to and enjoying her role as a children's author, she also began compiling anthologies of children's literature, lecturing, writing book reviews for major magazines, and visiting libraries and schools. In the 1960s, she began writing an autobiographical trilogy, published as The Vicarage Family (1963), Away from the Vicarage (1965), and Beyond the Vicarage (1971). While some critics were beginning to feel that her work—particularly those stories that included such trappings as servants and nannies—was perhaps outdated, her popularity remained high, and her 1967 book The Magic Summer (originally published in England as The Growing Summer, 1966), in which four children spend a holiday in Ireland with their prickly great-aunt, is considered one of her best. Prominent and well respected throughout England, she also published numerous nonfiction books on history, opera, and ballet, as well as several advice books for children. About growing older, Streatfeild, who continued publishing until she was in her early 80s, once wrote: "Never willingly mention your health. People may ask how you are but they don't want to know. If you should be operated upon keep quiet about it." She died in London in 1986.


Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 20. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1980.

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 31. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1990.

Huse, Nancy. "Noel Streatfeild," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 160: British Children's Writers, 1914–1960. Edited by Donald R. Hettinga and Gary D. Schmidt. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.