What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve mostly been reading British fiction written during or about the 1960s, but as I tend to blog only about books I like, I won’t be writing about them.1 However, I did enjoy the third volume of Noel Streatfeild‘s autobiography, Beyond the Vicarage, first published in 1971. She wrote the books from the perspective of a character called ‘Victoria Strangeway’, explaining, “I made, and make, no pretence that I am not the Victoria in the three books, but the thin shield of anonymity has helped me to feel unselfconscious when writing the story of my life.” 'Beyond the Vicarage' by Noel StreatfeildFair enough, but it does lead to phrases like “Victoria seemed to think that …” and “Victoria must have forgotten that …”, which is a bit odd when she’s writing about herself. Anyway, this book is about how Victoria/Noel decides to stop being a successful actress touring the world and become a writer. She sails back from Australia via Siam (as it was then called), where her brother works, and eventually arrives in England to look after her recently-widowed mother. Although Victoria’s father had been a bishop from a well-off family, the family is now in ‘reduced circumstances’ and Victoria’s mother is the sort of helpless genteel lady who has never had to look after herself, so living in lodgings does not go well. After employing a series of disastrous companions, her mother is finally settled in her own new home with appropriate help and Victoria, breathing a huge sigh of relief, moves back to London to write her first novel. Despite the distractions of her busy social life (she eventually resorts to writing in bed in her pyjamas so she won’t be tempted to go out), she quickly writes the manuscript, immediately finds a publisher and is instantly making a comfortable living as a novelist. Her publisher even pays her a weekly wage when she complains the system of advances and royalties is too complex for her to deal with. The only complaint her publisher has is that “you make everyone too loveable. I doubt you could write about a bitch if you tried.” (Victoria then vows to write “the bitchiest bitch you ever read about” and writes It Pays To Be Good.) Then another publisher, aware of Victoria’s theatrical background, asks her to write a children’s book about child actors, so Victoria, “cross at herself for agreeing to something she was convinced she could not write”, produces Ballet Shoes, which is an instant bestseller, and the rest is history. Although she ended up writing a few more novels for adults, she gave up on them in the early 1960s, telling herself,

“If, for some reason, the public are either off novels or like such peculiar ones you couldn’t and wouldn’t write them, why go on trying? Let’s face it, you never had more than what Noel Coward’s song called ‘a talent to amuse’. You never belonged to the great. So give up writing [adult] novels here and now.”

She took great care with the research for her books – for example, she travelled with a circus when writing about child circus performers, visited Hollywood when writing about a child star, and spent “a lot of time in [Buckingham] Palace hanging about for news from the Lady-in-Waiting” when writing about Princess Margaret for Growing Up Gracefully. But the most interesting part of the book involves her experiences during the Second World War, when she joined the Women’s Voluntary Service. She ran mobile canteens in Blitz-battered London, arranged housing for bombed-out Londoners, put out fires set off by incendiary bombs and then, after the war, organised entertainment for newly-returned residents of the Channel Islands, gave lectures in Holland and spent her own money turning a London bombsite into a flower garden. (What a contrast with Dodie Smith, who spent the entire war living in luxury in America.) The war stories are a mixture of humour and heartbreak – a monkey rescued from the rubble of a bombed pub gratefully accepts a cup of hot milk, then turns around and bites his rescuer; a woman dying of cancer survives two bombing raids that kill the rest of her family. There is also personal anguish for Victoria, with her brother and his young family interned as prisoners of the Japanese, her own flat and most of her belongings destroyed in the Blitz, and her publisher’s warehouse, containing all unsold copies of her books, all the plates to reprint them and the entire first printing of her new book, getting “bombed to pieces”. While she skims over a lot of potentially interesting events and the book is essentially a series of unrelated anecdotes, Victoria/Noel comes across as a lovely person – energetic, funny, honest, devoted to helping others and endlessly curious about life.

'Quiet' by Susan CainTaking a break from post-war England, I then read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by US writer, Susan Cain. It came out a couple of years ago but there was a long queue for it at my library (I know, library patrons being deeply interested in a book about introverts, WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT IT). This was an easy-to-read, well-researched account of the difficulties introverts face in the extroverted culture of modern-day America. There was a clear overview of the strengths of both introverts and extroverts, as well as a good discussion of the overlap between ‘high sensitivity’ or reactivity (or neuroticism) and introversion. The author also explains that many introverts are very successful at faking extroversion when highly motivated to do so (for example, because their job requires it or they’re promoting a cause they’re passionate about), although they need ‘restorative niches’ of solitude to recharge their energy. Most of this information was familiar to me, although I was interested to read about research into introversion/extroversion in various animal species. For example, some species have about 20% ‘shy’ individuals and 80% ‘bold’ individuals, with the bold ones doing better in hard times because they’re willing to take the risk of being eaten in order to find food (the shy ones starve to death in harsh conditions, but thrive in good conditions as they’re better at evading predators). My only criticism of this book would be the very narrow focus – while the author (a Harvard-educated lawyer) claims the book is about American society in general, it’s really about rich white Americans and rich Asian-Americans (and all ‘Asians’, from Indians to the Japanese, are treated as having similar cultures and lifestyles, which is just not true). Still, it’s a good read and its bestseller status indicates there are a lot of Americans who agree that introverts are under-appreciated in their society. Also, I was interested to read the author’s note that “You wouldn’t be reading this book if I hadn’t convinced my publisher that I was enough of a pseudo-extrovert to promote it.” Sad, but true. Ah, for the good old days when authors were able to sit at home writing their books in introverted bliss, without having to worry about promoting themselves …

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  1. Although if you’re interested in finding out just how sexist, racist and homophobic 1960s England was, hey, have I got some book recommendations for you!

2 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading”

  1. Those 1960s books sound a bit grim. UK is still sexist, homophobic and racist but in a rather more shamefaced way with backlashes never very far away. The Noel Stretfield sounds a marvellous book. I felt the same way about the Cain book, useful but a bit restricted in its scope.

    1. Yes, it was that unabashed bigotry of the 1960s fiction that struck me – the ‘good’ characters firmly believed that all black people were childish (but musical!), that all gay men were pathetic and ill, and that women’s sole purpose in life was to submit to men. At least now, people expressing bigoted opinions tend to be aware that others might find them offensive.

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