The Whicharts is Noel Streatfield's first novel originally published in 1931. Most of us think of this author as the writer of Ballet Shoes, White Boots etc and are unaware that she started her career writing books for adults. When I read Saplings several years ago (published by Persephone Books) I remember finding it a bit of a surprise to find that her characters had sexual feelings and adult emotions - almost shocking after being used to the stories with children and Nanny and Garnie. Once I got over my initial reaction I found this book to be absorbing and a marvellous portrait of the effect of the war on family life and, in particular, the children.
First thing to say about the Whicharts (so called after the phrase 'our father which art in heaven') is that the opening paragraph is a very familiar one indeed for those of us who love Ballet Shoes "The Whichart children lived in the Cromwell Road. At the end of it which is furthest away from the Brompton Road and yet sufficiently near it to be taken to look at the doll's houses in the Victoria and Albert every wet day, and if not too wet expected to "save the penny and walk"'.
The father of the three Whichart sisters is a libidinous Brigadier who seduced the young and pretty Miss Rose Howard the daughter of a most respectable family who fell madly in love with him at the age of 22 and went to live with him and to be his mistress. She remained devoted to the Brigadier even when he left her several years later and then kept returning with one mistress after another, all in distress and all pregnant, who left their babies with Rose and Nanny. Sounds familiar? Just think Sylvia and Garnie in Ballet Shoes and that the Brigadier is the fossil hunter Great Uncle Matthew who dumps three babies on his long suffering niece before disappearing back up the Amazon or wherever.
We have three sisters. Maimie Whichart who is later reincarnated as Pauline Fossil in Ballet Shoes; Tania who is Petrova and Daisy who is Posy. They end up learning to dance at Madame's Academy and Pauline is a moderately successful dancer and actress, Daisy is the one who has real ballet talent and Tania is only interested in being a mechanic and dreams of flying a plane one day. It is clear that Noel Streatfield mined this book to produce her successful and much loved Ballet Shoes for her younger audience but stripped it off any hint of sexual misdemeanour and made it much more optimistic.
Maimie goes off the rails big time learning at the age of 16 that she can use her body and beauty to hook a man and be kept by him. She refers to herself as a tart and a good time girl and seems to have no illusions at all about her life and future. Daisy is talented,but unlike Posy Fossil she appears in musicals and pantomime and has no interest in a serious future in the ballet world. Tania is the same personality in both this book and Ballet Shoes, loathing her life in the theatre and wanting to escape.
The Whicharts is the dark side of Ballet Shoes. At the close of the story the reader is left uncertain as to the future happiness of the three sisters. Maimie is obviously going to have a sell by date and not likely to find lasting contentment; Daisy is reunited with her grandparents who live in stifling suburbia and are smothering her with comforts and home life destined to distract her from her stage career which they find vaguely disreputable and Tania, who has found her mother, seems to be the one whose future is bright as she is welcomed into her home. But we soon learn that her mother is a restless, unsatisfied person who seems to spend her life in perpetual motion travelling and is rootless with no wish to settle down. She seizes upon Tania as her new travelling companion and whisks her off.
"I do hope you'll like travelling Tania. I want to take you about and show you the world and perhaps find you a husband" "I'd rather have an aeroplane" exclaimed Tania horrified out of her usual reticence" "Would You? Well could you bear to try travelling for a years first and after that you can do what you like. I think you'll find Java fun, the people are too attractive and they......"
'But Tania wasn't listening. Her mind was on the skyline where an aeroplane like some giant silver bird, was darting towards them'
I have a feeling that the three Whicharts are destined for a life in which none of them are happy and this is why I found this book so disconcerting, like finding Cinderella doesn't get the Prince after all and that the Sleeping Beauty is left asleep for ever. It is most odd to find a book which is at once so familiar and yet so different, but it certainly is an intriguing read and I am pleased that it has been reprinted by Margin Note Books after being unavailable for so many years. Noel Streatfield's adult books are difficult to get hold of as I gather many of them were destroyed in the war by a warehouse fire so it is good to be able to become acquainted with her very early writing and this is going to remain on my shelves next to my battered old copy of Ballet Shoes which is now some fifty years old.
A must read for all lovers of Noel Streatfield.