Saturday, May 02, 2009

Finding the truth

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the contrast between the cozy family Noel Streatfeild described in her children's books, and the more dysfunctional one she in her autobiography for adults.

Now I've read SAPLINGS, her novel with yet another take on this same family. First: if you like Noel Streatfeild's books about the Bell family, I definitely would not read this. In fact, I wouldn't read it at all unless you're interested in how her mind worked and in the relationship between real experience and that experience as portrayed in art. I am, I was one of those kids who always wanted to know what was true in a novel based on real life and I'm the same way now.

In THE SAPLINGS, the parents' sex life is described, from the point of view of the intelligent governess who highly disapproves of how the mother "never stops" thinking about sex and trying to "lure" her husband into bed. Later, after the father has died, the mother embarks upon an affair that's kind of painful to read about, especially when the mother comes home from a date really drunk and the children have to help her to bed. Noel Streatfeild dedicated this book to her mother (and after reading it, I don't want to know how her own mother really acted after her father died). But she's hard on her grown-up self, too: the children's aunts, who are probably based on her and her sisters (one of the sisters is a famous writer) when they were adults, let the children down badly. In real life, she had a sister who was about twenty years younger than she was, and that sister was still a child when their father died.

The same family is shown from so many different points of view in Noel Streatfeild's books, and each view is probably fictionalized AND true in some ways and on some levels. That's what I find fascinating -- that mixture -- and that the material was so intense and charged that she found it interesting enough to keep using. It almost seems like she had to: that no matter how she turned it around in her mind, she never could reach any adult conclusion about it --settle on any adult truth.

In her children's books she did find a truth that worked, and that's probably one reason the children's books are so good. She wrote about her family the way she wished it had been -- and the way it probably was at times, in the best moments of her childhood. A "truth" doesn't have to be literally, factually true to work in a book -- but the author does have to believe in it.

Maybe she believed what she wrote in SAPLINGS, too, but the main thing that comes through is ambiguity; I wasn't even really sure what happened at the end! I'm not going to read any more of her adult novels. SAPLINGS just wasn't that good and I'm writing this post partly in the spirit of full disclosure, since I was so excited about it before I read it....and partly because it's interesting that someone could write so well for children, so poorly for adults.

She herself attributed her success with children's books to her "blotting paper memory." She said she never forgot what it felt like to be a child. But I think it had a lot to do with the energy she brought to it, her desire to arrive at a truth about it, and what an interesting life she had, too. Her drive and talent didn't hurt either!


Dave Lucas said...

I found your blog while helping my daughter find some Valerie Worth poetry... very nice! I'll have to stop by here more often!

Libby Koponen said...

Thanks, Dave -- please do!

The Diamond in the Window said...

I was just posting on Noel Streatfield, coming from a very child's eye view. I knew next to nothing about her life (and now sort of hope I can keep it that way). But it's always nice to know that other people not too far away are thinking about some of the same things.