A little while ago, I wrote a list about Why I Love Noel Streatfeild and concluded that I should follow my own advice and read more of her. The Growing Summer was a book that I longed for but which was never in the bookshop. Aged ten, I even tried ordering it but alas it was out of print. My interest was tantalised when I heard a Radio 4 adaptation in my early teens. However, it was only when I finally resorted to Amazon (the shame!) that I finally managed to track down a second-hand copy. I have been looking for this book for almost two decades. Thank goodness it was good.
The four Gareth children are Alex, Penny, Robin and Naomi. Their life is predictably middle class and respectable until one day their father announces that he is going off into the middle East to further his scientific research into germs and epidemics. After a brief panic about being abandoned by both parents, the children settle down with the vaguely-realised intention to ‘be good’ and to ‘help Mother’. However events get rather complicated when word comes that Daddy has been taken terribly ill and that Mummy needs to go to be with him. With all of their mother’s family in New Zealand and the majority of their father’s family having died in the Blitz, there is only one option about where the children can go with their mother away – Great-Aunt Dymphna. A figure of mystery, it was she who took in Daddy after his parents’ death and the children have only the vaguest notions of what she is like – she disapproved of any medicines she had not grown herself, she would disappear for days at a time leaving Daddy to catch and eat his own food, she had escaped from war-torn France with only a hold-all. Right from the get-go, the children are apprehensive.
Posted off to Ireland with all their clothes in order to be prepared for any occasion, the Gareths arrive in the airport to find – horrors – there is nobody to collect them. When Aunt Dymphna finally does show her face, she looks ‘more like a bird’ than a person, wearing an enormous black cape and not behaving in any way that the children expect an aunt to behave. Added to all this, she drives like a maniac, shouting ‘Road Hog’ at anyone who gets in her way and disobeying any conceivable kind of highway code. The children have the vague hope that upon arrival at Aunt Dymphna’s home Reenmore that the situation will regulate itself but the house is gloomy and decrepit and the wing the Aunt is putting them up in hasn’t been lived in for years. When asked whether there are any toys, Aunt Dymphna is mystified, there is all the Irish countryside to explore! When the Gareths ask who is going to cook for them, she is again surprised by their obtuseness – they will of course! For four cosseted children, the situation is absolutely ghastly. The bath water comes out brown, they are reduced to a diet of boiled eggs until Penny learns how to cook and then to cap it all, the annoying boy who was on the plane with them turns up claiming to be a Communist refugee who requires sanctuary from his persecutors. It’s all a bit much to cope with.
I loved this book – it feels like a real change of pace for Streatfeild though. I was fascinated by the distinct sense of a generational shift. Ballet Shoes seemed to be taking place in the 1930s – there is a reference to how one of the Fossil sisters’ shows finishes early due to the death of the King which meant that nobody really felt like going to the theatre, placing it as around 1935. Theatre Shoes takes the action to mid-war with the Forbes children having no mother and a father who is Missing In Action. While the Fossils dealt with poverty, the Forbes are struggling with rationing. Flash forward to The Painted Garden, and the war is just over but the Winters children find America a massive culture shock after the privations to which Britain has become accustomed. We hear about what the Fossils have been doing in the background – Pauline is making it big in Hollywood, Posy’s ballet company had to evacuate to America after the fall of Czechoslovakia and Petrova flew planes but all three sisters felt guilty that they could not do more to help with the war and so donated money for scholarships to the Forbes children. For the Gareths children however, growing up in the 1960s, this is all the stuff of myth and legend – when they come across the hold-all that Aunt Dymphna used when fleeing France, they comment that it ought to be in a museum. Streatfeild appears to be highlighting how these post-war children just don’t know they’re born.
Aunt Dymphna is a glorious character – I think it was her that kept up my determination to track down a copy of this book even though it took quite so long. She communes with the seagulls which appear to give her up to date information about Daddy’s condition – information which is generally repeated word for word several hours later by Mummy’s telegrams. She eschews tea and most food that the Gareths believe to be in any way normal. She shouts out to dogs where she is going since she feels that they will stop barking once they know her intended destination and it appears to always work. While taking the children to church, she becomes very cross if the sermon goes over fifteen minutes and if the vicar so offends, she gets up and walks out. It is not hard to see how a television series was developed around her – I myself would have loved to hear more about her, indeed I was disappointed she spent so much time offstage. She could be infuriatingly obtuse, speaking often via the verse of Edward Lear and showing an unprecedented lack of interest in the children’s concerns, but then she does remember word for word the text on the postcard the children find in her hold-all, the message from her brother inviting her to stay dated only weeks before the bomb that killed him.
There is a good deal of moaning that goes on about Aunt Dymphna’s relaxed attitudes, her infuriating habit of answering any query in the form of verse and her overall laissez-faire approach to guardianship – the children are quite convinced that they are being poorly treated. Naomi kicks up a fuss and throws tantrums, Robin moans, Penny frets and worries and Alex pretends to be in charge. Yet, one by one, they come to see things differently. One of Aunt Dymphna’s verses refer to having heard Naomi’s moaning voice constantly since she arrived in her home and Naomi is startled. She has grown up knowing that she is the ‘pretty one’ of the family and because of this feels that people should try to please her – but she quietly decides that she does not want to be known as a moaner. Alex agrees to Aunt Dymphna that Penny’s worrying is excessive but Aunt Dymphna replies that the worrying would cease if the poor girl actually got some help. Although Alex had believed that he had been doing his bit by catching fish for dinner, he had resolutely left domestic chores to Penny since she was “the girl” and had complained about being expected to make his bed or pick up after himself. He quickly sees how he has been wrong.
There is a neat parallel to all of this though in that as the children realise what a pain they have been, they are simultaneously having to live with Stephan, the spoilt ‘Communist refugee’ who has set up home in one of the spare bedrooms and is not only refusing to leave but is also casting scorn on all of the food which is put in front of him. Each of the Gareths tell Stephan archly that he is ‘horrid’ and ‘dreadfully rude’ even while glumly doing their apparent duty by him and shielding him from their aunt, but we can see how Aunt Dymphna’s attitudes towards the Gareths reflect their feelings toward Stephan. Things reach a show-down when Stephan is discovered and the children are scolded furiously by Oona who tells them angrily that they have been incredibly foolish, and ungrateful to their aunt who never wanted them to stay but has done her best by them all the same.
It is quite a thing for a child these days to be told that they are a burden. Streatfeild is capturing the rise of the our universal praise culture – where a child has to be told that they are wonderful no matter how they behave, that their work is brilliant no matter how hap-hazardly or how lazily they have set about it, that they need do nothing, never try, that life will just come together for them. This is an attitude that was never supported by any of Streatfeild’s fiction – if you want something in her books, you have to work for it. It is not that the author is suggesting that the children deserve mistreatment, far from it, but rather that one ought to appreciate it when somebody goes out of their way for you. Streatfeild points out explicitly in The Growing Summer that it does Penny no harm to learn to cook, for Alex to tidy up or fish, for Naomi to learn to entertain herself, for Robin to go in the fishing-boat in the dark. They all grew up a bit and nobody died (not even Daddy Gareth – unsurprisingly, he turns out to be fine). They even came to realise that they were not so very special, recognising as they got ready for departure that the most likely thing was that their new friends in the area would likely forget them quickly, only dim recollections remaining and no names. As they bid their once despised aunt farewell, there is a real sense of poignancy as she vanishes in the airport just as abruptly as she appeared, and we sense the tragedy that they will most likely never see her again. The Growing Summer is a novel about carping the diem, about being the best possible version of yourself and about remembering to be grateful – as such, it is a book well worth sharing, highly recommended!
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on January 1st 1970
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