There was a time when The Bell Family were Noel Streatfeild’s most popular creations. Wherever Streatfeild went, she was reportedly quizzed about Miss Virginia Bell and her doings. In more recent decades however, the family faded from popularity and despite attempts to rebrand them into the Shoes series as Family Shoes, their adventures went out of print until Vintage came to the rescue. Having no ties of childhood nostalgia here but being in the mood for some comfort reading, I was intrigued to see what I would make of the novel as an adult.The premise is of an impoverished vicarage family overcoming obstacles and in particular how the children of the family – Paul, Jane, Ginnie and Angus – achieve their ambitions. Regular readers of Streatfeild may notice that this situation closely resembles that of Streatfeild’s own childhood, which she later fictionalised in A Vicarage Family, written around ten years after the publication of The Bell Family. Having read both books, Bell Family does feel slightly like The Whicharts to Vicarage’s Ballet Shoes. Streatfeild does have form for re-using old material.
The Bell parents are idealised versions of the characters who Streatfeild presents as her own parents in Vicarage. Alex Bell is the kindly vicar who believes that there is no point in ever getting cross and who holds no grudge at being cut off by his father for entering the church. His wife Cathy is the practical and warm woman who contrasts sharply with the much colder mother who Streatfeild depicted in A Vicarage Family. Cathy’s repeated assertions of how little money matters to her (A sample speech is “Do you think I’d miss one minute of watching my children grow up for all the money in the world?“) seems like wish fulfilment for Streatfeild when one considers how she later depicted her mother’s resentfulness about the family finances. The four Bell children are Paul who plans to be a doctor, Jane who longs to dance, Ginnie who likes get in the way as much as possible and Angus who adores animals. There is also Esau the dog, beloved by all but fed the most appalling diet I have ever read – it was a miracle the poor animal made it to the end of the book still alive.
The other thing which makes The Bell Family rather different to most of Streatfeild’s other novels is that it started life as a radio serial. The book is therefore structured as a series of short stories rather than having an over-arching plot, with each episode resolved rapidly and with no major incident ever really taking place. The characters seem thinly drawn but I can imagine that might not have come across as strongly on the radio. Ginnie apparently had the breakout role, with her habit of referring to herself as Miss Virginia Bell taken as endearing over the airwaves while on the page it is rather more irksome. It was unfortunate that although she was clearly intended to provide the comedy, she grated on me increasingly as the book progressed. Between noseying in on someone who was ill and then not practising safe quarrantine standards, being rude to others, thoughtlessly promising other people’s time in the hope of gaining glory for herself and then kidnapping a baby, she seemed less of a heroine and more of a brat. There are brats elsewhere in Streatfeild’s fiction but they usually get a comeuppance.
The Bell Family felt rather tired as a concept. While Streatfeild often recycled character types in her other novels, somehow the situations tend to feel more fresh. Here, things just felt very repetitive. The usual fretting over what to wear, the sniping against wealthier relatives looking down their noses, grief over frocks not being what they should be, etc, etc. If anyone ever wants to start up a Noel Streatfeild drinking game, I propose that one be obliged to take a sip every time she uses the word ‘gorgeous’ or ‘gorgeously’ (you’ll be hammered in no time) and then down one’s glass when the phrase ‘sweetly pretty’ crops up (it always does sooner or later). And at that point, I feel like the Grinch, which was the last thing that I wanted when I only picked the book up because I knew that Streatfeild stories always end happily and I’m a sleep-deprived first-time parent.
Streatfeild was a commercial writer who made her living writing stories that would sell. The Bell Family had the feel of a second-rate The Family at One-End Street, which was published a decade previously. One-End Street broke ground in telling stories about a working-class family but were rather more interesting. Yet although Vintage is clearly trying to press the family Bell as a pleasing period-piece, it feels less vintage and more just … dated. The dilemmas are never strong enough to generate real drama, the resolutions always too quick and over-the-top to be believable and the character development non-existent. In other books, the child protagonists are encouraged to make better choices – Ballet Shoes‘ Pauline learns not to be a diva, White Boots‘ Lalla suffers the consequences of being mean to Harriet, The Growing Summer children come to realise that they are not such martyrs after all – but there is no such growth for the Bells. It is not that Streatfeild is a substandard writer, it has been well over fifteen years since I last read A Vicarage Family and I still remember its painful final page, but here, the usual Streatfeild sparkle is absent.
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Published by Random House on March 6th 2014
Genres: Young Adult, General
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