Noel Streatfeild
Noel Streatfeild's Life Children's Fiction Adults' Fiction Non-Fiction Autobiography and Biography Resource Materials    


Adults' Fiction

This page presents an overview of Noel Streatfeild's fiction for adults. For detailed information on individual novels, the romances she wrote under the pen-name Susan Scarlett, and her plays, click the items on the right hand side of the screen.

Writing from Experience | Genre | Style | Families | Relationships | Leaving the Field

Writing from Experience

Noel Streatfeild moved into writing after ten years as an actress. She chose to place her first novel - The Whicharts - in the theatrical world she knew so well, and this set the approach for most of her adult novels.

For her children's books, Noel sometimes drew on her own experiences, but on other occasions conducted extensive research into areas that would be of interest to children, but about which she knew nothing - tennis, ice-skating, circus life, etc. By contrast, almost all of her novels drew directly on her wide ranging personal experience: not only the theatrical world, but life in a vicarage (Parson's Nine), in the slum areas of London (Tops and Bottoms) and in a large country house (Shepherdess of Sheep).


Noel's biographer, Angela Bull, says that when Noel started writing there were three "main strands in contemporary women's fiction" (1984:117). A major thematic concern of one group was the "predicament of young people in the uncertain post-war world, where the uprooting of old values had left a wilderness through which safe and easy paths were hard to find ... [these books] were earnest, sometimes agonizing, psychological studies .. which exposed their characters to the pain and bewilderment the writers themselves had felt" (1984:117-8). At the opposite extreme was the genre of lightweight, escapist fiction, written to amuse, but with "no pretensions to deep psychological analysis or literary style" (1984:118).

Noel's novels fell into the third category. Bull likens them to the works of Rose Macaulay: "lively, irreverent stories ... to be enjoyed for their sparkling wit, and their idiosyncracies of plot and character" (1984:118). This does not mean that there is no social or psychological examination in Noel's works: on the contrary, Luke, for example, considers the question of whether thwarted genius will turn to violence, while Grass in Piccadilly takes a variety of class and age perspectives. Like Rose Macaulay's, Noel's books were taken seriously by the critics: for example, a 1933 review in the Daily Mail said of her "Miss Streatfeild is definitely one of our novelists that matter" (29 June 1933, quoted in Bull 1984:125).

It should be noted that during and shortly after the Second World War, in addition to her novels and children's books, Noel started writing in a new genre. Under the pen-name of Susan Scarlett she wrote twelve romances that are firmly located in the area of "lightweight, escapist fiction". Noel was rather contemptuous of these romances, and did not include them in any authorized bibliographies of her work. It was a genre she did not care for, until financial necessity forced her into it during the war. Both Angela Bull and Nancy Huse agree that Noel's romances use very conventional plots, and there is nothing to distinguish them from the general mass of books in this style.



From the start, Noel set out to shock her readers, with The Whicharts containing illegtimacy, swearing, and a possible pregnancy for a fifteen-year-old heroine. This continued to be a feature of her novels: even in 1947, a review of Grass in Piccadilly said that "strait-laced persons are warned not to attempt more than the first few pages" (The Spectator, quoted in Bull, 1984:216). Angela Bull, suggests that these daring subjects and outspoken language were essentially a literary tactic, designed to grip readers, and pull them into the story.

When writing The Whicharts, Noel gave free rein to her current disillusionment with the theatrical lifestyle:

Deftly, and with a sharpness underlying the surface brightness of the novel, she exposes all the facets of theatre life she had hated herself. She shows up the theatre as a trap from which there is no escape; as an arena where innocent girls are exploited, and corrupted; as a treadmill of monotonous, low-paid slavery; as the background for endless pretence, hypocrisy and deceit. It is a jungle where the hard, the greedy and the immoral fight and scheme for pitifully small rewards. Noel makes her readers laugh, but she makes them shiver as well. (Bull, 1984:113)

This demonstrates the path Noel was to follow with her novels, and also clearly shows the gulf between these novels, and the books she was later to write for children. There is a bitter, or at least cynical, tone to most of her novels - even those with happy, or potentially happy, endings - which is in stark contrast to the optimism of her works for children.


This gulf is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in Noel's treatment of families. One of the staples of Noel's writing for children is the fundamental importance of family stability - it is not a thematic concern, but simply a situation that is taken for granted. By contrast, many of her adult novels directly address issues arising out of situations where family security is lost, for example by a death (e.g. Parson's Nine and Saplings), by the presence of a disruptive element (e.g. Shepherdess of Sheep and Luke), or by the pressures of society (e.g. Grass in Piccadilly).

Studies of children form an important part of almost every novel she wrote. In many cases, these children are followed through to adolescence and adulthood, and Noel examines how the removal - or compete absence - of family stability in childhood can lead to problems in adulthood.


There was general agreement from reviewers that two of the great strengths of Noel's novels were her knowledge of the theatre, and her presentation of children. However, Angela Bull identifies one weakness that also runs through many of them. Romantic and sexual relationships between adults are either completely absent, or treated in a very perfunctory manner. Bull suggests that this might arise from Noel's own heterosexual coldness, but feels that it had a

very serious consequence for her as a writer. Her children's books succeed marvellously, but her adult novels lack the emotional dimension that would make them not merely good, but great. She was observing human nature with, as it were, one partially blinded eye. Her lack of any genuine involvement in ordinary sexual passions left an area of darkness in her books as well as in her life. (1984:127).

Of course, this "blind spot" is even more of a problem with the Susan Scarlett romances. Although these works are more superficial than Noel's novels, their entire purpose is to present a romantic story with which the reader can empathise, and so the "breezy, spinsterish conviction that love is 'sloppy' ... effectively destroys the credibility of her lovers" (Bull, 1984:176).

Leaving the Field

For many years, Noel alternated writing adults' and children's books. However, she gradually began to feel that her novels were no longer worth the effort. They were "harder to write than children's books, and much harder to sell" (Bull, 1984:218). Her range of experience had narrowed since the 1930s, and she appears to have had no inclination to actively research areas of interest to her adult readers in the way that she did for children. Furthermore, her style of novel was becoming unfashionable, as were her attitudes. Although she had "written about adultery, divorce and drugs ... [it was] not to assert that they did not matter, which seemed to her to be the attitude of young, liberalized novelists" (Bull, 1984:218). For all that she had written about matters designed to shock her readers, her books nevertheless had a moral foundation which no longer seemed to be wanted. It was easier, more satisfying, and more rewarding - both financially and emotionally - to write exclusively for children.



Adults' Fiction



Full List of Titles   Site Map   Feedback   Acknowledgements