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Party Frock

Party Frock was first published in 1946. The US edition (1947) was entitled Party Shoes. It is now available in the UK as Party Shoes, but is out of print in the US.


Story | Connections to Other Books | Background | Thoughts | Editions and Availability

Story

The Second World War is drawing to a close. Selina Cole, who had previously lived in Hong Kong with her parents, has been staying for over five years with relatives - Uncle Jim (a doctor), Aunt Ann, and their children John, Christopher, Sally, Phoebe, Augustus and Benjamin. Unexpectedly, Selina's godmother in America sends her a present - a party frock and shoes. It is Selina's first long party dress, but there are no opportunities to wear it in an English village at the end of a long war. The children try to think of a way she will be able to wear it, and decide to perform an historical pageant for charity. Selina is to wear her dress, and present the prologue and epilogue for the pageant.

John, Christopher, Sally and Phoebe are each to write a scene, and to include parts for Augustus and Benjamin. Because the pageant is to be performed in the grounds of the Abbey (once a real Abbey, but now a private residence) John decides to set his scene in Medieval times. He will play a boy who has been studying with the monks, and whose father takes him away to fight in a war. Phoebe writes a scene starring herself as the young Anne Boleyn. Sally, a promising ballet dancer, decides to have a dance performed by children for the visiting Queen Elizabeth I, and Christopher, who fancies himself as a comedian, chooses a seventeenth century setting with a group of mummers (himself as a humorous devil) performing in the village.

Sally is the first of the children to stage a rehearsal in the Abbey grounds. Squadron Leader Philip Day, the nephew of the current owners of the Abbey, who is staying there while he recuperates from an aeroplane crash, sees the rehearsal. Before the war, Philip had been involved with professional theatre, and he offers to help Sally - and the other children - with the production. With his support the pageant grows and grows, until most of the villagers are involved in some way.

Connections to Other Books

There do not appear to be any connections between Party Frock/Party Shoes and other Noel Streatfeild books. (It has no connections to the other "shoes" books.)

Background

The background to Party Frock is recounted by Noel in her introduction ("A Letter to the Reader of this Book"):

During the war my niece, Nicolette, was given a party frock and shoes from America. A lovely frock of the sort that nobody had because of clothes rationing. Blue organdie over a silk slip. It was Nicolette's first long frock and she could hardly wait for the right occasion to put it on. But [because of the war] no occasion turned up. ... I am glad to say that Nicolette did wear the frock. If it was a bit tight it did not show. She looked exactly as somebody of thirteen ought to look at a party. But I remember the months of anxiety when the frock hung in the cupboard. How awful to have been Nicolette. How many more girls had party frocks and shoes sent them from abroad and no party? So, for Nicolette in England, and the givers of the party frock and shoes in America, I wrote this book. (Party Frock, 1946:7.)

Thoughts

(This section contains "spoilers" for those who have not read the book.)

The wartime setting is vital to the plot of Party Frock. However, just as Curtain Up gave a slightly different perspective on wartime life from The Children of Primrose Lane, so Party Frock is different again. This may in part be due to the fact that, unlike most of Noel's earlier books for children, the setting is a country village, rather than London. For example, rationing is mentioned, but instead of causing day to day problems (as in Curtain Up) it is seen rather as an issue to be overcome - and it proves to be overcome rather more easily than the children's mother expects. Being placed in 1945, the narrative is punctuated with the excitements of VE day, and then VJ day, and finally the news that Selina's parents are free from the prison camp in which they had been held. The friendship between the villagers and the American soldiers stationed there is also celebrated.

Angela Bull feels that Party Frock is "the best of Noel's children's books of this period, and as fine a piece of craftsmanship as she ever achieved. ... A close scrutiny ... reveals Noel's tremendous technical expertise. She manages a large cast and a complicated story with such ease that the very real difficulties are never apparent" (1984:183-4). Nancy Huse adds to this that Noel "exploited her ability to present multiple points of view and the relativity of time and space. She extended the scope and depth of the family novel by drawing children and adults into a rich common task with ultimate social affect" (1994:85).

I have never quite shared the enthusiasm Angela Bull and Nancy Huse feel for Party Frock. In spite of its undeniable technical merits, and its ability to capture the essence of a specific period in English history, for me it lacks the appeal of some of Noel's earlier works. One feature that sets it apart is the essentially amateur nature of the theatrical production. In fact, in the early stages (when it is still being exclusively organised by the children) the willingness of adults, such as Miss Lipscombe, to be involved seems rather improbable. Even after Philip has extended the scope of the project, few of the participants have the professionalism of the actors, dancers, circus performers, and sportspeople of Noel's other works. Nancy Huse suggests that Selina's, Sally's and Phoebe's futures might be "bound up in the arts". However, this is only a remote possibility. Although Phoebe is the best actress of the children, there is no suggestion that she might follow it as a career; Selina's "ASM" skills could be used in a wide range of fields; and although the implication is that Sally will eventually become a professional dancer, at this stage she is little more than a talented child taking ballet classes.

Editions and Availability

UK Editions

Party Frock was first published in 1946 by Collins. It was illustrated by Anna Zinkeisen.

It was reprinted in the 1950s and 1960s, with the later editions being part of the Collins Seagull Library.

In 1971 it was reprinted as an Armada Lions paperback, still with Anna Zinkeisen's illustrations.

US Editions

In 1947, it was released in the United States by Random House, as Party Shoes. There were at least four printings, including a paperback version.

As I have not read the US editions, I do not know if the text was in any way amended.

Still in Print

Party Shoes is out of print in the US.

In the UK, Oxford University Press has recently released two paperback editions of different sizes - one trade paperback size, the other a little smaller. Somewhat oddly, both editions have the US title of Party Shoes.

 

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Images reproduced by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
© 1946 Noel Streatfeild

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