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The Children of Primrose Lane

The Children of Primrose Lane was first published in 1941. The US edition (also 1941) was entitled The Stranger in Primrose Lane. It is now out of print.


Story | Background | Thoughts | Editions and Availability

Story

There are four houses in Primrose Lane. The Brown family live in Number One: Mr Brown (a policeman), Mrs Brown, Sally, Dave and Marge. In Number Two are the Smith family: Mr Smith (who is in the army, and so not at home), Mrs Smith, and the twins Dickie and Freda. Number Three is the Evans family: Mr Evans (a warden), Mrs Evans and Millie. Number Four is empty, but the children find a way into it, and take it over for their own use.

One day, Mr Smith comes home on forty-eight hours leave. Marge Brown overhears him telling his wife that his whole regiment is being sent overseas, and that they are leaving from Southampton at midday Saturday. When Marge tells Millie Evans what she has overheard, they are themselves overheard by a man who has been hiding in Number Four.

He tells Millie and Marge that he is an English soldier, but when Millie and Marge talk to the other children, Sally realises that he must be a German spy. The children cannot inform the authorities about him, or Mr Smith will get into trouble for telling his wife secret information. So they decide they will have to make sure that he cannot communicate with anyone until Saturday, and then tell the police.

Background

Whereas The House in Cornwall was published near the end of the Phoney War, The Children of Primrose Lane was written during the Blitz - hardly a time conducive to creative thought. In March 1941, Noel wrote in her diary "The spirit is willing to finish the children's book, the flesh is very laggard" (cited in Bull, 1984:178).

Because of paper shortages, there were fewer book reviews during the war. Nevertheless, The Children of Primrose Lane attracted a positive critical response.

Thoughts

Unlike The House in Cornwall, The Children of Primrose Lane is very firmly rooted in its wartime setting. However, it still lacks the originality of Noel's earlier books. As with The House in Cornwall, Noel has used a standard adventure formula, but this time she has joined the ranks of writers such as Malcolm Saville and linked it closely to the extraordinary Home Front situation of the Second World War. As Noel says in the preface to the amended 1951 edition of the book, "Had the Germans landed by parachute, there was not a child in the country who did not know what was the proper action to take" (The Children of Primrose Lane (revised edition), 1951:9). With this knowledge in the heads of all her readers, Noel knew that they were far more likely to enjoy a book about children catching a German spy, than one in which they outwit thieves, kidnappers or mysterious foreign dictators. Furthermore, by using this plot, Noel was able to tap into the prevailing nationalistic fervour: "we're English children, and if six English children aren't as good and better than one German man we might as well give up fighting the war" (The Children of Primrose Lane, 1941: 98).

Despite being in the same genre as The House in Cornwall, The Children of Primrose Lane is a marked improvement. Although the plot is still clumsy, the realism of the setting gives it a greater immediacy. In addition, the villain is marginally less stereotypical. Like Manoff in The House in Cornwall he is physically grotesque, but he does have some human characteristics. Early in the book, his frustration at being unable to get away is very clear, first in his barely controlled anger, and then when he sounds "as if he were going to cry" (The Children of Primrose Lane, 1941:136). Angela Bull and Nancy Huse are also very impressed with the character of Millie Evans, one of Noel's bumptious, infuriating, and yet somehow appealing children. However, all six of the children are very clearly differentiated, and each of them, at some point, becomes a perspective character, giving the reader a chance to identify with them all.

One thing that sets The Children of Primrose Lane apart from its contemporary adventure stories - and, indeed, from most children's literature of the period - is that all the children come from the working class. Apart from Eve Garnett's The Family from One End Street, most children's books of the time were populated with middle and occasionally upper class children. Like Eve Garnett, Noel was not unfamiliar with slum areas. However, having chosen a working class setting for her book, she seems to have been reluctant to follow it through. Perhaps, as Angela Bull suggests, she was "inhibited by knowing that her books were bought by middle class parents, who would not be happy to see their offspring reading about bed bugs, meals eaten on doorsteps, and babies with dummies in their mouths" (1984:179). Thus, the differences between the Primrose Lane children, and the Fossils, Heaths and Chandlers amounts to little more than "an absence of maids and nannies, and a taste for tinned lobster and cream buns" (Bull, 1984:179). Even the dialogue is indistinguishable. Aside from one mention of Dave putting on "an exaggerated B.B.C. announcer's voice" (The Children of Primrose Lane, 1941:187), a reader might be forgiven for assuming that all of the children are speaking perfect public school English. Readers of the time would have recognised the children as coming from a different stratum of society, but time and distance can lead to this being less apparent. As an Australian child reading the book in the 1970s, I noticed that the houses in Primrose Lane seemed rather small, but I was totally unaware of the enormous social and financial gap between the children in this book, and those of Noel's earlier works.

Editions and Availability

UK Editions

The Children of Primrose Lane was first published by J. M. Dent & Sons in 1941. It was illustrated by Marcia Lane Foster.

William Collins Sons & Co. reissued The Children of Primrose Lane in 1951 with illustrations by Peggy Fortnum; and in 1959 they released a largely unillustrated edition as part of their Seagull Library. A Foreword by Noel Streatfeild states that "This edition has been slightly corrected since I wrote the book, but I have not altered one word which tells you about life in 1940". I have done a quick comparison of the two editions, and have only been able to find one change: Brown family growing dahlias rather than delphiniums. This edition was reprinted a number of times during the 1960s.

US Editions

The US edition, published by Random House, illustrated by Richard Floethe, and retitled The Stranger in Primrose Lane, was also released in 1941. It does not appear to have been reissued.

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

Out of Print

The Children of Primrose Lane/The Stranger in Primrose Lane is out of print. In February 2004, second hand copies through online booksellers start in price at around 4. (Source: Addall Used and Out of Print Book Search.)

 

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