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
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.
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,
Because of paper shortages, there were fewer book reviews during
the war. Nevertheless, The Children of Primrose Lane attracted
a positive critical response.
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,
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
Editions and Availability
The Children of Primrose Lane was first published by J.
M. Dent & Sons in 1941. It was illustrated by Marcia Lane
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.
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.)