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The Children on the Top Floor

The Children on the Top Floor was first published in 1964. It is now out of print.


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

Story

Malcolm Master is a succesful television personality. One Christmas Eve, he says in a broadcast that "Christmas is not Christmas without children. You cannot guess what this old bachelor would give to wake tomorrow morning to the squeals of delighted children opening their stockings" (The Children on the Top Floor, 1964:10). The next morning, four babies are left on his doorstep.

Malcolm Master lives with his old nurse, Nannie, his secretary, Mamie Briggs, and a married couple, Alfred and Alice Mink, who are valet-chauffeur and cook. The logical thing is for Nannie to look after the children, so the top floor rooms are made over for them.

The children get named out of nursery rhymes - Tom ("Tom, Tom the piper's son), Lucy ("Lucy Locket lost her pocket"), Margery ("See, saw, Margery Daw") and William ("Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town"). Because of Malcolm Master's fame, and their own unusual arrival, the houshold is inundated with offers to use the children in advertising. Before they can crawl, the faces of the "Master Quads" are well known in advertisements ranging from Kiddie Komfort Shoes to Home Beautiful.

When the children are six, they are sent to school. However, as they continually need to take time off to be photographed or filmed, the school feels this is too disruptive. As a result, when they are eight they get a governess, Rose Comfort.

At the end of the year, disaster strikes. Malcolm Master has a heart attack, and is ordered to take a holiday. On the same day, Thomas goes to hospital with a broken leg. For the first time in the children's lives, money becomes a problem. Not only is Malcolm not earning - neither are the children. All of the advertisers want the quads - with Thomas in hospital, there is no work for just three of them.

Connections to Other Books

In Chapter 26, Thomas visits Cob's Circus, from The Circus is Coming. Although he does not meet any of the performers personally, we learn that the circus still has many of the same acts as it did before the Second World War: the Elgins, Maxim Petoff's Liberty Horses, Schmidt's Sea-Lions, Kundra's Elephants and The Whirlwinds.

Thoughts

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

The Children on the Top Floor has occasionally been compared (unfavourably) to Ballet Shoes. Certainly, there are some similarities - a family of adopted children, a Nana to look after them, a father figure who disappears, and the idea that by being adopted the children are free of hereditary expectations or limitations. However, The Children on the Top Floor is not simply Ballet Shoes for the television age. From some of the same elements, Noel has created a totally different story - a tale of children in a controlled, and somewhat sterile, environment coming into contact with the ordinary world of childhood.

The Children on the Top Floor is the last of Noel's books to include a Nannie character, as Nannies had become virtually unheard of in modern families. Up until now, the virtually unchanging Nana/Nannie/Pursey had appeared in four of Noel's children's books, and The Children on the Top Floor offers a glorious finale for this character's last appearance. For the first time, Nannie has total authority over the children, without the interference of any other adult. In spite of the unusual circumstances (which she never challenges, unlike Rose Comfort), Nannie tries to bring up the children in a normal manner. Of course, being of a different generation, and "set in her ways", Nannie's view of "normal" is somewhat out of date. Rose Comfort is concerned that the children may be a little too well-behaved, but she nevertheless recognises the quality of Nannie's achievement: "'Marvellous,' she thought, 'how Nannie's discipline holds even when she isn't there"" (The Children on the Top Floor, 1964:63). And while Nannie's discipline may be firm, she has never attempted to repress the individual personalities of the children. In spite of the limitations on their lifestyle, the children are far from unhappy.

For the first time, Noel allows an element of frailty to enter the Nannie character. One feels that the other Nana characters will go on forever, looking after the next generation of children (certainly Hilary expects this in Wintle's Wonders) and probably the one after that: in Ballet Shoes, the Fossils are Nana's second generation of children in Gum's family, and even when they are grown up (in The Painted Garden), Nana is still going strong. In The Children on the Top Floor, however, Nannie "though nothing would have made her admit it, [finds] bringing up four children rather much for her" (The Children on the Top Floor, 1964:32). When Rose Comfort arrives, Nannie does confess that "I'm glad not to have to take the children for walks for I feel my feet more than I did" (The Children on the Top Floor, 1964:41), and later she suffers an attack of lumbago. However, in spite of this frailty Nannie still has an air of comfortable continuity and reliability about her. And, of course, she is proven to be right in her steadfast belief - against all odds - that Malcolm Master is still alive. We are therefore left with an image of Nannie who, despite not being as young as she once was, will always be there, and will always be right.

Editions and Availability

UK Editions

The Children on the Top Floor was first published by Collins in 1964, with illustrations by Jillian Willett.

In 1976, White Lion publishers released a new hardback edition, still with Jillian Willett's illustraions. Interestingly, the title page calls it The Children of the Top Floor, although the cover and dustjacket show the correct title.

A paperback edition was released in 1987 by Swift Books.

US Editions

In the same year as its UK release (1964), it was released in the United States by Random House. Another edition was released in 1973.

In 1960, there was a Dell Bantam Books paperback edition, which was reprinted in 1985.

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 on the Top Floor is out of print. In February 2004, second hand copies through online booksellers start in price at around 20. (Source: Addall Used and Out of Print Book Search.)

 


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Images reproduced by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
© 1964 Noel Streatfeild

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