Noel Streatfeild
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The Academy of Dramatic Art

By the end of the War, life at the Eastbourne Vicarage had changed irrevocably. Ruth was concentrating on her career as an art teacher; Bill, who had been wounded in the war, was going to Cambridge; and Barbara was getting married. Noel had also made up her mind what she wanted to do: she was going to be an actress.

William, although undoubtedly shocked, was supportive, and arranged for Noel to study at the Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She was accepted as a student for the term beginning in January 1919, at the age of 23. She decided to adopt the stage name "Noelle Sonning".

Although by no means one of the star pupils, Noel did win the "Good Studentship" prize at the end of 1919. However, she did not get good parts in the Public Show - to which theatrical managers, agents and critics were invited - and she left the Academy in April 1920 with no firm job prospects.

The Charles Doran Company

Desperate for any kind of work, Noel took a five week job as a chorus girl in a musical comedy.

Following this, however, she had the extraordinary good fortune to obtain a place in a new Shakespearean touring company. The company had been started by Charles Doran, an Irish actor, and some of the other members were to become very well known in the theatre - Ralph Richardson, Norman Shelley, Donald Wolfit, Cecil Parker and Edith Sharpe. Noel enjoyed working with the company, and it was at this stage that she developed the love of Shakespeare that permeates so many of her works. Noel was with the company for two happy years, but at the end of 1922 she left following a dispute in which she had taken the side of the actors' union, Equity, against Charles Doran.


Thumbnail photograph of Noel as Titania - click to enlarge
Noel as Titania

Angela Bull suggests that Noel's two years with the company was the high point of her stage career, and that "For the next seven years it gradually ran downhill, and although there were occasional upturns, she never again had the challenging range of parts or the intellectual stimulus that the Doran company had given her" (1984:80).

London Theatre

After leaving the company, Noel briefly worked in a melodrama in Portsmouth, and then gained a part in a new London production, The Insect Play, opposite John Gielgud in his first professional appearance. The play was not successful, and Noel moved on to a series of productions at the Kingsway Theatre, in London, of which the most successful was Yoicks, a light revue which ran for a year. Bull feels that at this time Noel lost her ambitions to be a serious actress, and concentrated more on having an active social life. To support this social life, she took on modelling jobs, in addition to her theatre work.


When Yoicks finished, Noel found it difficult to get further work. Telling her agent that she would consider any part, anywhere, Noel was offered the Fairy Heartsease in a pantomime Mother Goose in Newcastle upon Tyne. This two months' job must have seemed dead-end to Noel, but in fact it had two important results. The pantomime company included a troupe of child dancers, not unlike Lila Field's Little Wonders, and Noel was finally able to find out what the life of a child performer was like. This was to prove invaluable for her future writing career. More immediately, someone who saw the pantomime recommended her to Arthur Bouchier, a well known theatre figure.

The Arthur Bourchier Company

Arthur Bourchier was planning to tour with a production of A. E. W. Mason's At the Villa Rose, and he wanted Noel for the heroine. The tour went well, and Noel enjoyed herself, so when Bourchier decided to take At the Villa Rose, and a number of other productions, to South Africa, Noel leaped at the opportunity.

Sadly, discord within the company made the South African tour something of a nightmare for Noel. The sitution reached rock bottom in Johannesberg, when Bourchier unexpectedly died. Needing the money, Noel fought to have the tour continue - others of the company wanted to abandon it - but without Bourchier it was not a success.

Noel arrived home "knowing that all the old magic of the theatre had gone. She had lost her ambitions, and was beginning to admit secretly to herself that she would be glad of an excuse to abandon her career" (Bull, 1984:98). She continued working with a series of short engagements, but the fun was gone. While "resting" at Eastbourne, she enrolled for a correspondence course in writing. At her mother's suggestion, she sent one of her stories (about a magician who turns his daughter into a rabbit, and forgets the spell to turn her back) to a children's magazine. The magazine paid her two guineas, and suggested that she might try a full length children's book. However, she had no time for this, as she had been engaged for an Australian tour of a play called The Wrecker by Donald Calthrop. Just before she left, her parents told her that William was going to be made the Bishop of Lewes.

Touring in Australia

On the boat to Australia, Noel met Daphne Ionides, the English daughter of a wealthy art connoisseur, with whom she formed a very close friendship. Angela Bull notes that this friendship - and Noel's later friendship with Margot Grey and perhaps Theodora Newbold - appear to have been deeper and more passionate than anything Noel ever felt for someone of the opposite sex. Although there is nothing to suggest that any of these friendships became physical, it does appear that Noel's strongest relationships were with women, rather than with men.

Noel started keeping a diary at this time - possibly with the idea of developing her writing skills - and later in the tour attempted to write two novels, Marge and Bluebell Bloggs, neither of which were ever published.

In December, William's appointment as Bishop was made official, but less than two months later - on 17 February, 1929 - he died of a heart attack. Unable to return for the funeral, Noel completed the Australian tour "like a zombie" (quoted in Bull, 1984: 108), unable even to write in her diary for a month. "She had sometimes gone against [her father's] wishes, frequently flouted his moral standard, and abandoned the religious practices he had taught her; but he was always the person she loved and respected most" (Bull, 1984:108).

When the tour ended, Noel decided to give up the theatre altogether, and start a new career as a novelist.


Noel Streatfeild's Life


World War One


First Novels

First Children's Books

World War Two

After the War

A National Monument

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