With books such as White
Boots and The
Growing Summer, Noel's popularity with readers continued
to increase. "Her sales might not equal Enid Blyton's, but
there was hardly a newspaper reference or library poll which did
not place her in the first flight" (Bull,
1984:202). Throughout the 1950s and 60s, she was acknowledged
as one of the leading lights of English children's literature.
She opened exhibitions and bazaars, spoke at Book Weeks, was guest
of honour at school speech days, and "was one of the 'sixteen
principal literary figures in Britain today', who, with Bernard
Shaw, Compton Mackenzie, J. B. Priestley and others, autographed
a teacloth which was sold to raise funds for the PEN Club"
In addition to works of fiction, in the 1950s Noel also began
writing non-fiction books (e.g. The First Book of the Ballet,
The First Book of England, Queen Victoria) and
editing collections of both fiction and non-fiction works (such
as By Special Request and The Years of Grace).
In 1958, she wrote a biography and critical study of E. Nesbit,
Magic and the Magician.
In the 1960s, she extended her range still further. One day,
in 1961, she had been entertaining one of her American publishers,
Helen Hoke, with stories of her childhood in the Vicarage. Helen
was fascinated by a lifestyle of which she knew nothing, and suggested
that Noel write it in a book. Noel was interested in the idea,
but a little self-conscious about it. Her solution to this was
to change everybody's names: thus the character representing Noel
in A Vicarage Family, and its
sequels Away from the Vicarage
and Beyond the Vicarage, is
called Victoria Strangeway. This degree of anonymity reduced the
sense of exposure caused by an autobiography, and also freed her
to embroider the truth where necessary to make a better story.
Up until the 1960s, Noel had continued to intersperse her prodigious
output for children with regular novels for adults, but she eventually
concluded that this was no longer worthwhile, and moved exclusively
to the field of children's writing. However, even without adult
novels, the 1960s were her most prolific decade.
In 1968, Noel suffered a stroke which left her paralysed down
the left side. She worked intensely with physiotherapists and
speech therapists, and made an almost complete recovery. Nevertheless,
the limp she was left with (combined with the staircase to her
flat) caused her to stay indoors more often, and a slight blurring
of speech meant that she could no longer lecture. To make matters
worse, her poodle, Pierre, had to be put down, and her close friend
Margot died suddenly. Her brother, Bill, had died earlier in the
year, and her mother and Barbara were also dead.
Noel kept writing, as this was a way of dealing with the stresses
of life. However, increasingly she chose to locate her books in
the past - e.g. Thursday's
Child and When
the Siren Wailed - rather than having a contemporary
For her eightieth birthday, she was invited to appear on the
radio program Desert Island Discs:
In the accepted way she looked backwards, choosing,
among her records, music from Wolf-Ferrari's Jewels of the
Madonna, which had introduced the Children's Hour broadcasts
of Ballet Shoes; Saint-Saens' The Dying Swan
as a reminder of Ninette de Valois, that unforgettable Little
Wonder; and Tschaikovsky's fifth symphony, to which her other
favourite, Irina Baronova, had danced Présages.
The book she chose was John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga,
and her luxury was a set of gardening tools. (Bull,
Between July and Christmas 1979, a series of small strokes forced
her into a nursing home. However, when, in 1983, she was awarded
the Order of the British Empire, she was strong enough to go to
the Palace and receive the decoration in person.
Noel Streatfeild passed away on 11 September 1986. In March 2003,
a commemorative blue plaque was unveiled at Streatfeild House,
the former vicarage in Hastings.
In summing up Noel's life, Angela
Bull makes the point that:
Not many people can have lived to her great age,
with such a record of successes, and incurred so little resentment
and hostility. The memories of her friends were warm and affectionate.
That she was occasionally pompous, and sometimes a little vain,
were the worst things anyone could find to say about her. She
sailed through her adult life, confident that people would like
her - and they did. (1984:241-2)