Noel Streatfeild is an author I loved as a child but I’ve never tried any of her adult books until now. There are plenty to choose from but I decided on her 1940 novel The Winter is Past (although here in the UK, winter is currently very much with us – we’ve had snow, ice and freezing temperatures all week, where I am!). It occurred to me after I started reading that I should probably have saved this book for next year’s 1940 Club – it’s worth keeping this one in mind if you’re wondering what to read for that event.
Anyway, The Winter is Past begins by introducing us to the Laurence family, who have lived at Levet, a beautiful English country house, since the 18th century. The current head of the family, Bill Laurence, has brought his new wife, Sara, home to Levet for the first time, but it immediately becomes clear that she’s not going to fit in. Nannie, who nursed several generations of Laurence children and is still an important part of the household, disapproves of Sara’s background as an actress – and when Bill’s upper-class mother Lydia comes to stay, Sara feels even more out of place. After suffering a miscarriage, she decides that her marriage is not working and that she needs to get away for a while, but with the outbreak of World War II she is forced to stay at Levet and make the best of things.
Another family whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by the war are the Vidlers. While Mr Vidler stays at home in London, his wife and their three young children – Rosie, Tommy and baby Herbert – are evacuated and taken in by the Laurences. Life at Levet comes as a culture shock for the working-class Vidlers, but they do their best to adapt, with varying success! When the cold weather arrives and the house is cut off from the village by snow, this disparate group of people will have to work together to get through the winter.
I loved this book; it’s very character-driven but with just enough plot to keep the story moving forward. I always find it fascinating to read books set during the war that were actually written before the war was over – it puts a very different perspective on things, when neither the characters nor the author have any idea how long it will last or how bad things are going to get. What little plot there is deals with the events of the winter of 1939-40 and although the book ends with another five years of war still to come, there’s already a sense that the lives of the characters have changed irrevocably and the way of life each of them has always known is disappearing forever.
My favourite characters were Mr and Mrs Vidler who, despite not leading a privileged life like the Laurences, possess things that money can’t buy – love, happiness and contentment – and rather than feeling inferior to Sara, Lydia and the others, look on them with sympathy and pity. The children, in the countryside for the first time, have more mixed emotions; they aren’t too pleased about the regular baths and formal mealtimes, but Tommy is captivated by the thought of making things grow in the garden and Rosie is amazed to discover that real ducks don’t wear sailor suits like Donald! It’s not surprising that Streatfeild writes about children so convincingly, considering she’s better known as a children’s author, but her adult characters are well developed too, even if some of them are difficult to like. She does come close to stereotyping with the maid Irene who has what we would probably call learning difficulties today, but that’s my only criticism and she does make up for it by giving Irene a heart of gold.
This was the perfect book to read in December, with snow on the ground outside, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Streatfeild’s adult novels next year. If you’ve read any of them let me know which ones you would recommend!