My first Greyladies book turned out to be a lovely reading experience, aside from being a physically attractive book with good clear print; it was just the right kind of book to keep me company on a very busy, slow reading week.
Noel Streatfeild was the daughter of a vicar, born at the end of the nineteenth century; she would have been very much of an age as her characters in this novel, set before, during and after the First World War. In this, her second novel, Streatfield draws on the stories of her own vicarage childhood.
“By the fire in the night-nursery, Nannie was sitting with a newly washed Maccabeus on her knee. He was screaming to the full extent of his lungs, as was Manasses who was being dressed by Minnie. In a corner with his face to the wall stood Sirach, shaking with sobs. The twins sitting up in their beds waiting to be dressed were fighting over a stuffed monkey. Loud angry voices could be heard from the day nursery across the passage. Catherine, surveying all this woe from the doorway, wondered where, in her role of justice-cum-ministering angel, to begin”
The Parson’s Nine of the title are the nine children born to a saintly – slightly blinkered – vicar David Churston and his practical wife Catherine. Born rapidly one after another the children are named after the nine books of the Apocrypha, (no idea what that is, something biblical I presume). Catherine is a loving, sensible mother, often exhausted by her enormous brood, and her husband’s religious zeal – he assumes that everyone around him must feel exactly as he does. David, the younger son of a baronet, is a kind of gentle religious bully, he simply cannot conceive of anyone thinking differently to him, he assumes the children love Sundays – when they dread the boredom of them, but allow their father his smiling delusion. With the eldest Esdras spouting reams of biblical quotations on every occasion from a very tender age, David’s example seems to have certainly hit home in him at least. However girls; clever Judith and the domesticated Esther are more concerned they don’t turn into a ‘Parish Puss’ like the Misses Love, with their terrible clothes and red noses. Twins Susanna and the peculiarly sensitive Baruch are virtually inseparable, their bond specially close, they fantasise about ‘our land’ telling one another stories of it. The second eldest Tobit is a determined little gardener; Sirach is the one who makes a special friend of the family dog Samson. The youngest two children Manasses and Maccabeus seem so much the babies of the family they have a lot of catching up to do.
When Catherine receives an unexpected inheritance from an aunt, she decides it is time to send the eldest two boys away to school, and engage a governess for her younger children. With the marvellous Miss Crosby duly installed Catherine decides to take herself off for a much needed holiday in the South of France, much to her husband’s confused hurt, a practise she continues for several years. Miss Crosby is a staunch supporter of Suffragette women and teaches her girls about great women whenever she can, her ambition for her female pupils is enormous, and she is crushed with disappointment that Catherine can’t share her ambitions, nor understand her support of the suffrage movement.
Noel Streatfeild does offer up a few surprises in this novel, it is certainly not all crumpets by the vicarage fire. The Great War intrudes too soon, and Esdras and Tobit are soon off to the trenches of France. The war goes on just too long, and soon Sirach too is old enough to fight, while Judith marries young despite her brains, and Esther finds her skills put to good use in a hospital. Susanna meanwhile cannot bear the idea of her delicate twin going to the war, and just wants the war to end before he should be old enough.
“From that moment panic seized her. During the day hours she held it in check by cramming her time with any and every occupation which kept her mind subdued, but her nights were unbearable; often she only kept herself from screaming by biting the sheet, and always by day or night he heart beat to the same phrase:
“why can’t I go instead of him? Why can’t I go instead of him?”
The idyll of the Churston’s childhood is swept away by the tragedy and loss of war, young men from the village are among the killed and missing, and the Chutston’s are not unaffected, they suffer losses. Losses are not dwelt upon, indicative; perhaps of the times and the attitude of wartime, they pick themselves up and get on with life. The world is changing and Catherine’s family changes with it.
After the war, one of the young Churston’s particularly struggles to cope with what life has thrown at them. Bitter and hurting, their grief is buried so deeply, that is comes out in some almost self-destructive behaviour, and Catherine must enlist the help of a close friend in order to help her child. This section of the novel is naturally darker, exploring the pain of war and its aftermath.
I thoroughly enjoyed this unashamedly piece of 1930’s middlebrow literature, there is a lightness of touch, but it is in no way frivolous or frothy, Parson’s Nine is charming and very engaging, I loved these characters, and spending time with them this week was a real joy.