Having recently read and loved The Winged Horse by Pamela Frankau I was determined to read more by this once popular and prolific writer. The Willow Cabin remains one of my favourite ever Virago reads. A commenter on that previous post recommended Sing for Your Supper to me – and I immediately went in search of a copy, I was rather delighted with the edition which arrived.
Spending a few days away with family in Devon – this novel seemed a great companion with its Devonshire setting. Sing for Your Supper is the first book in the Clothes of a King’s Son, trilogy – and I already have the third, and just ordered the second.
The summer of 1926 and as the novel opens Blanche Briggs is preparing to rejoin her beloved Weston children. Fourteen years earlier Blanche was employed as the family Nanny, now Blanche exists looking after wealthy London ladies in between summer seasons when the children return from school. The three children, Gerald (15) Sarah (13) and Thomas (10) are the children of Phillip Weston a widowed gentleman Pierrot star and owner of the Moonrakers troupe; who do the summer seasons in Devon and elsewhere, with diminishing success. The children are well aware of their father’s hopelessness with business, resigned to fairly constant genteel poverty. Even poor Blanche is not paid for her much longed for summers. Gerald is particularly obsessed by the question of money.
“Money, money, money. Without it the world was against you. He seemed to have known this for a long time, to have been making – for years – a cold, practical assessment of the family fortunes. Misfortunes rather. He saw them now with his routine mixture of pity and scorn. The struggle had endured since he could remember: even in his mother’s lifetime.”
Blanche’s excitement at the prospect of another summer with her children is infectious, leaving her sister’s house earlier than she need clutching a string bag containing presents for the children.
” As she walked to the barrier at the head of Number Three platform she was looking out for Gerald. There he was. No, he wasn’t. Another boy in grey flannels, with something of Gerald’s look, a neat dark- haired boy walking with a swagger: a forecast of Gerald . ‘Mind your back miss…’ A porter pushing a barrow with a mountainous load: there was a new spade and bucket perched on top: an iron spade, bluish- black, with a white wooden handle: the bucket was red with a gold band round it. Gerald and Sarah and Thomas were too big to care for spades and buckets anymore. But these things were still stamped with a trademark of rightness; she smiled upon them.”
Blanche can’t help but be astounded by the first class ticket sent by Philip Weston for her and the children, something which has never happened before. The children are equally surprised, travelling first class with their darling Brigstock, they each – unknown to Blanche – have their own secrets and concerns as they contemplate the summer with their father and the Moonrakers. The family will be occupying Roseclay, a large Edwardian house they’ve taken before, it’s like going home, though this time without the presence of ‘the grandmother’ and aunt and uncle who usually make up the household. Roseclay, first class train travel suggest to the children that their father is again living outside his means. Either that, or he has suddenly come into money.
Upon arrival, there are signs of a new prosperity, and both the elder children begin to suspect their father has a secret, or at the very least something to tell them. Sarah suffering from neuralgia headaches, fancies herself a great actress, Gerald is carrying his carefully hoarded secret stash of money and Thomas is the subject of a letter sent by his headmaster which speaks of his ungovernable rages. Thomas is a wonderful character, loyal, vague and loving, he will fly into rage if someone he loves is threatened. It would also appear he has inherited his grandmother’s clairvoyance, though none of his family believe it to be anything other than a trick.
They all love Nanny, who runs a pretty tight ship. Blanche has her way of doing things which until now has always gone unchallenged. She knows swimming can bring on Sarah’s headaches, and has a particularly close relationship with Thomas, understands Thomas, defends him and loves him best. Gerald meanwhile seems headed for his own special brand of trouble. This summer change will come to the Weston family, changes which Blanche might not be ready for.
Everywhere there are posters advertising the new show; Moonrakers 1926, and the two elder children are expected to see the show on their first evening in Devon, Thomas will attend the matinée the following day. Other members of the Moonrakers troupe are frequently at the house, late night parties and behavior resulting in what Thomas thinks of as Brigstock’s Sunday face. Gwen, Philip’s long time co-star is sporting a flashy ring, everyone else is much the same, and Gerald finds he still dislikes Leo Clyde.
Before the show the next day Thomas meets Rab, an American girl, a little older than himself, a bit of a tomby with whom he immediately allies himself. Rab is installed at a local hotel; unusually in the care of her chauffeur Miles, her mother Paula is in Paris and will soon be arriving. Rab tells Thomas all about Martha’s Vineyard, the home she is nostalgic for. Rab it appears already knows all about the Weston family, viewing Gerald and Sarah as little gods, is delighted to find Thomas quite ready and wiling to do her bidding. They become fast friends. Rab is keen to be drawn into the heart of the Weston family, cared for by Nanny with a more regular routine. Unknown to his own children, Philip is already very familiar with Rab – she worries him a little.
” A child of twelve, who had never been to school; who was a world- traveller and could mix a dry Martini: a child of divorce: a child who had, despite these dooms, no appearance of sophistication and few graces. A wild one: farouche was the word that came to his mind. The worry-tune skirled and screamed ‘what will Nanny think?’ He turned it off. Rab was a darling and all would be well.”
I thoroughly enjoyed Sing for your Supper and can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy. Pamela Frankau is a superb novelist, there is great interplay between the characters, fabulous storytelling from multiple perspectives and in this novel a quite marvellous ending.