Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Children on the Top Floor by Noel Streatfeild - orphans galore on Christmas Day!

Title: The Children on the Top Floor
Author: Noel Streatfeild
Illustrator: Jillian Willett
Publication: Collins, hardcover, 1964
Genre: Juvenile fiction
Setting: 20th century London
US edition which was in my library
Description: On his Christmas Eve broadcast, television personality Malcom Master told his audience that as a bachelor he envied the Christmas mornings they would have with the patter of little feet and the sound of children opening their stockings. The next morning, his one-time nanny/now housekeeper finds four babies left on the doorstep to rectify the nonexistent hole in his life. It would look bad to repudiate them and Nannie is delighted to have Thomas, Lucy, Margery and William to bring up, so they stay. Malcolm Master’s secretary Mamie shrewdly gets the children some endorsements and they are brought up on the top floor of the house by Nannie, Mamie, Alice the cook and her husband Alfred, with occasional visits from MisterMaster, as they call the guardian they rarely see. There is plenty of money until Malcom Master becomes ill and is sent away to convalesce for many months. When his ship disappears and everyone on board is presumed dead, the funds run out and the children are forced to grow up fast and start planning careers.

My Impression: Streatfield’s writing extended over five decades as her first book was published in 1931; her most famous, Ballet Shoes, in 1936; and she continued to publish until 1979. As many know, her American publisher renamed a number of her books to create a Shoes series, although most are unrelated (there is a Fossil cameo in Movie Shoes, published as The Painted Garden in the UK). This title was unchanged and I prefer the US cover, which looks like it was illustrated by Richard Floethe. Regardless, my favorites were the books about orphans who had to make their way in the world. The four children in this book are fairly typical of Streatfeild’s characters and entertaining: Margery is extremely talented but arrogant, and needs to be humbled before she can portray anything but her own personality; Thomas is just as self-confident as Margery until he breaks his leg, which forces him to contemplate his future, eventually becoming interested in being a television engineer; Lucy is a sweet-tempered unassuming girl, who develops an interest in sewing and costumes; and William wants to be a cameraman. They have no friends but each other, the household staff, and Rose Comfort, the governess who helps them contemplate careers that allow them to develop individual identities and do not require their performing as quads.
Then suddenly Alfred saw where his duty lay. He got up.

“Give me the tea, Nannie. This is a man’s job.”

So when Malcom Master woke that Christmas morning it was to see Alfred’s suet pudding face bending over him.

“Wake up, sir. Merry Christmas, sir. We’ve had quads, sir.”

Of course Mamie was right and in no time the house was full of reporters and camera men. Malcom Master was dressed and in his study; he had not been seen but clearly that situation could not last. Mamie made plans with Alfred.

“Let them in a few at a time to see the babies and to talk to Nannie. Take as long as you can over it so that I can have a word with Mr. Master and decide what’s to be done.
Although this is one of her lesser-known titles, there was a copy in my grade school library so I reread it often. As a child, I accepted that four families gave up their children for a life of affluence but as an adult, I assume the police would have hunted them down and accused the parents of endangerment for leaving their babies on a doorstep on a frigid morning like the mother in Little Fires Everywhere! But I think we can handle a little suspension of disbelief in a good cause. 
UK edition I own now
The best part of the story is how everyone copes when Malcom Master disappears: the children finally persuade Nannie et al. to let them get a puppy, they develop individual interests and career aspirations that are related to what they know best, the television world, and start to grow up while retaining their loyalty to each other. Possibly Streatfeild felt very bold using the then-newfangled television as her background for this book but there is really not much difference from the theater setting, particularly when Margery gets a part in a movie.  For the reader, there is a certain amount of wish fulfillment in reading Streatfield: even in this book, where the children are at risk of being sent to a boarding school for the homeless, they seem to be in control of their own destinies, exploring careers and making plans for the future at barely 11.

Source: Personal copy, thanks to Gill Bilski.


LyzzyBee said...

Wow, another of hers I didn't know of, and it does sound a good one. I love The Painted Garden, Movie Shoes is a horrible title for it, though, given you don't have to have special shoes to be in a film!

Lark said...

I need to find a copy of this book! It sounds delightful. :)

Katrina said...

That's another one for my list of must read books!

Lex @ Lexlingua said...

Oh well, when you mentioned they started career planning, I thought maybe the book spans over several years - turns out the planning started at age 11! Ack! Still, it sounds charming and I do mean to try out this author's work.

Buried In Print said...

My copy of Ballet Shoes is tattered and worn but I wasn't able to find most of Streatfeild's books beyond that one when I was a kid. I had no idea that The Painted Garden was retitled and part of that series, but I probably would have resented the lack of Fossil girls in it!

CLM said...

Marcie, I am surprised there wasn't a lot of Streatfeild in Canada when you were growing up because when I visited as a child all the bookstores were full of British books. I wonder when it all changed and suddenly American books were so prominent - maybe due to the expense of shipping.

I have not reread The Painted Garden/Movie Shoes for ages but Posy Fossils has a small cameo (is that redundant?) and I think Pauline also. Oh dear, you know I am going to have to go check and it's 10:30 and I haven't had dinner yet! Your fault!