Party Frock is the next of my childhood books to be read from the culling pile. First published in 1946, my version was printed in 1965 by the Collins ‘Seagull Library’, which means I was about ten when I read it. Illustrations are by Anna Zinkeisen.
“Quintessentially English” is the phrase that sprang to mind as I re-read it. The inspiration for the book was Noel Streatfeild’s niece receiving a party frock as a present from America during WWII, and not having an occasion on which to wear it. (This put me in mind of Helene Hanff, who after the war sent food packages to England, as recounted in her memoir 84 Charing Cross Road.)
The story opens in late December 1944. Hong Kong-raised Selina has been living in an English village with her aunt and uncle and six cousins for five years and five months as a consequence of her parents being interned by the Japanese (and that’s as far as that storyline develops until the joyful telegram after VJ Day).
Next we are introduced to a chaotic cast of characters: Doctor Andrews (the uncle who runs his surgery from the house); Mrs Andrews (Aunt Anne) who seems to have limitless patience which gets sorely tested; John, the eldest boy, a boarder at Marlborough and home for the holidays; Sally, who is about a year younger than Selina but in the same year at school because poor Selina is apparently not that bright (well that’s how it read between the lines). Sally (12 and small for her age) aspires to be a ballerina, and the professional ballet school conveniently situated in the next village, run by a Madame Ramosova, gets to have a role in the story-line (with a happy ending). Sally is a twin with Christopher, who is in to skating (but he hasn’t got any) and mucking about with pretend swords and things. Phoebe is nine, fancies herself a poet and is growing out of her clothes. Then come the young ones: Augustus (five?) and Benjamin (four). Benjamin is given to lordly phrases which usually start with, “My dear,” as in, “My Dear, that is not dirt, that’s brown from the sun,” (actually, I also remember protesting this as a young child, but without the preface).
Miss Lipscombe is a retired matron now working as the stiffly-principled surgery nurse, and Mrs Miggs, an evacuee from East London, is the (supposedly) daily help who only turns up if she is in the mood, then races through her work humming Rule Britannia, and informs the children she is partial to a bit of a “knees up, Mother Brown.”
Selina receives a parcel from America containing a party frock and shoes, much to the envy of all, particularly Sally and Christopher who have written to an uncle with thinly-veiled hints they would like skates and silk stockings. But in true all-for-one style, the children gather in the school-room (which used to be called the nursery until John was humiliated by the taunts of schoolfriends), and, via a committee chaired by John, devise a plan for Selina to wear her special outfit – they will stage a village pageant, and each has to write a scene.
Where to stage it? At the local abbey of course, a private home ever since Henry VIII kicked the monks out, but about to be sold because Colonel and Mrs Day can longer manage fifty bedrooms and such-like with the remaining staff; being the former butler, Mr Partridge, and the former house-keeper, Mrs Mawser, both of whom are extremely uncomfortable with their unconventional employers insisting they all muck in together, sharing meals at the kitchen table, for example. These two had been in service at the house since they were twelve and Colonel Day’s grandfather “the old gentleman” was in charge. (By the way, the outgoing monks cast a curse on the abbey.)
A side character is Mr Bins, the postman, who delivers the parcel in the first place, and gets into an argument with Miss Lipscombe about the amount of duty to be paid. I must say, three pounds, eighteen shillings and fourpence did seem rather a lot in my opinion, but he tells her, “I’ve no time argufying with you,” and Doctor Andrews has to intervene to “save bloodshed”. This is extraordinary, because all the family are at breakfast, and no one should leave the table until the last person has finished, which is usually Augustus, who has a huge appetite and refuses to be hurried. There is an awful lot of eating going on all the way through the novel, even though rationing is frequently mentioned. Breakfast is always at least two courses, beginning with a cereal called Force, and then going on to something cooked. Then everyone must be home promptly for lunch, followed by tea, then the two young boys are bathed and put to bed (by Selina and Sally usually), and then the rest of the family have supper. Lots of bread and buns are referred to, so apparently no shortage of flour and yeast 🙂
The children behave in ways that would be unrecognisable to many modern parents: polite, obedient, and with fabulous table-manners, they have regular daily chores such as clearing the table, washing up, making beds – and are willing to swap if it means they can get on to their mutual projects faster. They have innovative ideas taking each other’s strengths and weaknesses into consideration, are responsible for putting those plans into action, and organising the resources needed, even where this demands negotiation with adults in the village (except for Selina – who the other children remark has an inferiority complex – and then load her up with being the one to approach Miss Lipscombe). They do occasionally spat and show self-interest, as in Phoebe to an impatient Sally over the supper table: “Speak to me once more like that and I shall take another half-hour“. In fact, rather highly-strung Phoebe also commits an unforgiveable sin when she cries at the dinner table. Her father, while acknowledging the value in an occasional cry, advises her that others should never be subjected to such displays and sends her to room.
Another side character is Mr Laws, the local garden-loving Vicar who is getting a bit dotty but still giving sermons. The tonic the doctor gave him has no effect on his faculties as he gave it to the freezias – a sad failure: all length and no flowers. He has a role in the pageant as the Abbot, but he has to have a minder to ensure he doesn’t wander off with the buttercups and miss his cue.
The script-writing and performance planning is toddling along in that backyard presentation way we probably all subjected our parents to, until Squadron Leader Day enters on page 80, after VE Day, which is skimmed over. He is the Day’s nephew, awaiting discharge and convalescing at the abbey after having spent months in hospital from crashing his aeroplane. His nerves, understandably, are a bit shot, but ever since he was a boy he has dreamed of staging a big production on the amphitheatre-shaped lawn of the abbey, and this is his last chance before it will be sold.
It’s a bit sad that by his somewhat manic schemes he manages to take over the entire production, relegating Selina to stage-manager in the process, but it all ends well after another two hundred pages. Staged on 20th September 1945, the pageant takes the audience through seven hundred years of change in English history, even including a stop at the Siege of Mafeking! Hundreds of the villagers are roped into taking parts, and others are roped into making costumes from re-used and re-dyed material, including Mrs Day’s 1930s evening dresses. Hundreds more from surrounding villages attend the performance. The nearby American army base provides the band (the Canadians have already gone home), and the closing scene features army jeeps being driven on to the lawn stage.
Everybody gets what they want in the end and the curse on the abbey is lifted when it is narrowly saved from being burnt to the ground just before the performance (this includes an interesting description of how to pump water out of buckets). By the way, the Americans buy the abbey as a “hostel for the youth of America, to keep alive for ever the bonds of friendship forged in these last years”, and install Colonel and Mrs Day to act as host and hostess. Probably just as well as their jeeps would have churned up whatever was left after the lawn had been trampled by horses, making it very unattractive to any other buyer.
It’s all a bit bonkers really (to coin an English phrase), and rather sadly, indicative of the influences under which Australian children laboured in the 1960s when we were still so tied to the “mother country”. In school, particularly primary, we were taught so much English history, and not one scrap of Aboriginal history. Some of us are still struggling to catch up.