‘The Bell Family’ by Noel Streatfeild

‘The Bell Family’ by Noel Streatfeild

The Bell Family

‘The Bell Family’ is the account of the lives of the Bell Family, in the heart of south-east London after World War 2. Their father is the Reverend of St Mark’s and the family, though a happy one, are rather short of money. Though they have food to eat, a roof over their heads, and help in the house from lovely Mrs Gage, Mother doesn’t have the money for a new dress and must wear Aunt Rose’s cast-offs, Jane, the eldest daughter, who is a promising dancer can’t apply for a place at Sadler’s Well School and Paul, the eldest son, must contemplate giving up his dream career of becoming a doctor in order to secure a more lucrative position in Grandfather’s booming business.

The family, as a whole manage quite well but it is particularly when they are pitted against their rich relatives, some of whom take pleasure in flaunting their wealth, that they feel despondent about their lot in life.

The children’s father, Reverend Alexander Bell, once exceedingly displeased his father by taking up orders with the Church, rather than engage himself in the family business. Grandfather’s wrath was so searing that he vowed that as long as he lived, his son, Alex Bell would not get a penny from him. The result is the story of the Bell Family. Though they have chosen to live their life on their own terms

Central Theme of ‘The Bell Family’

Though I would say that the central theme of the book is money, social circumstance and the dearth of opportunity created by a lack of money, the book is so much more than that. The book shows us that a lack of money can never take away true talent from a person, that hard work and perseverance can bring rewards and that being poor sometimes renders a need for innovation and enterpreneurship – a quality in which the Bell children were certainly not lacking.

Outspoken ‘Miss Virginia Bell’

Mostly, I adored the characters in this novel, particularly that of outspoken and plucky Ginnie, the younger daughter or ‘Miss Virginia Bell’, as she frequently referred to herself as, in the course of this novel. She had so much character, determination and a tendency of getting herself into the worst scrapes. She also spoke out volubly in the face of injustice, particularly when she could not tolerate the affected manners of her rich relations. I especially loved how her parents dealt with her tempestuous nature – choosing not to suppress it but guiding her wilfulness, to become a more controlled version of herself.

Best Parts of the Book

Some of the best parts in the novel were memorable outbursts and speeches from Ginnie – particularly a birthday party outburst at the ballet and an impromptu speech delivered on stage to her Aunt Rose (a chief guest), in front of the entire school. Also particularly funny were her attempts to raise money for the thwarted annual family holiday – by busking on a street corner and being accidentally discovered by her shocked father.

Dreamy Nostalgia by the Kentish Seaside

The book ends with a beautiful holiday by the Kentish seaside. The story captures a wonderful glimpse of ordinary life in London, a social history of its time, and the characters, writing and events are so memorable that I was quite sad to say goodbye to the dear Bell Family at the end of the book. Recommended reading for children and adults alike. 

‘Penny Plain’ and ‘Priorsford’ by O Dougas – A Cozy Visit to the Scottish Borders

‘Penny Plain’ and ’Priorsford’ by O Douglas

‘Penny Plain’ by O Douglas – A Very Cozy Scottish Book

‘Penny Plain’ by O Douglas was published in 1920 and is the story of the young and poor Jardine family, who live in a quaint cottage in the lowland town of Priorsford, in the Scottish Borders. Jean Jardine, the eldest member of the family is in her early twenties and from a very young age, after the demise of both her parents, was given the charge of looking after her younger brothers. They are – David (off to Oxford), Jock (a fourteen year old) and Gervase Taunton – a small step brother. 

For Jean, life is full of the niggling worries of having to scrimp and save, to do without and to make ends meet. They live in a delightful and unusual Scottish cottage called ‘The Rigs’ with a front room shaped like the prow of a ship and slightly elevated, so it almost looked high to the hills in the distance. 

Jean and her family love The Rigs so much that they live in constant fear of their landlord demanding to turn them out and asking them to look for alternative lodging. 

Despite her cares, Jean has a magnetic personality, concerned about the needs of her elderly neighbours, taking part in town activities, making calls and enjoying the small joys of life. 

The town of Priorsford is astir, however, when a certain Lady Pamela comes to stay as a paying guest in the lodgings of old Bella Bathgate – the Jardine’s next door neighbour. Lady Pamela comes to Priorsford to escape the frivolity of social life in London and a boring, middle aged lover. 

Lady Pamela delights in the simple yet satisfying life in small town Priorsford. She befriends all of Priorsford residents – many of them frail, retired and elderly. Some of them even grieving the loss of beloved family members in the aftermath of the War. Most of all, Pamela becomes part of the Jardine family and her interest and love for Priorsford becomes infectious and spreads to other members of her immediate family who come to visit. 

In a turn of events, Jean shows great kindness to a complete stranger, a mysterious old man who turns up at their doorstep and as a result – their lives undergo an immense sea change as a result of her good deed. 

‘Penny Plain’ has romantic entanglements and love interests like all the best stories. There’s also an opportunity to get to know the town’s busybody – the incorrigible Mrs Duff-Whaley, who has her finger in every village pie – be it amateur dramatics, tea parties, dinners or fundraisers.

Without giving too much way, the plot of ‘Penny Plain’ is a fairy tale. Though the plot, in my opinion is not central to the novel, the strength of this novel and of O Douglas’ writing is her ability to create realistic, believable, ordinary characters – replete with good characteristics and flaws. O Douglas also excels in weaving a compelling story around the inhabitants of a small community- it is an interesting sketch of a few families and their day to day concerns – typical of Jane Austen’s style. As the reader, we become involved in not only the concerns of the Jardine family but Priorsford at large. The book touches on subjects like wealth, fellow feeling, taking an interest in one’s neighbours joys as well as sorrows and learning to valiantly cope with life’s tragedies.

To me, reading ‘Penny Plain’ was the greatest comfort. I jumped straight into its sequel ‘Priorsford’ set ten years after the previous story. I can’t talk about it here because that would mean spoilers. It’s set over an entire winter in Jean’s life and I found reading it extremely satisfying. I’ll be returning to this pair of book soon in the future because I did love reading them. Jean seemed to have the perfect personality along with her share of human frailties and a zest for life and living. Do try and find these books of you can, in a used bookstore or as an e book, especially if you love old, cozy fireside stories.