I’m not giving anything away by quoting the deep irony of the last lines of Saplings:
Turns you over, don’t it, to think of the children? I was saying to my daughter only yesterday, we got a lot to be thankful for in this country. Our kids ‘aven’t suffered ‘o’-ever else ‘as. – (361)
That last sentence translated from the Cockney: “Our kids haven’t suffered whoever else has.”
Saplings is a novel about children, that’s not for children, written by an author best known and beloved for her children’s books.
It opens with an idyllic beach scene. The upper middle class Wiltshire family are on holiday at Eastbourne. There’s a mother and a father, four children, a governess and a nanny, a prawning expedition in the offing and a picnic.
As the outgoing tide uncovered the little stretch of sand amongst the pebbles, the children took possession of it marking it as their own with their spades, pails, shrimping nets and their mother’s camp stool.
It was early and the beach was almost deserted. There were a few bathers of the sort that swim for exercise, but the majority of the bathing machines and tents were empty. The sea was grey-blue, spangled with gold dancing specks. Far out the raft bobbed.
The cool air, the fresh smell of the sea, the knowledge that it was another lovely day and there were no lessons and few restrictions, filled the children with the sort of happiness that starts in the solar plexus and rises to the throat, and then, before it can reach the top of the head, has to given an outlet; anything will do, violent action, shouting or just silliness.
Eleven year old Laurel “because of the tight bursting feeling of pleasure … turned two cartwheels and attempted to stand on her hands.”
Freed from boarding school by fears inspired by a case of infantile paralysis nine year old Tony’s “happiness was mixed with thoughts of his father. It had been simply gorgeous having this holiday.”
His younger bother Kim was singing to a tune of his own.
The youngest – four year old Tuesday – is happy the family is together but she has been fretful and anxious. She knows that all is not well and that dark clouds looming on the horizon threaten its happiness and security.
It is June 1939 and the Wilshire family are taking the opportunity for a vacation before those rain clouds burst.
Tuesday has sensed the adult anxiety about war ‘because she was only four, and people underrated her intelligence and spoke in front of her, she was the one of the children who was aware that Nan and Miss Glover and the servants at home were afraid of something.”
In a second foreshadowing, Alex Wiltshire confides in his son Tony that he must return to London soon for war work. He stresses that the information is between them and that on no account must his mother know. Lena Wiltshire is indeed someone who cannot cope with information and reality. Her self-involvement and emotional fragility will be tested to breaking point.
When war is declared the four children are evacuated from their home in Regents Park London to their grandparents in the country. It’s the first of many dislocations. Their mother, Lena, stays in London unable to part from Alex. This is the first step toward the disintegration of the family. What Streatfeild does so well in Saplings is show the emotional impact of war – its wrenching upheavals, instability, loss and separation – on the minds of children.
One of the bonuses of the Persephone edition is the afterword by Dr. Jeremy Holmes. He outlines some of the many ways in which Streatfeild presages the insights into child development that were to emerge from the child psychologists of the war and post-war eras. There’s nothing to show that she was familiar with psychological theory, but Streatfeilds’s story gives fictional life to Anna Freud observations and the work of John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott and others.
The primary concern of the authorities – in terms of children – was their physical safety. Operation Pied Piper was the name for the mass migration of children from towns and cities thought to be in greatest danger.
Evacuation was voluntary and many families kept their children at home or trekked out of the cities at night. One in ten people killed in the blitz was a child. Most families, however, complied with the government urging and propaganda to send their children away. The bombing of Guernica was still a fresh memory and few questioned that London and other cities would be targets of enemy action when war came.
The mass evacuations took place in waves. In the first three days of September, 1.5 million evacuees were sent to rural locations considered safe. Parents were given a list of what their children should take with them – a gas mask in a case, food for the day, a change of underclothes, night clothes, plimsolls (or slippers), spare stockings or socks, toothbrush, comb, towel, soap, face cloth, handkerchiefs and a warm coat. Providing all these things was a hardship for some families and children were sent without.
These children – labelled like packages – gathered at railway stations not knowing where they were going nor if they would be with their sisters and brothers, friends and schoolmates. They had no idea if or when they would see their families again.
Logistically, Operation Pied Piper went relatively smoothly. Their arrival at the destined areas not so well.
The emotional safety of the children was secondary. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the 1940’s was a time of significant advance in the study of child psychology specifically related to circumstances that made children feel unsafe and insecure.
This is the backdrop to Streatfeild’s story of what happened to the Wiltshire children, their cousins and two working class boys – Albert and Ernie Parker from South London – who are billeted along with them. These children are the collateral damage of war and their stories stand in for a wider picture of dislocation, disruption, and family disintegration. The privileged Wiltshire children are pampered in many ways. The emotional impact of the war is devastating nonetheless.
The focus of the novel is on the children and their individual reactions to what is done to them The adults charged with their welfare repeatedly do the wrong things, usually for the right reasons. The unintended consequences on the children are wrenching.
What the social historian Juliet Gardiner wrote about British children was universally true: “Children were the unspoken victims of the war.”
There’s a scene in Saplings that reminds me of Graham Greene’s short story The Destructors – you can read his story below.
Once torn from their home the Wiltshire children are in a perpetual search for routines and stability. While at their grandparents with their cousins they discover a broken down cottage and are given permission to turn it into a place of their own. It becomes a temporary refuge and place of security. They retile the roof, rebuild the walls and fix the windows. They hang curtains, bring in furniture and put flowers in a vase.
While they were working, and still more when the door was closed and they were eating snacks they had cooked, they felt invulnerable. The adult world where you were shifted around because of the war; where people whispered about how difficult you were, or whether you were to be sent to a convent, was a shadow, here was reality.’ p 116
But not for long.
The South London evacuees Albert and Ernie had gone back to London when nothing much seemed to be happening and their mother wanted them home. Then the bombing raids begin. They return to the country full of tales of running wild, being in a gang and lawlessness.
Albert relishes telling the stories of shelters and sirens, of buildings demolished and people buried alive. “They puts up a great piece of tarpaulin and you aren’t supposed to see nothin’, but Ernie and me ‘ave seen, ‘aven’t we, Ernie?”
The countryside is dull by comparison.
They are taken to see the cottage.
Albert asks, “Wot’s the good of it?”
“I’ll show you wot we’d do with it.”
Albert threw a stone. It cracked through the glass in the window. Ernie climbed on to the window ledge and pulled at a tile. Several slid off the roof. There was a second when the Wiltshire children were about to stop them, then suddenly they joined in. It was an orgy of smashing. All the pent-up excitement of the world around them came out. All the whispers and grown up waiting for something to happen. All the disbelief in the ordinary world. Nothing was left. Everything that could be torn down or smashed was ruined. (132)
Albert enacts how they “finish it off’ by urinating on the ruins while “Laurel leant against the wall watching them, shrieking with laughter”.
In psychological terms I suppose the boasting Albert is fending off his fears and vulnerability by enacting the death and destruction he witnessed. Rather than being a child in need of protection, his bravado presents the picture of a child immune to feeling and fear.
When all the children join in the destruction of the cottage that had been their safe harbor it is as if all their pent-up fear and anxiety are released in a joyous, violent act of revenge against an adult world that tries, and fails, to protect them. The social norms are smashed along with the cottage. This war is personal and the children have mastered it. Anna Freud, Bowlby, Winnicott et al would no doubt have had much to say in interpretation.
Graham Greene’s story was published in 1954.
The children of the Wormsley Common gang meet in the car park – the site of the last bomb of the first blitz. The first occupied house of shattered Northwood Terrace belongs to Mr. Thomas – “Old misery” – and his house sticks out like a jagged tooth in the ruins of the street.
The story of what happens next also ends with someone helpless with laughter after an orgy of destruction.
The featured image is from: The Evacuation of Children from Southend, Sunday 2nd June 1940 Children in Wartime – Five lithographs by Ethel Gabain.