Desperately Seeking Susan by Lyn Thomas

I was seven when my glamorous Aunty Ann gave me Susan’s Helping Hand by Jane Shaw for my birthday, in May 1960. It was probably one of the first books I read for pleasure, and it immediately became a favourite, inspiring me to ask for more Susan books for birthdays and Christmases that followed, between the ages of seven and around thirteen. I still have my collection from this period: Susan Pulls the Strings, Susan Rushes in, Susan Interferes, Susan at School, Susan’s Trying Term. These books are among my most cherished possessions, inscribed with my name in my primary and early secondary school ‘trying hard to be neat’ handwriting, the pages yellowing, with the occasional stain and a slightly musty smell, covers long gone, and only rarely an illustration to break up the text. Opening them allows me to time travel back to my childhood, just as the moment of tasting the madeleine he had dipped into his tea took Proust back to his early life in Combray.

Despite the adventures and ‘scrapes’ that Susan’s determination to help people get her into, these are homely books, full of descriptions of cosy teas by the fireside, frosty mornings and geranium-decked Swiss chalets. It is these descriptions that I loved as a child and that I return to now, skipping over the often absurd plots where Susan rescues old ladies from wicked landlords who want to evict them, reunites long lost nieces and nephews with kind, rich aunts, catches thieves, and unmasks smugglers posing as art lovers. Susan and her cousins (Charlotte, Midge and Bill) are looked after by their Aunt Lucy who provides an endless succession of delicious meals: cooked breakfast followed by toast with marmalade, elevenses, lunch, tea and supper. The young people are always hungry and devour it all. When they go skating on the frozen pond in Wichwood (Dulwich) park, Aunt Lucy is there waiting for them with hot soup and rolls. I never went hungry, but somehow our meals lacked the aesthetic qualities of Aunt Lucy’s. Our breakfast, dinner and tea even sounded less fancy than Aunt Lucy’s daily round of luncheons, teas and suppers, and we often ate them hastily on a red formica table in the kitchen. We never had dinner or lunch ‘guests’, only family members who would drop in for cups of tea, or even move in with us in their hour of need. Reading the Susan books I was learning not only how upper middle class English people of that period ate, but something of the rhythms and customs of their daily lives, and these rhythms seemed to me to have a solidity and assurance that ours lacked, as if they could never be interrupted by illness, or family rows, or death.

The orderly and civil pattern of Susan’s and her family’s days was accompanied and embellished by a strong sense of seasonality and of festival. It always snows at Christmas, and as well as the skating, Susan and her cousins write letters to Father Christmas, decorate the tree and go carol singing on Christmas Eve. As an only child I read wistfully about these shared and well organised pleasures. Our Christmas was far from miserable: on Christmas Eve my father would be strangely absent, adding the last coat of paint to the doll’s house or doll’s cot he had made for me. Excitement would prevent me from sleeping and when ‘Father Christmas’ tiptoed towards my tiny bedroom I would whisper ‘I’m still awake’. Nonetheless, there was no carol-singing or ice-skating, and no elaborately decorated table:

The dinner table was a dream. In the centre of the table was a tiny, real Christmas tree with miniature decorations and candles and crackers and even parcels on it; trails of holly led from the tree to little golden angels (which had been painted by Charlotte and cut out by Bill on his fretsaw) holding up red candles. There were crackers piled round the foot of the tree and they were green and red too.

In late childhood these descriptions (and the children’s TV programme Blue Peter) would inspire me to make my own decorations for the tree out of tin foil, in an attempt to capture something of the combination of aesthetic perfection and homemade cosiness that Shaw evokes.

The trips into Central London to Harrods, or Regent Street, or the ballet enjoyed by Susan and her cousins remained exotic: I saw London through Susan’s eyes, and never having been there, could identify with her excitement at arriving in the city for Christmas:

To Susan, coming from the tenements and drab greyness of Glasgow, Wichwood was like a fairy-tale village. Tonight, as they came through, it looked cosy and gay. The little shops were bright and Christmassy; the toyshop had blobs of cotton-wool snow on its windows and crowds of little boys round its door. In the window of some of the houses Christmas trees gleamed and sparkled.

The setting of many of the Susan books combines the excitement of the city with a vision of village England, both far removed from the reality of my life in a suburb of Wolverhampton. The village England aspect is returned to in the second book in the series, Susan’s Helping Hand, when Susan and her cousins convalesce after chicken pox at Cousin Barbara’s farm in Kent:

…[Susan] liked the pretty villages which they passed through. As for Apple-Tree Farm, she fell in love with it straight away, with its old rosy brick gables set amidst lilac and laburnum trees, an ancient quince leaning against the oasthouse, old weatherboard barns and outbuildings huddling cosily behind, and the orchards making a bright frame round it all.

This vision of pastoral beauty both contrasted with the modern estate of 1950s semis I lived in, and connected with my interest in nature and flowers. Later in their stay the girls fill match boxes with moss and primroses and post them to their friends. This idea and image stayed with me and filled me with pleasure. I never followed their example as I never went on holiday to such a place, but as our estate was on the edge of the town in those days, I could ramble through fields exploring the flora and fauna. I collected and pressed wild flowers, including primroses, and kept them in a scrapbook; the Susan books made me enjoy these activities even more, as I imagined Susan and her cousins joining me in my explorations.

The girls’ bedrooms are as picturesque as the exterior of Apple-Tree Farm:

Cousin Barbara opened the door of what Susan thought was a cupboard and revealed another little wooden stair! Half way up it divided, and one stair led to a little beamed room overlooking the garden for Charlotte, while the other led to a delightful attic, with two beds and a frilled dressing table and fresh crisp muslin curtains fluttering at the window….

The scene where Susan and her cousins discover delightfully feminine bedrooms via twisty staircases is repeated in other books and locations, and the reader follows their steps and shares their excitement over the views and the dressing tables and the chintz. The London house even has a ‘schoolroom’, where the children are sent after supper when the grown ups want to listen to music and talk about art:

The old schoolroom was on the top floor too but in the old part of the house; it was low in the ceiling and panelled and a little flight of stairs led down to it, and when the fire was lit it looked like a cosy little cave, or so Susan thought as she walked down the steps. There were low bookshelves round the walls, crowded with the family’s books, from the Beatrix Potters and Little Grey Rabbit books of their nursery days to Bill’s present taste in railway manuals. There was a big battered table, which seemed to thrive on the ink, paint and cocoa which had been spilt on it from time to time.

 All of this was as far removed as possible from my own childhood home, a 2.5 bedroom semi, where there were no hiding places, secret staircases, Beatrix Potters or Little Grey Rabbit books; in fact there were hardly any books at all. At Oxford, years later I (and my teddy bear) were once invited to a ‘Winnie the Pooh’ themed picnic on Port meadow. I remember feeling terribly out of place at this Brideshead tinged event, as I had never read A.A. Milne as a child (I hadn’t read Evelyn Waugh either). I had school knowledge, enough, indeed to get into Oxford, but none of the ‘extra-curricular’ cultural capital that flows easily in middle-class homes, and that I had read about in Jane Shaw. In the Easter holiday of my first year I visited my boyfriend’s family in Ealing, and was astonished by the paintings and books, and (like Susan) by the proximity and delights of central London. I then travelled to Kent to visit a college friend. She lived in a 1930s house opposite a bluebell wood, in a tiny village near Tunbridge Wells. It was not quite as grand as the house Susan and her cousins inhabit in ‘Wichwood’ or even cousin Barbara’s Apple-Tree Farm, but in my imagination I merged it with Shaw’s descriptions of these places, and it seemed magical.

My fascination with these books was not just about the South Country[1]’, or Englishness, or learning middle class mores. My early identification with Susan’s desire to rescue and assist those less fortunate than herself perhaps stemmed from recognition of a kindred spirit. In my primary school years many of the games I played with my best friend at break involved rescue missions: horses from hurricanes, or families from Second World War bombs. The games always involved charging about getting the imaginary victims into shelters, and we usually just managed to get everyone to safety by the time the bell rang. In Susan’s Helping Hand our heroine is determined to help the mysterious Belle, who does housework for Cousin Barbara, and lives in a cottage with her younger siblings, Mary and Robert. Susan succeeds in reuniting Belle / Annabel with her real Aunt Evelyn who is rich, kind and generous, and coincidentally a friend of cousin Barbara’s. I too wanted to rescue Annabel and Mary and Robert from the wicked woman who had posed as their Aunt Evelyn, and was worried and disturbed by the description of the cold and hunger they suffered while in her care. Perhaps it resonated with my own father’s story of growing up as a ‘lodger’ in his Aunt and Uncle’s house after the death of his mother, and of one apple being shared between five children in the family. Perhaps in this sub-plot I could find a remnant of my own family history. Perhaps still more compellingly Susan’s helpfulness could be read as a kind of ‘hyper-femininity’. Whilst her female cousins, Midge and Charlotte have talents such as drawing, in Charlotte’s case, and writing and dancing in that of Midge, Susan is just very good at being a girl, whose impulse is always to respond to the needs and problems of others. As a child and adolescent I embraced, rather than rebelling against the requirements of femininity; at school and University I visited lonely old ladies, wrote letters for visually impaired people, and as a Girl Guide tried to ‘help other people at all times’. So Susan, who was always cheerful and did not care much about her appearance was both an antidote to the requirement to be pretty and an invitation into caring femininity.

I have analysed my childhood reading through gender and class, but I have left till last the more disturbing aspects of Jane Shaw’s writing. Words and expressions that have now been  expunged from our language because of their racist connotations appear in Shaw’s texts, as they would in others of this period. When I re-read the books now, my nostalgia is troubled by these linguistic jolts, and the references to the colonial past and period of decolonisation during which the books were written, and which seems at times to threaten the cosy world Shaw depicts: in Susan’s Helping Hand the lost nieces’ and nephew’s parents were ‘killed by terrorists in Kenya’, for instance. Susan’s parents are absent from these texts, in South Africa, where Shaw herself spent many years of her adult life. In Susan Rushes In, a friend of theirs, Mr Dean brings presents from Susan’s parents of ‘lion-skin purses’ for the girls and ‘a native mask’ for Bill. Later Mr Dean helps Bill dress up as a witch doctor for the village fête, including helping him to blacken his skin with sticks of greasepaint. As a child I read these troubling passages without a qualm. Now, Susan Rushes In is the Jane Shaw book I am unable to return to with pleasure, and in re-reading the others, I keep in mind the salutary warning given by Helen Macdonald in her description of hawking on chalk downland in H is for Hawk:

There’s a long vein of chalk-mysticism buried in English nature-culture, and I know that what I’m feeling, standing here, partakes of it. I’m guilty because I know that loving landscapes like this involves a history that concerns itself with purity, a sense of deep time and blood longing, and assumes that these solitudinous windswept landscapes are finer, better than the landscapes below…[…] Only much later did I understand that these intimations of history had their own, darker history. That the chalk-cult rested on a presumption of organic connections to a landscape, to a sense of belonging sanctified through an appeal to your imagined lineage (Macdonald, 2014, pp. 260 and 261).

I return to Susan and her friends when I want to escape the complexities of our time and go back to the childhood and adolescence I never had, perhaps no-one ever had, but I do so with a watchful eye.

References

Helen Macdonald (2014) H is for Hawk, Vintage, London.

Alison Lindsay (ed, 2002) Susan and Friends: The Jane Shaw Companion, Bettany Press, London

 

[1] The South Country by Hilaire Belloc

While I am living in the Midlands,

That are sodden and unkind,

I light my lamp in the evening:

My work is left behind;

And the great hills of the South Country

Come back into my mind.

 

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