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Inspired by Montgomery: Streatfeild, Sutton, and A Fun Supposition

by | Oct 25, 2020 | Books, Reading | 4 comments

I have often thought it interesting that my two favorite authors, L.M. Montgomery and Noel Streatfeild, should have such different writing styles. I wrote to friends in a reading group: “My two favorite authors are stylistically dissimilar…I’ve read 20+ books by each of them and one author is very flowery, elegant, and artistic [Montgomery], while the other is matter-of-fact and concise [Streatfeild].”

I was so focused on the differences between these authors that I was surprised to find a possible connection between their books. It happened while I was recently rereading Montgomery’s Pat of Silver Bush (1933). One of my favorite scenes is when Jingle’s mother, Doreen Garrison, comes for a visit, and Pat is an onlooker to the uncomfortable reunion. For the first time, I realized that this scene was reminding me of another fascinating scene: the moment when Noel Streatfeild’s heroine Gemma Bow in Gemma Alone (1969) sees her mother Rowena Alston again after a gap of several years.

The two passages, while markedly different in style, share definite similarities:

Pat saw her more clearly than Jingle did. Tall, slender, graceful as a flower, in a soft fluttering chiffon dress like blue mist; pale, silvery-golden hair sleeked down all over her head like a cap under a little tilted hat of smooth blue feathers: bluish-green eyes that never seemed to see you, even when they looked at you, under eyebrows as thin as a line drawn in soot; a mouth that spoiled everything, so vividly red and arched was it. She might have stepped off a magazine cover. Beautiful…oh, yes, very beautiful! But not…somehow…like a mother!

“I like a mother who looks like a mother,” was the thought that whisked through Pat’s head. This woman looked…at first…like a girl.[1]

Whereas in Gemma Alone:

For one thing, Rowena’s appearance had hardly changed. Her hair was rather a brighter gold, and she wore artificial eyelashes all the time instead of only when working, which she had not done before she went to Hollywood. Surprisingly she looked, Gemma thought, younger than when she had last seen her. Perhaps it was the clothes, which were short-skirted and little-girlish that year, but certainly she looked less like somebody’s mother even than she had done before.[2]

In these descriptions, we get not only the same general feel, but we end up with readily identifiable connections between Montgomery’s Doreen and Streatfeild’s Rowena. Both are self-focused, feel awkward around their children (whom they have not seen for prolonged absences); both have “gold” hair, are viewed as girlish instead of motherly…

Do we have any basis for the supposition that Streatfeild was inspired by Montgomery? Aside from the parallels in these scenes, we do know that Streatfeild sought other works for inspiration in her own writings—in fact, her novel The Painted Garden (1949) is a remarkable retelling of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911).

Certainly it would seem that Streatfeild tended to read fellow British authors: Arthur Ransome is mentioned in her 1944 work Curtain Up (also titled in the U.S. as Theater Shoes); Burnett was clearly an influence; a Beatrix Potter story is referenced in Ballet Shoes (1936). I also believe that Streatfeild was influenced by popular author Enid Blyton (1897-1968), and she was very firmly a fan of Victorian author E. Nesbit, of whom she wrote a biography in 1958. Curtain Up contains a description of a bookshelf that includes Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield as well as works of Shakespeare. But in this section we also find a reference to an American story: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

We also know that Streatfeild read the novels of American author Elizabeth Enright, since her 1966 work The Growing Summer is dedicated to her, “because I so greatly admire her books.”[3] Not only did Streatfeild admire Enright, but my surmise is that she attempted to imitate her: The Growing Summer (published in the U.S in 1967 as The Magic Summer) is a foray into a more environmental, descriptive style than was Streatfeild’s norm. Her earlier novels tend to focus heavily on dialogue or long paragraphs detailing summaries of her characters’ activities. The Growing Summer is much more firmly in the Enright style of writing, in which the characters’ adventures are shown rather than told, and in which the setting plays a vigorous role rather than being relegated to a couple of brief sketches.

Needless to say, it isn’t as far-fetched as I originally thought to consider that Streatfeild might have read a popular Canadian author of her era, and possibly stored away an idea here or there for future books. The Gemma series was published in 1968-69, thirty-five years after Pat of Silver Bush—so even if it was inspired by a scene in the book, Streatfeild’s emulation of it may have been unconscious rather than a deliberate artistic choice. However, Streatfeild did have a robust library of personal books (her flat had “one wall [that] was almost covered with a floor-to-ceiling bookcase”[4]), and perhaps Montgomery’s works were among the works she revisited more than once.

As I neared the end of Pat of Silver Bush, I came across another line that struck me:

“There’s that unfinished house, Hilary…it always makes my heart ache.”[5]

I had just reread The Unfinished House (1938), the eleventh volume in the Judy Bolton mystery series written by Margaret Sutton. Unfinished houses are not only in Pat, either—it’s a bit of a motif in Montgomery’s writings, appearing in the Emily series (1923-27) in a much more major role (“the Disappointed House”):

Off to the right, on the crest of a steep little hill, covered with young birches and firs, was a house that puzzled and intrigued Emily. It was grey and weather-worn, but it didn’t look old. It had never been finished; the roof was shingled but the sides were not, and the windows were boarded over. Why had it never been finished?[6]

I have wondered before if Sutton was influenced by L.M. Montgomery. While it’s true that Sutton wrote fast-paced mysteries—a far cry from Montgomery’s slow, romantic novels at first glance—the mirroring elements in these books are worth noting. I feel that some of the less formulaic aspects of the Judy Bolton mysteries have a Montgomery-esque tinge: early in the series, Judy wavers between marrying longtime chum Peter Dobbs or wealthy architect Arthur Farringdon-Pett: a delightful trope which is reminiscent of love triangles found in Montgomery’s Anne and Emily books. It’s this kind of element that sets it apart from other girls’ mystery books of the era: Nancy Drew, for example, is a perennial 18-year-old within a limited sphere, while Judy is free to graduate high school, go to business college, get a job, marry, start a home of her own, etc… Also, characters in early Judy books often return in later volumes, another note of realism that makes it more unique than standard mysteries of its time—and I think this is because Sutton approached her novels with a background of reading older series books, and she brought what she had learned from those.

Consider this paragraph from the twenty-first book in the Judy Bolton series, The Clue of the Stone Lantern (1951):

The lawn sloped gently toward a grove of gnarled old trees that now cast weird shadows in the moonlight. At the foot of the slope was a crystal lake where moonbeams shimmered and danced like ghosts across the water.[7]

To me, this is very much a Montgomery kind of paragraph: strong on poetic imagery, creating plenty of atmosphere with deftly-chosen words. In a similar vein, Sutton’s book The Haunted Fountain was retitled; I believe I read that she had wanted to call it The Enchanted Fountain (which fits the story much better), but her publisher requested a more standard mystery title. But doesn’t The Enchanted Fountain sound just like something Montgomery might have invented?

Do we have any firm evidence that Sutton read Montgomery? Actually…I think we do! When Margaret Sutton was interviewed at the University of Wisconsin in 1984, long after the Judy Bolton series was cancelled, she told the interviewer that she had wanted to write a book in which Judy became a mother—“but the publishers wouldn’t let her,” she explained. When the interviewer pointed out that “other series characters had children,” Sutton responded: “Oh, yes, Pollyanna has children, and Anne of Green Gables has children. Ruth Fielding had children.”[8] This is practically confirmation that Sutton at least read the Anne series, and might have read the Pat books as well. (Pat of Silver Bush was released just one year after the first four books in the Judy Bolton series hit shelves.) When it came time to write the eleventh Judy book, is there a possibility that Sutton recalled the memorable phrase ‘unfinished house’ and it sparked her imagination?

Either way, I like to contemplate the idea that L.M. Montgomery might have influenced two other favorite authors of mine, just as she was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (which is among my top 5 favorite novels). This is an endless circle of inspiration and influence, one that I hope to continue with my own writing!

 

 

[1] L.M. Montgomery, Pat of Silver Bush (1933), pg. 231

[2] Noel Streatfeild, Gemma Alone (1969), pg. 61

[3] Noel Streatfeild, The Magic Summer (1967), dedication page

[4] Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes for Anna (1972), postscript by William Streatfeild (1998), pg. 251

[5] L.M. Montgomery, Pat of Silver Bush (1933), pg. 316

[6] L.M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon (1923), pg. 65

[7] Margaret Sutton, The Clue of the Stone Lantern (1950), pg. 3

[8] Q&A with Margaret Sutton, JudyBolton.com [http://www.judybolton.com/jbwisc.html]

4 Comments

  1. Jill Osborn

    Really interesting points, thanks so much for posting. I’m fascinated by the showing and telling angle too and I completely agree about The Growing Summer-it’s the allowing the characters location speak for themselves that makes this book so successful and atmospheric I think. I’m also a big fan of the Gemma books, and I’m wondering if it’s partly because the narrator’s presence is not intrusive. I definitely find Lydia Robinson much more convincing and- dare I say as she does behave very selfishly at times- more endearing as a character than Posy Fossil.

    Reply
    • Anna Rose Johnson

      Thanks so much for reading, Jill! I like what you said about the Gemma books not having an intrusive narrator. It’s quite possible that the Gemma series IS my favorite collective work of Noel’s, and I have always admired the sparseness of the text along with the remarkable character development. That’s what made them so readable for me as a choosy 9-yr-old reader. Lydia is much more realistic than Posy – have always enjoyed her character despite her flaws 🙂

      Reply
  2. Lindsay Stroh

    I also love the lovely, poetic images in these books. They not only put the reader in the scene, they also set the mood. Margaret Sutton said she loved reading series books in her youth because she liked finding out that happened to the characters. I think her character development in the Judy Bolton books is one of best features of the series. Thanks for sharing your interesting article!

    Reply
    • Anna Rose Johnson

      Thank you so much for your comment, Lindsay! I think the cast of characters in the Judy books are one of the best I’ve ever read. 🙂

      Reply

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