by Barbara Noble
originally published in 1946
Persephone Books, No. 60
My growing curiosity about children's experiences during WWII has been behind a couple of recent reading choices. Persephone Reading Week provided the perfect opportunity for one more - Doreen by Barbara Noble.
Operation Pied Piper was a program the British government enacted in 1939 to evacuate children from London to the safety of the countryside. Nine-year old Doreen Rawlings' mother, a proud, intelligent yet poorly educated cleaning woman, opted to keep her child in London during what came to be known as the 'Phoney War'. However, when the Blitz began in 1940, Mrs Rawlings was forced to reconsider and Doreen was sent off to the well-to-do Osbornes.
Background on the novel's main theme is provided in Jessica Mann's exceptionally well-written preface:
In some cases hosts were compelled by billeting officers to take in verminous, badly behaved children from inner city slums who had never seen plumbing, cutlery or a change of clothes. The genteel middle classes were appalled to encounter a hitherto unimagined underclass - 'one half of England does not know how the other half lives' wrote Vera Brittain.
Doreen's case does not approach this extreme, but Barbara Noble uses it to take a frank look at the wide gulf between social classes. Her writing shows great compassion toward all sides - the Osbornes who treat Doreen as the child they never had, Mrs. Rawlings who is afraid Doreen will get 'ideas above her station in life', and especially nine-year old Doreen who is torn between two very different lifestyles.
They [the Osbornes] did not remotely suspect the state of tension in which Doreen lived from hour to hour or the watchfulness which lay behind her ready acquiescence. But Doreen watched and imitated and labored to conform the whole time. She never once betrayed ignorance or expressed surprise. (page 49)
While the Osbornes believe Doreen has settled in to the point of taking her new environment for granted, she remained acutely aware of the differences.
She was fascinated by the thought of such a large house to contain three persons. At home, there had been fewer rooms than people. It did not occur to her to wonder whether this were right or wrong; she thought only that it was nice to have so many rooms to walk about in and when she was grow up she would buy Mum a house as big as this one. (page 89)
Mr. Osborne's sister Helen, who works in the London office Mrs. Rawlings cleans, sees danger in the supposed adjustment, cautions her brother, and begins to feel sorry for Doreen's mother:
"You're turning her into a child of your own class." (page 103)"She'll go back to a world where most of the things you've taught her will be drawbacks rather than advantages." (page 104)"You're giving her [Mrs. Rawlings] a lot to live up to." (page 105)
Doreen's father, estranged from Mrs. Rawlings, dropped by the Osbornes while on leave. He issues a similar warning to Doreen's mother:
"They've got a nice place there. Too nice. That's the trouble as I see it. Look, Ada, what's it going to seem like to her, coming back to this", his gesture embraced the room, "after what she's had down there?.. You'd have done better to send her away to people in her own station... You've had all the work and worry of bringing her up and it don't seem fair, somehow, that these strangers should come along and make a pet of her and put all sorts of ideas into her head. They don't mean no harm, but it's just the way it is... it don't seem fair to you, Ada." (page 161)
And as for Doreen...
"She felt different herself, self-conscious and even shy, as if there were two Doreens, one who lived at home with Mum and another who lived in the country with Mr. and Mrs. Osborne, and only embarrassment and misunderstanding could result from their temporary fusion." (page 178)
Mrs. Rawlings finally begins grasp the full extent of the problem when she visits the Osbornes to tend a sick Doreen:
"It was only now, since she had realized the place Doreen occupied in this household, had watched her with the Osbornes and measured their concern for her, that she understood at last how serious their rivalry had become. This discovery was terrifying to her....These people spoke a language that was foreign to her; but Doreen could interpret it. Their ways were unfamiliar to her; but Doreen was at home with them. They were courteous and kind in all their dealings with her; but it was only Doreen whom they really wanted.... She felt now that Doreen in her turn was leaving her... (page 218)
Doreen is honest and real. It is heartbreaking, yet sympathetic to all involved in a program that wreaked havoc in countless lives. Doreen will remain on my mind for quite some time, and I fully expect it to appear on my list of favorites at the end of the year.