Sunday, May 9, 2010

Doreen by Barbara Noble

by Barbara Noble
238 pages
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.

Special thanks to Claire and Verity for hosting a wildly successful week. I'm already looking ahead to Persephone Reading Week #3!


  1. It has been wonderful reading all the reviews of Persephone titles. Now I just have to get my library to purchase them!

  2. Your extensive use of quotes from Doreen have made me even more inclined to read this soon, JoAnn. It sounds fascinating and rather poignant; I hadn't realised that Doreen was an older child, and somehow it adds another dimension to it for me, knowing that she would have a greater understanding/conflict.

  3. It will definitely make my list of favourites too. Such an excellent book.

  4. I was so moved by your review that I'm currently trying to track down my own copy of this one!

  5. Hi Joann - Since we're in the same general area, I was wondering if you had any snow today too? I woke up to about three inches of it.

  6. While reading your review on this book, I thought it was reminiscent of Goodnight Mr. Tom - evacuating from London, being looked after by a man (Mr. Tom) as a son he never had etc.

    Like you, there's something about children stories & World War II that intrigues me, and I'll be adding this to my list.

  7. I'm glad you enjoyed this - the end papers are among my favourites!

  8. Great review and brilliant quotes, JoAnn! This sounds absolutely fascinating and heartbreaking - I'd love to read it. I can't imagine what it must have been like for parents to send their children off and for children to be parted from their parents and then separated from surrogate parents they had grown to love at the end of the war. Doreen seems to come at it from both angles if I've got the gist right, so I'll definitely be asking for this for Christmas!

  9. This experience would have been horrendous for some children, wonderful for others depending on the situation at the home they left and the one they arrived at. I shudder at the very thought of standing on a railway platform waving goodbye to your small child, even if it was for the best.

  10. Gavin- There is only one Persephone in my entire library system - it's a classics edition of Someone at a Distance. Hope you can get a few into your library!

    Paperback Reader - For some reason, I just kept flagging quotes as I was reading this one. You wouldn't believe all the pink post-its hanging out by the time I finished!

    Nymeth - Definitely one of my favorites so far this year!

    Staci - Hope you can find a copy... it may not be an easy task :-(

    EL Fay - A snowy Mother's Day here, too! It's ridiculous...

    Anothercookiecrumbles - Thanks for the suggestion! I'm off to look up Goodnight Mr. Tom.

    Verity - I love the endpapers, too!

    Bookssnob - This was such a moving book, and I'm sure you'd love it. Your father can start his Christmas shopping early!

    Darlene - Stories about this experience must range from a lovely vacation in the country to pure horror! I cannot imagine being faced with a situation similar to Mrs. Rawlings... this was an excellent book.

  11. Your review is excellent. I love all the quotes and they way you used them to summarize the story. Now I too have to read this one. My list of Persephones is growing.

  12. I would imagine that they never really took into account the changes that would occur within children who were evacuated. This sounds like a fascinating book to read and definitely one I would like to read.

  13. Margot - This week has added so many titles to my Persephone wish list... just wish they were a little easier to find here.

    Vivienne - I'm sure they were thinking of the immediate safety of the children, but the long term effects turned out to be very important, too. I loved this book!

  14. Hasn't Persephone week been great? Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Doreen, a book I've never read. (As with most of the Persephones. :)

  15. Bellezza - Persephone Week has been wonderful... and I've got the wish list to prove it!


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