Thursday, 3 December 2015

Babbacombe’s by Susan Scarlett / Noel Streatfeild

published 1941

Babbacombes 2

[Beth, working in the gowns section of a department store, is helping a young woman who has been invited for a week away, needs all new outfits, and has 30 pounds to spend]

Beth, her arms full of frocks, led the way to a fitting room.

‘In here, Madam. Can I help you undo that?’

The girl looked quite different without her coat and skirt and the ugly hat. In her slip she seemed pretty…

For the afternoon, in case there were a flower show or anything like that, Beth persuaded the girl into a most becoming patterned crepe-de Chine, with a coat to tone. 

For the evening Babbacombes 1she wanted a bright yellow taffeta, but Beth urged against it. The taffeta was cheap, and she thought it looked it. Instead she pushed the claims of a very simple black chiffon which had been expensive but was now marked down….

[Beth does a financial calculation for her customer: ]  ‘Two flannel dresses, three pounds sixteen shillings each. The afternoon dress five pounds ten shilling, and the black four pounds eighteen shillings. That comes to eighteen pounds. Say five pounds for another evening dress. That’s 23 pounds. That leaves you with seven pounds for shoes, bags, and two hats. Or have you any that will do?’

The girl looked doubtfully at her battered felt.

‘D’you think - ?’ She caught Beth’s eye, and they both began to laugh.
commentary: I honestly think that if I had read this book blind I would have guessed it was Noel Streatfeild – always so good on the economics of dresses – based on this passage. Beth goes on to explain exactly what bags hats and shoes she will need (‘get a white hat .. with two hatbands’ to go with two frocks) and how much they will cost.

A remark in the comments to a post over at Leaves and Pages led me to the book, and also to the Captive Reader blog, where Claire had reviewed it. Noel Streatfeild wrote this romance under a pseudonym: naturally I ordered it straightaway.

It’s a startlingly simple book, a quick and charming read. Elements of it shout out as Streatfeild, though in other ways it’s surprisingly fairytale-ish. It certainly doesn’t have the harsh cynicism of the Whicharts, but it also makes Ballet Shoes look like a model of social realism.

Mind, none of this is a complaint – I loved the book because of its predictability, and its niceness, and the fact that nothing bad was going to happen, and any jeopardy would last no more than a page.

Beth, who is 18, lives with her close happy family – parents and siblings – in a modest house in south London. She is leaving school and going to work in Babbacombe’s, the family-run department store where her father has long been employed. An orphaned relation, Dulcie, comes to live with the family: she is snobbish and badly-brought-up, and wrongly feels herself to be better than her cousins. But you have some sympathy when she tells the perfect family:
‘You’re all so pleased with yourselves in this house. So certain everything you all do is perfect.’
Beth gets to know Mr Babbacombe’s son David, though she’s not sure if this romance is acceptable or not. The book jumps around rather in its knowingness – one minute it seems aimed at 12 year olds, the next there is a nuance about loose women or male seducers. I was very surprised that Beth goes away for an entirely innocent but unchaperoned weekend at a posh castle – that simply would not have been OK at the time, as there was no mature or married adult woman present to lend respectability.

There are various episodes and adventures, and Dulcie tries to steal Beth’s admirer. It is not a spoiler to say there is a happy ending. A perfect comfort read for a quiet weekend.

There are too many clothes in the book to be contained in one entry – there will be another.

The green dress is from the NYPL, the black one from Kristine’s photostream.


  1. Oh, this sounds very much up your street, Moira, as far as the clothes go. And sometimes it's nice to read a book where you know that the danger will pass (if there is any) and you can just enjoy the story. It sounds like an interesting look at the social life, too.

    1. Exactly, Margot, made for me and the days when I don't want to read something noir or demanding. And the clothes DO tell you about the times...

  2. This looks lovely, I wish The Greyladies books were more easily available in the US

    The cost to order from the UK would be over $50

    1. That's a shame - and ridiculous! You'll have to hope a 2nd-hand copy pops up somewhere.

    2. actually I miscalculated the conversion, but it's still a lot to order a book, and no used copies :-(

      But is sounds wonderful

    3. I hope you find a copy - it is terrific fun. I have already ordered another one by Susan Scarlett

  3. Moira: So that is where that 70's shade of green came from. Now I am seeing it again 40 years later. It actually looks good on the 1941 model as opposed to the 1970's leisure suits. I think you did look at leisure suits in one of your posts. They will never be forgotten.

    1. I am so looking out for more possible entries on leisure suits Bill - I've found such good pictures, I really want to feature them... but few of the books I read have characters dressed in them. Sigh. I will keep looking.

  4. Replies
    1. You might be happier with the next one...

  5. Well, if I ever want to stretch out of my comfort zone Mpoira, I'll know ehere to go (sic)!

    1. This time I think there really isn't much intersection. I am wary of assigning gender books, but if ever there were one for the little ladies this is it. Especially those of us who loved Noel Streatfeild as a child.

  6. Not for me but perfect for you.