"It will all be Sir Garnet." This comforting if nonsensical statement--suggesting a romantic rescue from suffering--uttered by the nannies in many of Noel Streatfeild's family novels encapsulates the major concerns and strategies of the writer's long career. Spoken by women who provide for children's material and emotional needs in early childhood--and whose influence often continues into their nurslings' adulthood--the "Sir Garnet" phrase comforts in its duality. The nursery phrase recalls the age of chivalry as well as pre-World War I England in which one's place was assigned from birth according to carefully constructed class boundaries. These boundaries also kept women and people of color confined within a moral, political, and linguistic order enjoying widespread public support. But Streatfeild's life spanned a transition in British culture from the reign of Victoria to the age of Margaret Thatcher. Paradigms of race, class, and gender became crucial to the work of historians and literary critics during a century marked by the decline of empire, two world wars, and women's suffrage.
The ironic dimensions of "Sir Garnet" seem obvious. Yet the nursery phrase also represents the coherence of family life, to which the nanny gives partial voice. Children in Streatfeild's novels recognize that their families can cope with the various economic and emotional stresses from within and without. Yet they also recognize that Nanny is playing with reality, appealing to an imaginary and even silly figure of male authority, wealth, and competence. How things work out for Nanny's nurslings most often depends on the complex interplay of luck and hard work in a world where church and empire offer a benevolent start even as their premises are called into question by children who are their own authorities and who flourish in that process.
While the nanny's voice conveys her importance as a loving figure, its appeal to the past and to literature suggests a reason beyond affection for the success of various Streatfeild protagonists, who are usually girls gaining competence in the arts or other professions. Streatfeild experienced the turbulence of the century. Forced to earn a living (although women in her family's long recorded past had lived as gentlewomen), suffering the immediate effects of two wars, and seeing much of her own work discounted in the wake of a new realism in the children's novel, she coped with loss and disappointment by creative work that enhanced her self-esteem and gave her a whimsical authority and power not unlike that of her many nannies, governesses, and teachers who fuse the worlds of private affection and public performance. "It will all be Sir Garnet" is powerful in part because it is not true and Nanny and the children know it. Streatfeild continually drew on the myths of continuity even as she confronted and validated changes in the world and in herself.
Books were important in Noel Streatfeild's early life; she was entranced by Peter Rabbit and other stories. Yet her works suggest that experience as a middle child--what she described as a "misfit" in the...