“If I show my baby clothes–three of everything and of the very best quality–they’ll know that I’m somebody.”
So says Margaret Thursday, the larger-than-life heroine of Noel Streatfeild’s Thursday’s Child. This is Margaret’s refrain and the chorus sung about her throughout the whole novel, and it’s the knowledge that gives Margaret the moxie to rise above her beggarly surroundings, first as the ward of the church and then as an orphan in a horrible orphanage. This isn’t just Margaret’s story, though; it’s also the story of the Beresford children: Lavinia, Peter, and Horatio. Lavinia, too old to be an inmate in the orphanage, is hired out as a scullery maid to kind Lady Corkberry, whose estate is in the same village as the orphanage. Peter and Horatio go to live at the orphanage, but fortunately they come to the orphanage on the same day as Margaret, so Margaret becomes their surrogate sister in Lavinia’s absence. The orphans endure all sorts of ill treatment from the orphanage Matron, with Margaret of the indomitable spirit the child most targeted for abuse. There are even a couple of mysteries involving the true identity of Margaret (who was also sent fifty-two pounds a year for her upkeep and schooling until this allotment mysterious stopped) and the Beresford children, who are poor but behave and speak like those with a genteel upbringing. The story ends satisfactorily for the orphans, like all good children’s fiction must.
One thing I really like about this story is the variety of settings and situations the characters are placed in: an orphanage, an estate, a canal boat, a theatre troupe. This offers the reader the opportunity to experience many different layers of 19th century life in England. This variety of settings necessitates a wide cast of characters, which in turn showcases Streatfeild’s talent for richly drawn characterization. From the cruel Matron to kind Ms. Snelston, the village school mistress, the characters are finely drawn. This is one description of the sadistic Matron:
When the orphans were lined up ready to march to school Matron came out of her office. Her face was no longer red but a sort of greeny-yellow, and her upholstered chest inside her black dress was heaving as if she had run upstairs.
Matron literally makes the orphans quake in their poorly-fitted boots; Ms. Jones, her lackey, is just as convincingly dreadful:
Miss Jones expressed astonishment by using the word “burglar” like a piano. She started on a low note and rose almost an octave.
Can’t you just hear it? After this musical eruption, Miss Jones goes on to punish a little girl by beating her with a hairbrush.
Although I really enjoy Streatfeild‘s writing style and her ability to paint word pictures, I had a hard time figuring out if this is something I would actually give a child to read. On one hand is the story–it is a fabulous adventure that is reminiscent at times of so many other classic stories of self-sufficient orphans. On the other hand is the extremely cruel treatment that the orphans suffer at the hands of the Matron and other “caretakers” at the orphanage. Matron does receive something of a comeuppance at the hands of the townspeople, but the cruelty to the children is still heart-wrenching. I admit that I am super-sensitive to stories of cruelty to children, but this one seems a little over-the-top for today’s sensibilities. It makes me think about how much the world has changed since this story was first published in 1970. Still, I am eager to read the sequel to this story, Far to Go, to learn what happens to Margaret Thursday.
Noel Streatfeild is an author whose works I did not read as a child, and I am happy now to make up for lost time, despite my misgivings over this particular title. She wrote almost forty books for children, so I have plenty to keep me busy. I’m glad that Kathleen Kelly mentioned her Shoe books as being “completely wonderful” or else I might never have known to seek out her stories. (Random House, 1970)