Noel Streatfeild, The Painted Garden

This last few weeks I’ve been reading Karen Russell’s latest collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. One of the stories in this is “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979″, which features Nal, who is 14 and in love with Vanessa Grigalunas who is now dating his brother Samson whose ease with women is a constant source of wonderment to Nal. But it all ends happily; Nal, who (naturally) cares for Vanessa in much deeper ways than Samson can claim to, gets the girl.

I’m being more dismissive of Russell’s story than it deserves; Russell is a writer I love, and this is still a good story.  Except that I find whenever I’m called upon to get into the heads of awkward, quiet children and teenagers in literature (and I do, and I love it) they seem to be teenaged boys.

So I’ve been thinking about Subashini‘s fantastic post on Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness and awkward women (I’ve had Kotsko’s book for a year now and have utterly failed to finish reading it, despite enjoying the sections I did read). That post is here – the comments are also very worth reading for links that expand that particular discussion. Of late, a friend and I have spent a lot of time discussing our need for a Gauche Girl Canon and what that would entail, and I’d love for this to become a wider conversation at some point (Suba?)


Not-entirely-relatedly, Deepa D recently posted a group review of Vacations From Hell, a collection of short stories by five young adult authors. I recommend it as a review because it is a hilarious takedown of the stories in question, but this bit (from the discussion of Cassandra Clare’s “The Mirror House” struck me:

I wouldn’t have thought any boy who looked like he did had interests outside maybe sports and girls, just like I never would have thought he’d have any time at all for a skinny, unpopular girl who wore unmatching socks and boys’ T-shirts because she didn’t know what she was supposed to be wearing anyway.

deepad: It’s always so convenient for the teenage girls to dismiss themselves as ‘skinny’ and supposedly unattractive, no? Heaven forbid fat teenagers get persuaded of their desirability through the power of golden shiny male teenage lust.


In teenage romance, in stories about protagonists learning that they are desirable, said protagonist will very rarely be fat; obviously her supposed ugliness must be the result of something that can be explained away so that she was conventionally attractive all along.

But (and I’m sure I’m conflating things that are completely unrelated here) even if it wasn’t a romance, even if it didn’t need to have a happy ending, how many books are there that allow us unattractive young women (because they’re not pretty, because they’re awkward, because they’re unpleasant) as their protagonists?

And so to this week’s Left of Cool column.


I have a fondness for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden that persists despite its unfortunate India-set opening scenes. The Secret Garden pleases me because its two heroes (we don’t count Dickon, who is more a nature god than an actual person) are so awful. Mary is spoilt and rude, and considered ugly by the sort of adults who apparently think that this is an acceptable thing to tell a child. Colin is angry and self-centred and unhappy. We’re never given the fiction that children in unhappy circumstances are going to be unbearably saintly (for that, see the same author’s A Little Princess). The corollary to this, unfortunately, is that when the circumstances change, so do the children. The magic of nature is such that it cures their various ailments and makes them happy (and one is happy for them, as far as one can be about fictional characters); but it also fixes them and makes them ‘normal’, ‘healthy-minded’ attractive children. Mary, it turns out, would have been as pretty as her beautiful mother all along if she’d only had the bracing English climate and a smile on her face.

So The Secret Garden is wonderful because it lets Mary be unattractive and disappointing because it can’t let her stay that way. But then there’s Noel Streatfeild’s The Painted Garden. Streatfeild is best known for her Ballet Shoes books (some of the characters make an appearance in this book), but I’m willing to argue that The Painted Garden is a far better work.

Jane is the middle child of three siblings. Her older sister is an exceptionally gifted ballerina, her younger brother an exceptionally gifted pianist, and both of them are unusually good looking. Jane doesn’t have a special talent. Jane is unattractive. Jane is over-honest, caustic, frequently mean or petty, and has no close friends other than her dog. One of the things that I like most about The Painted Garden is that it legitimises Jane’s feeling of ill-use; her mother really does seem fonder of (and more at-ease with) her older sister, and her mother’s companion is the sort of person who says things like “we can’t all be equally talented” while openly berating her because jealousy isn’t nice. On some levels this is openly a novel of wish-fulfillment; the world around Jane is exactly as unfair as she thinks it is, and we’re sucked into hoping, with her, that something will happen to show them all how special Jane is.

And something does happen. Jane is cast in a movie production of The Secret Garden, simply because her contrary ways and unattractive face make her look like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s heroine. But The Painted Garden doesn’t give us the Cinderella story—the overlooked sibling doesn’t become the centre of attention, loved by all. Acting is difficult and unglamorous, and Jane is no better at making friends in Hollywood than she was at home, simply because that is not the sort of person Jane is.

Her relationships with her co-stars in part parallel those in the book (David, who plays Dickon, has a similarly fascinating way with animals) but only to a point. It is part a re-enactment of the book and part not, part superficial and part not. Just as the painted garden on set is half-painted and half-made of real plants.

Streatfeild isn’t wholly unsympathetic to the rest of Jane’s family, and The Painted Garden accepts their flaws as willingly as it does Jane’s. But at the end of the book everyone is pretty much the same person they always were. And this is where the book is at its strongest, because it lets Jane be grumpy and unattractive (and perhaps a little happier now that she’s proved her point). Steatfeild doesn’t try to fix Jane, and in doing so she suggests that sometimes it’s okay for heroines of books to be less than ideal. In a literary tradition where grumpy, awkward, petty, ugly girls are somewhat thin on the ground, this is such a relief.


2 Comments to “Noel Streatfeild, The Painted Garden

  1. As a gauche girl, I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved this post. Now I must read this book.

  2. Gauche Girl Canon is perfect, and I’m going to have to think about this some more–I’ve been travelling in Sri Lanka over the last two weeks and internet connection has been brief and sporadic, so I just wanted to thank you for your lovely comments on Twitter and here.

    I adore The Painted Garden but it’s been awhile since I read it and I love your point about Jane’s awkwardness never being resolved or fixed, as it were. I must reread and savour the gaucheness.

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