Doreen by Barbara Noble

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I bought this book eighteen months ago from an Oxfam bookshop, snapped up as part of my ongoing drive to own a full set of Persephones (the marks on the top left of the book are toothmarks left by the spaniel, who will swipe any portable object left in range – the book was in immaculate condition when I bought it).  I had no intention of reading Doreen any time soon and picked it up only when I saw someone tweeting about it. The book, published in 1946,   is set during the Blitz and portrays the emotional, psychological and social repercussions of evacuation, for both children and adults, through the experiences of Doreen Rawlings, a nine year-old girl from London. The plot centres on her mother’s decision to send her daughter to live with a middle-class childless couple in the country to escape the nightly bombing raids.  Doreen lives with her poor but very respectable mother in a rundown part of London; seen through the eyes of a middle-class character, their neighbourhood is described as bearing ‘the unmistakable tarnish of herd living’ (p. 167), the house in which they rented two rooms ‘comfortless and depressing’ (p. 168).  The couple Doreen goes to live with, the Osbornes, are kind and loving and able to offer her far more, both culturally and materially,  than her mother and it is the book’s sympathetic exploration of the emotional consequences of Doreen’s double dislocation from both her mother and her class that drives the narrative, rather than more dramatic events, which happen largely outside the frame of the story. Doreen is an intelligent but reserved little girl who soon adapts to the middle-class household and blossoms under the Osbornes’ care, to her mother’s alarm.  Noble portrays without judgement both the altruistic and more selfish impulses that governs each character’s actions: Mrs Rawlings’ conflicting instinct to protect Doreen from the Blitz while wishing to remain always first in her affections, Mrs Osborne’s desire for a child to love, Mr Osborne’s desire to compensate for what he perceives as his failure to give his wife a child of her own.  Noble writes with superb emotional insight and it is this that makes the book so compelling.  Mrs Osborne, who had an unhappy childhood, wishes to look after Doreen because ‘[a] child must be made happy to appease one who had been unhappy’ (p. 17). Mr Osborne buys her a play tent, believing ‘that he was buying it for Doreen, but in fact it was an offering to his own childhood’ (p. 74), without considering that such a gift would be useless to a child living in two rooms in a London slum. Unlike many books from the period, such as the contemporaneous One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downe (another book I very much admire), in which working class characters are often comic, verging on Rabelaisian, Mrs Rawlings is depicted as a fully-realised and intelligent individual with a personal integrity and dignity as great as, if not greater, than the middle-class Osbornes; Mr Osborne pays tribute to her ‘superb dignity’ and acknowledges that ‘she managed to exist with so much rectitude and self-respect’ (p. 223) while living in what appeared to him circumstances of appalling squalorMrs Rawlings’ surprise when she learns that her daughter is treated as one of the family, when she had ‘supposed that Doreen had all her meals in the kitchen’ (p. 62) with the housemaid marks the beginning of her fears about the Osborne’s attachment to Doreen.  Mrs Rawlings’ desire to maintain class boundaries between herself and the Osbornes, and the Osbornes and Doreen, reveal  a deeper anxiety that Doreen will be alienated from her by the experience of a more privileged household. One character observes that ‘[y]ou’d have been better to send her away to people in her own station’ (p. 161). Her mother acknowledges that ‘[s]he’s got to live the life she was born to’ (p. 161), a fact that the middle class Osbornes appear oblivious to, turning well-meaning adults into unspoken adversaries. Doreen, torn between her undemonstrative but loving (and beloved) mother and the easy affection of the Osbornes’ household, feels as though she is split into ‘two Doreens’ (p. 178), embarrassed by the Osbornes witnessing her London home without quite being able to articulate why.  Each of the characters is depicted with a compassion and clarity that enables the reader to sympathise with all without wholly endorsing the perspective of any, while highlighting the dilemma facing countless families – to send a child to safety, and risk the trauma of separation and alienation, or to keep families together but in terrible danger.   Doreen offers no easy solutions.

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