The Family from One End Street

A charming family story that’s more radical than it might seem.

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In my last post, I suggested that had the inaugural Carnegie gone to Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, it would have set a very different tone for the Medal. However, the second winner – Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street – is  closer in spirit to Streatfeild’s book than Ransome’s. This is another family story, with an urban setting, and some of the same interest in change and modernity. Whereas Streatfeild’s family live in what can fairly be called ‘genteel poverty’ and have a generally middle-class set of values, though, The Family from One End Street are not only working class, but poor:

MRS RUGGLES was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. ‘Very suitable too,’ she would say, though whether this referred to Mr Ruggles himself, or the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide.

[…]

There were a great many Ruggles children – boys and girls, and a baby that was really a boy but didn’t count either way yet.

The neighbours pitied Jo and Rosie for having such a large family, and called it ‘Victorian’; but the Dustman and his wife were proud of their numerous girls and boys, all-growing-up-fine-and-strong-one-behind-the-other-like-steps-in-a-ladder, and-able-to-wear-each-other’s-clothes-right-down-to-the-baby, so that really it was only two sets, girl and boy, summer and winter, Mrs Ruggles had to buy, except Boots.

The book consists of a series of gentle adventures: one for each of the older Ruggles children (Lily-Rose, Kate, twins Jim and John, and Jo Jr.), plus three which focus on Mr and Mrs Ruggles and/or the babies (Peg and William), and one story about the whole family to round the book off. It’s illustrated throughout with lovely pen and ink sketches by Garnett (who was actually an artist first). It reminds me a little of Milly Molly Mandy in its tone and the generally low-stakes adventures, but the characters feel much more real than Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends (at least to me). Partly this reflects the fact that the adventures are genuinely rooted in the social setting.  Lily-Rose’s story, for example, is a ‘good deed gone wrong’ story of the kind that isn’t unusual in books from around this time. Arriving home early from school, she determines to do some of her mother’s ironing as her Girl Guide good deed for the day. Inevitably, she uses a too-hot iron on a customer’s artificial silk petticoat, and then memorably watches in horror at the petticoat ‘shrivelling… shrinking… shrivelling up… running away before her eyes!’ This is a scene that I could imagine in E. Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods, or in Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, but in both those series the main risk would be getting into trouble. In Garnett’s book, there’s the potential for a much more serious consequence: this is Mrs Ruggle’s business, after all, and damaging something compromises her reputation for skill and reliability. Of course it all ends happily, thanks to an understanding customer, but the anxiety about Lily-Rose’s mistake is much more real than it would be in the more middle-class narratives.

Eve Garnett was motivated to write the novel after spending time in London’s East End producing illustrations for Evelyn Sharp’s study of the urban poor The London Child (1927). By her own account, she was moved to do more to publicise the conditions poor children were living in, and on being told that it would be only possible to publish an illustrated book if it was for children, wrote The Family From One End Street herself. She later completed a book of illustrations called Is it Well With the Child? (1938), which comprised sketches of the children she encountered in the East End and brief captions. It portrays more extreme poverty than The Family From One End Street, but has some of the same charm and humour.

Portraying a working-class family groundbreaking at the time it was published – the Carnegie website notes that several publishers turned it down before Frederick Muller took it on. By the 1960s, though, it was beginning to be regarded as a rather patronising depiction. Rosemary Manning, writing in 1966, characterised it as a ‘perfunctory glance from outside’ at a working-class family. It’s certainly a cosy portrayal, and the book as a whole suggests that the family are poor but happy. It’s also fair to say that at times Garnett shifts perspective in a way that  makes it clear we’re seeing the Ruggles from outside, for example when the Ruggles visit an art gallery and puzzle over an army officer having time to paint; it’s clear that the reader is expected to recognise that ‘Sargent’ is a name.

Manning was particularly critical of Garnett’s description of Joe Ruggles as ‘a contented sort of man’ and her assertion that ‘So long as he had his job and his family were well and happy, and he could smoke his pipe and work in his garden, see his mates at the Working Men’s Club once or twice a week and have a good Blow Out on a Bank Holiday, he wanted nothing more’. This is problematic in its reproduction of the stereotype of the contented poor, but I think Manning’s criticisms overlook the radical edge of the book. If Joe himself is contented, this is questioned within the text, both directly (by the artist who is troubled by the fact that the small reward he gives Joe for returning some lost money is enough to secure the happiness of the Ruggles family) and by the general sense of aspiration within the book. Throughout the novel Garnett gives the impression that the Ruggles are no less intelligent, creative, or virtuous than any middle-class family: they are just poorer. The Ruggles don’t understand everything in the art gallery, but they are moved enough by Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose to name their daughter after it. (In finding that link, I also discovered that I missed some of the cultural assumptions of that scene:  the Ruggles wonder what the title is supposed to refer to, unaware – as I was – that it comes from a song by Joseph Mazzinghi.)  Kate wins a scholarship to grammar school, passing the exam ‘ninth in the whole district’, and throughout the book Garnett suggests that the state has a role in ensuring that the poor are not only preserved from destitution, but also given the opportunity to pursue their aspirations. The foundations of the Welfare State are here.

Well-meaning political views don’t save a book from being patronising, however, radical, but to my mind the absolute realness of the characters and the sympathy with which they are portrayed does make such criticisms unjust. The Ruggles have a happy home, but their poverty is never forgotten about: from the opening mention of Mrs Ruggles’ worry about boots to her anxiety about Joe revealing the split in his Sunday suit by straphanging in the Tube with the ‘wrong’ arm, we’re given many little reminders of the way having no money shapes your experience of the world. The children are lively and vivid: as a child I particularly sympathised with ‘clever Kate’, dreaming about ‘Latin and geometry and things they didn’t “do” at the Council school’ but also passionately keen to wear her new uniform on an ‘outing’. (Yes, I was a nerd – and just as excited as Kate when I finally studied Latin during my MA.)

The Family From One End Street is still in print, and as is probably evident I both read and loved it as a child. So far the Carnegie committee seem to have done well on picking books with staying power (although of course winning the Medal may be partially responsible for them sticking around).It’s a much easier read than Pigeon Post, both in the sense that it’s less literary, and due to the fact that it’s really aimed at considerably younger children, but I think this obscures the truly ground-breaking qualities of the book. It was a radical choice for the Carnegie, especially in light of the fact that The Hobbit was a contender that same year (I believe it was nominated, though I can’t lay my hand on a reliable source for that just now). I think The Hobbit would have been much more of a continuation of the style and theme honoured the year before with Pigeon Post, and given the very favourable critical reception of Tolkien’s novel the choice of Garnett’s novel a brave one. The Ruggles may have had a ‘Victorian’ family, but this was a novel which looked to a new future for Britain. Bravo, Carnegie committee.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10 (I’m starting to feel monotonous, but I love this book!)

Plot: 8/10 (It’s more episodic than a fully worked novel, though each episode is a gem in and of itself and the whole does hang together)

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Family, change, working class, socialism, adventure

Publisher: Frederick Muller

Illustrator: Eve Garnett