Dorothy Edwards was another author who featured largely in my childhood reading. She wrote a series of books about My Naughty Little Sister. I loved My Naughty Little Sister passionately and read all the books time and time again, saving my tattered, falling apart copies and reading them to my own children until they finally gave up the ghost and we had to buy new copies.
Even when I was a child the My Naughty Little Sister stories were old fashioned, much like the Milly Molly Mandy stories I also loved by Joyce Lankester Brisley. I didn’t ever think of them as old fashioned, even though there were no cars, and all the money is in shillings, and there are hundreds of other mentions of a daily life that was as foreign to me when I was a child as it would be to a modern reader. It didn’t matter. This was part of the charm of the stories, and looking back I think I saw them as magical, as magical as Narnia, certainly, and in some ways more pleasing because the magic of these stories was such that they could be easily replicated by me.
I loved the every day nature of the things that happened in the books. I liked to imagine myself doing them, and would beg my mother to find a way to make the things I liked the best actually happen. In one of the My Naughty Little Sister stories, she wants to have curly hair, and endures having her hair put in tightly knotted rags overnight so she can have corkscrew curls. I made my mother do it for me, and endured the most excruciating night’s sleep for my pains, putting up with it so I too could have the solemn wonder of poking my hair through the newly minted ringlets the next day.
I admit that I never read A Strong and Willing Girl as a child. I never knew it existed until this year when I found a copy in a charity shop. I was delighted to pick it up, and although it does not have the same whimsical charm as My Naughty Little Sister, it is a very good read, particularly if you are interested in social history.
It is based on Dorothy Edward’s memories of her aunt’s time in service when she was a girl. The girl, Nan, is not the kind of servant that works in a large, wealthy household, rather the book is made up of reminiscences of working for different people at different periods in her life, and gives you an interesting cross section of the more middle class areas of society.
The narrator, Nan, is lively and interesting, and each chapter pulls out a different aspect or particular event of her time in service and makes it the focal point. It does read rather like a collection of short stories rather than a whole narrative, but that is also how Edwards wrote the My Naughty Little Sister stories. It worked better there than here I have to say, where the last story, which is a bit of a heart wrencher, kind of ends in a trailing off sort of way and not with any sense of finality, or words about what happened to Nan afterwards.
I did enjoy this, but I think it will be harder for children to enjoy than the My Naughty Little Sister stories. These stories are not as lively or mischievous and there is less to identify with here. I would recommend them for girls aged 7-10. I would think it might work best in school if a class is doing a topic on the Victorians as it does give a sense of a child’s place in the world of work at that time, and has some interesting things to say about how children were expected to grow up more quickly, poverty, and child labour in particular. It has a preface by Jacqueline Wilson, who is a big fan of the book, and if you’re a fan of her Hetty Feather series you can see where maybe she got the germ of the idea from.