It takes courage to write a novel with an unlikable heroine – but that’s exactly what Noel Streatfeild set out to do in It Pays To Be Good. “A tendency in my other efforts to make everybody lovable, has caused me, for the good of my soul, to produce Virginia,” she wrote to her friend Selene Moxon in 1935. “Obviously you are not meant to take her seriously; she is presented only to dislike and to entertain. She is also the answer to kind requests for a happy ending, I hope she amuses you.” Intriguing, I thought. However will she manage that?
Virginia, born Flora Elk, is known as Floss or Flossie to her parents, neighbours and school-mates (not friends – she’s not the sort of girl who has friends, especially not female ones). Flossie has two claims to fame. Firstly, it’s a miracle that she was born at all, and secondly, she is extraordinarily beautiful, with moonlight-silver curls and guileless blue eyes, which fill with tears when she doesn’t get her own way.
Her beauty is all the more startling because her parents, George and Fanny are so very plain. George a hard-working greengrocer, spends his spare time on the allotment, and has few aspirations in life, for himself or his family. He wants his daughter to be a nice, sensible girl who will make a good wife for some man. And, as a stalwart member of the mission church, he fears beauty is a lure of Satan. But his wife, a remarkably silly woman, takes a different view.
Mrs Elk read serials in the papers, and knew the astounding power wielded by the beautiful. The possession of beauty might not make for goodness and sensibleness, in the sense that Mr Elk and the minister meant, but it did make for a life which was very much more exciting than that led by Fanny Elk in the Fordham Road.
“If you ’ave the looks, you use ’em, my girl,” she tells Flossie. And that’s just what Flossie does, encouraged by her doting mother, who doesn’t have much joy or beauty in her life, and is a martyr to her ‘inside’ which has been ‘all of a drop’ since Flossie was born. As a small child Flossie soon realises she can use her beauty to get what she wants – toys, sweets, choice titbits of food, nice clothes. But she gives nothing in return, she doesn’t cook, clean, sew or help out in the shop for ‘it seemed to Flossie insulting that she, so lovely and so wonderful, should be asked to do menial things’.
When George marches off to war in 1914, Fanny enrols her daughter at the Madam Elise School of Dancing. George, of course, knows nothing of all this, and when he returns he is horrified: no daughter of his is going to dance on the stage. But he is no match for Flossie’s wiles.
Fast forward to the moment when Flossie is offered a leading role in a musical, purely on the strength of her looks. She can sing enough, and dance enough, but her accent is dreadful, and she can’t dress. Enter ‘Mouse’ (real name Margaret Shane), a beautiful, stylish, one-time actress, who is the ‘friend’ of an English aristocrat and knows everyone in the theatrical world and in society. She is persuaded to take Flossie under her wing and teach her how to speak, how to behave and how to dress. A band of professionals gather to help groom the future star, all with their own exotic back stories – and they create a new identity for her. Flossie becomes Virginia, a beautiful girl left in a convent who is, so the whisper goes, the daughter of mysterious foreign royalty…
She is, of course, a huge success with the general public, and attracts droves of adoring male followers who lavish money and expensive gifts on her. True to form, she gives nothing in return, and her heart – and virtue – remain intact. And she cuts her ties with the past and drops her parents without a qualm, just as poor George always knew she would. However, Mouse appreciates goodness and honesty and forms an unexpected friendship with the couple. There’s a kind of sub-plot going on with Mouse, her lover Jim (Lord Menton) and his wife Jasmine who, surprisingly, is friendly with Mouse. And there’s a host of other colourful characters, including Jim’s penniless nephew Derwent, who is in love with Virginia (as we must now call her); Mrs Hodge, a ‘sack of a woman held tightly in the middle by her apron strings’ who ‘does’ for Mouse, and newspaper magnate Ossie Bone, who has clawed his way out of the Liverpool slums.
Things get a little complicated, and I don’t want to give all the plot away (if I did that you’d never read the book), but Jim dies when a publicity stunt dreamed up by Virginia goes wrong, and Derwent (who’s pretty dozy really) inherits all the money, so you can probably guess the outcome.
The book is never going to be classed as a literary classic: there’s not a lot of depth to it, while settings and characters are a little stagey perhaps, but nevertheless the people are very engaging and it’s a hugely enjoyable read. It’s very light-hearted and humorous, although there are sad moments amid the laughter, and serious issues about relationships, identity and the nature of celebrity, though these are never overtly spelled out. Until fairly recently I hadn’t realised Streatfeild wrote novels for adults (I still have Ballet Shoes, White Boots and The Painted Garden on my bookshelves). Some of the themes, settings and characters are very similar to those in the children’s books with their rags to riches fairy tale approach, but Streatfeild, who was an actress for 10 years or so, obviously knew about the theatrical world and its larger-than-life inhabitants.
So, I hear you ask, did I like Flossie/Virginia? Well, she certainly amused and entertained me, and I couldn’t take her too seriously, because she’s really a little ludicrous, and that made me laugh, and you can’t dislike someone who makes you laugh. She’s a heartless, selfish, self-centred, manipulative monster, who treats people abominably (especially her parents). But I found it hard not to like her a little, and at times I almost pitied her – she’s like a greedy, grasping, over-indulged child who’s never quite grown up (Supernanny would have stuck her in the naughty corner and sorted out her problems in five minutes flat). And you have to admire her self-belief, her confidence, her focus, and her shrewdness. She’s certainly more likable (and much more capable) than Angel, in Elizabeth Taylor’s novel of the same name, who is the only comparable literary heroine I can think of – the defining characteristic of both Angel and Flossy/Virginia is an overwhelming belief in themselves. They are both totally self-obsessed.
Mouse recognises this and tells Jasmine that Flossie’s purpose is to see that she is treated as befits her perfection: “If you or I were half as sure of anything as she is, that her beauty and brilliance give her divine right to the best of everything, we’d be much happier. And believe me, she doesn’t pretend, that’s how she really feels, and she’s quite incapable of believing that other people don’t feel the same way about her.”
I think it’s that character flaw, the inability to understand how others feel about her, and her belief that she deserves the best of everything, that somehow makes her seem more human, and makes it hard to dislike her – basically, the girl can’t help herself.
My copy of It Pays To Be Good came from Greyladies Books, who publish ‘Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone’, which sounds delightful. There are four categories: vintage crime; adult books by children’s authors; girls’ school stories written for adults, and Scottish country gentlewomen (the company is based in Scotland).
They deserve a mention because the book arrived very promptly (but I left it sitting on the TBR pile for ages and ages) and is beautifully produced, with easy-to-read print, good quality smooth paper, and a lovely cover. And I think we should support small, independent publishers, especially when they are reprinting forgotten books.