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Kate Tyte on Eve Garnett, The Family from One End Street - Slightly Foxed 66

Keeping up Appearances

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As a child I wore a lot of brightly coloured jumpers, frequently hand-knitted by my grandmother. They were itchy and they tended to shrink. Whenever I became trapped in one, arms waving helplessly above my head, my mother would tug it off crying, ‘I can’t breve! And the sleeves is all wrong!’ The line comes from a scene in The Family from One End Street, in which a young boy named Jo becomes trapped in a shrunken jumper and multiple members of the family have to ease him out of it. The accompanying line drawing illustrates the problem perfectly. I don’t know how old I was when my mother first read the book to me, but ‘I can’t breve!’ soon became a family catchphrase.

Eve Garnett’s children’s novel was first published in 1937, with her own illustrations. At least eight publishers had rejected it on account of its supposed ‘grittiness’. Here was a story about an urban working-class family that detailed the endless struggles of Mr and Mrs Ruggles – a dustman and a washerwoman – to feed, clothe and shoe their seven children. In fact the book was probably the first ever British children’s book with working-class protagonists. Despite publishers’ initial reluctance, it was an immediate success. Serialized by the BBC in 1939, it won the Library Association’s prestigious Carnegie Medal – beating The Hobbit – and has been in print ever since. In a market saturated with stories about boarding-schools, nannies and improbable Swallows and Amazons-type adventures, parents and children alike warmed to the novelty of the Ruggles.

Ironically, Eve Garnett’s own childhood was more country house than One End Street. She was born at the manor house in a Worcestershire village and her father was a gentleman of independent means. She had a governess and later trained as an artist, including a stint at the Royal Academy. Despite her privileged upbringing Garnett became very aware of the social conditions of the poor. In

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As a child I wore a lot of brightly coloured jumpers, frequently hand-knitted by my grandmother. They were itchy and they tended to shrink. Whenever I became trapped in one, arms waving helplessly above my head, my mother would tug it off crying, ‘I can’t breve! And the sleeves is all wrong!’ The line comes from a scene in The Family from One End Street, in which a young boy named Jo becomes trapped in a shrunken jumper and multiple members of the family have to ease him out of it. The accompanying line drawing illustrates the problem perfectly. I don’t know how old I was when my mother first read the book to me, but ‘I can’t breve!’ soon became a family catchphrase.

Eve Garnett’s children’s novel was first published in 1937, with her own illustrations. At least eight publishers had rejected it on account of its supposed ‘grittiness’. Here was a story about an urban working-class family that detailed the endless struggles of Mr and Mrs Ruggles – a dustman and a washerwoman – to feed, clothe and shoe their seven children. In fact the book was probably the first ever British children’s book with working-class protagonists. Despite publishers’ initial reluctance, it was an immediate success. Serialized by the BBC in 1939, it won the Library Association’s prestigious Carnegie Medal – beating The Hobbit – and has been in print ever since. In a market saturated with stories about boarding-schools, nannies and improbable Swallows and Amazons-type adventures, parents and children alike warmed to the novelty of the Ruggles. Ironically, Eve Garnett’s own childhood was more country house than One End Street. She was born at the manor house in a Worcestershire village and her father was a gentleman of independent means. She had a governess and later trained as an artist, including a stint at the Royal Academy. Despite her privileged upbringing Garnett became very aware of the social conditions of the poor. In 1927 she was commissioned to illustrate The London Child, a study of working-class childhood in the capital, and she also completed a forty-foot mural at the Children’s House in Bow, in the East End of London. Though an upper-middle-class outsider, she was a careful and sympathetic observer of everyday working-class life. One End Street consists of a series of simple vignettes. Its opening chapter describes the marriage of Mr and Mrs Ruggles, the birth of their seven children, and the difficulty of naming them all. The couple do battle over the eldest. Mrs Ruggles wants to name her Carnation Lily Rose after the painting by Sargent, which had caught her eye at the Tate Gallery on ‘An-Excursion-to-London’. Mr Ruggles is still arguing against Carnation at the church door. Mrs Ruggles finally gives way and ‘the screaming red-haired baby was christened, without further argument, simple Lily-Rose’. The poor girl is mercilessly teased at school because she in no way resembles either a lily or a rose. Subsequent chapters are devoted to the adventures of each of the children in order of age. Twelve-year-old Lily-Rose tries to help her mother with the laundry – she is in the Girl Guides and wants to do a good deed – with disastrous consequences. Kate wins a scholarship to grammar school and loses her new school hat – the cost of which is carefully itemized – at the seaside. Nine-year-old twins Jim and John join ‘The Gang of the Black Hand’ hoping to have adventures. Sevenyear-old Jo watches the first ever Mickey Mouse film in colour at the cinema. Five-year-old Peg doesn’t have an adventure – perhaps it was hard to imagine her getting up to much. But William, aged ten months, wins a prize in a baby competition. Finally the entire family go to London for a ‘Regular Blow Out’ at Whitsun Bank Holiday. From these small, commonplace events the family wring all the entertainment they can. When Kate wins her scholarship the whole family celebrates with sardines and chocolate biscuits for tea. But grammar school involves expense, as Mrs Ruggles explains to Kate’s teacher. ‘I’m not one of these mothers what wants their children home and earning at fourteen . . . it’s not that – it’s the clothing of her!’ The parents argue about which side of the family Kate’s brains come from, and when Mr Ruggles completes a form for government assistance, he complains that it takes more out of him than two days’ hard work. ‘And you from such a brainy family – well I never!’ his wife replies. After a long series of mishaps Kate eventually gets her uniform. In the ups and downs of this episode the Ruggles could be any family: bickering, competing, anxious, teasing, forming alliances against one another, putting on a united front, sighing over each other’s eccentricities and rolling out the same family catchphrases, handily capitalized for easy recognition. Mr Ruggles and the older children are all ‘afflicted with Ideas’, much to Mrs Ruggles’s dismay. Mr Ruggles keeps returning to ‘The Question of the Pig’ – whether there is enough space in the tiny back yard to keep one – while Kate dreams of becoming a pioneering modern farmer. Lily-Rose fantasizes about bossing workers about in her own modern steam laundry. Jim is a voracious reader of adventure stories from the public library. Then there’s Londoner Uncle Charlie, a dustman who names his carthorse ‘Bernard Shaw’, attends a working men’s college three days a week and thinks he might ‘take it up political’. The Ruggles family stand on the cusp of social change. My father was born in the 1930s and grew up in a world not so very different from the one portrayed here, a world that ended up offering, to his generation, unprecedented opportunities and upward social mobility. Rereading the book as an adult gives me a glimpse of his world and the sensibilities of his times, which are so very different from my own. So many things about the working-class world of the 1930s amaze me. Clothes, food and all the small details of keeping up respectable appearances on a budget are lovingly described. When the Ruggles go to the seaside they choose a tea shop that allows them to bring their own bread and butter, so they can spend more on potted shrimps. Was it ever actually possible to go to a café bringing half your meal with you? The children are astonishingly unsupervised and the parents are trusting to a degree that would be considered negligent today. Sevenyear-old Jo spends all day outside by himself, with no one bothering to check on him. He indulges his passion for the Majestic Cinema on his own, with money he has secretly earned. Mrs Ruggles is cross if he misses dinner, but she never worries about him. And when nineyear-old John receives an unexpected invitation to a birthday party, his hosts send the following telegram: ‘John perfectly safe; returning him tonight by seven o’clock bus.’ How many parents today would feel reassured to receive such a message from a complete stranger? Yet for all its emphasis on money worries, The Family from One End Street is still an idealized vision of small-town southern English life. At the time it was published it was already nostalgic. You wouldn’t know from reading it that in 1937 Britain was in the midst of a depression, with mass protest marches against unemployment at home and upheaval abroad. This is an England centred on the church fête, not on factories and trades unions. When the children get into scrapes they are helped out by kindly adults, usually of a higher social class. After Lily-Rose shrinks a petticoat in the laundry, the customer laughs and plies her with cake. When Jo, Jim and John are discovered trespassing, the adults react with fondness and understanding. Presumably that was part of the book’s original appeal. An everyday world populated only by kind and forgiving people, with all ominous tension removed, must have been enormously soothing to contemporary readers in troubled times. It’s still comforting today. But not everyone saw it like that. Goebbels was so horrified by the poverty depicted in One End Street that he recommended the book as anti-British propaganda. After the war the Allied Commission suggested it as suitable reading material to fortify young German minds. By the 1960s intellectuals were scorning the novel as a patronizing comedy at the expense of the working class. Surprising, perhaps, for such an innocuous-seeming story about family life. But then again, what’s a family without an argument?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 66 © Kate Tyte 2020


About the contributor

Kate Tyte was an archivist and is now an English teacher in Lisbon.

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