Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 27, 2022

Doreen (1946), by Barbara Noble

I discovered this absorbing short novel via the Backlisted Podcast. At the start of each session they share what they are currently reading, and Barbara Noble’s Doreen (1946) caught my attention immediately because it was about the evacuation of children out of London during the war.  It’s an historical event that has always interested me because my father and his little brother were evacuees, exploited as household help by servants in a big house.  But though he spoke very little about his experience, he did recount an act of kindness when someone used their petrol ration to give him a lift home when he’d sprained his ankle. So his experience was not entirely negative.

I can’t watch videos like this one without getting emotional. My father also talked about being lined up in a hall, and the humiliation of people choosing which children to take, using the same words as those in this video:  ‘I’ll take that one.’


Evacuation Poster, Ministry of Health (Wikipedia)

The evacuation was, as Jessica Mann says in her illuminating preface, an unprecedented plan to move the population elsewhere.

Evacuation was designed both to relieve the authorities of the most vulnerable during the emergency, and also with the altruistic intention that the children of the poor should have the same chance of safety as those whose parents could afford to make their own arrangements for escape. Never before or since have children been taken en masse from their homes in vulnerable cities to live with strangers in safe areas.  (Indeed nowhere else was anything of the kind even contemplated; the French government considered and rejected the idea in 1939, while the Germans decided there was no point in discussing it as the enemy could never penetrate the air defences to bomb German cities. (p. vi)

As we have seen during the pandemic, societies which have high levels of trust in government tend to cooperate more with expectations that the people will do what has to be done, even if they don’t want to.

Nearly one and a half million children left London in two days; on 3rd September war was declared and several days after that parents received postcards saying where and with whom their families were living.  London’s children had disappeared: according to the novelist Storm Jameson the city ‘looked as if some fantastic death pinched off the heads under fifteen.’

Whether to send their children to shelter in safer areas in Britain, or overseas to the Dominions or the United States, was the most difficult decision parents ever had to make.’ (p.vii)

The choice, for parents confronted by Operation Pied Piper was between separation or deathly danger. 

Of all the stories that could have been told about the evacuation, Barbara Noble chose to use a very narrow lens.  Her story is not about a difficult or uncooperative evacuee, or a child who wet the bed in distress each night.  It’s not about exploitation by servants who are bore the brunt of the extra work suddenly thrust on them, and the hardships for children who were given menial tasks that left little time for play or homework. Nor is about children who suffered physical or sexual abuse who had no one they could trust, to tell.  And it’s not about middle-class country families being confronted by working-class children with incomprehensible accents who had different habits and standards of hygiene, or how those children were offended and hurt by patronising attitudes and snobbery.

Noble focusses on one child — ten-year-old Doreen Rawlings — whose mother initially refuses to send her child with the others.  But then the Blitz in all its horror makes her decision untenable:

On her way to the office that morning, walking through streets crusted with broken glass, on legs uncomfortably swollen from a night spent dozing in a deck chair, Mrs Rawlings decided she would have to do it; she would have to send Doreen away to the country. Things weren’t getting any better, they were getting worse. Even her faith in the shelter, which up till now had had an almost fanatic quality, was shaken after last night. The shelter had rocked and her faith had rocked with it. Bombs had fallen and buildings had collapsed, and with them had collapsed Mrs. Rawlings’ obstinate, angry confidence in her own invincible rightness of opinion. But for her pride, she could have wept. Life was hard enough without losing Doreen. (p.1)

Helen Osborne, whose office Mrs Rawlings cleans, finds this indefatigable and stoic woman in tears in the washroom. Helen engineers a generous offer of a private arrangement with her brother, an Oxford solicitor and his childless wife, so Doreen is sent to a kindly home where she is loved and well-treated. Doreen is about a child who came to love both her families, about her host family’s fear of losing her, and about her parents’ fear that the longer she stayed with her host family, the more likely it was that she would be lost to them.  Her behaviour and speech would become different, her expectations of the future would change, and she might not even want to come home at all.

Very perceptive about class differences, the novel explores these effects on the child Doreen, her mother and estranged father, and the couple who come to love her, Geoffrey and Francie Osborne.  The third person narration shows how the child observes people and events and the decisions that are made about her, and how she doesn’t process what is happening.  She is a biddable child, and no trouble to anybody.  It is only when her mother visits at Christmas that her loyalty is tested.  First her mother is critical of the maid Lucy, not because of anything Lucy has done but because Mrs Rawlings has let slip to Lucy’s mother that Doreen’s best friend Edie has been killed in the blitz, and she did not trust Mrs Warman to hold her tongue:

‘Lucy liked my present’, Doreen said happily.
‘You didn’t tell me she was simple.’
‘What’s simple mean?’
‘A ha’penny short. Not all there.’
‘Oh Mum, she’s not. She’s ever so nice.’
‘I dare say.  But she’s simple, for all that.’ She spoke harshly, venting on Lucy her annoyance with her mother.
‘Well, I like her,’ Dorren maintained in a subdued voice. ‘She often brings me sweets.’
‘You didn’t ought to eat a lot of cheap sweets,’ Mrs Rawlings countered automatically. (p.79)

In a scene which captures reality as Doreen experiences it, but doesn’t understand her mother’s insecurities and her sense of herself as a good mother, Mrs Rawlings erupts into further criticism:

Running her hand down Doreen’s woollen stockings, Mrs Rawlings sighed sharply.  What darns! Real botches, they were.  She’d have to cut them out and do them over again.
‘Does that Lucy mend your clothes?’ she asked.
Doreen looked up from her book, surprised.
‘No, Mrs Osborne mends them for me.’
‘Well, I’m sorry for Mr Osborne if she darns his socks like she’s darned these stockings of yours.  Shocking, they are. I’ll have to do them all over again.’
Doreen sat very still, but her face, from forehead to neck, grew slowly scarlet and her eyes filled with tears.
Mrs Rawlings, unnoticing, snipped away angrily with her scissors.  Little bits of black wool fell on the floor beside her.
‘I think you’re very unkind,’ Doreen said at last in a strangled voice.
Mrs Rawlings looked up quickly and stared at her in astonishment.
‘What did you say?’
‘I think it’s a very unkind thing to say that about Mrs Osborne’s darning. She hates darning.  She only does it because I can’t do it myself.  I don’t mind if they’re a bit bumpy.’ Her voice shook. (p.80)

This is the most courageous act of Doreen’s young life, and mother sends her to bed for it.

Barbara Nobel (1907-2001) wrote six novels

  • The Years that Take the Best Away (1929)
  • The Wave Breaks (1932)
  • Down by the Salley Gardens (1935)
  • The House Opposite (1943) (Reprinted by Dean Street Press in 2019)
  • Doreen (1946) (Reprinted by Persephone Books in 2005)
  • Another Man’s Life (1952)

Only Doreen and The House Opposite seem to be available, I’ve just bought The House Opposite for the Kindle, it’s about a couple having an affair during the Blitz… this is the blurb:

It was curious that the aerial bombardment of London, which had ennobled so much that was normally sordid, should only debase a love affair between two people who had managed for three years to overcome the threat to their relations implicit in all such. To die together would be simple. It would not be so simple to be dug out still alive from the same collapsed building.

Elizabeth Simpson is a secretary having an affair with her married boss. Her father is an air raid warden and her terrified mother takes her courage from concealed bottles of rum. Owen Cathcart, their neurotic teenage neighbour, slips out during night raids to watch the fireworks and collect souvenirs of shrapnel. And Bob Craven, a soldier Elizabeth uses as cover for her illicit romance, plans his taxi rides to see the most dramatic bomb damage.

In this riveting drama of life during the Blitz, the extraordinary immediacy and vivid, intimate detail stem directly from the first-hand experiences of Barbara Noble, who lived and worked in London throughout the war. The result is a unique social document and an unforgettable reading experience.

I wish Persephone Books were more readily available in Australia…

Image credit: By Ministry of Health (publisher/sponsor), Cowes, Dudley S (artist), J Weiner Ltd, 71/5 New Oxford Street, London WC1 (printer), Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (publisher/sponsor) – is photograph Art.IWM PST 13854 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,

Author: Barbara Noble
Title: Doreen
Publisher: Persephone Books, 2005, first published 1946
ISBN: 9781903155509, pbk with French flaps, 238 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Rainy Day Books, The Basin, Vic, via AbeBooks, $25.00


  1. This is very interesting, Lisa. As soon as I saw you were posting a discussion of “Doreen” I thought of the “Doreen” in C.J. Dennis’s great verse-novel, “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”, the start of a tetralogy of verse-novels, set in Melbourne and the nearby hills, around the Great War. C.J. Dennis and his “Sentimental Bloke” are famous in Australia, and in their time were best-sellers, and two titles became popular silent movies. But in these books, Dennis used so much Australian slang, with so much local and (now historical) contextual detail, that modern readers struggle to grasp what Dennis is talking about. (That is why I created annotated editions, ePublished as eBooks, at Amazon, and uploaded introductory articles about each verse-novel at Academia. edu — but that’s another story, …)
    Your “Doreen” is totally different!
    The topic of children being evacuated to escape the London Blitz has been written about many times. I suppose you are familiar with Nina Bawden’s “Carrie’s War”, and Michelle Magorian’s “Goodnight Mr Tom”, which have become classics (and have been filmed!) — outstanding children’s books!
    Penelope Lively’s novel “Going Back” also includes evacuees, and the issue of pacifism, and is a story of memories and loss.
    During the war, Elizabeth Goudge published “The Castle on the Hill”, which included children evacuees, and displaced adults. It is a strong story, with premarital sex, unexpected pregnancy, suicidal thoughts, death, bombing, and even ghosts! It is also, occasionally, funny, and wise. But Goudge is like that!


    • Hi John, you are so right about CJ Dennis, I’ve tried it a couple of times and found it incomprehensible.
      Yes, I do know Carrie’s War, but not the other ones you’ve suggested. I shall see what I can find.
      For me, it’s an eerie thought that I might not be here if my father hadn’t been evacuated. His house was bombed, and his street unrecognisable afterwards. He probably wouldn’t have survived if he’d been in it.


      • Excellent, thanks, Lisa. My introductory article on “The Sentimental Bloke” is here:

        I can send you my annotated edition if you are interested.
        [LH edit: email address deleted]


        • That’s kind of you John, but I’d have to sign into Academia to access it, and I’m more and more wary these days of adding my name to databases.
          To protect your privacy, I’ve removed your email address from your comment.


          • OK, Lisa. I can send you the article and/or the annotated book via e-mail, if you were interested.
            Here is C.J. Dennis’s “Doreen”, first seen by the Sentimental Bloke, in the start of Chapter 2.

            ‘Er name’s Doreen …Well, spare me bloomin’ days!
            You could er knocked me down wiv ‘arf a brick!
            Yes, me, that kids meself I know their ways,
            An’ ‘as a name for smoogin’ in our click!
            I just lines up ‘an tips the saucy wink.
            But strike! The way she piled on dawg! Yer’d think
            A bloke was givin’ back-chat to the Queen….
            ‘Er name’s Doreen.
            The phonetic spelling is easy, of course, as much Cockney as working-class Australian.
            The slang needs explanation. C.J. Dennis knew this, and supplied a Glossary, but this was incomplete, and often lacked explanation — hence my annotations.

            Here is that first stanza, annotated (in square brackets):
            ’Er name’s Doreen … Well, spare me bloomin’ days!
            You could ’a’ knocked me down wiv ’arf a brick!
            [Bill tells us her name is “Doreen”, and he feels surprised. The slang expression “spare me blooming days” means, literally, “I hope bad things don’t happen to me in the future”, but the effect here is similar to “Gosh!”, expressed with the added emphasis of “blooming”, not a reference to flowers, but a euphemism for the swear-word “bloody”, used, as usual, only for emphasis. Of course, being hit by half a brick would knock most people down, but Bill implies that he, a tough street fighter, used to withstanding being hit by whole bricks, was so surprised by Doreen that, this time, a mere half-brick would be enough. In Australia, a typical kiln-fired terracotta house brick is approximately 23cm long by 11cm wide by 8cm high (9 inches by 4 inches by 3 inches), and weighs about 2.5 to 3 kg (about 4 to 5 pounds). The word “wiv” is, of course, Bill’s spelling of “with”, using his pronunciation that replaces “-th” with “-f” or, in this case, “-v”. This is simply Bill’s way uv talking.]
            Yes, me, that kids me self I know their ways,
            [Bill “kids himself”, that is, speaking sarcastically, he “fools himself” or pretends to himself that he knows the ways of women.]
            An’ ’as a name fer smoogin’ in our click!
            [In his “click” or “clique”, his informal gang of male friends, he has a reputation for “smooging”, that is, for sweet-talking young women, and spending time with an individual woman. Generically, “smooging”, pronounced to rhyme with “stooging”, means having a lot of experience with women, or being able to pick up a new girlfriend, and drop her for another. He is a ladies’ man! It remains unclear, and at the time Dennis could not publically publish, whether or not this means Bill is sexually experienced. Perhaps Bill’s smooging encounters with young women amounts to no more than flirting, cheeky talking, some kissing and cuddling. But nice girls, in those days didn’t have pre-marital sex! Mostly. Perhaps. This was an era when strict, puritanical Victorian morality still applied, albeit with a double-standard that turned a Nelsonic blind-eye to a man’s sexual exploits – with “low” women! It was also a time when contraception was extremely controversial and inefficient and difficult to obtain. Unmarried women had good reason to remain chaste.]
            I jist lines up an’ tips the saucy wink.
            But strike! The way she piled on dawg! Yeh’d think
            A bloke wus givin’ back-chat to the Queen. …
            ’Er name’s Doreen.
            [Bill approached her, Doreen, and caught her attention (a “saucy wink” is some kind of flirting facial expression, probably an actual, but suggestive wink of the eye: the word “saucy” means “a bit naughty”, or “cheeky”, or “impudent”, and is usually connected with flirting behaviour, or being “forward”, or overtly physical in paying attention to a person of the opposite sex. But Bill is surprised by her negative reaction. He says “strike!”, meaning “strike me!” or “strike me dead!” or “strike me pink!” – strong surprise indeed! Then Doreen “piled on dawg” or “dog”, that is, she reacted haughtily, with exaggerated propriety, or an affected excess of good manners. Bill feels as rejected as if he had been speaking cheekily to the Queen, in particular, Queen Victoria, the very proper, regal, formal Queen of England. By the time Bill is telling us this, of course, Queen Victoria’s playboy son, Prince Edward had married and become king, and had, himself, died, and been replaced by Queen Victoria’s grandson, King George. But the idea of the shocked response resulting from a massive breach of protocol is obvious!]


            • Woah John!
              I’ve got a much better idea than this.
              How about you do a guest post about CJ Dennis: <1000 words, who he was, why ppl should read him, and a sample of how your e-book can help readers to enjoy it.
              Times New Roman, no formatting.
              Interested? let me know!


              • That is a very generous offer, Lisa. I’ll try this, but you will need to let me know how to send the 1000 words to you.


      • I had an uncle (who was a teacher) who loved CJ Dennis, so I grew up hearing him quote sections of it at Christmas and every other family event he could fit in a recitation! For me there are happy memories associated with the broad Australian slang and ‘to live and love’ is a fine philosophy to embrace.


        • LOL My mother used to do The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’.

          My father used to do The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
          The days of children learning poems to recite for ‘company’ are long over, probably to the relief of many!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Maybe. Both my Pop (who had a whole book of poems and sayings he could recite) and my uncle seemed very proud of their abilities though!


            • Oh yes, and I remember that we had to learn a poem each week in ?Grade 6, I think. I liked it. But my friends, who were not as nerdy as I was, hated it and got into trouble because they often couldn’t do it.
              I’d be interested to know if there’s any empirical evidence to show that memorising poetry improved memory. I suspect that people just thought that it did, and so schools made it part of the English curriculum.


              • You ask, Lisa, about memorising poems (and other things) in school: “I’d be interested to know if there’s any empirical evidence to show that memorising poetry improved memory. I suspect that people just thought that it did, and so schools made it part of the English curriculum” .
                You are right that memorising has, traditionally, been a valued part of the curriculum, even without actual research, at the time, to confirm its value.
                Of course, it wasn’t just English, as a school subject, that relied on students to memorise things. Multiplication tables, rules for doing arithmetic, number facts; countries and cities and rivers and lakes and industries; kings and dates; grammar terms like noun and verb; spelling and exceptions to spelling rules; … In many ways memorising is a key element in learning.
                Research on the effects of memorising may not have existed in the 1950s and 60s. But modern research on the way brains work show that the experience of memorising helps strengthen brain function and the ability to memorise:
                As for memorising poems, in particular, this was a long-standing component of traditional education, corresponding to the memorising of Bible passages and hymns and prayers in church life.
                Also, culturally, before the invention of television, film, radio, and sound recording, people relied on themselves for entertainment at home. Playing musical instruments, singing, and recitation were widespread skills used to fill leisure hours. (This will be familiar from books, such as Jane Austen’s novels, or Charles Ingalls playing violin for his family in “The Little House in the Big Woods”.)
                If possible, a person was expected to be able to perform something, or be actively involved, at these family and social events.
                Being familiar with poetry, memorised, was also regarded as culturally valuable. Well-educated people were expected to read poetry for pleasure, consolation, and personal development.


                • I certainly remember learning the geography of Victoria by memorising stations along the train lines and the major rivers and mountains etc.
                  What was not so well taught in my day was the ability to analyse… we did surface levels of comprehension, but it was not until the senior years that we learned to read between the lines, to make generalisations from a range of sources, to notice what was not in the text that should have been, to identify bias and persuasive elements and so on. The difficulty is that these things are harder to teach, and impossible to teach at all unless children have good literacy skills to start with…


                • You are right, Lisa, that the school curriculum, Primary and much of Secondary, relied on students’ factual recall, and hence memorising of facts. That is still important, of course, and unavoidable. It’s part of knowing stuff.
                  You say, “What was not so well taught in my day was the ability to analyse, …” and that when this began to be taught in senior Secondary years, it depended on children having good literacy skills.
                  Indeed! Students who struggled to learn to read and write (dyslexia, technically) found High school very challenging, although some coped. (Thomas Edison was dyslexic, to give an extreme example.) Others left school as soon as they could, or chose Technical schools (in Victoria).
                  In my senior Secondary years (1964-1966), English, or English Expression, used a textbook series called “English for Australian Schools” by Ridout and McGregor. This included exercises in reading comprehension (understanding more than the surface meaning), precis writing (condensing a long passage of prose into a short version with the same essential meaning, and what was called Clear Thinking. This was actually logical analysis of argumentative writing, including detecting false arguments. This was assessed in classroom work, and in formal examinations. It was hard to teach, and has largely been abandoned, for that reason, as a formal study, although VCE (Year 12) English expects students to be able to analyse things such as controversial newspaper articles and scientific reports.


  2. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    This sounds very interesting – Jessica Mann was a trustee and friend of the Morrab Library. I think her sister ran Persephone Books.


  3. I can see why this one had such a personal resonance for you, Lisa. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to decide to send your children away, nor what it was like for the children. And how vulnerable they were, with no vetting or controls over who they went to. It makes me shudder to think about it.


    • Absolutely, and that point is made in the introduction, we wouldn’t countenance it today. Except that, at the very end, Jessica Mann, who was herself an evacuee, says that despite all the concerns, she thinks evacuation was the best thing under the circumstances.
      “In the last fifty years we have learnt that separation from mother and home inevitably damages the child’s mental health and the very idea of parents sending their children away to be cared for by strangers in unknown destinations now seems so shocking as to be literally unthinkable. Many of those who survived that wartime experience say that they would never part with their own children in similar of any other circumstances, and the, no doubt, will approve of Mrs Rawlings’s decisions. To end on a personal note, a former overseas evacuee myself, I think they are, and Mrs Rawlings was, absolutely wrong to ignore what have happened. Evacuation is a lesser evil than the dangers of total war. The separation of parent and child is a cruel fate but not as cruel as the risk of death.” (p.x111)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This does sound excellent. I’ve never heard of this author, The House Opposite sounds interesting too. You’ve made me realise that although I loved Carrie’s War and Goodnight Mr Tom as a child, I’ve read hardly anything about evacuee experience as an adult.


    • That’s interesting, isn’t it? I wonder if those chaps at Backlisted have anything else in their treasure trove?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I heard the discussion of this book on Backlisted also. It is a subject I find quite interesting too and thanks for sharing your father’s mentions of it.


    • It’s when I read books like this that my sense of Otherness here in Australia is reinforced. I have learned to say nothing when Australians talk about their sufferings on the home front.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Of course, Lisa, during WW II Australian civilians hardly suffered. Rationing existed, and domestic maintenance and building was largely suspended to concentrate on the war effort. Darwin and several other towns in the north were repeatedly bombed by the Japanese, but this affected a small proportion of the civilian population. Sydney was attacked, once, by miniature Japanese submarines, and Newcastle was briefly shelled by a Japanese submarine. Compared with what happened to the British population during the war (children evacuated, the Blitz, nighttime blackout, extreme rationing, V1 doodlebugs and V2 rockets, and the massive disruption caused by new armaments factories and airfields, and military build-up and training) Australians had it relatively easy. But I don’t think you should feel any need to saying nothing about your experience. Australians, who always like a good moan, were well aware of what the British endured, and I think most would be very interested to hear what happened to you. (Maybe you struck some hard-core whingeing Aussies.)


  6. Such a long time since I read Doreen. Great to have a reminder of it. I remember how much I loved it, finding it surprisingly poignant. I grew up in the 70s and 80s with a horror of evacuation not realising it wouldn’t happen to us. To be sent away from everything you know!


    • Well, yes, but we never imagined bombs falling on us in our homes either. I don’t think I would have taken that risk with my child, hard as it would be.


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