The Girls of St Cyprians : Angela Brazil

The Girls of St. CypriansThe Girls of St. Cyprians by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I posted last night on Twitter with some degree of hysteria that The Girls of St Cyprians was now available on Project Gutenberg. This, for those of you that haven’t experienced this title, is a Very Good Thing.

Angela Brazil is an experience, really, what with her ‘expostulated’ and her ‘declaimed’ and her pathological need to avoid the word ‘said’ and her distinctly racist moments(oh hello, The School in the South). Sometimes I have to skip the worst of these (viz said racism and also the interminable ‘let’s hear a local legend whilst we skip through the meadows’ / ‘oh here is my inheritance in the form of a mislaid will’ chapter) but that’s all part of the experience of my modern reading of an author who was writing over a hundred years ago. It is, however, something I acknowledge whenever I read her, and something that I balance against that reading.

Here, in The Girls Of St Cyprians, Brazil is really rather on form. St Cyprians engages in a series of competitions with several other local schools in “A kind of Olympic contest? Oh, what sport!” It’s an unusual topic for Brazil and it’s one that she gets her teeth into. Though it is ultimately Mildred Lancaster’s (sensitive musical genius Mildred!) story, and the story of her talent, it reads like more of an ensemble piece once

What’s particularly interesting in The Girls Of St Cyprians is how it reflects several of Brazil’s key tropes. Girls are hearty, happy and well-rounded. Mildred, with her gift, gets a little authorial interjection the moment that she appears: “[her appearance] suggested that highly-strung artistic temperament which may prove either the greatest joy or the utmost hindrance to its possessor.” Mildred’s also not quite the paragon some of Brazil’s other heroines tend to be, and this is lovely to read. Obviously Mildred gets her act together by the end of the book otherwise she would not be a Brazil heroine.

If you’re interested in the representation of gifted and talented characters in children’s literature (with a lot of focus on Girlsown books because, well, it’s me), I have a reading list of titles here and an archive of related posts here.

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Loyal to the School : Angela Brazil

Loyal to the SchoolLoyal to the School by Angela Brazil

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It may be the result of me binging on a lot of Angela Brazil novels at the moment, but Loyal To The School genuinely struck me as a bit poor. Lesbia Ferrars’ guardian and his family decide to emigrate to Canada and Lesbia is expected to join them. Acting on the spur of the moment, Lesbia runs away from the ship and heads back to the family of her nearest schoolfriend – convinced by her friend that they will put her up. It turns out that this is far from the truth, and it’s an awkward year in prospect for Lesbia when she is passed from distant relative, to distant relative, and forced to earn her keep at school as a sort of ‘teacher-student’ to the lower forms.

Loyal To The School is full of the typical Angela Brazil motifs. It’s also got a particularly glorious chapter where the new incumbent headmistress decides to address the ‘sentiment’ dominent in the lower forms. This leads to some slightly hysterical protests on behalf of the girls that can’t help but read awkwardly in a contemporary climate (“..Any time was kissing time!”)

Despite the faults of heavy moralising, and ‘lesson learning’ from Lesbia, it’s still full of the Brazil charm that makes it distinctly appealing at points. Lesbia herself however isn’t really amongst the best of Brazil’s characters and never quite reaches the heights of say, a Winona or Monitress Merle.
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A Pair of Schoolgirls : Angela Brazil

A Pair of SchoolgirlsA Pair of Schoolgirls by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s always a difficulty in reviewing an Angela Brazil for me in that all of her books pretty much resemble another. We have the girl in transition who is caught at a key point in her life (if you ignore all the hyperbole, it’s essentially puberty), some romantic nature / historical interludes, some inter-form based squabbles, a macguffin, and impoverished noble gentle folk who, by the end of the book, have resumed their rightful station in life.

The above is true, but a bit harsh because it’s a groove that works. This book is one hundred years old this year (what’s left of it!), and it’s sort of fascinating to see how much it has dated. There are parts that haven’t dated in the slightest: the quickness of the schoolgirl relationships, the longing to go round to somebody’s house after school, the relationship between pupils and staff. That’s what Brazil was good at, phenomenally good. She had voice down. So very down. The language of these children whilst naturally archaic to a modern reader sings. Utterly. There’s a lightness and vivacity to it, and it’s the sort of language that you know (you utterly utterly know) that you’d only find in an Angela Brazil.

All of the big school story authors had their quirks. Oxenham had her country-dancing, Brent-Dyer had the marrying them off to doctors thing, and Brazil had her plot twists. The twist in A Pair of Schoolgirls is a thing of epic wonder and epic hysteria all at the same time. It’s always joyous when we hear the ‘confession’ in a Brazil, and this time is no exception to the rule.

A Pair of Schoolgirls is very run of the mill as far as a Brazil book can be, but I loved the twist here. And I loved the levels she gave Dorothy, even though those levels came with such deep levels of authorial intervention that I skipped a few of the longer ‘Dorothy was learning…’ paragraphs.

With some of my favourite authors, I always tend to wonder what they’d be like in real life. Brent-Dyer would be a bit giddy, a bit tipsy even though the nearest she’d come to alcohol was as a word in dictation. Oxenham would be sat sagaciously in the corner, like a rather wise old Judi Dench / Maggie Smith hybrid. And Angela Brazil would be one of those terrifyingly astute and severe ladies who could give you a *particular* look, and you’d do whatever she wanted.

My copy of this was downloaded from the amazing Project Gutenberg.
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When you read one book, but can’t stop thinking of another

It’s an act of literary bigamy. That moment when you pick up your new read but can’t help but contrast it against that other book you read.

And it happened to me this week.

I’m not going to review the new read because I don’t think I can do it objectively. I’ve got no bones about doing a ‘bad’ review, but I do have issues when I know that I’ve read one book in a spirit of heightened critical awareness.

So what can I do? Well, I can tell you all about the book that I couldn’t stop thinking of and some thoughts this process has triggered in me. The original book was War Horse by Micheal Morpurgo. It’s an inestimable book and one that’s repeatedly defined my attitude towards children’s literature as a whole. I don’t think I’d be far off if I described it as nearly wholly defining and creating a genre of its very own. There’s a totality to War Horse that few other books have achieved. Harry Potter, yes, and Twilight and  probably The Hunger Games also make the list. They’re all books that have transferred successfully to another medium and been integrated into our social consciousness. I’d imagine there’s not many people out there who haven’t heard of War Horse, whether that’s from reading it, seeing it, or witnessing Joey rearing on top of the National Theatre during the Jubilee boat thing on the Thames.

I know there’s another instance where I do a similar thing. With Elinor M. Brent-Dyer reaching such stupendous heights of creation in The Chalet School in Exile, I know I’ve read books from Angela Brazil (published during a similar timeframe in World War Two) and done nothing but compare them against the stunning polemic in Exile. 

There’s a theory that there are only seven plots in the world, so if you subscribe to that school of thought, in a way we’ve already read every book that’s been written – and we’ve also read all of those that haven’t been written. So maybe what I’m actually doing here, when I read something and compare it sharply back to a previous book, is that I’m actually trying to replicate the way that previous book made me feel. Maybe I’m trying to subconsciously recreate the ‘hit’ of that book and experience an inevitable disappointment when it does not occur.

(Maybe this is just all part of the addiction, the curve and cycle of your reading habit, how you long  to recreate that moment when you broke and wept and cleansed your head of all the pain and darkness in your mind just because of the way a stranger ordered some letters on a page).

So I put my other book down, I step away from it and I make a decision to read it in the future when my mind is less clouded.

And I pick up my copy of War Horse.

Identifying geniuses in children’s literature

Genius is one of those almost unidentifiable things. You either have it, or you don’t, and until you become able to manifest it in ways we understand and can legitimise (ie: through a Mensa Test) , it may remain a relatively hidden talent.

It’s a difficulty faced by geniuses in children’s literature and one that I’m going to explore in this post. I’m going to focus on female characters this time round and write an accompanying post when I finally get my hands on Simon Mayo’s “Itch“.

So. How do we recognise the female genius? How do we treat her in the context of the narrative? Is it as something precious – something cliched – or something resolutely Other? How do writers handle difference – difference so manifestly extreme as Genius?

Angela Brazil in a splendidly airy manner tended to give her characters a ‘certain indefinable something’ and then promptly went about describing it. It’s particularly interesting to compare and contrast her (elaborate) descriptions of Mildred Lancaster and Lottie Lowman in The Girls of St Cyprian’s.

The two class-mates who entered the room at that moment were certainly entirely unlike as regards personal appearance, and the dissimilarity went deeper. Lottie Lowman, the elder by six months, was a brisk, alert-looking girl with a fresh complexion, a rather long, pointed nose, a thin mouth, and a square, determined chin. Her forehead was broad and intelligent, her light hazel eyes were very bright and sparkling, and her brown hair held just a suggestion of chestnut in the warmth of its colouring. Lottie’s general effect was one of extreme vivacity. She loved to talk, and could say sharp things on occasion—there was hardly a girl in the Form who had not quailed before her tongue—and above all she adored popularity. To be a general favourite at once with mistresses, companions, and the Lower School was her chief aim, and she spared no trouble in the pursuit. Her flippant gaiety appealed to a large section of the Form, her humorous remarks were amusing, even though a sting lurked in them, and if her accomplishments were superficial, they made a far better show than the more-solid acquirements of others. She could do a little of everything, and had such perfect assurance that no touch of shyness ever marred her achievements. She knew absolutely how to make the best of herself, and she had a savoir faire and precocious knowledge of the world decidedly in advance of her sixteen years.

Mildred Lancaster, though only six months Lottie’s junior, seemed a baby in comparison, where mundane matters were concerned. She was slightly built and rather delicate-looking, with a pale, eager face, a pair of beautiful, expressive brown eyes, and a quantity of silky, soft, dull-gold hair, with a natural ripple in it. The far-away look in the dark eyes, and the set of the sensitive little mouth, suggested that highly-strung artistic temperament which may prove either the greatest joy or the utmost hindrance to its possessor. Mildred was dreamy and unpractical to a fault, the kind of girl who in popular parlance needs to be “well shaken up” at school, and whose imagination is apt to outrun her performance. Gifted to an unusual degree in music, at which she worked by fits and starts, her lack of general confidence was a great impediment, and often a serious handicap where any public demonstration was concerned. The feeling of having an audience, which was like the elixir of life to Lottie, filled Mildred with dismay, and was apt to spoil her best efforts.

It’s a long quote and one I feel worthwhile in indulging in because there’s a lot here. There’s a certain level of nuance at play which is rather unusual in a Brazil (I love her but she’s not subtle). Lottie’s ability with music is obviously of a lesser quality than that of Mildred. Mildred possess a ‘sensitive little mouth’ whilst Lottie’s is merely ‘thin’. Mildred is ‘gifted to an unusual degree’ , Lottie doesn’t actually have any direct comment on her talent whatsoever. It goes on throughout the book and essentially suggests that giftedness manifests itself in the (repeatedly mentioned) sensitive bearing and appearance of Mildred. Basically Lottie’s got no hope for achieving ‘high’ art after that rather waspish introduction.

I’ve spoken before about how the treatment of Maidlin in the Elsie Oxenham books strikes me as hideous. In a way, she’s neutered by her marriage. Her wild, tempestuous, Italianate nature disappears and in the few post marriage books I’ve managed to find, she’s described less by her physical appearance and just as Primrose (her Queen colours). It’s narratorial consumption. Now admittedly this is a fate that befalls a lot of the Abbey girls (womanhood? Nope, not for you petal), but it always strikes me as awful with Maidlin, the vivacious child tempered and subdued by adulthood.

From a more modern perspective, one of the key female geniuses in children’s literature has been Hermione Granger. Although Hermione faces a suppression of her academic ability in the early parts of Philosophers Stone, her skills and intelligence rapidly become lifesaving. She’s a vital part of the trio. Debuting with ‘a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth’, this changes later on in the books due to a variety of factors:

It was Hermione. But it didn’t look like Hermione at all. She had done something with her hair; it was no longer bushy but sleek and shiny, and twisted up into an elegant knot at the back of her head. She was wearing robes made of a floaty, periwinkle-blue material, and she was holding herself differently, somehow–or maybe it was merely the absence of the twenty or so books she usually had slung over her back. She was also smiling–rather nervously, it was true–but the reduction in the size of her front teeth was more noticeable than ever; Harry couldn’t understand how he hadn’t spotted it before.

It always struck me as painful (and yes, this is over-identification, what of it?) that by removing the manifestation of her skills (ie: the books), she achieved beauty. There’s a sense of the resolutely academic brilliance of the early Hermione softening as she becomes more rounded and integrated into Hogwarts society. Yes, she is brilliant, and remains so, but it’s not the first thing we identify about her (or at least, it wasn’t for me).

So is it even possible to identify the genius and the gifted in children’s literature or is the entirety of this post based on a conceptual fallacy? It’s hard to identify genius when the author doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge it. Elinor M. Brent-Dyer backs away from labelling her darling Joey thus, negates any sense of Jacynth being a genius and ultimately affixes the label solely to Nina Rutherford. Nina, being the only genius in the Chalet School, is a rather unique achievement considering Brent-Dyer’s affinity for the concept of musical talent.

I think that , rather than distinguishing the physical characteristics of ‘actual’ genius and sliding into Angela Brazil “Oh the Lady!” style worship,  it is possibly to distinguish one of the stages of genius – the pre-integration stage. The awkward, inwardly focused stage where the character is so locked into their talent that they’re not even responding to the whims of the author let alone the reader. The stage where the character is so locked in their own narrative.

And I think that’s maybe why we can identify that stage rather than the appearance of a genius because that stage  appears in nearly every book featuring genius. Geniuses are different – regardless of their talent – and it’s the ‘management’ of that talent which then forms the rest of the story and that conflict is a necessary driver for the story. Now the question of why that management usually results in a ‘normalising’ of the talent is a question for another post..!

The nature of genius in GirlsOwn Literature

Margia Bettany. Maidlin di Ravarati.Mildred Lancaster.

Three characters, from three distinctly different authors. The one thing they have in common (apart from starting with the letter M..)? They’re all gifted and talented characters in their respective books.

Genius in GirlsOwn Literature is a curious thing. It’s almost precluded to be gender specific due to the dominance of female characters in these books. Being female in a GirlsOwn book tends to mean you’re part of the status quo. You fit in. You’re part of the dominant species.

But then, when you’re gifted, when you’re a genius, you become something very different.

You become something quite incomprehensible in a literary construct full of parity and equality. You become something very dangerous indeed.

You become Other.

Consider Veronica Wells. A dancer of incredible ability, prima ballerina assoluta, she’s skilled in an art which involves a curious dichotomy. She has such an intense passion for simply living and being, and yet her lifework is to obey an artform which consumes that individuality through asking practitioners to maintain the rules and standards and movements set in stone by a host of dancers before them.

The gifted dancer in GO literature is a contradiction. She is both controlled and uncontrollable. She is action and music; woman and dancer, line and note.

 “…there’s only one Veronica. She lives every role she dances. She possesses such extraordinary musicality that she can tell by the way a note or chord is played exactly what it means. She’s – she’s just the essence of music!” Jane Leaves The Wells (1989b:70)

Veronica is everything, and she sings from the page.

Until, one day, she stops.

“Whether it was that her life was dedicated to her art – even her marriage coming second – or that she naturally couldn’t lead a gay, sophisticated life, but must practise every morning, and go to bed early each night when she wasn’t on the stage, the fact remains – the pale oval face, with the big dark eyes and sweet sensitive mouth, was still that of a child.” (73)

There’s a tension here, an immediate distancing of her gift from her marriage. Veronica Weston, the dancer, is not Veronica Scott, the wife and mother. Her life is a series of roles and, as the series progresses, there’s a strange feeling that she’s comfortable in none. Is this the impact of her genius? To be permanently a child, longing solely for a daughter (viz. the Vicki / Nona swap)  who can continue her artistic legacy?

Veronica’s experience, Hill’s patent discomfort with letting her character “grow up”,  is in severe contrast to the fate of Damaris, the titular dancer of A Dancer From the Abbey. Damaris is marriage fodder, nothing else, and the brunt of what always seems to me to be a very severe attitude from Elsie Oxenham.

“’I should say that she would be wrong to deny her gift its full expression just for the sake of ease and comfort; to settle down at home and enjoy herself [comments Mary-Dorothy, a friend of the family] But if she loved some man, I’d say she was right to give up even her dancing for him. I’d think it was wrong to let her career spoil the happiness of two lives … ‘You can’t deny that Damaris is one-sided. At present only her artist part is being developed. We shall see where she ends.’” A Dancer From the Abbey (1959:65)

I still can’t read that without my jaw dropping. Even the un-named narrator joins in at one point: “Would Damaris really be strong enough to turn from her career, if Mary Damayris had a great triumph?” (1959:222)

The novel is concerned primarily with whether Damaris marries and leaves the stage. To be frank, it’s obvious where she’ll end up and sure enough Damaris quits dancing to get married.

So is that it? Is that all giftedness is?

Not in a Noel Streatfield novel. Streatfield allowed her gifted and talented characters to use their gift in a practical setting and explore alternative options to a more traditional career path. Ballet Shoes sees Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil achieve highly in the fields of dance, acting and engineering. Circus Shoes sees Peter and Santa find a home for themselves and their abilities in the circus.

Children in a Noel Streatfield novel are viewed at the same level as adults. The preponderance of orphans (and therefore the absense of parents) allows the child to engage in adventures without adult authority. Talent is a positive catalyst for development upon both the individual and the wider world.

So are there moments when talent is a distancer? When it pushes the child away from others, and forces them into isolation?

I think so, and I think The School by the River by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer provides one of the most cogent examples of this.

“…I think that, if God prospers the work, we may give two more such [geniuses] to mankind in Tamara and the little Jennifer. Theirs [sic] is the divinity that makes the difference between Talent and Genius. They will pay for that divinity again and again in bitter tears, deep sorrows, and griefs [sic] such as are known only to the few. It must be so, or they could not have the gift. For most of us, there is steady work, and a lesser knowledge of woe. But none of us can make the most of what God has given us unless we do our best to live as he would live … no man – nor woman either – has ever been great who did not yield up self and evil. No one has ever been great who has not first suffered greatly. And no man comes to greatness except another hold out to him first a helping hand?” (1999:221)

Brent-Dyer was never one for beating around the bush and here she is perhaps at her most coherent and emphatic through the mouthpiece of Signor Mirandos as he addresses one of the “bad” girls at the school – Emily. Signor Mirandos mentions Jennifer Craddock, central heroine of the novel, and refers to her gift in a most intriguing manner.

Jennifer is not gifted. She is a genius. But she is not gifted in her own right. She is gifted from God. Brent-Dyer’s very clear about the role of religion here and it’s clear that the giftedness is not owned by the child. They are merely caretakers of the gift. These children have achieved Godhood and therefore become worthy of worship in their own right. They’re no longer children and indeed, as the book processes, the difference between “gifted” Jennifer, and “normal” Jennifer, become near-palpable.

This ‘divine giftedness’  is something which is made explicit in  The Girls of St Cyprians by Angela Brazil. Mildred Lancaster, playing at a public occasion, is described thusly: “She had got at the heart of the musician’s meaning and those who listened felt that throb of pure delight which can raise common-place lives for the moment to the level of the skies.” The Girls of St Cyprians (1969: 70)

Mildred comes to a moment of realisation about her talent (and, to be honest, it’s a realisation that only Angela Brazil could have written): ” [She had] a rare and special talent such as God gives to but very few in this world – a talent to be taken humbly, and rejoiced in, and treasured zealously, and cultivated carefully … it seemed to her that, in spite of her lack of lands, she was not
quite portionless [sic]. God’s gifts to His children were not all alike…to another the genius that has the power to create for itself. Which was the nobler bequest she could not tell, but she knew that after all she, too, had an inheritance.”

Gosh.

So Giftedness, if we mention God, seems to shift into a sort of indentured servitude where the “holder” of the gift spends their time trying to repay and live up to the divine gift upon which they have been bestowed. There’s also an element of rationalising the gift; the child is no longer “other”, they are merely blessed and can be effectively managed within society providing we are all aware of this gift.

So what’s the point of genius? Why even have it in your GirlsOwn book at all if it’s such a difficult beast to manage?

Because this is reality. These characters, with their furious anti-establishmentism force us to question who we are. We define ourselves in relation to others. Joey Bettany, when presented with Nina Rutherford, vehemently defines herself as “not a genius”. Joey is “normal” (LOL). She fits in to the world she is a part of.

And that’s what they do. Mildred, Margia, Maidlin, Nina, Damaris et al, they make us question and realise who we are. We read their great giftedness, their talent and their skills, and we define ourselves alongside them. GirlsOwn Literature is at heart about growth, about becoming who you are and not “spineless jellyfish”.

Some of us sing songs. Some of us play music. Some of us do an arabesque that can bring tears to your eyes.

We’re all human.

And the warped literary mirror of giftedness, genius, talent, whatever you may call it, allows us to realise that to stunning effect.

Angela Brazil and the Case Of The Verb Vendetta

File:A Popular Schoolgirl - book cover - Project Gutenberg eText 18505.jpg

Angela Brazil taught me a lot of things. There’s a lot of fun to be had with a camp fire and a well meaning lady of suitable class to ‘pash’ on. Don’t go for a walk in the countryside without a handy story on the local mythology. And never ever drive a motor car when you’ve not taken off the brake.

I admit that a lot of her work borders on bonkers now but Angela Brazil retains a very special place in my heart primarily for her mean vocabulary. Take this extract of the first 10 pages from The Luckiest Girl In The School.

sighed Mrs. Woodward / suggested Percy / volunteered Winona / objected Winona / said Percy / replied Mrs. Woodward / she asked her brother / replied that light-hearted youth /  said Winona / she said / interrupted Winona / ejaculated Winona / she exclaimed / wavered Mrs. Woodward / he declared / exclaimed Percy / groaned Winona / flared Winona / teased Percy / said Letty / retorted Winona / said Percy blandly / declared Winona aggrievedly.

Ten pages of solid stuff (with naturally a brief dalliance to describe Winona’s appearance, local flora and fauna) and Brazil practically kills herself before having to use “said” again. It’s amazing. It’s like she has a vendetta against verbs of one syllable.

Brazil is an education and one I recommend most heartily. If she does nothing else, she’ll help out your vocabulary. But do feel free to skip past the interminable “Teacher Regales A Local Legend Whilst The Girls Are On A Nature Walk” chapter – I really won’t judge you as I’ll be doing the exact same thing!

There’s a nice biography of Brazil available here and a ton of her books are available via Project Gutenberg.