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.”
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.