Recently I’ve been thinking about doing a PhD ( Me! A PhD! Me who didn’t even get her GCSE Maths!), and as part of this I’ve been considering what I’d do it on. There’s a part of me that yearns, genuinely, just to get buried in the books and occasionally pop up and produce a paper on the Freudian significance of Hilda Annersley’s changing eye colours … or something.
Anyway, my big passion remains the Chalet School, but my other thing is the treatment of creativity and talent in stories like this. You know my thing by now, I hope, but if you don’t, my big book loves are pretty much: school stories (Chalet School / Malory Towers / St Clares), dance books (Drina! Veronica! Inordinately sexy Angelo!), horses (Jill! Shantih! Ruth!), KM Peyton and every Angela Brazil where she’s not racist or doesn’t bang on about nature. Something’s been striking me recently which is a sort of confluence of a couple of these divergent strands.
And that is this: these stories tend to normalise creativity.
Creativity / talent / giftedness is, at its heart, a symbol of difference. Plucker and Stocking (2001) talk about this in their work. They state that students have two key schools of thought and influence by which they compare themselves against : the “internal comparison” whereby the student compares their ability at carrying out task X with their ability at carrying out task Y, and the “external comparison” of the ability of their immediate peer group (537).They also discuss the phenomenon that gifted children, once placed in gifted and talented programmes, regularly suffer a fall in grades (538) because they are then surrounded by other gifted and talented children. The initial gifted child is no longer ‘gifted’ when surrounded by their peers who are of a similarly talented nature as their gift has become normalised through context; the gifted and talented child is no longer unusual and different to their peers.
This is a sort of inverse scenario, the normalising of creativity because creativity itself becomes the new norm. The uncreative – the ungifted – become the oddities. That is what I’d argue swiftly happens in Lorna Hill’s Sadlers Wells books. Dance, artistry, creative expression becomes the norm and those characters who do not achieve an appreciation of this remain ‘out of the loop’. We do not empathise with them because our empathy is based on this mutual code of contextual appreciation and that context is the Arts. Dance. Caroline, gorgeous cake-loving Caroline, practically becomes a new character by the time of the events of No Castanets at the Wells. She becomes normalised within the context of these books.
To survive is to adapt, to fit in is to remain part of the dominating ideology of the narrative – even Grizel Cochrane from the Chalet School series finally gets her doctor and finally fits in, over fifty books since her first appearance in the books . “It’s time for you to eat white bread at last,” says her sagacious, doctor-having, best friend. (shut up Joey). The Collège des Musiciens from The School by the River normalises the creativity inherent in its purpose by only playing host to creative characters – therefore almost neutering the moments of great artistic achievement. There’s a curious sense of flatness to great parts of The School by the River for me. Jennifer’s brilliance, the whole ‘revolution in the city thing’, it’s all just a little bit too run of the mill which is a curious thing indeed for a book solely focusing on gifted and talented characters.
There’s an argument though that the school story (particularly in the era of Girlsown) has this normalising effect by the very fact that it is a school story. The school story genre is one which thrives on nominal equivalence between the characters. Difference is celebrated when it is in forms understandable to the genre: sport, academia, art – but this difference is ultimately subsumed by the needs of the school – the community. The individual matters to an extent, but the greater weight is and always will be the needs of the school.
But then again, there’s an element of normalising talent – of neutering talent – outside of the school story. One of the great examples that strikes me is in Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey books. Maidlin, as a child, is lovely. She burns from the page. And then, when she grows up, she becomes, well - deeper. “You know how love and marriage have developed Maidlin, who was far too much the artist at onetime [sic]. She’s still an artist and a much finer one than she would have been if she hadn’t met Jock. She’ll be singing again in public in the autumn … and everyone says how much her voice has deepened since she married” (1959:66). So here we’ve got a character who is gifted, intensely so, and one who has been ‘improved’ by her marriage. Her voice has deepened (therefore losing the presumably more girlish higher notes of her youth) and become rounder due to her life experience. Maria Nikolajeva in her excellent The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature talks about marriage as an archetypal enclosure suggesting that marrying off a female character allows them to be subsumed into a feminine archetype. (2002:45) If we think about Maidlin, society has effectively normalised and in a way neutered her talent because the gifted wife is more acceptable than the gifted talented, tempestuous and socially abjected teenager. Don’t even get me on to talking about Damaris and her whole marriage episode!
Do you know what? I think I might have an idea for that PhD after all…
(And is traditional here in the land of DYESTTAFTSA, here’s a ‘you made it to the end’ Pikachu. Congratulations! )
Works cited -
Nikolajeva, Maria (2002a) The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature Scarecrow Press Inc: Boston
Oxenham, Elsie (1953, this ed. 1959) A Dancer From the Abbey Wm Collins and Co: London
Plucker, Jonathan; Stocking, Vicki B (2001) Looking outside and inside: selfconcept development of gifted adolescents Exceptional Children Summer 2001: 535-548