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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“Dance like there’s nobody watching” (I love you Lorna Hill)

I’m not quite sure when I fell in love with Lorna Hill. I think it may have been the moment when she threw ponies into the mix. Ponies + dance books = holy grail for the book obsessed individual that I was (am/is).

So as part of my contribution towards @playbythebook‘s monthly festival of themed children’s book reviews  (which is, this month, focusing terribly handily on dance related books, you’d almost think this was planned or something), here’s a tribute to the great joy that is Lorna Hill.

We begin with Lorna Hill. We begin with books that are so beautiful, they’re practically edible. Though I didn’t start with those, I started with the pale and increasingly jaundiced covers of the Pan editions which were published around the late 80s and 90s (and I seem to recall, around the same time of those awful Chalet School reprints).

The thing about Lorna Hill is is this. She wrote beautifully, achievable believable beauty, and she wrote with such elegance that it makes me breathless. There’s a romance about ballet, about dance, about art, even, and it’s something she embraced with gusto. Consider this moment from one of her books. There’s a depth in that passage that astounds me, a mixture of hunger, of jealousy – anger almost – and an urge for this gift, this gift of such beauty, to be shared with the world. And there’s an element in there that is saying – why would you not share this? Why would you keep this beautiful, beautiful thing to yourself?

That’s layered, deep and powerful stuff there. And it’s also nuanced, considering the roles of the dancer themselves but also of the supporting cast and of their environment. It’s something Hill’s particularly good at because she catches people, and voices, very well. Yes it slides into awkwardness the further the series goes on, but her earlier books are full of a rampant delight and joy in this world that she’s created. I do have issues in how she sidelines Veronica so thoroughly in the later books, and how the uniqueness of talent becomes so very normalised through overuse but they’re the sort of issues that arise from my passionate love for these characters and the way I know Hill can write them.

Sometimes, with a dance book, it’s easy to become blase. “She has talent, omg stuff happens, hey ho, she’s made prima ballerina, job done” But Hill doesn’t do that. She shows dancers being great, and also falling from greatness. Of settling for lives lived somewhere else, in different ways, and with different goals.

Which is quite the thing.

I love you Lorna Hill.

A Genius At The Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A Genius at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #38)A Genius at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It strikes me as curious that I’ve never actually reviewed this until now. Nina Rutherford is very much a fascination of mine and so this is a book that is very much overdue a review.

Brent-Dyer once wrote a book populated solely by gifted and talented characters (The School by the River). And she did this with great success. The School By The River is a school story with a Ruritanian twist and possesses some of the most attractive characters ever to feature in the school story genre (I’m looking at you Molly). It’s strange then that in her main series, her big life-defining series, Brent-Dyer featured gifted and talented characters with almost palpable reluctance. Of course we have people like Joey, Margia, Jacynth and Nina herself but they are notable in their rarity. The Chalet School was a series built on fitting in and ‘being a real Chalet School girl’ rather than being some icon of God-Given talent. And I think that’s where this book struggles. Nina is so patently a cipher for her talent, a functionary device (have a think about how many of the ‘new girl’ books actually feature their names) that any character development is put quite patently on hold.

And yet I find A Genius At The Chalet School rather remarkable, because Brent-Dyer does something quite strange here. She delivers a plot of glorious linearity but ties herself up in knots through the spectacular un-linear nature of the new girl herself. Nina doesn’t fit in. She can’t and never will. She is a foreign object in a community that does not know how to deal with her and her wild talent.

So yes, this book is pedestrian. Spectacularly, brain dribblingly, so at points. But it’s also fascinating because of the way the Chalet School ideology is displayed, challenged and contravened all due to the presence of this new girl who really is quite unlike anyone else.

Here’s a longer piece I wrote on Nina and genius in the Chalet School series. It elaborates on some of the points mentioned above. Also this is a post I did about the nature of genius and giftedness in the wider GirlsOwn genre.

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The New Normal : The Normalising of Creativity

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

How to be a genius : Paul Barker

How To Be A Genius: A Handbook For The Aspiring Smarty PantsHow To Be A Genius: A Handbook For The Aspiring Smarty Pants by Paul Barker

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I can see where this is coming from, I really can. Essentially it’s a Horrible Histories-esque spin on how to be a genius, covering topics such as ‘The Evil Genius’, ‘Fields of Genius’ and ‘The Legacy of Genius’. And, as a whole, it succeeds. There’s some fun in it and a lot of nicely put together sections. I really enjoyed the genuine love of the subject – and it is a fascinting subject. I mean, who knows how we achieve genuius? There’s so much here to play with.

And, in parts, it succeeds. It is incredibly useful in many ways in that it provides a taxonomy of genius for the younger market. This is a rare and unusual thing and one which I salute wholeheartedly. I also approved how they didn’t remain on the ‘positive’ angles of genius and, even though it was brief, discussed individuals such as Stalin and Hitler. It’s an interesting and challenging angle to take.

What I also enjoyed was how it dealt with the pros and cons of extreme talent. There’s also some really smart (and lovely) illustrations throughout, particularly in the genius case studies that occur at regular intervals. These illustrations are vaguely cubist in style and sort of quirkily cool.

As a whole though this book struggles and I found it very problematic. It’s one of those books that rather over-defines certain terms whilst neglecting others and ultimately loses the wit and irreverence it started with. There’s a lot of fun at the start of this and then, somehow, it rather gets lost.

Both in the case studies and throughout the book, there’s a tendency to gender giftedness as masculine. Whilst I quite accept the point of this book that the lack of women geniuses is due to the “patriarchal culture” (39) I do not accept that this is a view that we should be promulgating. Illustrations such as the leggy blonde with the tiny bespectacled gentleman(96), the seduction tips (“Wear low-cut lab coats”, hang out in galleries, fainting occasionally” – 102), are, whilst clearly intended humorously, deeply troublesome to me.

And this is a massive shame because there are areas where this book is brilliant and superb at describing the signs and nature of genius between the sexes. I loved the biography of Marie Curie and his section on the ‘genius gender’ (p39) is intensely promising, mentioning several interesting artists I’m keen to find out more upon. But then that’s the first and last time we hear of them, which sort of confirms the point that women can only achieve genius ‘when allowed’.

There’s a lot that’s good about this book, and a lot that’s less good, and I think the problem lies in the question of audience. At present this book is trying to be everything to everyone, at least superficially, and I think underneath it’s a rather different matter.

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The nature of inspiration

Image: gasboyben (Flickr)

I recently went to see the Jersey Boys in London and was struck in particular by the story of Bob Gaudio. Gaudio was the songwriter behind some of the greatest and most enduring songs in 20th century music – ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘Rag Doll’, ‘Beggin”, and so many more. There’s a moment in the musical where, in a moment of pure theatricality, Gaudio steps out of the narrative and tells us about how he wrote the song Sherry only fifteen minutes before a rehearsal. In this video he talks about it just popping into his head and having to catch it with ‘silly’ lyrics that eventually stuck.

And that was something that made me think. I’m very interested in genius, creativity and talent and how it’s represented in children’s literature. In particular, I’m very much  interested in the nature of inspiration. The moment where something clicks and somebody creates something superb. Whether it’s a physical thing, a chemical thing or something other worldly – that’s the bit that fascinates me.

I decided to look into it. From my list of books featuring gifted and talented characters, we have a variety of circumstances that push the protagonist into the full exploitation of their talent. By this I mean, those moments where the individual  In no particular order, and from the three books / series’ I know the best:

  • Nina Rutherford (Chalet School) writes her first ‘adult’ piece as a tribute to Joey’s newborn daughter, Cecil. There’s a long note (no pun intended!) in the text where Nina, Joey and the author all realise that ‘the promise of Nina’s future’ is written in this piece. Nina is ‘dazed’ by this, physically feeling the delivery of the piece. 
  • Veronica (Sadlers Wells) reaches her great heights initially through reacting to the Northumbrian countryside. There’s a particularly lovely quote in A Dream of Sadlers Wells where the connection between her dance and her surroundings is made explicit. Veronica is able to read and interpret this beauty through her movement and that’s when she starts to develop as a dancer.
  • Pennington (Pennington series) achieves his greatness through a sort of permanent defiance against a society that seems convinced to stereotype him. His talent is further developed through the benevolent / paternal influence of both Ruth and The Professor, but still retains that initial sense of anti-establishmentism.

So what’s this tell us? Primarily that a sample of three titles isn’t representative of the whole, but what they do tell us is that these books feature a very distinctive form of ‘literary’ genius. The genius in these books doesn’t quite reflect stories such as Gaudio’s. The genius in these books reacts and acts in the context of being book-bound. There’s a tendency to reason from cause to effect (let’s all guess where I got that phrase from 😉 ) and a tendency to ‘explain’ the talent of the protagonist through logical / rational influences.

I do wonder though if there’s a book out there that explores the fragmentary, intangible nature of genius, and seeks to do so without this ‘rationalising’. I look forward to finding it if it does exist!

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..!