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..!