No Castanets at the Wells : Lorna Hill

No Castanets at the Wells (Sadler's Wells #3)No Castanets at the Wells by Lorna Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These are the most beautiful books I own. The hardback editions of the Chalet School come close to them (that is, when I can sell my liver to afford one) but somehow they never quite reach the great grace of the Sadler’s Wells books. I think it all centres on that front cover and the way that they, all of them, catch light so well. These are sunlight, morning books full of warmth and glowing life. The artist, Esme Verity, is actually Hill’s daughter working under a pseudonym. And she’s gifted, incredibly. These are such painterly, eloquent books.

So, to No Castanets at the Wells, the third in this vibrant series. As with many of the authors I love, Hill was at her best early on in her series and this is joyful. Without giving away much of the plot, Hill inverts the ideal of the ballet story and points out the diverse nature of talent. Everyone has something special about themselves and to discover this isn’t easy, but it is most worthwhile.

I love these books. I love the poetics of them, the edge of space, the way that dance – music – artistic expression, all of it, is something serious and artful and important and worthwhile. There are certain sequences in this novel which are borderline epochal, both on a personal level but also with regards to the wider sector of children’s literature. There is love, there is fought for and tempestuous love, but there’s also character and nuanced, sharp reading of people.

I love this book. I love this series. Is that repetitive? I fear it is, but I don’t care. Hill is an education in the poetics of story; that graceful, carved edge of character and of space and place and of movement. When she is at her best, as she is in several points during this book, she is outstanding. Effortless, outstanding, peerless.

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Dancer’s Luck : Lorna Hill

Dancer's Luck (Dancing Peel, #2)Dancer’s Luck by Lorna Hill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second of one of Lorna Hill’s ‘other’ series, Dancer’s Luck is a fascinating read to somebody very much entrenched in the Well books. You’ll have to forgive me if I make any faux pas about this series as Dancer’s Luck is my introduction and, well, it’s a bit … stretched, is it not?

Oh, I’m leaping ahead and that is poor of me. It is wrong to address the issues without acknowledging first the strengths, for no book is wholly one or the other. They may be weak, or they may be strong, but they will always have (I hope!) something in them that they do well.

So Lorna. Lovely Lorna Hill. I have a great passion for her writing when it is at its best. It is light, loving and fiery all at the same time. It’s a curious skill to have, but I’ll defy many others of her contemporaries to be able to balance a great, passionate, almost pastoral love for life and dance against the banal practicalities of a career in the theatre. Her first Wells books are full of this, this sheer joy in existing and dancing and being.

Maybe it’s that that makes this book pale for me, because in a way it’s all been done better elsewhere. And she’s done the ‘flight to an audition’ already, and better, with Veronica, and she’s done the quietly attractive Scot better with Robin and his kitten rescuing powers. And she’s done the bad girl (Sheena is a bad girl, right?) better with poor foolish Fiona. It all feels a little bit … retrod. Like the curtain has been drawn up and the show must still go on even though nobody’s quite ready.

But that’s to do a lot of Dancer’s Luck a great disservice, for there is one thing that I think remains one of Lorna Hill’s huge and glorious talents, and that is to make you fall in love with the world. Hill loves her worlds. She writes nature, and the countryside, and the world of her characters with such passion and adoration and yes, a little overly romantically at points, but it’s hard to resist the sheer charm of it. She has such skills in translating the beauty of the world that, even with all this twice-told story, will always make me come back to her.

One additional thing to note is that I rather love Hill’s Noel Streatfeild-esque stylistics in Dancer’s Luck, what with having the cross references to Madame Boccaccio…

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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.

Rosanna Joins the Wells : Lorna Hill

Rosanna Joins the Wells (Sadler's Wells, #8)Rosanna Joins the Wells by Lorna Hill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh but this book is pale and wan and feels as though you could hold it up to the light and feel the paper disintegrate in your hands. And it is saddening, saddening, for Lorna Hill shines, even now, even in her last Wells books, and yet in almost the same breath she fades like the setting of a shadowy sun.

Rosanna is a tragic heroine; tragically romantic, tragically verklempt, tragically dancing with a wild naivete and innocence and coincidentally doing her beautiful, wondrous dancing under the training of a talented tutor. And handily enough she, through a series of increasingly awkward coincidences, ends up joining the Wells. Along the way she has encounters with a world of recurring characters ranging from the King of Slavonia through to Ella “let me hug your Swan” Rosetti.

Here is where the series aches and falters, and crumbles internally. As noted in this excellent article , the recurrent plots and ballet hotbed of the North of England begin to pale as they are re-re-reused, increasingly lacking a freshness each and every time they make their presence felt anew.

And yet, here’s where I contradict myself, near wholly. Despite everything, despite all of this, I love Lorna Hill. I love the way that even when she’s trotting out the whole Miss Martin is awesome thing, she does so with a nuanced eye for detail and humanity. Yes, the humanity is occasionally something out of a depressing Victorian sermon, but it is humanity nonetheless. I love the way she never quite forgives Fiona, immolates Nigel, and can’t ever quite recover the searing power Sebastian holds his introduction to the series (granted, she does achieve this in No Castanets at the Wells but this is all too glorious and brief to really matter).

I recommend this book. I recommend it in the way I recommend one of the later Chalet School books. Read it with a love for what this writer was – and what she has achieved – and what she can, albeit so very briefly, still achieve.

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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

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!

Dear Lorna Hill, this is why I love you

“Mary Martin, coming out of the class to seek a register, paused on the threshold of the practice room and held an astonishing sight. An extraordinarily beautiful and graceful little girl was dancing exquisitely all by herself in the empty room! Moreover she was dancing with all her heart and soul. Jealous filled Mary’s heart. Which ballet school owned this lovely child? Which school (and she knew them all) could possibly have trained a dancer like this? The child’s ports de bras were big and flowing, her beautifully turned out limbs, her strongly arched feet, the graceful carriage of her head, set on a long and slender neck, her expressive face, her whole style – oh, it was just not possible! Mary couldn’t bear to think that the child hadn’t been trained by her! Or that someone else would take the credit for giving this dancer to the world”

From Rosanna Joins the Wells by Lorna Hill