Everything else

Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill

Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill front cover

Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The more I read of the authors I read, the more I become convinced that there is a fine line between ridiculous and genius. So close and yet sometimes, so very much one or the other. It is the problem, I think, of being so squarely located within a series and world that you, as the author, have created, and being unable to find your way out of it. The Drina books suffered from this towards the end, I think, because it was too far in. So did Harry Potter if I’m being frank; I ached for it to be edited so much more towards the end of the series, and yet there they were. Behemoths, character-locked, mythology wrapped islands. Maybe it’s a problem of series fiction, and not one of genre at all. Maybe that’s what series do: leave you wrapped up in a problem of your own making and you’re just left trying to find the way out.

And so to Lorna Hill, and this delightful yet inherently ridiculous affair. Annette Dancy (“dancey by name and dancey by nature” reader, I die) needs to get to Scotland. She has no money but a great idea. Inevitably, none of that matters because everything works out! As you always knew it would! This isn’t a spoiler! You knew it from the moment you read it!

There’s something comforting about Lorna Hill and I do love her, but this is essentially ‘dancer on a boat and then dancer in Scotland’ and she’s done it better elsewhere. Much better. Dancer In The Wings just feels comfortable; a book span out of air, easy as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West. And even in that comfortable ridiculousness, there are moments when it’s still perfect, albeit briefly, so very briefly, because Hill does write a bloody good dance scene. You root for Annette, even though she’s an idiot, and you root for dancing on a ship, even though it’s ridiculous, because Hill makes it work. It’s comfortable, comforting stuff, and sometimes that’s what’s needed. It’s not the highest of literature, nor will it last with you very long after it happens, but for a moment? It’s ideal.

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Book Reviews

The Vicarage Children by Lorna Hill

The Vicarage Children by Lorna Hill front cover

The Vicarage Children by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every now and then Lorna Hill can be the very definition of heart-warming and The Vicarage Children is precisely that. I’m never quite sure how Lorna Hill captures so much warmth and heart in her work, and I’m not particularly sure that I want to spend days trying to figure out why. With some books I do – some books make me want to dig down deep into them and figure out how and why they tick. I want to find out how they work, why one word sits next to another, what they say about the world – but with Lorna Hill, I just want to wallow.

I want to wallow in the sunlight and the warmth and the simplicity of it. I want to let the magic work – I want to be transported. This is another world and it’s timeless to me (and not in the sense of that amazing song from Hairspray). There are references to a specific period, to technology and things like that, but they’re few and far between. And, if I’m honest, I skip past them in the manner that I skip past those interminable folklore chapters in Angela Brazil. I won’t let them register. I want the sunlight, the liberty, and the simple beauty that Hill can give me. I’ll let her get away with being episodic and occasionally a tiny bit dull because she can, when she’s got all of her ineffable talent in play, be perfect.

And occasionally, this is precisely that. The Vicarage Children is the first of a series, narrated by the youngest sister Mandy and it’s sometimes a little stiff, sometimes a little pedestrian, but every now and then it is beautiful. Utterly. Endlessly. Who wouldn’t want to live in a Vicarage in the Northumbrian countryside with balconies on several of the bedrooms and a burn rushing through the garden with its rockery of Roman stones and only a doorway separating them from adventure? Who wouldn’t – just – want that?

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Book Reviews Girlsown

The Vicarage Children In Skye by Lorna Hill

The Vicarage Children in Skye by Lorna Hill front cover

The Vicarage Children in Skye by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d like you to imagine a very suppressed scream. That’s the noise I made when spotting this in my library’s book-sale. Now, a library must always have a book-sale because they are not ginormous buildings with elastic sides, and books must always be weeded and moved onto their next places, but I’d rather love it if I could cosmically order all those that float my boat to magically end up at my door. It was circumstance, you see, that bought us together; itchy feet and a slight dose of cabin fever, and I came home with a copy of The Vicarage Children In Skye and happiness. (I also bought some fudge but that’s slightly incidental at this point).

So, to Hill! She is a delightful writer for even when her plot struggles (and her plot struggles quite a bit in this book it is fair to say), she is still able to hit you with pages and pages upon richness. It’s not the most exciting title; there is a muppety baby, a muppety sister, a hot local, and Cameos By Dancers. It would not be a Lorna Hill book without the unexpected cameos of somebody, and this is no exception. Where it is an exception, however, is with Mandy King who is a very appealing every-girl sort of character. She does not do ballet (sacrilege!), is saddled with looking after her muppety siblings, but is actually rather fun. She’s lively, genuine and proof of Hill’s ineffable skill with people.

It’s also important to mention that Hill is excellent when it comes to ‘place’. She can write a landscape like no other, and it so often seems to stem from personal knowledge and experience. Her descriptions of Skye almost sing off the page. This edition (9781847450890) has a copious foreword about location and setting, though I’d recommend reading it after the novel (why do people put this sort of thing beforehand? It means nothing unless you know what it’s on about..). These are, however, minor quibbles. This is a solid edition of a lesser-known story from an excellent author. Lorna Hill, ladies and gentlemen, she’s ace.

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Book Reviews

No Medals For Guy by Lorna Hill

No Medals for Guy (Marjorie, #6)No Medals for Guy by Lorna Hill

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will defend Lorna Hill to the end of time, but I will not defend this book. It isn’t great, and it hurts me to write that but it’s true. No Medals For Guy is the book that finally convinced me of the great fact that Guy Charlton is a douchebag. Grown up Guy is kind of great if you squint a little and concentrate on him being a dashing rescuer type, but juvenile Guy is the sort of boy you want to throw things at and lock your doors against. And the curious thing is that Lorna Hill is rather besotted with him; this is a book about Guy, and she’s determined to make him rather fabulous, and she’s going to – but she sort of achieves the opposite.

And in expending all this effort to make you love Guy Charlton, Hill manages to rather neglect the others. The things I could tell you about Marjorie and Esme and all the others (two of which I’ve just had to look up the names of) wouldn’t fill more than a minute, and even then I’d be tentatively reaching out at best. There’s an odd subplot involving a girl that the gang make friends with, and an even odder subplot about a ghost and a reporter just gaily spending the night in somebody else’s house, and then there’s this weird and rather over-handled thing about swimsuits.

It’s a strange book this, and a little too blindly convinced in its own merits. Hill was always at her best with stories of the individual, and her early Sadlers Wells stories – of Veronica and Caroline in particular – are transcendent things. No Medals For Guy doesn’t come anywhere near the heights of that for me. It hits similar beats for sure, but never quite with the same conviction or indeed the same heart. It’s a shame because Hill could be something else; but here, she’s not. She’s so very definitely not.

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Book Reviews

Dancing Peel by Lorna Hill

Dancing Peel (Dancing Peel, #1)Dancing Peel by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s not much I wouldn’t do for one of these glorious Esme Verity covers. The daughter of Lorna Hill, Verity has a great grace to her artwork and I love it. The light. The richness. The softness. This is good, classical artwork and rather beautiful stuff. The book itself isn’t, perhaps, the best thing that Lorna Hill has ever done but every now and then it absolutely sings. But that’s Hill all over; sometimes she gets a little lost in the plotting and circumstance (everybody in Northumberland dances beautifully) but then sometimes, she’ll deliver a page as utterly wonderful and as perfect as anything you’ll find framed in a gallery. She’s an interesting author and one that I think tends to be a little forgotten, and she shouldn’t. Not in the slightest.

So to the specifics; this is the first of the Dancing Peel series. It is fiercely, utterly romantic with its ‘Peel’ tower that looks out onto the moors, dancing siblings that explore Spanish dance and ballet respectively, and the hints of romantic destiny over injured and orphaned animals. The latter is done in the way that only Lorna Hill can do, and I love it. Her writing can be very quiet on the surface but a thousand stories and images and sensations are lurking underneath, always.

One final thing to note about this edition is that it is a very beautiful thing and worth hunting out from a collector’s perspective. I’m always loathe to recommend certain books to collect, as I want them all for myself, but you should pick up a copy of this. The cover, as I’ve already mentioned, is divine, but the endpapers feature a map of Northumberland that is rather wonderful. And good endpapers, as any fule kno, are everything.

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Book Reviews

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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Book Reviews

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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Everything else Girlsown

“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.

Book Reviews

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

Everything else

In pursuit of perfection

I’ve been thinking about the act of reading itself, how sometimes I long for it and need it, and I’ve been wondering why that is. In a way, it’s a sort of hunger. I’ve spoken about it previously on this blog, but I sort of think that reading is a form of addiction. It’s a never-ending search for the heartblow of perfection, delivered when you least expect it.

My highs? I remember them. My catalysts. My talismans. My addictions. The things that started me on this road.

The first ‘death-bed’ scene that made me fold, lose myself, and break down? Gay Lambert at the Chalet School. Here’s my review. EBD’s oeuvre is in one way based around the death-bed scene, but there’s something about the one in this book (spoilers sweetie) that gets me. Breaks me. Always.

The first panel that got me into comics? This. It’s from Note from the Underground and shows the moment after Buffy’s basically gone Super-Slayer and is experiencing an intervention from her Slayer sisters. The Wikipedia precis makes this sound like a hideous book, but it’s truly not. These panels are perfection; they take the Slayer stereotype, what Buffy’s been doing since the book began, and they flip it. Just like that. It’s elegant, simple, and delivers a whole  level of redemption for Buffy herself. It’s beautiful.

1. S: “Welcome Back”
2. B: “I never really went anywhere-” S: “Didn’t you?” B: “Well, if you mean to the “angry place”, then I guess I did”
3. B: “You guys wanted me to chill, huh? We all learn – sooner or later – while we’re alive or after we’re dead … we all learn it’s not about slaying…”
4: B: “It’s about saving…”

The bit of writing that made me love Lorna Hill forever and forgive her all her rubbish later books? This. “I felt that she’d have been even more pleased with my arabesque could she have seen it today. The beauty all around me did something to me inside. I can’t describe what it was, but it made me want to turn my arabesque into something better than it had been before. I wanted to express in my dancing the lovely effect of the sunlight flickering through the trees in the wood, the delicate green of the larches, the grace of the foxgloves growing on the Roman Wall that marched side by side with the road just here.” A Dream of Sadlers Wells (1972:87)

The first stories that made me? Magic, myth, and history. I remember being sat on my dad’s lap, and listening to him read aloud Roger Lancelyn Green’s entire back catalogue. King Arthur and his knights, Odysseus of Troy, and Robin Hood. Learning my stories, my myths and your legends, grounded me and gave me roots. It pushed me onto Robin Jarvis and his awesome Wyrd Museum, it pushed me to Adele Geras and her superb sagas of womanhood – Troy, Ithaka, Dido, it pushed me onto finding Richard the Lionheart’s tomb, and it pushed me to running round the city walls of York and seeing Saxons

So thanks. Thanks for getting me this far. Thanks for making me who I am, thanks for making me be able to chat about Noel Streatfield to complete strangers, to stand on the side of a lake in Austria and nerd out to immense levels, thank you for making me able to reccomend Alex T Smith to strangers, thank you for letting me stand in the bookshop and fall into discussions over the joy, the utter joy, of Herve Tullet.

Thank you.

Here’s to the high.


A Dancer’s Dream

I felt that she’d have been even more pleased with my arabesque could she have seen it today. The beauty all around me did something to me inside. I can’t describe what it was, but it made me want to turn my arabesque into something better than it had been before. I wanted to express in my dancing the lovely effect of the sunlight flickering through the trees in the wood, the delicate green of the larches, the grace of the foxgloves growing on the Roman Wall that marched side by side with the road just here.” A Dream of Sadlers Wells (1972:87)

These covers are movement. Fine, delicate, romantic movement with the ballerina ever en pointe. Note the use of shadow, both rooting the physicality of the dancer and also the construction of her surroundings. The shadows in Dream and Masquerade, flatly interacting with the scene and in Dream, reflecting up in a sharp right angle and highlighting the false construction of reality she dances in. These are constructed covers that say so much; Dream is full of winsome hope, a dancer with hands clasped girlishly together whilst her lower body rises with expectant joy. She is mid-movement, an exuberance unmasked. Masquerade sees a dancer, poised very precisely on two feet, full of edge at being discovered, one hand held up in supplication as if to say stop here, come no further.  The light holding the dancer on Back-Stage, both frames her and holds her, trapping her as both performer and perfomee. It acts both as sunlight and stagelight and, as she twists to face us, asks us to consider if a dancer a dancer without an audience?

The covers of the Sadler’s Wells series in this run (we’ll call the Pan reprints naught but a bad dream) are so very ridiculously beautiful


Fantasy Film Casting : The Boys!

Following on from my lady-centric film casting post of yesterday, this time it’s the turn of male heroes from Girlsown fiction to be cast. I had a little bit of  a Damascene moment when considering Pennington. He needed to be represented by different actors for different periods of his life, so please forgive me for the slightly nerdy detail I go into regarding him 😉 Anyway, here they are in all their glory!

David Wenham as Jem Russell (Chalet School – Elinor M. Brent Dyer). Look at that picture. Now look at it some more. Now look at that as if you were a woman in a burning train carriage, needing to be rescued by a handy doctor type. That is all.

*collapses ever so slightly*

Tom Hiddleston as Sebastian Scott (Sadler’s Wells – Lorna Hill).  I almost went with Benedict Cumberbatch for this one, but decided that Tom just edged him out. Primarily because I like the longness of Tom, his ranginess, and yet his utter stillness when he needs to be still. Sebastian is a man of dark arrogance at times but also of utter brilliance. And I really rather love the thought of pairing him against Anne Hathaway who I cast as Veronica.

Arthur Darvill as Jack Maynard (Chalet School – Elinor M. Brent Dyer). Now, just to clarify, it’s not Arthur when he has his hair like this. I’d like him to sport the new Rory hair (can you tell what I watched last night?) and a lot of tweed. And um, I’m getting distracted again, so let’s move on!

 Sean Bean as adult Patrick Pennington (Pennington series – KM Peyton). This is Pennington in his later years (approximately around the time of Marion’s Angels if you want to be picky 😉  as opposed to the main books). That shy, bluff nature masking a man with great precise ability and genius. Sean’s an actor with that sort of silent power about him and a guy who acts very naturally. Perfect for the battle-worn brilliance of adult Pennington.

Jeremy Irvine as young Patrick Pennington (Pennington series – KM Peyton). Young Pennington plays piano, bewitches Ruth, beats people up and rails against the class system. He’s basically a proto-Byronic hero and is generally full of all-round epicness. Look at the photo. Yeah. Jeremy could do that *rather* nicely.

So there they are! Alternative casting lists very welcome becauseI’d love to hear your thoughts regarding those people I missed. I couldn’t quite think of somebody to play Reg Entwhistle primarily because of The Proposal…. (frankly I don’t think *any* actor could do that justice!).


Fantasy Film Casting : GirlsOwn Edition

I’m going through a bit of a film phase at the moment, and have got a bit obsessed with the idea of film / TV adaptations of some GirlsOwn titles. So, behold, a fantasy casting of some of my favourite literary heroines. Also, whilst reading this, you may get an idea of what my viewing habits tend to be 😉

Maisie Williams as Joey Bettany (Chalet School – Elinor M. Brent-Dyer). I could quite happily see a tv adaptation of the School at the Chalet though it might need to borrow liberally from Princess for dramatic purposes. I  think Maisie would be pretty brilliant as Jo. She’s got the look, and that sort of insouciant edge about her. Plus, according to IMDB, she can dance so she would have the folk-dance scenes down! PS – True story, I couldn’t remember her surname so googled Maisie Gomme initially …

Anne Hathaway as Veronica Weston (Sadlers Wells – Lorna Hill). Stick with me here. I know Anne has done the ballet bit before, and she’s also done the Northern accent bit before, but I think she could actually really do Veronica well.  This is primarily due to my love for the Princess Diaries films and the massive comedic value Anne can give a scene. Veronica is intensely graceful but she’s also very very funny and I think Anne could work the shift between the two really well. And also I have a major girl crush on her.

Miracle Laurie as Ruth Hollis (Ruth Hollis series –  KM Peyton).  So Ruth, she’s one of those quiet characters with a hidden heart of steel. She’s passionate, vital, and stubborn whilst being outwardly calm. Ruth loves, and when she loves, she loves very big. I reckon Miracle Laurie has that serenity (take my love, take my land) combined with the quiet potential for great things that I think Ruth would need to succeed on the big screen. Also, apparently, Miracle can play the ukele. This plays no relevance towards the role of Ruth Hollis but plays a vast part in the sheer awesome factor.

Summer Glau as Maidlin di Ravarati (Abbey books – Elsie Oxenham). Though I find a lot of the Abbey books a bit too SUNSHINEGIRLSFLOWERS, I really like Maidlin. She’s one of the characters that has something rather special about her and tends to fly off the page whenever she’s on. That is, until her neutered adulthood but that’s a different blogpost. Anyway, we all know Summer can do fractured, fragile heroines, and imbue them with a grace and a musicality that’s intoxicating to watch. It’s because of that that  I’d really like to see what she does with Maidie.

Tune in next week for a casting session for some of my favourite male characters! WHO can we get to play Reg Entwhistle? WHO will take on the plum role of  sardonic God Sebastian? And WHO gets to be the tortured adonis Pennington?

Girlsown Theory

The nature of genius in GirlsOwn Literature

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.

Everything else

A list : nerdy, technical and just plain bizarre books

Here’s a list of my current reads. Some are very specifically related to my dissertation, some are theoretically based and some are just a little bit odd 😉 Enjoy!

  • Maria Nikolajeva – The Rhetorics of Character in Children’s Literature. Amazing. Sorry if you follow me on Twitter – my #fridayreads post has just been mainly based around how much I gushingly adore what this book is saying. I also love her style – she’s scarily readable and accessible (hurrah! An academic who writes for an audience!). Love it. Even if you’ve got the vaguest interest in narratological theory you should have a look at this as she dissects what makes a character a character.
  • Buffy Season Eight, volume 7: Twilight. So disappointed. Genuinely. I love this franchise – Buffy changed my life. I learnt that women could save the day, that women were strong and powerful creatures and that the darkness didn’t stand a chance against us. When it finished on TV I stumbled into graphic novels as I was looking for a new hero. Then Buffy season Eight came out and just slipped down the slippery slope of rubbishness 😦
  • Veronica at the Wells by Lorna Hill. I appreciate ballet books maybe aren’t your cup of tea. God, I’ve watched ballet in real life and been desperate for words (aka ‘theatre’ as my friend pointed out!). But these are something else – and particularly so because of the portrayal of Veronica. She’s funny, sharp, fabulously stubborn and fancies the socks of one of THE most notable rogues in children’s literature.
  • Zombies vs Unicorns. This was suggested to me by one of my library friends (not quite sure what’s she’s trying to say). Seriously, the title sells it to me alone. And Meg Cabot contributes!! Meg Cabot!!
  • Crank by Ellen Hopkins. Sometimes books take a long time to hit deepest darkest Oxfordshire. I almost put this back because of the style. But then it got me. Hooked me in. There’s a vicious elegance about writing a book like this because a) it happened / happens / is happening right now and b)the bravest thing you can sometimes do with writing is to delete. The less words that are there, the less you have to stand on and the more weight they have to pull. And this book doesn’t crumble in the slightest.
  • Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson. I picked this one up from the library to remind myself why I loved Ibbotson so. Dreamy, rich and empathetic; her writing just pulls you in and makes you WANT the characters to come out on top. She was such a sympathetic and kind writer. A wondrous talent.