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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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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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