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

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?

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.”

Gosh.

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.