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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“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.

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

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