The Radium Woman

As war looms, the Carnegie Medal honours feminism and science with The Radium Woman.


The Carnegie winner for 1939 can lay claim to a number of firsts. It was the first non-fiction winner and the first by an author born outside of the United Kingdom (Eleanor Dooley was born in Jamaica, although she moved to England at the age of 7). According to Keith Barker, it was also the first (and probably the only) winner to be made over the heads of the award committee: he says that they had not wanted to make any award that year, but were overruled.I’m hoping to find out more about this in due course, but haven’t had a chance to dig into it yet.

The book is a biography of Marie Curie, adapted from the biography for adults written by Marie’s daughter Ève Curie. I confess that this is one book I wasn’t too enthusiastic about reading: I’m not a great reader of biographies, and the jacket of my Puffin edition is even more boring than the first edition jacket which graces this post. The idea that it was a forced choice for the Medal also made me rather wary. As it turned out, though, I found it fascinating. I know very little about Marie Curie, so almost everything in the book was new information for me, and she’s a pretty amazing character (as one might suspect from the fact she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize). Doorly also opens the book in a way totally calculated to win my sympathies:

Why not? Why not? Why not? Why shouldn’t Manya be allowed to read? She didn’t ask the question. She would not think of asking her gentle, beautiful mother why not; she only puzzled her own little stubborn head where a pair of bright, grey-blue eyes looked penetratingly out from under a shock of yellow hair.

Give me a female character who loves to read and isn’t allowed and you’ve already halfway won my heart. Refreshingly, it turns out that there’s not any oppressive reason for her not being allowed to read; it’s that she’s so precocious (having learnt to read before her older sister) that her parents are worried about hot-housing her. In fact, one of the themes that runs through this book is the idea of family as totally supportive: we see Manya/Marie’s family all working together to look after one another, and later when she marries Pierre there’s very much the sense of them working together to support one another and their family. The book isn’t explicit about it, but I got the strong sense that this foundation of mutual support was key in allowing Marie to achieve the things she did.

Hard work is a theme which has been present in the other Carnegie winners so far, and it’s certainly a major theme of this book. We see Marie first working hard as a governess to earn money to support her sister in Paris, then in Paris herself working feverishly to gain as much education as possible. She is clearly someone who loves her work, to the extent that she organises her entire life around freeing up as much time for her scientific work as possible (for example, she has almost no furniture so there’s less stuff to clean) and frequently forgets to eat. One thing I really liked about this book is that all of these details are presented exactly the way they would be in a book about a man; that is, they’re just reported as facts which illustrate something about her intellectual commitment to her work, without being an implicit commentary on her status as a woman or mother. The book does take it for granted that when she married and had children, she was the one who would have to be responsible for running the household, but this is just treated as another obstacle to her getting on with her work. It’s also made very clear that she loves her children, but that her work comes first, and there’s no implication this compromises her love for her children. From a feminist perspectve, this is all very refreshing. I wonder how much this reflects the times? It strikes me that the idea that you must be terribly conflicted about combining motherhood and a passion for a career might be more acute now than it was in 1939.

Another major preoccupation of the book is Marie’s Polishness. Dooley emphasises her struggles in the context of Russian controlled Poland, her early work supporting Polish nationalism (for example, she teaches village children to read when working as a governess, despite knowing that this could result in her being sent to Siberia), and her lifelong affection for her country. There’s also quite a lot of emphasis on her love for the countryside; her one year of freedom and play in between school and starting to work really hard for a living is spent in the country enjoying traditional countryside hijinks. It’s easy to see from these themes why this was a book which might have appealed to the Library Association on the eve of war.

Is this as good a book as the others on the winning list so far? It’s a little hard to judge given that it’s non-fiction, although it’s written in a fairly novelistic style. It does have a certain tone to it, especially once it gets to Marie’s adult life, which is a little old-fasioned, though rather difficult to describe. And I think a novellist might have made more of some of the more heart-rending aspects of Marie’s life, notably the deaths of her mother and her husband. But the book is definitely compelling, and holds up well for a modern reader. I’m not sure whether children today would enjoy it, but I can imagine it having a MASSIVE impact on a reader (especially a female reader) in 1939. I definitely think the Library Association were right to give this book an award rather than have no award at all, and I’m glad to have read it. In fact, the more I write about it the more awesome I think it is. If I had a daughter I would give her this to read.

Special bonus passage to finish: a reminder that Twitter did not invent trolls. This takes place after Marie wins her second Nobel prize and after her husband has died tragically young:

One would have thought that all the world would have gloried in her as a scientist and treated her gently as a sad woman. But, unfortunately, there is a strange disease which causes certain people to feel very cruel when they hear of someone being very successful or very beautiful. Marie was both, and suddenly people began to write her anonymous letters and to tell extraordinary lies about her and accuse her of doing wrong things of which she had never dreamed.

HATERS TO THE LEFT. Marie Curie has TWO NOBEL PRIZES and two beautiful daughters one of whom went on to write a biography about how awesome she was.

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 7/10

Plot: 10/10 for awesome things done by Marie Curie; 7/10 for the way they are arranged within the book

Characterisation: 5/10

Themes: Work, science, biography, feminism

Publisher: Heinemann

Illustrator: Robert Gibbings





The Circus is Coming

Noel Streatfeild returns to the Carnegie with a story of circus life.

Having missed out on the Carnegie Medal in 1936, Noel Streatfeild got her win in 1938 with The Circus is Coming (now commonly published as Circus Shoes, which annoys me no end as there is no shoe theme or link with Ballet Shoes *grumps*). This year also marks the beginning of some vocal disagreement about the Medal: only a handful of the committee turned up to the award meeting, a fact which was strongly criticised by the pioneering children’s librarian Eileen Colwell. Not unjustly, Colwell felt that the Medal should be awarded by people with a strong interest in children’s books (at this point it was still not awarded by librarians with a specific expertise in this area), and at the very least a full committee. I’m not sure whether she actually disagreed with the choice of The Circus is Coming, or just the rather slapdash way it was chosen. Certainly, Streatfeild’s book isn’t the most famous children’s book published that year (The Sword and the Stone also appeared in 1936, for example) and this isn’t one of Streatfeild’s own best-known titles.

Interestingly, this book combines some of the qualities of Ballet Shoes with the other commended title for 1936, Sampson’s Circus. We have the circus setting of the latter, but with more of the career focus of the former. The book opens with orphans Peter and Santa contemplating the problem of where they will live following the death of their aunt Rebecca, who has taken care of them since the death of their parents in a railway accident.Having been told that they will be sent to orphanages, they recollect the existence of an uncle Gus, and figure out (via postcards he has sent their aunt) that he is part of a circus. Naturally, they decide to run away to the circus, and the majority of the book is dedicated to their life there, their growing understanding of the circus world, and their gradual assimilation as they gain circus skills. The book culminates in them saving the circus horses from a potentially devasting fire (an element which I realise as I write gives this book an element of Pigeon Post as well as the other two 1936 titles) and being accepted as permanent members of the circus.

Like Ballet Shoes, this book sounds as if it would be pure wish fulfilment, but ends up being soomething much more substantial. In a lesser novel of this genre, Peter and Santa would turn out to be circus prodigies almost as soon as they arrived in the circus. However, not only does Streatfeild resist this route, she gives us protagonists who for most of the book aren’t really good at anything. The first chapter introduces us to Peter and Santa’s rather peculiar background: we’re told that ‘Being lady’s maid to a duchess has made Aunt Rebecca suppose that only dukes and duchesses, and perhaps kings and queens, could be right’. Aunt Rebecca accordingly does her best to bring Peter and Santa up in the way that the duchess had recommended for children, an effort which is considerably hampered by her very limited income. As a result, they’ve been tutored by an odd assortment of unqualified tutors rather than sent to school, dressed in ‘best’ clothes all the time, and become generally rather secluded and timid. They’ve been encouraged to think of themselves as rather special, so it’s a shock when first the people they meet when running away, and later the circus people, find them both odd and rather dull in their lack of any ‘useful’ knowledge. I’m a little ambivalent about the way this is set up: there’s definitely a classist element in the way Aunt Rebecca is implied to be trying and failing to ape her betters, and it’s not insigificant that one of the turning points in the way Peter and Santa see themselves is their discovery that their parents and grandparents were ‘quite simple people’ – all domestic servants. On the other hand, all the working-class characters in the book (which is most of them, if we class circus performers as working-class) are portrayed with complete respect and realism, and Gus is shown to be proud of his family. More importantly, the theme of the book as a whole centres around the value of work: everyone in the circus takes it for granted that working hard is important and is baffled by Peter and Santa’s rather passive attitude. Work is explicitly presented as an opportunity to shape your own destiny: one character tells Santa  ‘I don’t understand you kids. If I wasn’t any good at my books, I’d start practising up for something I could do. I wouldn’t want to be pushed into some job just because I hadn’t worked at anything special’. This is a theme which is present in Ballet Shoes, but comes back even more strongly here: we never get to see Peter and Santa shine at their circus skills (haute ecole riding and acrobatics respectively), but we do get the satisfaction of seeing them work and gradually improve.

Like Ballet Shoes, this book is shaped by Noel Streatfeild’s own experiences: she travelled with Bertam Mills circus for several months in preparation for writing the novel. This really shows in the portrait of circus life, which has a specificity which is completely absent from Sampson’s Circus. A lot of attention is paid to the different acts, for example, and the proper terminology for each: there’s a Risley Act (involving juggling people), haute ecole riding, clowns and augustes, and different types of trapeze work. Having spent a short time with a circus, I was intrigued by how many details were the same: for example, Streatfeild mentions the clogs worn by performers on their way to the tent (nowadays more likely to be Crocs!). All of this is what really makes the book live.

The Circus is Coming isn’t quite as readable and accessible as Ballet Shoes, not least because Peter and Santa are not necessarily very likeable characters. They’re very believable, though, especially in their interactions with one another: Streatfeild does a good job of portraying children who fight realistically but also have a genuine bond with one another. In fact, all the characters are well-drawn: I liked the fact that we’re allowed to see their uncle’s point of view, and Streatfeild is frank about the fact that he finds them something of an inconvenience and not all that easy to get on with, especially at first. The foreign characters are all well-drawn, too; although she’s sometimes a little heavy-handed on the bad English, there’s a sense that this is masking real people and real cultures  who just can’t necessarily express themselves completely. It helps that Peter and Santa are not particularly admirable, as this means that when they judge the other characters we tend to feel that they are the ones who are wrong, rather than allying ourselves with their point of view. Interestingly, this is the third book in this project so far which features a ‘foreign’ character asserting their Britishness.

As I’ve established previously, I love Noel Streatfeild and I really enjoyed this book. It’s less overtly radical than Ballet Shoes, but in asserting the value of work and the value of the people who work hard, I think it does have a somewhat progressive stance. I personally would pick this over The Sword in the Stone, though clearly Streatfeild and I are on the wrong side of history in this regard. Perhaps this is the first of the Carnegie Medal winners to get the award that ‘should’ have gone to an earlier book by the same author, but it stands up in its own right.



Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 8/10

Plot: 7/10 (There’s not a huge amount to the plot, and it’s really more about the characters and the setting)

Characterisation: 8/10

Themes: Family, change, working class, work, performance, circus

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Steven Spurrier



The Family from One End Street

A charming family story that’s more radical than it might seem.

In my last post, I suggested that had the inaugural Carnegie gone to Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, it would have set a very different tone for the Medal. However, the second winner – Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street – is  closer in spirit to Streatfeild’s book than Ransome’s. This is another family story, with an urban setting, and some of the same interest in change and modernity. Whereas Streatfeild’s family live in what can fairly be called ‘genteel poverty’ and have a generally middle-class set of values, though, The Family from One End Street are not only working class, but poor:

MRS RUGGLES was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. ‘Very suitable too,’ she would say, though whether this referred to Mr Ruggles himself, or the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide.


There were a great many Ruggles children – boys and girls, and a baby that was really a boy but didn’t count either way yet.

The neighbours pitied Jo and Rosie for having such a large family, and called it ‘Victorian’; but the Dustman and his wife were proud of their numerous girls and boys, all-growing-up-fine-and-strong-one-behind-the-other-like-steps-in-a-ladder, and-able-to-wear-each-other’s-clothes-right-down-to-the-baby, so that really it was only two sets, girl and boy, summer and winter, Mrs Ruggles had to buy, except Boots.

The book consists of a series of gentle adventures: one for each of the older Ruggles children (Lily-Rose, Kate, twins Jim and John, and Jo Jr.), plus three which focus on Mr and Mrs Ruggles and/or the babies (Peg and William), and one story about the whole family to round the book off. It’s illustrated throughout with lovely pen and ink sketches by Garnett (who was actually an artist first). It reminds me a little of Milly Molly Mandy in its tone and the generally low-stakes adventures, but the characters feel much more real than Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends (at least to me). Partly this reflects the fact that the adventures are genuinely rooted in the social setting.  Lily-Rose’s story, for example, is a ‘good deed gone wrong’ story of the kind that isn’t unusual in books from around this time. Arriving home early from school, she determines to do some of her mother’s ironing as her Girl Guide good deed for the day. Inevitably, she uses a too-hot iron on a customer’s artificial silk petticoat, and then memorably watches in horror at the petticoat ‘shrivelling… shrinking… shrivelling up… running away before her eyes!’ This is a scene that I could imagine in E. Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods, or in Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, but in both those series the main risk would be getting into trouble. In Garnett’s book, there’s the potential for a much more serious consequence: this is Mrs Ruggle’s business, after all, and damaging something compromises her reputation for skill and reliability. Of course it all ends happily, thanks to an understanding customer, but the anxiety about Lily-Rose’s mistake is much more real than it would be in the more middle-class narratives.

Eve Garnett was motivated to write the novel after spending time in London’s East End producing illustrations for Evelyn Sharp’s study of the urban poor The London Child (1927). By her own account, she was moved to do more to publicise the conditions poor children were living in, and on being told that it would be only possible to publish an illustrated book if it was for children, wrote The Family From One End Street herself. She later completed a book of illustrations called Is it Well With the Child? (1938), which comprised sketches of the children she encountered in the East End and brief captions. It portrays more extreme poverty than The Family From One End Street, but has some of the same charm and humour.

Portraying a working-class family groundbreaking at the time it was published – the Carnegie website notes that several publishers turned it down before Frederick Muller took it on. By the 1960s, though, it was beginning to be regarded as a rather patronising depiction. Rosemary Manning, writing in 1966, characterised it as a ‘perfunctory glance from outside’ at a working-class family. It’s certainly a cosy portrayal, and the book as a whole suggests that the family are poor but happy. It’s also fair to say that at times Garnett shifts perspective in a way that  makes it clear we’re seeing the Ruggles from outside, for example when the Ruggles visit an art gallery and puzzle over an army officer having time to paint; it’s clear that the reader is expected to recognise that ‘Sargent’ is a name.

Manning was particularly critical of Garnett’s description of Joe Ruggles as ‘a contented sort of man’ and her assertion that ‘So long as he had his job and his family were well and happy, and he could smoke his pipe and work in his garden, see his mates at the Working Men’s Club once or twice a week and have a good Blow Out on a Bank Holiday, he wanted nothing more’. This is problematic in its reproduction of the stereotype of the contented poor, but I think Manning’s criticisms overlook the radical edge of the book. If Joe himself is contented, this is questioned within the text, both directly (by the artist who is troubled by the fact that the small reward he gives Joe for returning some lost money is enough to secure the happiness of the Ruggles family) and by the general sense of aspiration within the book. Throughout the novel Garnett gives the impression that the Ruggles are no less intelligent, creative, or virtuous than any middle-class family: they are just poorer. The Ruggles don’t understand everything in the art gallery, but they are moved enough by Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose to name their daughter after it. (In finding that link, I also discovered that I missed some of the cultural assumptions of that scene:  the Ruggles wonder what the title is supposed to refer to, unaware – as I was – that it comes from a song by Joseph Mazzinghi.)  Kate wins a scholarship to grammar school, passing the exam ‘ninth in the whole district’, and throughout the book Garnett suggests that the state has a role in ensuring that the poor are not only preserved from destitution, but also given the opportunity to pursue their aspirations. The foundations of the Welfare State are here.

Well-meaning political views don’t save a book from being patronising, however, radical, but to my mind the absolute realness of the characters and the sympathy with which they are portrayed does make such criticisms unjust. The Ruggles have a happy home, but their poverty is never forgotten about: from the opening mention of Mrs Ruggles’ worry about boots to her anxiety about Joe revealing the split in his Sunday suit by straphanging in the Tube with the ‘wrong’ arm, we’re given many little reminders of the way having no money shapes your experience of the world. The children are lively and vivid: as a child I particularly sympathised with ‘clever Kate’, dreaming about ‘Latin and geometry and things they didn’t “do” at the Council school’ but also passionately keen to wear her new uniform on an ‘outing’. (Yes, I was a nerd – and just as excited as Kate when I finally studied Latin during my MA.)

The Family From One End Street is still in print, and as is probably evident I both read and loved it as a child. So far the Carnegie committee seem to have done well on picking books with staying power (although of course winning the Medal may be partially responsible for them sticking around).It’s a much easier read than Pigeon Post, both in the sense that it’s less literary, and due to the fact that it’s really aimed at considerably younger children, but I think this obscures the truly ground-breaking qualities of the book. It was a radical choice for the Carnegie, especially in light of the fact that The Hobbit was a contender that same year (I believe it was nominated, though I can’t lay my hand on a reliable source for that just now). I think The Hobbit would have been much more of a continuation of the style and theme honoured the year before with Pigeon Post, and given the very favourable critical reception of Tolkien’s novel the choice of Garnett’s novel a brave one. The Ruggles may have had a ‘Victorian’ family, but this was a novel which looked to a new future for Britain. Bravo, Carnegie committee.


Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10 (I’m starting to feel monotonous, but I love this book!)

Plot: 8/10 (It’s more episodic than a fully worked novel, though each episode is a gem in and of itself and the whole does hang together)

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Family, change, working class, socialism, adventure

Publisher: Frederick Muller

Illustrator: Eve Garnett