We enter the 1950s with Elfrida Vipont’s The Lark on the Wing, the first – but by far the last – Carnegie winner to emerge from Oxford University Press. Indeed, by the beginning of the 1960s, Oxford’s dominance was beginning to be almost taken for granted. It’s interesting, then, to consider the precent set by Vipont’s novel.
Vipont is probably best-known today for The Elephant and the Bad Baby, a picture book illustrated by Raymond Briggs which is still in print today. However, most of her books were for adults (mostly non-fiction books about Quakerism) or older children and young adults. The Lark on the Wing falls into the final category, and is the second of five novels following the same family. It is essentially a career novel: it follows young Quaker Kit Haverard from her dawning realisation that she wishes to become a professional singer, through to her first major professional triumph performing a major new piece of choral music. In this respect it’s something of a counterpart to 1948’s winner, Richard Armstrong’s Sea Change. Armstrong’s novel was explicitly presented as a novel for boys; Vipont’s can fairly be said to be one for girls, not only because its protagonist is a girl but because it is largely concerned with the challenges of making a career as a girl. Set at a moment when girls were making their way into careers, the novel is interested in what this means for them and how it conflicts with expectations that girls should be focused on the domestic sphere. Where in Armstrong’s novel the chief barrier to success is Cam himself, in Vipont’s it is clear that for Kit, many of the barriers come from societal expectations. Nevertheless, Kit’s generation is shown to have more opportunities than that of her great-aunts: her experiences are contrasted with that of her Great-Aunt Henrietta, whose frustrated ambitions as a singer are shown to have deeply hurt her.
The Lark on the Wing is also a much more middle-class novel that Sea Change: Kit comes from a well-to-do home, has attended a private school and been provided with music lessons. Indeed, Vipont has to manufacture some of the challenges Kit faces by having her father die and leave too-large a share of his estate to Kit’s cousin Laura who – somewhat improbably given her overall characterisation as morally upright but unaffectionate – initially doesn’t seek to divert any of this money back to Kit. (This also allows for Kit to be rewarded for her hard work at the end of the novel when Laura’s new husband suggests they make over a share of her father’s estate.)
Despite the difference in milieu between this and Sea Change, there are a number of interesting commonalities. Although Kit is presented as rebellious inasmuch as her ambition to become a singer runs contrary to the wishes of her guardian, cousin Laura, ultimately much of the book is concerned with the need for careful and thoughtful hard work. Just as Cam is mentored by a wise second mate who emphasises the need to learn all the basics of seamanship before graduating to the ‘exciting’ work, Kit’s singing teacher Papa Andreou confines Kit to singing scales and practicing vowel sounds before she can graduate to ‘singing out’. Both these books speak to their 1950s context by addressing the experience of a lengthening adolescence and emphasising that there are more rewards in tolerating a long apprenticeship than in rushing headlong into the ‘adult’ portion of a career. Vipont’s Quakerism adds an interesting note here since it contributes to the general ethos of obedience and respect for elders, but also underpin’s Kit’s conviction that her singing is part of the ‘”real me” inside’ and is in some sense connected to the Quaker understanding of worship.
I have to confess that this book is much more to my tastes than Sea Change: I’m just inherently a lot more interested in the travails of a artistic teenage girl than I am in those of an adolescent merchant seaman. It’s also a much more ‘literary’ book in terms of style than Armstrong’s, much more complex in terms of writing style and narrative. Where this is a real strength is in its characterisation: Kit is well and sensitively drawn, and there are a range of other characters who are given some nuance and depth. To some extent Vipont does rely on the fact that this is a sequel to her earlier book The Lark in the Morn, and some of the subplots about different characters are a bit hard to follow if you’re not already familiar with them (as I wasn’t when I read this book), but I did like the sense that they were all real people with their own concerns. Kit’s cousin Milly, for example, falls in love with a Quaker missionary but knows she isn’t cut out for working in the field with him, while his passion for missionary work is such that he cannot give it up.
There is a romantic subplot running through the novel in the form of Kit’s very gradually evolving love affair with fellow singer Terry. Cadogan and Craig, discussing girls’ career novels as a genre, complain that they foreground the issue of romance too much and are often too concerned to demonstrate that girls can still be desirable and conventionally feminine even if they are pursuing a career. Although the book does show Kit blossoming into an attractive young woman, it doesn’t really fall into this trap – the romance is so very subtle that it would be possible to miss it altogether. Indeed, I think that it would have been a more rounded and realistic novel if we’d been allowed to also share in Kit’s growing awareness of her own sexual desire – this type of book was some way off, however!
in the 1960s Aidan Chambers was to complain that the Carnegie winners were ‘‘intellectual, sophisticated, over-written, unremarkable for anything in the slightest “questionable” in thought, word or deed’. This is too harsh a judgement of The Lark on the Wing, but I feel that it is very definitely the kind of book that he had in mind with this complaint. Certainly the pendulum had swung dramatically from the accessible, working-class centric, action focused Sea Change, and it was to stick on the Lark on the Wing side for quite a few years to come. It’s hard to imagine contemporary readers enjoying either book, though, and I think this is much to do with their intensely topical nature. The Lark on the Wing is a good, well-written book but what lifts it out of the niche audience for the ‘literary girl’s book’ is its sensitive treatment of the challenges associated with girls moving into the wider world of work at this particular historical moment.
As my student Jennifer has been showing in her recent work, this kind of book is part of a longer tradition of novels for and about adolescent girls which often gets missed out of the narrative about YA literature. The Carnegie Medal may have skewed too much towards the YA side in recent years, but the presence of this book among these early winners is important, I think, and says something about how the market was developing at that time. It does feel a bit transitional – just as Sea Change was harking back to the nineteenth century seafaring story, this book has much in common with nineteenth century adolescent literature like The Daisy Chain and Little Women, especially in relation to the kind of moral lessons it wants to deliver. Just as Alcott’s Jo has her dalliance with writing ‘trashy’ literature, so Kit gets lured into the chance of performing more ‘commercial’ music in public against the advice of her music teacher, and like Jo she is duly chastened. But Kit is much more self-righteous and less richly drawn than Jo. While I think Vipont is similarly negotiating a fairly radical philosophy within a fairly restricted social context, the tensions of that don’t come across in quite the same way and would definitely escae most modern readers, I think.
SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…
My overall rating: 7/10 – I enjoyed this, and there’s some fine writing, but it doesn’t quite take off. The whole thing is a bit more inclined to moralisation than I would like, in ways that make it feel a bit flat.
Plot: 6/10 – This is less a plotty novel than a character piece, and a lot of the big plotty moments are the weakest, I think.
Characterisation: 6/10 – The characterisation is finely drawn and the way Kit grows and changes is at the heart of the novel. Again, though, I think there’s a tiny bit too much moralising to make her feel 100% real.
Themes: Growth, work, music, religion, Quakerism, maturity
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Illustrator: My edition doesn’t have any illustrations.
Author’s nationality/race: White English
Intended readership (I’ve added this category since my ponderings on the representation children’s / YA in the Medal and it’s mostly based on my impression of the book on reading): YA