The Lark on the Wing

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.The Lark on the Wing - first edition dust jacket

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

 

 

 

 

 

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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