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.



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







Take to the sea with Sea Change

A new voyage for the Carnegie Medal as it takes to the sea with Richard Armstrong’s Sea Change.

Jacket image of the first edition of Sea Change
Jacket image of the first edition of Sea Change

Following the old-fashioned lyricism of Walter de la Mare, 1948 saw a complete shift in tone with Richard Armstrong’s contemporary career novel Sea Change. The novel focuses on sixteen-year-old Cam Renton, an apprentice merchant seaman, and follows him from his arrival on board a new ship through to his acceptance as a valued member of the ship’s crew. Cam’s age and the focus on work in this novel make it the first of the Carnegie Medal-winners which can squarely be classed as an adolescent novel, albeit there is nothing in terms of content which would make it unsuitable for child readers.  It also marks a return to contemporary realism for the first time since We Couldn’t Leave Dinah in 1941 (if that book can be classed as realism, exactly), although with plenty of adventure in the form of powerful storms, a fire on board ship, and a perilous journey as part of the skeleton crew for a salavaged ship. Although W. Berwick Sayers had stated in the first year of the Medal that the winning book should ‘as far as possible’ appeal to both boys and girls, Sea Change is unapologetically (as you can see from the cover) a book for and about boys: there is not a single female character, nor even a mention of women (even in the form of mothers or sisters). This again was a departure for the Medal, although several earlier winners had focused primarily on female characters.

This is an interesting book in that it’s simultaneously very old-fashioned and very modern. It owes a great deal to the nineteenth-century seafaring adventure story,  giving us a kind of ‘bildungsroman by sea’, but its concern to map out the route to a successful career and to emphasise the skills which will be used in the world of work it very much reflects British sensibilities of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period when the ‘career novel’ was at its zenith.

One element of the book which aligns with the tradition of nineteenth-century boys’ adventure narratives is its assertion of British superiority. This is paradoxically most apparent in the episode which constitutes Cam’s most ignominious point in the narrative. Chafing at the orders he has received to remain close to the ship, Cam and his fellow apprentice Rusty take an illicit trip to a fort in Port of Spain and end up getting arrested by the soldiers manning the fort. This episode serves as a climax to Cam’s feelings of discontent about the orders he has received and his erroneous belief that the second mate ‘has it in for him’, serving as the turning point for his attitude on board ship. The two boys have to be rescued from their scrape by the captain of their ship, but despite this  their strength, courage and quick wittedness is contrasted throughout with the slovenly, ill disciplined behaviour of the soldiers manning the fort. (It’s not completely apparent, incidentally, what nationality these soldiers are – can anyone tell me who would have been manning a fort in Trinidad in the 1940s?). The sentry guarding the fort – asleep on the job – is ‘the strangest soldier Cam had ever seen’: ‘his khaki tunic had no buttons and hung loose over a blue- and white-striped singlet; his trousers were creased and stained and the bottoms of them stopped short of his dusty ankles’. When Rusty trips over his rifle, the soldier awakes and attacks him with a knife, but Cam is swift and efficient in disarming him and the boys are captured only because more soldiers arrive and overpower them. They almost succeed in outwitting the soldiers and escaping from the fort on their own, and and when the captain does rescue them, he persuades the fort commander to drop all the charges by suggesting to him that this will involve losing face. The commander reflects that he does not wish ‘to admit that my command is so undisciplined that sentries sleep at their posts, so inefficient two beardless boys can defy all the force we can muster’. Thus the episode ultimately serves to impress on the reader as well as on Cam the value of British naval discipline and its inherent superiority to other nations. Hazel Sheeky Bird has argued (in work forthcoming) that the ‘navalist’ tradition is key to the construction of British national identity in children’s literature of the early twentieth century, and this is an interesting reflection in light of the focus on heritage which has been present in earlier Carnegie winners. There is, I think, some continuity of concern here, even though this is a very different kind of book.

Cam himself is inducted into this tradition over the course of the book, developing from an apprentice chafing under orders to do some of the most mundane tasks on board ship to a seaman whom the second mate – who is clearly presented within the novel as a model of the idea sailor – describes as ‘Tough as old boots, keen as mustard, and guts to spare’. Although he is still an apprentice at the end of the book, he is identified as the de facto mate of the skeleton crew who have salvaged a derelict ship and returned safely after a perilous journey. All this would fit well into the traditional adventure novel, but the way it is presented also clearly reflects 1940s concerns about  education, teenage identity, and the world of work. At several points Armstrong emphasises the value of skills learnt at school: lessons which may have seemed boring at the time but whose application is vital in the world of work. Cam is allowed a brief teenage rebellion, but Armstrong also emphasises the value of obedience and of trusting that adults know what is best, even if they do not share their reasoning with you.

All this is interesting from a socio-historical perspective, then, but how does it hold up as a story? I do have a bit of a taste for this kind of ‘authoritarian’ bildungsroman, although usually I enjoy i in the form of girls’ school stories (which tend to follow a similar pattern of first resisting, then embracing, the order and authority of the school). However, it’s fair to say that I am probably not the most appreciative audience for a book about adventures at sea. I don’t think, however, that this is the only reason that this is the Carnegie winner I’ve enjoyed least so far. In contrast to the beautiful prose of de la Mare’s book, this is something of a comedown: the dialogue especially is stilted and clearly suffers from the tension between reproducing the language of young sailors realitically and keeping the book within the perceived limits of what is appropriate for young readers. One of the key dramatic episodes in the book starts like this:

[…] Rusty pointed to the porthole through which the night could be seen full of red glare.

‘Suffering snakes! She’s on fire,’ he yelled, and made for the door.

‘Not in your bare feet, you chump!’ shouted Cam.

There’s something to be said for plain prose – and for representing a rather less middle-class millieu than had previously featured in most Carnegie winners – but I found this rather stilted. This is the first of the winners I’ve read which is now out of print, and it’s easy to understand why. Marcus Crouch praises the characterisation and realism of the book, but neither were especially vivid to me.

Despite these caveats, I think this does mark an interesting turn for the Carnegie Medal. Richard Armstrong was the first winner who could really claim to be a working-class writer: born to a blacksmith in Northumberland, he left school at 13 and worked first in the shipyards and then at sea. The book itself is also much more aimed at working-class readers than any previous winner: the kind of boys who would be likely, like Cam, to leave school at 15 and embark on an apprenticeship. This really broadens the definition of ‘childhood’ which the Carnegie Medal was catering to. For that alone, the book deserves an honourable mention, if sadly not a continuing life in print!



My overall rating: 5/10 – It had something to offer me, but the clunky language and the rather thin characterisation made it a bit of a grind

Plot: 7/10 – There’s plenty going on here – maybe a bit too much. I felt I was moving from episode to episode rather than the plot really developing.

Characterisation: 4/10 – Cam does develop a bit, but in general there are stock characters rather than actual characterisation.

Themes: Seafaring, adventure, realism, work, nationhood

Publisher: Dent (the third win for this publisher)

Illustrator: None in my edition, but the first edition had line drawings by the marine artist Michal Leszcynski

Author’s nationality/race: White English














Visitors from London

A forgotten treasure: Kitty Barne’s Visitors from London

The first Carnegie Medal winner published during the war years (The Radium Woman having slightly predated the start of the war) tackled the war itself: Kitty Barne’s Visitors From London  is an evacuation story. It’s actually a sequel to Barne’s earlier novel Family Footlights, which is about the same family, but since I haven’t read Family Footlights I can say with some confidence that it stands alone. This is a summer holiday story with some genetic similarity to Arthur Ransome’s books, but with a wartime twist. The book takes place in the first months of the war, when Operation Pied Piper was put into action. The four Farrar children are spending the summer in the country with their Aunt Myra, but what promises to be a peaceful holiday is interrupted by the news that evacuees are to be billeted at the nearby farmhouse, Steadings. The Farrars and Aunt Myra are roped into preparing for the evacuees and taking care of them: hijinks ensue. By the end of the summer, the evacuees have mostly retreated back to London (as many did during the ‘phony war’) and the children return to their boarding school.

This is the first of the winning novels which isn’t still in print; according to Keith Barker it was the first of the Carnegie books to go out of print. Both Barker and Pat Thomson (writing in Carousel) seem to find this unsurprising and regard the book as rather dated. This baffles me, because I found it utterly fresh and engaging. One of the criticisms often levelled at children’s books of this period is that their child characters are preternaturally goodtempered, well behaved, and respectful to their elders. It’s a criticism I previously took at face value, but reading this book really underlines how lazy a characterisation of the period it is. All Barne’s characters are very distinct, realistic, and not above a bit of family discord: I particularly enjoyed the youngest girl, Sally, who has frequent burst of outrage when things don’t go her way. I also loved the evacuee Lily, an enormously competent twelve-year-old who has cared for her two younger siblings since the death of her mother. Barne does a great job of depicting the complex jockeying for position between the evacuees and the Steadings people, between members of the different families, and between children and adults. Typically, it’s the children who win out in these scenarios, often by subtly manipulating the adults – as when 10-year-old Jimmy succeeds in deflecting the wrath of a local warden bent on accusng them of breaking the blackout by informing him in a concerned manner that he’s left his car running – an offence during wartime.

Barker suggests that the book is rather patronising towards the evacuees, but although they are certainly a source of humour I found Barne’s treatment of all the working-class characters both respectful and (as far as I can judge from this historical distance) realistic. Lily is comical in her role as miniature mother, but Barne also makes it clear that she is in fact a very competent parent who loves her siblings and does a good job of looking after them. She has a moment of triumph right at the beginning of the book when it’s discovered that despite all the talk of ‘iron rations’ she is the only person who has had the sense to bring a  tin opener, and there’s also a nice indication that she is smart and has potential to do more than work in a factory (the fate she expects once she turns 15). Along with Lily – an honorary ‘mother’ there’s Mrs Fell, ‘pretty free with her slaps’ and deeply suspicious of the country; Mrs Jacobson, ‘dark, plump, good-humoured, inclined to make the best of things’; and Mrs Thompson, controlled by her husband, terrified of the bombs and just about everything else; all accompanied by their children. In other words, we don’t have a generic portrait of the working classes here, but a much more nuanced portrayal of diverse people from very subtly different backgrounds who respond in different but understandable ways to the strange situation in which they find themselves.

Some of the themes which were present in the other books I’ve written about so far resurface here. There is a strong sense of the value of the countryside as a source of enduring stability and tradition. At the start of the book, Gerda (the eldest Farrar girl) imagines the farmers’ wives who have inhabited the old house ‘whisking in and out of the doors, hanging up their bacon on those hooks, making their cheeses in that small dairy’, and the book is full of such details of country life. The knowledge of the shepherds  – Old Tolhurst and Young Tolhurst (like Ransome’s Billies, both are old men) – is given special respect both by the characters of the book and by the narrative voice. One of the evacuees, Fred Fell, is immediately drawn to the shepherds and proves to be a natural at keeping sheep; in an interesting linking of place and race, Young Tolhurst suggests that the name ‘Fell’ suggests it is in his blood. Yet the book is not solely backwards looking. Barne pokes a little fun at middle-class attempts to revive ‘traditional’ ways through the character of Mrs Meredith-Smith, who vainly attempts to persuade children to play the ancient Sussex game of stoolball, and is generally portrayed as well-meaning but rather sentimental. More fundamentally, the success of the whole community is derived not from a return to ‘traditional’ ways of being but from a willingness to accept change and work together. I share Kim Reynolds’ view (in her forthcoming book Left Behind) that Barne presents the Steadings community as a sort of democratic experiment: everyone has to work together and accept one another’s peculiarities in order to achieve a greater good.

Ruth Gervis, who illustrated the first edition, also deserves credit for her charming and lively pencil drawings. Her contribution to this means that the Carnegie Medal in its early years had something of a family quality: as I mentioned in my Ballet Shoes post, Gervis was Noel Streatfeild’s sister, and Kitty Barne was their cousin-in-law. (The literary connection, however, was that they were published by Dent.) She’s a brilliant illustrator, and surprisingly for a wartime book was given quite a bt of latitude: there are 40 illustrations scattered throughout the text.

Why did this book not ‘stick’ when it’s so lively? The last reprint by Dent seems to have been 1960, and then there was one by Cedric Chivers (who seem to be largely a book binding firm – anyone know more about them?) in 1972. This is about the time that books by people who were children in the war started to appear – Carrie’s War came out in 1973. So perhaps this didn’t quite chime with the vision of the war which was being created in retrospect. Or perhaps the impulse to create a new literature in the 1960s contributed to this being mischaracterised as rather more staid and nostalgic than it really is. Whatever the reason, this seems to me to be a prime candidate for a reprint.


Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 9/10

Plot: 9/10 – a little episodic

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, modernity, war, evacuation, change

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Ruth Gervis



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