I was nudged into (re)reading these books by various mentions of them elsewhere. I began with Kitty Barne’s She shall have Music, first published in 1938 and illustrated by Ruth Jervis. I’d read it as a child and this is what I remembered: a girl wants to play the piano but can only practise on an old piano in a church hall; a woman called Rosalba offers to give her proper lessons; she’s entered for a music festival and the judge awards her no marks because of the terrible style she’s copied from Rosalba.
I loved it when I borrowed it from the library all those years ago but time has not been kind to this book. From the start, it seemed so like a Noel Streatfeild story (they were related by marriage and discussed their work). Much as I love Ballet Shoes and always will, I’m not an admirer of Streatfeild’s style. The Forrests are a typical ‘poor’ family. Mother has to bring up four children alone (no mention of Pa). They sell their home in Ireland with its contents and move to a rented house in Bristol. Naturally, faithful Biddy leaves her beloved Ireland to come with them and do all the work. It’s a mystery what mother does, apart from a little mending. What she does not do is notice that her youngest daughter, Karen, is extremely musical. It’s left to Biddy and the charwoman at the parish hall to arrange for her to practise what she learns once a week with nice Aunt Anne. They can afford the rent of a large house in the country for the summer holidays but not piano lessons for a gifted child. Karen’s future is entirely arranged for her by the kindness of strangers and her own determination. I find it hard to believe any mother could be so apparently indifferent to what her child gets up to. Even her brother and sisters are more supportive. There is some good stuff about music in the book, but not enough.
Elfrida Vipont’s books couldn’t be more different. The Lark in the Morn (1948) and The Lark on the Wing (1950) are the first two books in a series about the Haverard family, who are Quakers. Kit’s mother died when she was born and she lives with her academic father, who hardly notices she’s there and his cousin Laura, who keeps house, believes she is right about everything and tries to control Kit. There are three much older brothers who have left home. Laura is a good woman who doesn’t mean to be unkind; it’s just that she and Kit will never understand each other and even by the end of book two her managing ways nearly prevent Kit’s future happiness. So the plot (if any) is that Kit must find out what she wants to do in life and then learn that Laura needn’t always be given in to.
It’s lucky for Kit that she has a large family of great aunts and cousins (all of whom Laura has tried to prevent her meeting), as it’s through them that she realizes she has a real gift for singing (like her mother), although it’s a while before she knows she wants a musical career. Laura, naturally, can’t see anything special about Kit’s singing and wants her to become her father’s secretary. Serendipitous meetings with influential (and titled) people and musicians mark her out for something special. It’s clear that Kit has not just a good voice, but the ability to interpret a song so as to move an audience. That’s her special gift. All the writing about music is extremely good and Vipont knew what she was writing about as she was a trained singer herself. I can’t imagine such books being published for today’s child readers.
Kit accompanies her father on a very happy trip abroad; a blessing because it means she has only good memories of him. When he dies suddenly, it’s found that the unworldly man has provided so well for Laura that Kit is penniless. Tsk, what was his solicitor thinking? Kit takes an office job in London to pay her way while she has singing lessons and practises. Unsurprisingly, she wears herself out. This happens in The Lark on the Wing, when Kit is sharing a flat with her two old school friends. I love the descriptions of the work they do on the flat and the social life shared with various young friends and relations. It’s interesting, given the date, that there’s no mention of the difficulties of post-war life, like rationing. Kit is still a child in many ways, half asleep. She fails to notice people around her falling in love and even that at least three young men are in love with her. This does stretch belief a little far but luckily she gets there in the end, thanks to music.
There’s so much that is serious in these books (religion, music), but they are really enjoyable to read. I also like the illustrations by Terence Freeman.
St Simon Square, by Frances Hamilton, was new to me yet seemed familiar because it’s so like many other girls’ books of the period (1952). Millminster is an industrial town in an unspecified location and St Simon Square is in one of its better areas. First we meet the Parkers, a family of girls with no father and a hard working journalist mother. This charming picture opens the book.
Also living in the square is a famous actress, Mary Mannering, with her niece: pretty, lively and spoiled Joy. The Parkers know other girls in the Square but everyone avoids Miss James, an embittered invalid who lives alone with a faithful companion and drives people away with her bad temper. Then comes Clare.
Poor Clare. After her parents died she had been living on her grandmother’s farm in Rhodesia. Grandmother dies, having previously asked her old friend Miss James to look after Clare if anything happened to her. As Clare has no other relations, she has to leave the sunshine and wide open spaces she’s been used to for cold England and a new home where she doesn’t feel welcome. It’s really Clare’s story. She starts attending the High School which the younger Parker girls and their friends go to. She’s soon top of the class, she’s attractive, yet she doesn’t make friends, always holding herself back. She does, though, make an enemy in Joy. What starts as mere antipathy becomes hatred when Clare seems likely to win an acting scholarship which Joy has set her heart on.
It’s curious that this book, which certainly qualifies as ‘part school’, isn’t mentioned in The Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories. It even includes that old standby of the school story, the copied exam paper found in an innocent girl’s desk. Apart from these shenanigans there’s Clare’s social work amongst the poor children of Millminster and the melodramatic adventure that leads her into. Happily all ends well for everyone, including Miss James.
I said it was like other girls’ books and it reminded me particularly of those by Mollie Chappell. It’s exactly the sort of book I might have read as a child if it had been printed by The Children’s Press. In fact, it’s a rather obscure book, not that easy to find. For me, the charm was in all the period detail. Who could resist this?
The girl in the picture, by the way, is about sixteen!