She Shall Have Music by Kitty Barnepublished 1938
Listen to the Nightingale by Rumer Goddenpublished 1992
commentary: When I blogged on Rumer Godden’s Thursday’s Children recently, I followed a line from Noel Streatfeild’s Wintle’s Wonders via the writer Sarah Rayne.
Now, in the intro to the Godden book, the author says that she wants to acknowledge that there’s a scene in the book with similarities to a-NOTHER book – the first one listed above (both writers having come up with the idea quite separately and with a 45 year gap) – and blow me if Sarah didn’t tell me that THAT was a really good book too, and that I should read it. So of course I got hold of it and here it is.
This time it is music, classical music, and there isn’t really any question of stage school or similar. Karen is part of a cheery family who have come to live in Bristol from Ireland. She starts playing and studying the piano, and shows a great deal of talent. She goes through the normal range of experiences for the talented-child-book, including the disastrous festival entry shared with the Godden book, and knows and hopes that she must go to music college, so must audition...
I enjoyed She Shall Have Music very much, and can see why it was such a success at the time; it’s a shame it’s mostly forgotten now. It doesn’t have the drive of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (much blogged), and keeps dipping into family life in an awkward but endearing way: it is surprisingly charming that none of the rest of the family much knows or cares about Karen’s talents and successes. And of course with the piano there isn’t the same excitement of costumes, the auditions are less dramatic, and there aren’t great productions to describe. But still it is very convincing, and one would guess somewhat autobiographical as Barne had a similar trajectory.
In fact Barne was married to Noel Streatfeild’s cousin and they seem to have known each other well. I have always been charmed by the classic illustrations in most editions of Ballet Shoes – I mentioned them in the earlier piece – by Ruth Gervis. She did the pictures for this book too, and now I have discovered why: she was Noel Streatfeild’s older sister. They are beautifully integrated into the text, and I wanted to show an oddity in the typeface – look at the ct and the st in the words ‘practising’ and ‘vest’ above - which is why I have used a scanned page rather than my usual picture and extract. It’s my tribute to Ruth Gervis and all the pleasure she has given me over the years.
I thought I would round off this reading venture with Godden’s other stage school book, Listen to the Nightingale – and ended up disliking it very strongly. It didn’t have the energy and drive of Thursday’s Children, and I did not like the heroine, Lottie, at all. She was a tiresome, feeble character – but also completely immoral. She lies, cheats and steals, then gets terribly upset if she thinks she’ll be caught out. The whole book is lacking in any moral framework – nobody behaves well, but it doesn’t seem to matter. There are jaw-dropping scenes where another child forces Lottie to give him her food, so she almost starves. It is a very sinister and unpleasant section altogether, but then it stops, and that’s all right then.
Lottie seems to be incapable of understanding anyone else’s point of view, and the book starts with an utterly extraordinary scene in which she spots someone stealing a valuable dog, trips up the thief and then – keeps the dog. Steals it. Takes it home, and uses money taken from someone else to achieve all this. Because she wanted to, she really liked the look of the dog. The dog then causes endless trouble and serve her right. No, couldn’t get on with this one AT ALL.
But Kitty Barne was a real find.