Tuesday, 2 August 2016
Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden
[Crystal and Doone Penny are taking ballet lessons]
Ennis Glyn’s school had a quiet elegance that extended down to the smallest pupil; Crystal now had a glimmer of what Ruth had meant when she talked of style. For one thing, there was compulsory dress. ‘I never knew dancing schools had uniforms,’ said Ma. Miss Glyn’s girls wore short white tunics and socks, pale-pink satin shoes, their hair tied on top of their heads with a pale pink ribbon; Ma had to knit Crystal a white cross-over, a little short-sleeved woollen jersey that kept shoulders and chest warm. The boys wore black briefs, white vests with a monogrammed EG.
[Later both attend a boarding school for potential dancers]
The boys wore blue tracksuits, the girls scarlet, ‘to keep them warm,’ Crystal explained – one was among the listed uniform Ma had had to get ready for her which was not quite like the lists of other schools; there was a green skirt and cardigan, white blouses, a green red-lined cloak, but also leotards, white knitted cross-overs, quantities of white socks; later on there would be tights. ‘But you can get all these from the wardrobe at reasonable prices,’ Mrs Challoner, Headmistress at Queen’s Chase, told Ma.
commentary: Last month I did an entry on the Noel Streatfeild book Wintle’s Wonders (aka Dancing Shoes). I honestly thought it would be of strictly minority interest – it’s one of my favourite children’s books, and I have come across others who love it, but it seemed quite obscure. In fact this was probably my most viewed blogpost of the year so far, and many people shared it, tweeted and RT’ed, made comments and recommendations.
Many of those who loved it were interested in the dress patterns I had used to illustrate the story, and people shared their memories. Then, established blogfriend Lucy Fisher showed me the second picture above - which as it happened was just what I needed. The writer Sarah Rayne had said that the Wintle’s Wonders post reminded her of this Rumer Godden book, so I got hold of it straightaway, and I can see exactly what she means. I sat down and read it almost at a sitting, and at times had to remind myself that it wasn’t a Streatfeild book.
It’s a very interesting story – a proto-Billy Elliot: Doone Penny is the youngest of a rambunctious London family. His one sister, Crystal, apple of her mother’s eye, is destined to be a great dancer. But the rather-ignored Doone might have even more talent.
The focus is on him, but these are Thursday’s Children, not child, so Crystal gets plenty of time too. Crystal is pushy, pleased-with-herself, spoilt and has low-class tastes. She is contrasted with the wonderful Ruth – calm, plain, perfect with a natural sense of what’s right and correct.
Doone sneaks his dancing lessons in various ways – his father (a greengrocer) would not approve at all. He is, truthfully, rather painful, and one has a sneaking sympathy for the awful Crystal who gets a bit cross at his super-talents (music AND dancing) and his ability to smarm up to wonderful famous people.
Like any proper stage-school story, there are auditions, and shows, and important clothes choices…
The book reminds me also of Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet – there’s a distinctive writing style and a strange lack of clarity in both. Godden’s sentences and paragraphs leap all over the place – I had to keep re-reading to see if I’d missed something, as characters actually moved in time and space between apparently flowing lines. (Streatfeild, in a marked contrast, is crystal clear and very detailed, and never leaves an unanswered question.)
And there’s two more things about the book. One is that I deliberately held off from finding out whether it was aimed at children or adults while reading it, and kept changing my mind. It’s very child-like at some points, but quite grown up at others (again, like National Velvet). So then I checked, and Virago Modern Classics, who have reprinted it, are quite definite in describing it as a Children’s Classic.
The other is that it has a very old-fashioned feel – it absolutely does NOT read like a 1984 book, or a book set in 1984.
The top picture is an illustration from a children’s annual. The second is the dress-making pattern - it actually looks like the standard beautiful illustrations for Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, which I think are by Ruth Gervis.