Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Thursday's Children and Listen to the Nightingale, by Rumer Godden

I grew up reading the wonderful Rumer Godden – special favourites were Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Little Plum and The Rocking Horse Secret, but until Virago re-released them earlier in the summer, neither my mum nor I had ever come across Thursday’s Children and Listen to the Nightingale, and when they arrived in the Waterstones children’s department where I work they immediately jumped out at me with their beautiful ballerina and ballerina pump patterned covers.

I’ve always loved stories about ballet, something which I think began with the wonderful classic, Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild, another one of those books that I read time and time again, along with just about anything else by her. Thursday’s Children and Listen to the Nightingale fall perfectly into this category of charming children’s stories that just ooze childhood idylls. Exactly why I find these stories so idyllic, I don’t know, especially considering that, really, they are anything but. In both Noel Streatfeild’s books and these by Rumer Godden, life is rarely anything but easy for our protagonists – often they are very poor, living on pennies, and they have to work very hard and make a lot of sacrifices to achieve their dreams. But maybe that is the very reason that I love them: because despite difficult beginnings they always have happy endings.

Thursday’s Children is the story of Doone. Youngest of six children, he was the accidental afterthought following a much-wanted girl child and thus is often ignored or forgotten or dismissed out of hand. Doone’s big sister Crystal is, by contrast, much doted upon and so, because they don’t know what else to do with him, Doone is taken along to watch while Crystal attends her dance class. But Doone is enraptured. By the dance and by the music. He watches and he learns and soon it becomes his dream to be a dancer too. First he just has to convince his mother and his father that he deserves the same chances as Crystal…

In Listen to the Nightingale we follow Lottie. She’s grown up dancing: her mother, before she died, was a dancer and her auntie is the wardrobe mistress at the renowned Holbein Theatre, where Lottie takes her lessons. But when the teaching academy part of Holbein’s must close, Lottie must continue her education at the elite Queen’s Chase, Her Majesty’s Junior Ballet School. Lottie loves the idea of Queen’s Chase, but it’ll mean giving away her beloved puppy, Prince. What will happen to Prince, and what will happen to Lottie as she enters this new world?

Although written about ten years apart, I read these two books one after the other, and it was interesting to note that there are minor crossovers between the two – principally Queen’s Chase and it’s coterie of staff (Doone also attends Queen’s Chase) – which was quite nice, although one character’s role, Ennis Glynn, didn’t quite match up between the two books. And although they were written nearly fifty and sixty years after Noel Streatfeild wrote Ballet Shoes, they certainly have a similar feel – timeless. I honestly couldn’t say what decade either Thursday’s Children or Listen to the Nightingale were intended to be set in, the only allusions to modernity being mention of a television set in Listen to the Nightingale, and the car that Doone’s family owns in Thursday’s Children. Because these children have much greater interests than watching telly and playing video games, and their families automatically travel by bus or underground to save money, that modern life rarely gets a glimpse outside the world of dance and the themes of understanding who you are and your place in the world, and fighting for what you believe in.

Perhaps I love these books because they are a sort of wish fulfillment for me, perhaps because they conjure a world in which everything seems simple (even when it’s not), perhaps because they are just lovely stories. Either way, it makes me want to own every single Noel Streatfeild book ever written and every single Rumer Godden book ever written. And, either way, I suspect I shall still be reading them even when I am 83.

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