I’ve been thinking a lot lately, for family reasons, about how and why someone makes the decision to follow a creative life, rather than one more sensible and profitable.
I’ve been thinking about my own decision, at age 12, that I wanted to be a writer.
(I didn’t do anything about this decision, at the time. I had a lovely, stable childhood, broken only by bouts of ill health. I lived in an unremarkable suburb, and my generation was the first in my family to have tertiary education available to them. The height of my family’s ambition was to see us graduate from university. I decided, at around 12-15, that my life was too boring for me to be a writer – yet. I would live a bit first, and then I’d have something to write about. I was wrong, of course, but we all make mistakes.)
But with the family I had, and the school I went to, and the friends I made there, how did I ever come up with the idea that a creative life might be available to me?
I blame it on Lorna Hill.
I read all of Lorna Hill’s ballet books I could get my hands on. In particular, I read and reread A Dream of Sadler’s Wells and Veronica at the Wells.
These books tell the story of Veronica Weston, who – through talent, hard work and determination – makes it to the coveted position of prima ballerina for Sadler’s Wells ballet.
Note the hard work and determination. Hill, while making it quite clear that dancing – or music, or writing – was the most satisfying thing one could do, also made it clear that it didn’t just happen. You had to work for it, to be dedicated, even obsessed, if you wanted to succeed at the creative life.
She made it seem possible. Not something that magically appeared out of the blue, but something you planned for, enrolled for, sweated for. Yes, you needed talent, and a certain refinement of spirit, but that wasn’t enough.
And while I was thinking about all this (last night when I couldn’t get to sleep), I realised that Veronica at the Wells had also influenced me profoundly as a feminist.
To explain why, I shall have to sketch out part of the plot for you. Veronica, in the second book, is a student at Sadler’s Wells (the climax of the first book is her acceptance there). While on Christmas holidays, she is offered a part in a production, but she must return to London immediately.
The other strand of the book is her relationship with Sebastian Scott, a young man her own age who is at the beginning of his career as a composer. He has written a symphony in her honour, and if she goes back to London she will miss its premiere (and, it is strongly implied, the proposal of marriage with which Sebastian had planned to follow it).
Now, remember that Veronica at the Wells was published in 1951. Does Veronica hesitate? Does she weigh up the risk of losing Sebastian against her own career? Does she look forward to a life of sweet domesticity and being a helpmeet to Sebastian in his career?
No, she does not. They have a blazing row and she goes off to London, a bit miserable, but not doubting for a moment that she a) is doing the right thing and b) has the right to put her own career over his.
It’s a subversive little book, really.
The creative life as one to be desired. The right for a young woman to put her own needs and ambitions above those of the man she’s involved with. The tremendous satisfaction of success based on hard work.
And, of course, Sebastian comes around in due course and they get married, which is as it should be. But she keeps her own name. (In 1951!)
When I’m asked for a list of ‘six books which have influenced you as a writer’, I don’t include Lorna Hill’s. Her influence is both too big and too small to explain in a magazine paragraph. But I am in her debt, even though it’s taken me this long to realise just how much.
Of course I know of these books, and also the Drina Dances series of ballet stories from my time as a bookseller. Still very popular and loved and collected, though I have never read any of them. Your experience with them makes me wish I had. Everything I read seemed to put my head further in the clouds.
I think there was a strong, independent spirit in many of the books for girls in the post war years. Enid Blyton’s school stories being a case in point. She’s often accused of being a racist, sexist, middle class snob. Which mostly seems to result from an over-enthusiastic approach to Noddy or The Famous Five. Her school stories, Malory Towers, St Clare’s and especially Whyteleafe, (The Naughtiest Girl series) were all very progressive, and stressed academic achievement and career over ‘homemaking’. So one should perhaps avoid assuming and concluding. One might assume ballet books are about an elitist and exploitative art form, rather than individualism and seeking one’s own path.
You’re so right about Blyton, Craig. And she wasn’t the only one. The Abbey Books, for example, were another of the same type. I think the women who had lived through the war had realised just how much women could do when put to the test!
How wonderful! I bought secondhand copies of the first two Veronica books recently, but haven’t read them yet, so my memories of them are from 40 or so years ago. I imagine that at the age of nine I would have approved of Veronica’s choices, as my mother was a feminist and had a career. Now I’m struck by how similar and how different the story is to that of The Red Shoes, and wonder if Lorna Hill was partly making Veronica’s choices a response to the Powell & Pressburger film (which was released in 1948).
That’s a really interesting idea, Deborah! I know nothing of Hill’s life and it would be interesting to find out more.
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