The Swish of the Curtain
Style: Average → Good
Attitude: Positive → Edifying
In Brief: An undemanding story of youthful ambition and success. Dated but still very readable. Family tensions between children's ambitions and parental plans. Warmhearted generosity and good humour both in public and in private.
Published in: 1941
Age Range: Pre Teens+
Period: Mid 20th C
- Nigel Halford (15) is keen to take on a career in commercial art, in spite of his father who wants his son to become a lawyer.
- Vicky Halford (13) is a serious dancer whose mother, a former professional, supports her ambitions, while her father does not.
- Percy "Bulldog" Halford, Vicky's twin, is fond of playing the clown and is keen on mechanics and electricals.
- Sandra Fayne (14) is a housewifely girl, excelling only in domestic subjects.
- Madelaine Fayne (8) is cheerfully unconcerned about her future.
- Jeremy Darwin (14) is a promising musician, whose father wants him to go into his office.
- Lynette Darwin (13) wants to become a professional actress.
As the summer starts, the Halfords move to Fenchester and strike up a friendship with the Fayne & Darwin families, prompting the youngsters to pool their talents and put on a play for their friends and acquaintances. They clean up an unused hall as a theatre and go from strength to strength. Their parents, however, are not keen that their children go into theatre professionally, preferring them to take up more stable and respectable occupations.
In some ways the story stands out as a product of its time and its author (who started to write it when she was only 14): there's an aura of romance about the whole thing and you never feel that the children are going to fail. And they don't. However that's not to say that the characters are two-dimensional: there are a few set piece personalities in the script, but the children who range in age from 9 to 17 over the two years of the story are at least bas-relief. They argue, they make up, they have hope and then lose it, they argue with their parents over their futures at a time when it's quite clear the parents would have the last word. In the final analysis it's a very heartwarming story with many moments of humour and feeling for the aspirations of the would-be actors.
On two or three occasions, the author draws the reader's attention to the warm feeling the members of the group have for each other. By way of a epilogue the characters point out to each other that what Fenchester has given them all, most importantly, is each other. A trite enough sentiment, but not an unworthy one.
Perhaps more interesting for the modern reader than the fairly lightweight story or the individual characters is the social and family dynamic which applies within and between these three very middle-class families and their acquaintances in a Cathedral town in some unspecified inter-war period. Given that the book was started when its author was 14 and published when she was 19, it represents an unusual, and possibly unique, perspective: the mid-20th century teenage author writing about her contemporary peers.
Certain contrasts are immediately apparent. Politeness and decorum are expected of themselves by the children especially in public (they don't want to walk past a house more than once in case it's considered rude), but even just between themselves (Vicky asks the others if they'd mind her practising acrobatics). There's a particular moment when the three girls are caught in a very mildly embarrassing situation on the high street, as Maddy decides to repack her end-of-term school bag. With the headmistress approaching, the situation seems desperate, until their friend the Bishop rallies round and saves them from a reprimand. A world in which schoolchildren's behaviour in and outside school was subject to official notice. This is echoed by Michelle Magorian writing half a century later about the same period.
Especially noticeable is the absence of a “teenage” concept. As is usually the case with adolescents, it's difficult to know whether to refer to them as “children” or as “adults”. On one occasion, someone's mother congratulates Mrs Darwin on having “the little girl who acts”, and yet Lyn is a 14-year-old with a serious ambition to go on the stage and who has overseen the acting side of several well-produced plays. When they first meet, the three sets of children go around doing much what their modern contemporaries would do, spending money and having fun, yet the older ones are already half-adults, expected to be thinking about the future, and dress accordingly. In Stratford-on-Avon, they are playing a game of guessing the identities of passers-by from their appearance and manner. One woman is identified as a schoolteacher by her flat heels and tweed suits, at which Vicky counters that she's dressed the same way. At 14, she's already wearing what an adult would wear.
Does this prevent young modern readers from identifying with their counterpart characters? I wouldn't say so: the Halfords, Faynes and Darwins act in many respects as modern youngsters might do. Clearly, they don't have computers, mobile phones, or even televisions, but what they do is not so difficult to understand. They flirt mildly with each other and with others, they squabble and have jealousies. They spend all their money. They argue with their parents. They pass notes in school and talk about themselves in the present and in the future.
What might seem incomprehensible nowadays is the parents' effectively dictatorial attitude towards their children's future ambitions. This is something which simply doesn't seem to apply in the modern career-advised world, and is in fact at the heart of the stormy family tensions in the story. What happens, though, is that, prior to the final episode, the children have acknowledged with little grace the power their parents have to determine their future.
Nor are their parents shown up as ignorant ogres. In a conversation with the Bishop — who, like the vicar and his wife, plays the role of an independent and respectable mentor throughout the story — the parents express their not unreasonable fears about what damage theatre work might do to their children. It's an interesting conflict and one in which the solution is brought about, courtesy of the Bishop's mediation, by intelligent proposals and reasonable bargaining, with just a touch of the Fairy Tale about it.
“He'll act tonight,” Vicky assured her. “But you know that none of us, I or my brothers, can act well. Only Bulldog can clown a bit.” “I'm sorry to get so het up,” apologized Lyn; “but the mornings before shows are dreadful when there's not much to do. Let's go outside and see if we can help anyone else.” They found Miss Thropple, who was presiding over a stall of mineral waters, staggering backwards and forwards with crates of bottles containing highly coloured liquids. “Can we help?” asked Sandra, and under the influence of manual labour they began to forget their nerves.
Tuesday 22nd August 2006