This book has been on my TBR list for over a year now, ever since I added Kitty Barne to my Overwhelming List and particularly noted: "Also intriguing to me is Musical Honours (1947), which the Christian Science Monitor called 'an entrancing story about life in England today during rationing and reconstruction.'" I've recently been all about family stories written for older children, and since I also recently came into several unexpected Amazon gift cards from my very generous new work colleagues, it was finally time to snatch that one single copy that had been listed for sale for the past year and that I kept worrying might disappear at any moment.
It's the story of the extended Redland family, consisting of 13-year-old Becky and her three younger siblings, Jimmy, Jinks, and Scrap, who have been living in a village with their grandparents, Gran and Grap, since the war began. Their mother is dead and their father has been a prisoner of war. Also in the village is their 80-something great grandmother, Goodie. Most members of the family have been professional performers in one form or another—Goodie was a singer and dancer, perhaps more or less what we would call a vaudeville performer, Gran was a pianist, and the children's father, Charley, worked as an organist before the war. Their mother had been a singer as well. And the children all have, as the saying goes, music in their blood—Becky loves the piano, Jimmy is following in his father's organist footsteps, Jinks is a talented boy soprano, and Scrap is, at the least, an accomplished show-off.
The story takes up just after the war has ended, when the family receives a long-awaited letter from Charley, who is receiving medical care but announces that he will be coming home soon. He also announces, less happily, that he intends to become an accountant and eschew music from now on, and that he expects his children will do the same.
The children have only the vaguest recollection of their father to begin with, as the arrival of the letter reminds them:
There was a bit of Father in that envelope and that was enough to make anyone nervous, for they none of them knew what he was going to be like, Gran and Grap because people change in five years, specially if they've been prisoners of war, and the rest of them because they never had known.
His announcement that they will not be allowed to pursue their dreams of musical careers is not only disheartening, but makes him seem like even more of a stranger. However, these are spunky children (as so many fictional youngsters are), and they immediately begin to plan how to prove to their father that his decision is a bad one. Their first plan, which doesn't quite work out as they hope, is to stage, at Goodie's suggestion, the "musical honours" of the title to welcome their father home, though there is—understandable enough—some initial doubt as to exactly what form of entertainment he would enjoy:
How could anyone know what Father would or would not like? They knew nothing about him. There had been several other letters, most of them written from a hospital and very short; they didn't tell you much. Gran read out a sentence or two here and there, generally finishing with a sigh and "He's not very grand, poor boy. You children will have to cheer him up." Of course they would, but how?
Although the family, including their father, greatly enjoy the resulting show, it turns out, rather accidentally, to be more of a comedy show than a proper showcase for their talents. So they have to move on to other plans, including sending an old musical composition of their father's, which they discover in the attic, to a newspaper competition.
In fact, the rest of the novel revolves around their attempts—led by Becky, who becomes the most important character—to surreptitiously change their father's mind. For some readers, this plot may seem a bit one-dimensional—there are really no significant sub-plots at all—and of course the ultimate outcome will scarcely surprise anyone. But the characters—particularly the children and Goodie—are nicely developed and entertaining, and I found it a highly enjoyable frolic, comparable on some levels to the novels of Gwendoline Courtney that I've grown so fond of in the past year.
In particular, Goodie is an entertaining character. It is she who aids and abets Becky and the others at every turn because she believes that Charley's love for music with eventually win out. The passages in which Goodie helps Becky plan entertainments are sometimes hilarious:
Goodie woke up at that. She could show her a few steps between verses—she'd done a lot of that. It had been in her line. As she remembered her dancing, her face changed: it became in some strange way roguish, wrinkles and all. Her eyes opened wide and looked quite big—a totally different Goodie looked out, not an old lady at all.
"That was in Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-aye times—you should've seen my petticoats—foaming, they were. Foaming was the word. All frills and lace and a nice pair of black silk stockings, silk all the way up, they had to be—my ankles were lovely, they all said so—I wish I had your ankles, the other girls used to say. Ta-ra-ra-BOOM-de-aye" she sang, and she brought out the "BOOM" with a yell and a kick that sent her footstool flying.
And later on, after the children's first attempt has failed, Goodie reflects on the dangers of performing with small children:
"Didn't work out right. Kids stole the show—kids always do—don't I know it. Mimics, that's all. Stage children..." She went off into a short unpleasant dream about stage children.
It's pretty much as light and fluffy as a novel can be, but there are some interesting glimpses of the realities of postwar life. For example, Becky's confabs with Goodie take place after a weekly appointment at which Becky helps her great-grandmother untangle her ration books:
No one would ever have dreamt she was eighty years old, so lively was her voice, so quick and determined her movements. She lived alone in a nice little house at the other end of the village, tucked into it as snugly as the stone crop that turned her garden wall yellow as gold in the summer, managing very well with the help of neighbors, who, whenever they passed, looked in for a chat—she was a great person for chat—and did a hand's turn of work if wanted. She saw and heard as well as ever she did, her tongue was as salty, her chuckle as frequent, her eyes as twinkling and happy; but there was just one thing that got her down, that turned her all in a minute into a cross old woman—her ration book. Never, she said, had she been one for sums. They'd been a worry to her all her school days—in her time there had been precious few of those, thanks be—and she had never added up a row of figures since. And she was never going to.
If Musical Honours is overall a rather unexceptional tale, it was nevertheless thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable.
Something that also made me happy about my copy of the book is that it came complete with a dust jacket with a photo of Barne and a charming blurb that she wrote about her life, including her wartime experiences. If you save the photo and open it from there (instead of simply viewing it on the blog), you should be able to make it large enough to read the text.
Considering that I had little enough information about Barne before, this is a significant addition to my knowledge. Add to that that the back of the dust cover provides me with another enticing publisher's advertisement of other books to add to my growing collection (though, alas, not one that seems to contain any new authors for my list), and you'll know that I'm happy as a lark:
Finally, I can't resist sharing one final random quotation that made me laugh. It will only have the same effect upon you if you're familiar with a certain song made famous by Beatrice Lillie, or with the photographs which apparently gave rise to it:
"Scrap, if we have a sort of concert for Father when he comes back, will you sing?"
"Yes, and dance. And dance with Panda. And say my bit about fairies at the bottom of a well."
"It's the bottom of the garden, not a well,—you're thinking of the Dormouse."