Friday, August 31, 2018

Portrait of the artist as a young girl (and as a woman): KITTY BARNE, She Shall Have Music (1938) & While the Music Lasted (1943)

Last month, I posted about two of Kitty Barne's children's titles, Family Footlights (1939), and its sequel, Visitors from London (1940). That was my first post about Barne since three years earlier, when I had written about Musical Honours (1947) during some obsessive reading of fiction from the immediate postwar years. I liked all three of those books, but none of them can hold a candle to these two gems.

From the first time I wrote about Barne, readers had been recommending She Shall Have Music, but other things kept getting in the way, and it's not the easiest book in the world to get one's hands on. The cheapest copy on Abe Books at the moment is $21 in "good" condition but minus dustjacket. Not so bad, but the price increases rapidly for better condition copies. This despite the fact that there have been multiple editions (according to my copy, it was reprinted eight times 1939-1962), so presumably a fair number of copies are out there. But if not many of them are for sale, that suggests that once people own and read this book, they decide they're never letting it go.

Fortunately, if rather inexplicably, I recently discovered that the book is available for downloading from (see here). I don't think it should be, as I can't see how it would be public domain anywhere, and the "Digital Library of India" that posted it have hundreds of other titles posted which can't be public domain either (though be warned a few have quality issues). When it comes to reading a hard-to-find Kitty Barne book which no publisher has been savvy enough to reprint in decades, however, I found my ethical quandaries not impossible to overcome...

As She Shall Have Music opens, the Forrest family is arriving back in England after having lived for an unspecified time in Ireland. The family is comprised of mother, eleven-year-old twins Ralph and Judy, ten-year-old Meg, and eight-year-old Karen, as well as their Irish housekeeper Biddy. They've taken a house for seven years in an unspecified urban area not far from London (can't be London, as trips are made to London, but I don't recall and couldn't find any further clues).

The book focuses primarily on young Karen, already teased by her family for often humming along to music in her head, inspired by things like the rhythm of the train or other noises no one else recognizes as music. An illness soon after the family's arrival in England results in Karen staying for a time with a previously unknown aunt, who begins to teach her the piano. She immediately discovers a passion for the piano, and is fortunate in coming across an array of other teachers who contribute to her growth as a musician.

If this sounds rather mundane, or rather like a career story, think again, because Barne is somehow able to lend her story the forward momentum of a thriller, all the while making Karen's education, complete with setbacks and triumphs, engrossing even to a reader with no musical ability and little specific interest in music. The book is no more only for musically inclined readers than detective novels are for those who encounter corpses everywhere they turn. It's a book about growing up, finding oneself, and learning from and appreciating whatever mentors come to help us on our way.

I mentioned previously Barne's tendency to be a bit vague in some of the details of her books. Some of that does come through here as well. For example, it's unclear, as far as I can recall, why the family has come to England in the first place, or for that matter where the heck their father is—if any reference is made to him at all, I can't recall it. The family is also randomly lent a vicarage in Somerset for the summer, complete with a garden and a tennis court, by "someone". If anyone knows this Someone person, please put me in touch with them!

But apart from these small details, which aren't likely to bother most readers very much, She Shall Have Music is actually by far the most realistic of the Barne children's books I've read so far, and perhaps not coincidentally it's also by far the best. Also not coincidental is the fact that it's based on Barne's own personal experiences. She studied piano at the Royal College of Music and expected to be a professional musician until a surgery on her ear went wrong and caused sufficient deafness to sabotage her plans. Thus, she was to some extent reliving her own experiences in writing about Karen, which may explain why the book is so impassioned and vivid and real. I felt that I was really feeling what Karen felt, and understood what it means to be a musician, even though I'm utterly tone deaf. I also particularly related to her experience of her family's bewilderment at her interests and abilities.

She Shall Have Music is a classic, and deserves to be reprinted for new generations of readers. But although at least a couple of generations of readers did know and love the book after it first appeared, and many of those readers have treasured the book and re-read it periodically ever since, almost no one knew what Shirley Neilson at Greyladies discovered a while back (in her recent review in The Scribbler, she described the discovery as "jawdropping"): that Barne had published a sequel.

While the Music Lasted appeared in 1943, and probably suffered, like so many other wartime titles, from short print runs on low quality paper, which may partly explain why it has remained more or less lost for so long, despite its obvious appeal for fans of the first book. Thank heavens that a rare copy made its way into the hands of someone who just happened to have the ability to bring it back into print herself!

So often, sequels tend to fall short of the stories they continue. I'm usually one of the people crying, "oh, no!" when I hear of a planned sequel to a favorite book or movie. And it's possible that some fans of She Shall Have Music will be disoriented by the darker tone of its follow-up (hard to avoid since it's set in the days immediately before the beginning of World War II), or by the fact that this novel is directed to adult readers. But I think most readers will probably react the way that I did, which was to wonder why on earth more authors haven't written grownup sequels to their children's titles. Perhaps because not all authors are capable of the necessary perspective and versatility?

In some cases I imagine it wouldn't work, and probably many great children's books are best left just as they are, but in this case I found the strategy absolutely brilliant. Barne manages to make Karen, just on the verge of adulthood when the novel begins (this is a superb example of what's been called the "widening world" story), completely believable as the young woman the childish heroine of the earlier book would surely have become, and she is just as likeable and fascinating to read about. I love when she exasperates her fellow music student, Topsy, who lives in the same Kennington house and is a delightful character, if a less patient and understanding one than Karen:

"Lord, what a fool!"

"But she's rather a good sort, isn't she?"

"There you go—liking people—" and Topsy flew off impatiently to her room from which the calm unimpassioned voice of her oboe presently emerged, the window being wide open.

Topsy is one of several other students in the house, which is the home of King's School of Music professor Dr. Claude Salet and his wife Leo, the latter of whom is exasperated by musicians but has a kind heart—which is just as well for Karen, considering that she immediately hits it off with the Salets' son Andy, who has been studying in Germany and composing modern music loathed by his traditional father ("Well, after all, the Doctor's an authority—" says another boarder, to which Topsy replies, "On what Mrs. Noah played on the harmonium in the Ark").

While Karen is diligent and measured in her approach to her art, Andy is the quintessential tormented soul—the type of artist for whom Art would always have a capital A. Some readers might be exasperated with him, and he wouldn't be my choice of a husband (though the name Andy certainly appeals), but I can quite believe that their contrasting personalities and approaches to music would be complementary, and we do see, importantly, that Andy comes out of his torment enough to place a high value of Karen's own career and growth as a musician, something few enough men did at the time with any woman's career.

And should we have any lingering doubts, there's Karen's reaction to Andy's own mother trying to warn her away from him:

"But, now, have I made myself at all clear that I think you would be wise to give up this engagement?"

"And what do you think Andy would say if l did?"

"I don't like to think," said Mrs. Salet, and one of her rare and charming smiles lit her face, "I'm not considering him, I'm considering you. You should hesitate. You should indeed."

"Oh, I will," cried Karen, heartily, "I promise you I will."

One can hesitate before one plunges into the sea on a day when rollers are breaking and one will have a particularly glorious, more than a little dangerous, bathe; plunging into the waves and through them, fighting them, riding them—one can hesitate before that and enjoy the hesitation.

You can't very well argue with that!

As romance grows, though, the approach of war is never out of mind for long:

The tornado had not passed them by as they prayed it would. It had struck them and swept them into its maelstrom of senseless animal hatreds, against which there was no use struggling.

One might find that Andy's own reaction to the political situation shows he's not as self-absorbed as he can sometimes seem, and Barne uses the darkness of the situation extremely effectively, and manages to also show how self-absorbed artists and non-artists alike can be in isolating themselves from harsh reality.

Both of these books are among my favorites of the year. If you're already a fan of She Shall Have Music, be sure to get a copy of the Greyladies reprint of While the Music Lasted while it's still available. And if you haven't read the former yet, what on earth are you waiting for?


  1. an unspecified urban area not far from London

    I see that when I wrote about this book I said confidently that the family moved to Bristol. Did you read a US edition which left this out?

    I really must read While the Music Lasted!

    1. Oh that's great, I'm sure you're right. I was so engrossed I forgot to notice the reference and then I couldn't track it down when I looked back. Thanks for that!

  2. On my TBR pile, but so many books so little time. Plus other bits of life ongoing.

    I love your reviews and cover art, as per usual.


    1. Don't I know it Jerri! But quite worthwhile when you have the time.

  3. Another good one to go with those (that I recently read for its World War II embeddedness) is Barnes's 1944 Enter Two Musicians, about the effects a charismatic husband-and-wife pair of classical composers exert on those who come into their orbit - he drawing on a teenage girl for inspiration during a creative dry-spell while half-seducing her with his art and his wife entangling herself with multiple musical males as motivation for a brilliant concert performance of her own concerto.
    Grant Hurlock

    1. That does sound interesting Grant. I have Barne's other grownup novels on my list and will bump that one up. I'm intrigued to see any contrasts when in how she writes at the beginning of the war and near the end.

  4. I downloaded She Shall Have Music and am just loving it! It's like finding a missing Noel Streatfeild! I hope you are adding this and the sequel to your reprint line...


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