Author: Elfrida Vipont
Publication: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, hardcover, 1970 (original UK publication 1950)
Genre: Middle grade fiction/series
Plot: When Kit Haverard finishes school, she finally knows that she wants to study singing professionally but her overbearing cousin Laura insists she take a secretarial course instead so she can eventually help her father with his history books (query: who has been doing this all these years? Laura? Is Professor Haverard paying a secretary?). Eventually, Kit does escape to London where she obtains a secretarial job at Quaker headquarters and an apartment (a fourth-floor walk-up but it’s in the very nice Marylebone neighborhood which I visited on my last trip to London - good luck affording it these days) which she shares with childhood friends Helen and Pony. Next door are Bob, a colleague of Miles and his younger brother Felix, who also sings. Kit arranges lessons with her mother’s old music teacher, Papa Andreas, who is retired but still works with a few favorite students (he also seems to have quite the ménage living at his little house near Kensington Palace: his cousin Tante Anna; Lotte, the mysterious cook/housekeeper; and Miss Fishwick, who taught Kit piano at Heryot, and is an accomplished pianist). Kit’s friend Terry Chauntesinger has become an accomplished singer:
You could sense the atmosphere as soon as he walked onto the platform. He had outgrown the lean, long awkwardness of his younger days…Kit looked up at Terry wonderingly. His blue eyes were fixed on something a long way away, in time and in space. The song had started in his mind long before the first notes broke the silence… Whilst Pony and Helen chattered in the interval, Kit was quiet, wrapped in her own thoughts. For it was not enough to make up your mind to sing, and win your way to London, and fight to make your dream come true. You could do all that and have nothing to give.Kit is so humble she is unaware of the progress she is making with Papa Andreas. However, when she and Terry are singing a Christmas carol later that year, noted composer Sir Hugh Cathcart hears them and reveals he is working on a magnum opus, The Hill of the Lord, which is an oratorio for an orchestra, chorus, and two solo voices, with lyrics from the Psalms. He allows them to sing the opening and is visibly moved by hearing his swan song come to life. He tells them if it gets performed. This would be a career-changing performance even for Terry, already somewhat established in his profession, but unheard of for a student like Kit! But nothing is ever easy for Kit so there are forces working against her on several fronts . . .
My Impressions: The Lark on the Wing, focusing on Kit’s musical studies and life in London, is just as delightful as the first book in the series, and won the Carnegie Medal as outstanding new English-language book for children or young adults in 1951. Vipont always has a large cast of characters – there is a reason why a family tree is included, so it is helpful but not necessary to have read the first book. Kit is hard up, so her dedicated training has to be juggled with a secretarial job working for the Society of Friends. Her faith is real and for readers who encounter Kit as a child it may be their first exposure outside of social studies to this religion. Vipont depicts both major and minor characters vividly. I like Kit’s coworkers and how they support her musical ambitions, and even that her eventual success requires not merely dedication (which most self-respecting heroines have) but also drudgery. Kit gets tired, she gets discouraged, she makes mistakes (but learns from them, unlike some of our favorite heroines) and sometimes is humiliated. The three childhood friends from Chesterham are sharing a London flat and working hard: Helen at the London School of Economics and Pony studying medicine like Kit’s brother Miles, yet they manage to have some fun and their small home becomes a meeting place where their friends hang out. When Cousin Milly moves to London to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, even she drops by often and she meets the charismatic Laurence Cray, a sort of missionary doctor chez Kit.
Milly’s romance with Laurence is doomed but is that necessary? I am not a big fan of Milly (and throughout this series, it seems as if few people are, other than Kit, who is sometimes her doormat) but why couldn’t she have stayed in London where her career was and have Laurence come back from Chihar from time to time? Where is Chihar, anyway – India? It was clearly not the ideal place to bring a wife, at the best of times! Maybe if the book were set now instead of in 1950, there could have been a little more compromise. However, it seems obvious that Vipont thinks Laurence’s commitment to Chihar is a higher calling, just as she views Kit’s musical ambitions. Given that Vipont provides her female characters with careers, why does she expect Laurence’s spouse to give hers up? By the way, there are Cray cousins everywhere! Laurence is related to Kit’s friend Pony and there are other cousins who turn up in the next book.
- Cousin Laura continues to be one of the worst relatives ever. She can’t even be nice when Kit does well and she nearly ruins everything at the end! Stephen Maynard is the best thing that ever happened to her, yet one questions his taste! Also, what kind of idiot was Professor Haverard not to leave his estate properly allocated? And didn’t Kit’s mother inherit any shares in Kitsons from her father?
- Terry is practically a chain smoker! 1950 is like another world: can you imagine a gifted singer smoking now?
- These books are obviously very dated. Modern-day readers may find Kit impossibly clueless and her vocabulary is at times limited. She never knows when men are in love with her and is forever saying people are “a good sort.” It is odd that she and Helen and Pony never gossip about the men in their lives, or they might have saved a lot of time – but then there would be no story.
- I can't help wondering about the Holt editor who came across these books twenty years after they had been published in the UK and decided to publish them here, as that seems quite unusual. I am sure there was a story there!
Cover Art: The same artist, Michael Lowenbein (1935-2009), designed the US cover for this and for The Lark in the Morn but I think this one is more appealing and works better than the UK covers I include above. Kit isn’t wearing the crazy hat and she looks like a thoughtful young woman with London as her backdrop. Showing red-headed Terry behind her may be a giveaway!
Source: Personal copy. You may need to try InterLibrary Loan to read this.