REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s CHILD OF MUSIC

Child_Of_MusicMary Burchell’s 1970 Child Of Music is the Warrender Saga’s fifth book. Though not MissB’s favourite (see A Song Begins and The Curtain Rises reviews) Burchell is unrivalled in her acute psychological penetration and articulation of character. And this is as evident in Child Of Music as any other Burchell romance.

Burchell’s heroine, Felicity Grainger, is a music teacher with a child prodigy-student in eleven-year-old Janet Morton, orphan and violinist, overshadowed by a hateful aunt. Felicity wants very much to get Janet into the Tarkman Foundation School, a musical foundation nurturing musical prodigies. Sadly, hateful Aunt Julia also happens to have set her sights on Stephen Tarkman, the handsome chief administrator of the Tarkman Trust, which administers and funds the foundation, wealthy himself and possessed of a talent for discovering and nurturing musical genius. Of course, nothing could be more wonderful than getting Janet into Stephen’s school, but Janet suffers from blocks to her playing when Auntie Dearest is around. And, Aunt Julie makes sure she’s around when Janet, with Felicity’s accompaniment, auditions, BADLY, for Stephen. When Stephen expresses an attraction for Felicity, “Aunt” Julie’s enmity and anti-Janet-and-Felicity campaign intensifies. 

Child Of Music suffers from a lack of romance. Felicity and Stephen barely spend any time together. When they do, Stephen exhibits a pig-headed defence of Julia Morton that reduced him to near-idiot status in MissB’s romance-reading mind. The novel is very much about Felicity’s emotional world and her nurturing of her finest pupil. Stephen is dense, defending and spending time with Julia Morton and not exhibiting any care or affection for Felicity till the final pages. Child Of Music is not an emotionally-satisfying romance, but it is a great study of the teacher-pupil bond. And it is, like all the Burchell romances MissB has read, a great study of the heroine’s shifting emotional landscape.  

To start, Felicity and Stephen share a previous encounter. They met at a soirée hosted by none other than the heroine and hero of A Song Begins, Anthea and Oskar Warrender. That evening, Felicity came to the defence and lauding of an up-and-coming pianist. Stephen scoffed at her championing and Felicity was left with a lingering, embarrassed resentment against him, a feeling familiar to all those who’ve received professional come-uppance; for, it turns out, Stephen was correct. These bad feelings simmer in Felicity still:

… the recollection of her encounter with Stephen Tarkman still had the power to anger and embarrass her … his faintly arrogant air. The air of a man who wields power and enjoys the fact. And because she was already feeling nervous and a little unsure of herself she found his brusque manner both frightening and irritating.

Burchell’s perspicacity is acute: both for her somewhat callow heroine and hero’s arrogant self-assurance.

And yet, the more they get to know each other, over Janet, and despite Julia’s consistently sour and cutting remarks, Felicity’s feelings change. Stephen is smart, charming, good-looking, and knows as much about Felicity’s favourite subject, music, as would elicit her respect. At the end of a fairly pleasant encounter, Felicity’s feelings are mixed and fascinating: “… he got back into the car and drove away, leaving Felicity feeling dismayed and charmed and indefinably excited all at once.” “Dismayed”, “charmed”, and “excited”, how often has one experienced these feelings upon meeting a person that one has an immediate connection with?

One of Burchell’s most finely-rendered scenes is a confrontation between Stephen and Felicity that had Miss Bates cheering for the heroine’s emotional release and vindication:

That suddenly released the nervous rage which had been boiling in Felicity for some minutes now. “Because Mr. Warrender is excited about her. Because she’s Julia Morton’s niece, if you like. Because – oh, anything, so long as you’ll stop being a pompous ass!” she cried. “What did you say?” He looked as startled as if she had slapped his face. And now she almost wished she had. “Exactly what you thought I said. And richly was the remark deserved. Ever since we came into this room you’ve been offensive and – yes, pompous. You’re displayed the sort of exaggerated courtesy which is almost insulting. You haven’t smiled, laughed, said one generous word about the discovery of what is admittedly an excitingly  gifted child. If Janet had come to you any other way you’d have been as excited as I am. Does it hurt so much having been in the wrong for once?

After watching Stephen champion Julie, scoff at Felicity and ignore Janet, Miss Bates practically rose from her reading chair and cheered Felicity on. She particularly liked that line about “exaggerated courtesy”: how many times have smart people, Miss Bates admits to its use though humbly questions her “smartness”, used that ruse to veil contempt and rudeness and put others at a distance. And, finally, how difficult it is to NOT love a person who’s not inherently bad, or evil, but not quite deserving, as Felicity concludes about Stephen: 

But academic fulfilment is not a complete substitute for personal and emotional satisfaction. She loved Stephen Tarkman. She admitted the fact now. And she longed to be something special in his life. The fact that it was something utterly paltry which had spoiled the natural development of their friendship only increased the feeling of frustration. To scale tragic heights can be elating and ennobling. To plumb silly and tawdry shallows is a bitter business.

How marvelously droll and sad at the same time: the little hurts, the mini-misunderstandings, the curt words, the neglected soothing: all the possibilities of emotionally failing someone, the “silly and tawdry shallows” (with apologies to Miss Bates’s friend, VaVeros, Shallow Reader). They add up; they hurt; they estrange. In the end, Child Of Music is a romance. There is reconciliation, a dramatic knight-in-shining-armor moment, and heroine-vindication. Miss Bates just wishes there were a bit more courtship and fun beforehand. With her reading companion, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Child Of Music, “real comfort,” Emma.

Mary Burchell’s Child Of Music was originally published by Mills and Boon in 1971. It was reissued by Endeavour Press in April of this year. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Endeavour Press, via Netgalley.

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