12 August, 2009

Book 21 - Rosanna joins the Wells, or: Poor people are more interesting when they're foreign

Have I mentioned before that I love book series? I'm pretty sure I have, but just in case I haven't: I love book series. Particularly the one that just go on and on getting more ridiculous as they go. The other day I saw an interview with one of the actors from the tv show Hercules, who said that once you get to the episode where you're playing your own evil twin it's time to get a new job because the fat lady is singing - there's no more new plots to be had. Perhaps Francine Pascal could have taken some advice from him.

Anyway, one of the many series I read as a kid was the Sadler's Wells series, which is pretty much about girls who love ballet and grow up to be famous ballerinas. Why this appealed to me, someone who can't even point her feet, and often resembles a dancing hippopotamus, is something that I will never understand

nevertheless, they were actually pretty cool books, covering themes of selfishness versus dedication, women choosing between career and marriage, and the early books had lots of beautiful descriptions of the English countryside. I'm still trying to collect all the books in the series.

Title: Rosanna joins the Wells (1956)

Author: Lorna Hill

Why this book?
Like I said - I collect the series!

What's it all about anyway?
Rosanna is growing up in Spain, the daughter of a Spanish father and English mother. Her family is poor, but she's loved, and happy. Then, tragedy strikes - her parents are both killed in a landslide while she is visiting the neighbouring village. However, she is taken in by a friend of the family, and she slowly learns to cope without her parents. In her new village she also meets a ballet teacher, who catches her dancing and decides to teach her for no charge. Her teacher sees that she's brilliant, and hopes that she'll one day get a scholarship to the Wells. Then tragedy strikes - er, again. Rosanna's guardian, who was pretty old, dies, and Rosanna get sent to live with relatives in England.

Rosanna boards a ship to England. She's pretty bored, and homesick, on the ship, until she meets a rather odd (but quite handsome) young man. His behaviour is bizarre to her, but it turns out that he loves ballet too, and they strike up a friendship of sorts. Unbeknownst to Rosanna, the young man is a Prince Leopold of Slovenia (don't grab a map, it's not a real country), and he is preparing to propose to an up-and-coming ballerina, Ella Rosetti. Rosanna is simply an amusement for him while he is on the ship, and once they hit land he thinks no more of her.

Rosanna's English family, the Waybridges, are pretty awful. Her uncle, her mother's brother, is nice, but is over-awed by his class-conscious wife. Her Aunt Bessie is not happy to have Rosanna joining the family, and does not welcome Rosanna at all. Her cousins, Monica and Cyril, are both spoilt bullies who delight in making Rosanna miserable. She's treated more as a servant than a member of the family, and she hates England. Still, life isn't all bad - she makes friends with a Spanish family who, unlike her own family, welcome her with warm hearts and open arms. They also encourage her to start taking ballet lessons again, and when her aunt tells her that she can't afford lessons Rosanna sells off the few expensive clothes she has.

Rosanna becomes the star dancer at Mary Martin's ballet school, much to the chagrin of Monica and her Bessie - until Rosanna's arrival, Monica was one of the best dancers. When she gets the leading role in the school's ballet show, the two conspire to keep Rosanna out of it - by locking her in at home, so she's unable to go. Rosanna finally decides enough is enough and tries to run away back to Spain. Her escape is helped by the boy next door, but when she reaches the docks she realises she'll never be able to stow away on a ship, whatever she'd been imagining. Then she runs into someone completely unexpected (if you've never read a book before) - the Prince Leopold! He listens to her story and takes her to the ballet school himself, where she's just in time to to perform her solo and catch the eyes of Ella Rosetti and the famous Veronica Weston. Leopold also takes it upon himself to tell Rosanna's aunt exactly what he thinks of her, which was possibly the best part of the whole book.

The Good and the Bad
Lorna Hill's early heroines are great, and her early stories show a great deal of humour. First there's Veronica, who has to choose between love and ballet, grey London and beautiful Northumberland, and who has to battle with both jealous dancers and her awful cousin, Fiona, but who emerges strong and victorious through it all, purely thanks to her own determination. There's also Caroline, Veronica's cousin, who loves dancing but deals with bitter disappointment when she's told she'll never be a prima ballerina; and cousins Jane and Mariella, who swap identities so that Jane can dance and Mariella, who hates dancing, doesn't have to. They were all interesting and charistmatic characters that you really cared about.

Unfortunately, the next generation of heroines are far less interesting. In her first book, Ella is timid and poor - that's all there really is to her. Rosanna is even worse, because while you felt Ella's dedication to ballet, you don't even really get a sense of Rosanna's love for her art. Despite being treated like an indentured servant, she not only takes the abuse - which is at least kind of understandable - but she doesn't even seem to hate her abusers for it. She's so passive it's almost infuriating. You do, of course, still want her to 'win' over her awful aunt and cousins, but the tension between her aunt and Mary Martin is far more interesting than Rosanna's. And, of course, it doesn't exactly come to a surprise that at the end of the book Rosanna leaves her family and joins the Wells - it's right there in the title, Rosanna joins the Wells. You know, just in case you were hoping for any kind of dramatic tension.

Something which is almost laughable is the way that Rosanna's life in Spain is idealised. It didn't matter that she had no shoes, we're told, because it was always sunny in Spain! Well, sure, but if you're too poor to afford shoes life definitely isn't all sunshine and rainbows, no matter where you live. This attitude is especially awful when contrasted to Ella Rosetti's background - she was also a poor orphan, and taken in by family who slept three to a bed. There's this romanticism of Rosanna's peasant lifestyle, while Ella's working class family are portrayed uncultured in the extreme and cruel. Nice.

So should I read this book or what?
Needless to say I can't exactly recommend this to anyone who isn't already enamoured of the series. However, if this does sound like it could potentially be your drug of choice, I do dearly love all of the first three books in the series. A dream of Sadler's Wells tells of Veronica overcoming great difficulties just to get an audition to the famous ballet school, while Veronica at the Wells is about her rise to fame and the sacrifices she has to make to get there. My all-time favourite, though, is No castanets at the Wells, in which Caroline Scott meets the intensely sexy Spanish dancer Angelo. They're all far less melodramatic books than Rosanna, but infinitely better-written and more interesting.

Unrelated link of the day: A Very Potter Musical - watch out for Draco, who is absolutely hilarious.


Sadako said...

I never heard of this book growing but it looks really cool. Nice review!

Anonymous said...

Slovenia IS a country - has been so since 1991 when it gained independence from Yugoslavia. Lorna Hill invented a fictional country and Slovenia is not a monarchy but it sure is country. In Slovenian translations the name of Leopold's country is something completely different (I don't remember what it is).

HelenB said...

Sorry, Anonymous - I think that should have read "don't grab a map, it's not *the* real country". I hope i didn't cause too much offense.