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Gemma

Gemma was first published in 1968, with a US edition in the same year. It is now out of print, although the recent (1999) Collins paperback may still be available in shops.


Story | Connections to Other Books | Thoughts | Editions and Availability

Story

The Robinson family (Philip and Alice, and the children Ann, Lydia and Robin) live in an industrial town north of London. Philip Robinson has been a first violin in the town's world famous orchestra, but rheumatism in his hands has forced him to give this up. The children are all musical: Ann has a fine singing voice, Lydia (normally called Lydie) is a promising dancer, and Robin plays the piano and is expected to gain a scholarship at the choir school.

Alice's sister, Rowena, has been a famous film star, and Rowena's daughter, Gemma, one of the country's best known child stars. One day Rowena writes to Alice - she has been offered a part in America, and she cannot take Gemma (who, at 11, is now the wrong age for films) so she asks if the Robinsons can look after her. Philip and Alice agree, so Gemma arrives in Headstone.

Gemma is bitterly unhappy about being sent to stay with her cousins. She is also scared of going to the local Comprehensive school, as she is sure she is backward in her schoolwork. Everyone there will have heard of her, and will know that she is "washed up" as a film star.

Alice suggests that she be enrolled at the school as Gemma Robinson, rather than under her real name (Gemma Bow). Gemma agrees to this with relief, but then when she arrives at school finds she dislikes being a nonentity. For a while, she gains popularity by leading her class into disobedience, but eventually she is caught and punished. Then she hears about the school drama group. The drama group does not normally take the younger children - but neither does the school choir, and yet Ann has been a member and soloist for a term. Gemma therefore determines to join the drama group.

Connections to Other Books

Gemma is the first in a four book series: the other three books are Gemma and Sisters, Gemma Alone and Good-bye Gemma.

Thoughts

(This section contains "spoilers" for those who have not read the book.)

Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig dismiss the literary merit of the entire Gemma series out of hand - "In the four Gemma books there is hardly a memorable episode" (1976:295) - but note that the many contemporary references may give the books a socialogical interest. Even in the first book, Noel does seem to be making a very conscious effort to make the books "current". Cadogan and Craig's examples of this include the comprehensive school, and the plan to buy a kidney machine for the hospital. Another interesting point is that when Gemma decides to learn the banjo - an instrument that none of Noel's earlier characters would have been interested in - Philip remarks "You don't meet them so often these days, it's mostly electric guitars" (Gemma, 1968:58), and her teacher points out that "It's not a bad moment to learn, for with this revival of folk music, there are some good songs around" (Gemma, 1968:68). In addition to this, as Nancy Huse points out, Alice is "the first of Streatfeild's mothers to function entirely without household help" (1994:126).

Angela Bull also finds the Gemma series "undistinguished" (1984:214), and suggests that some of its flaws - hurried writing, muffled climaxes, a hectic pace - arise from a lack of confidence, which Bull also detects in Thursday's Child and Ballet Shoes for Anna. In Bull's view, these faults "arose partly from Noel's awareness of the changing state of children's fiction, and her understandable fears that her own pre-eminence was under threat" (1984:237). This would also provide a reason for the sudden proliferation of contemporary references.

In contrast to Cadogan and Craig, and to Bull, Nancy Huse is quite enthusiastic about the fact that "the Gemma books also constitute a new genre for Streatfeild: a series about a set of characters who move from childhood to adulthood ... The Gemma books describe each child's independence and growth in a special talent" (1994:125). Huse is also interested in the "major theme of interdependence: the children lead separate lives, yet their simultaneous careers intersect" (1994:125), and the fact that Gemma gradually comes to "see herself as another Alice, a person who brings others together and is multitalented" (1994:26), while selfish Lydia is more closely linked to Rowena.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Gemma - and the series as a whole - is rather lightweight compared to some of Noel's other work. In this first book of the series, Noel returns to a theme she has looked at in detail twice before - that of someone being placed in an unfamiliar environment, and undergoing personal growth as a result. However, compared to the children in The Circus is Coming and The Growing Summer, Gemma's development is presented very superficially. It is worth noting, however, that in writing Gemma's period of disobedience at school, Noel may well have been thinking of a time in her own schooldays. While at the Hastings and St. Leonard's Ladies' College, Noel had started producing a class magazine. When this was discovered and banned by the headmistress, a furious Noel founded the Little Grey Bows Society, the aim of which was to be rude to teachers. Similarly, Gemma discovers that "It was easy for her, trained in the use of words and inflections, to bait the teachers with answers which sounded harmless but could also be read as rude. ... Soon it became unpopular in the class if you worked well and tried hard" (Gemma, 1968:64).

In Gemma, Noel briefly addresses an idea she was to present in more detail later in the series - the difference between the amateur and the professional performer. This appears for the first time when Gemma plays her banjo at Ann's party. After the party, Philip says to Alice "It was the way she put that song over that was so noticeable. ... Our lot are quite talented but amateurs - very obvious amateurs. Now Gemma isn't talented, I mean not at what she was doing, yet it was very noticeable to me that she did not belong in the amateur world" (Gemma, 1968:107).

Editions and Availability

UK Editions

Gemma was first published in 1968, with cover painting and illustrations by Betty Maxey, as "the first story in a new series specially written by Noel Streatfeild for Armada Books". Thus, the first edition was a paperback, and it appears that Gemma has never had a hardcover release.

Also in 1968, William Collins and Sons released a trade paperback edition.

It was republished in the early 1970s as an "Armada Lion" paperback, still with the Betty Maxey illustrations, but with a photographic cover.

In the later 1970s it came out as a "Fontana Lion" paperback with the Betty Maxey illustrations and a (different) photographic cover. This edition continued to be republished into the 1980s, with yet another cover design.

In 1999 Collins released a new paperback edition, with a new cover design.

US Editions

In the same year as its UK release (1968), Gemma was released in the United States by Dell.

It was republished in the late 1980s as a Dell Yearling paperback.

As I have not read the US editions, I do not know if the text was in any way amended.

Out of Print

1999 Collins paperback edition of Gemma    

The 1999 Collins paperback edition of Gemma may still be available in shops. However, it is no longer listed on the HarperCollins website, and can therefore be assumed to be out of print.

In February 2004, second hand copies through online booksellers start in price at around 2. (Source: Addall Used and Out of Print Book Search.)

HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. © 1968 Noel Streatfeild

 


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