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
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
Gemma is the first in a four book series: the other
three books are Gemma and
Sisters, Gemma Alone
and Good-bye Gemma.
(This section contains "spoilers" for those who have
not read the book.)
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".
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,
Editions and Availability
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
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
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
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.)
Publishers Ltd. © 1968 Noel Streatfeild