Gemma & Gemma Alone by Noel Streatfeild
Originally printed 1968 & 1969
Dell Yearling, 1st printings, 1986 & 1987
138 & 150 pages
Genre: children’s literature/ YA fiction
Synopsis & Review: The Robinson family live in Headstone, a good-sized industrial town north of London. Father Philip is on leave from his position as first violin in the Steen, Headstone’s world-famous orchestra. Eldest child Ann is a talented singer, middle child Lydie a gifted dancer, and the youngest Robin is a promising musician and chorister.
Together they live a quiet, but very satisfactory life of talent, hard work, and achievement. And then mother Alice’s niece comes to stay. Alice’s sister Rowena was once a famous actress, and when she fell out of fashion, she put her daughter Gemma Bow into the limelight as a child actress. Now that Gemma’s approaching adolescence, she’s less marketable, and hasn’t gotten any roles in some time. Rowena’s career, however, is on the rise once more, this time on television. Since filming will be in America, Rowena sends Gemma to live with the Robinsons, to spend time attending school and growing out of her awkward stage. Gemma is wretched over the whole situation, dealing with the complexities of feeling washed up from her career at the ripe old age of eleven and fear of public humiliation because of that, being away from her mother for an extended period of time while living with complete strangers, attending school for the first time in her life, plus the usual preadolescent troubles. To assuage Gemma’s fears, Alice suggests that she enroll as Gemma Robinson, allowing Gemma to avoid notoriety and be judge on her own merits rather than her fame. Unfortunately, her years of irregular schooling have left Gemma a bit backward; unable to bear being a nobody in the lowest C-stream class of her school, Gemma acts out, but is eventually caught and punished. Soon Gemma adjusts to life in Headstone, joining the school drama group and settling into lessons. To help raise money for a hospital benefit, Gemma, Ann, and Lydie perform to Robin’s accompaniment as Gemma and Sisters, and are a rousing success.
There’s a volume between Gemma and Gemma Alone called Gemma and Sisters, in which the group Gemma and sisters continue performing, and Gemma lands a plum role as Lady Jane Grey, leading to her enrollment in the Headstone School of Drama and Stage Training. Gemma Alone opens on her first day at the new school, using her real name of Gemma Bow for the first time since coming to Headstone. This marks a change for Gemma as she begins seriously studying acting, though it takes some disappointments for her to move forward. First, Rowena refuses to let her act professionally in a pantomime, and then As You Like It isn’t chosen for performance due to her own desultory study of Rosalind.
Gemma steps back into the limelight when, during a visit from Rowena, she is seen by a producer who wants Gemma to play Rebecca in his film version of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. After sage advice from her producer, Gemma retires back to her studies in Headstone, buckling down and learning her art in preparation for her future. In the meantime, Lydie gets in trouble for publically dancing without her teacher’s permission, and Ann struggles with growing up and whether she should follow her own dream of attending Oxford, or her father’s dream that she attend the Royal College of Music. Robin and his chum Nigs work on their music arrangements, and the children land a spot in a television talent contest, garnering a record offer.
Bleagh. I put off writing this because I was so vastly unimpressed with the two Gemma books I read, and I could hardly bear to think of them for a moment longer than necessary. Writing the summaries was tedious–and they probably read that way. But I try to be fair. The Gemma books were written fairly late in Streatfeild’s career, in the late Sixties, and instead of demonstrating the years she spent honing her craftsmanship, they reflect quite poorly on her. The series is middling at best, with hardly anything memorable about them; even the climaxes seem anti-climactic, thanks to the frenetic pace and the odd decision to publish the books as four slight volumes.
The family, though crafted as a loving, supportive group, only works as a family; as separate characters, only the parents and Gemma stand out. Ann, Lydie, and Robin are shallow sketches amounting to little more than rehashing Streatfeild’s “stock” characters: the studious good child, the self-absorbed dancer, and the musical young boy. Though the children grow and develop over an extended period, even into young adulthood, their development is superficial and inadequately explained by Streatfeild. Though the concept of a child star attempting to lead a normal life is interesting, Streatfeild disappointingly does not handle it with the care demonstrated in her earlier books, relying instead on simplistic writing and plot devices. The contemporary references give the books a dated feel distinctly different from the timeless quality of her earlier work. The whole effect is to make the Gemma books distinctly unmemorable and better forgotten.
I own both of these and must confess, though I know I read them, they made so little impression on me at the time that I hardly remembered a thing about them twenty years later. The only high note for me was Launcelot Panther (a James Bond knock-off), and I’d rather read that than Gemma. I was so disgusted by them that I couldn’t even go on to re-read Ballet Shoes–but I am glad I saved that for last so that I can end my current Streatfeild streak on a good note. Don’t worry, I will continue catching up on Streatfeilds when I can; this incident hasn’t put me off them completely. Gemma Alone did rekindle my interest in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, however, so I may read that again soon. I’m currently debating whether to bother holding on to these; the fact that they’re out of print makes me want to, while their sucking inclines me to get rid of them.
Covers: Ug-ly! Gemma with the Robinson children–who all look like creepily cherubic Aryan boys, and Gemma posing poutily in front of the school gate.
“You’ll catch up if you work. Why don’t you try, gemma? All right, you don’t like 1E. Well, move up then to 1S and then join your cousin in 1U.”
“Do you think I could?”
“I know you could. And believe me, if you work with an aim like that you won’t find school dull.”
A new picture swam before Gemma. Gemma the brain. Gemma who didn’t get stuck in the bottom stream, but who climbed out.
She grinned at Ursula. “I don’t know if I can do it, but I’d like to. And i”m going to try.”
“Good,” said Ursula. “I shall be watching you.”
8 July & 9-1o July