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A little love, a little learning by Nina…

A little love, a little learning (original 1965; edition 1990)

by Nina Bawden (Author)

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723292,206 (4.09)20
By the author of "Circles of Deceit" and "Tortoise by Candlelight", this novel shows the fragility of a family's equilibrium. Three children live with their mother and are happy in the love of their stepfather. The arrival of an aunt and the adolescent worries of the girls sets up tensions.
Title:A little love, a little learning
Authors:Nina Bawden (Author)
Info:Virago (1990), Edition: New Ed, 238 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:to-read, 1965-british-fiction, 20th-century, novel, british, british-reading-list, to-buy

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A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden (1965)


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Joanna, Kate, and Poll live with their mother, Ellen, and stepfather, Boyd somewhere near London in the 1950s. The sisters’ natural father left many years ago, and Boyd stepped in; they are a close-knit family unit with all the expected ups and downs of daughters aged 18, 12, and 6. Life suddenly gets more interesting when Ellen’s close friend comes to stay with them. Aunt Hat, as she is called, was assaulted by her husband who is now in prison, and she needs a place to stay for a while. At the same time, Kate and Poll become fascinated with their neighbors, an elderly man and his ailing sister, who have been feuding with one another for years.

Kate narrates the story, and although she is a close observer of family dynamics, her interpretation is informed by limited life experience and is often incomplete. Little by little, the reader develops a more complete picture of the family, and the back stories of Boyd, Ellen, and Aunt Hat. But Kate is also prone to stretching the truth and sharing private information. This creates problems for her parents, especially Boyd, who is a physician with a reputation to uphold. Events unfold that challenge his status in the community and test the family’s bonds and loyalty, but ultimately make everyone stronger.

I loved this portrait of a flawed but loving family facing adversity with determination. This was my first Nina Bawden but will not be my last. ( )
1 vote lauralkeet | Sep 10, 2017 |
It is the year of the coronation, and Joanna, 18, our narrator Kate 12 and seven-year-old Poll are living happily in Monks Ford – a suburban commuter town on the banks of the Thames – with their mother Ellen and their adored step-father Boyd. The children play in their garden, building a camp under the trees, walk to and from school, part of a friendly suburban community who all think the world of Boyd – the local doctor. Boyd has surrounded his step-daughters with wise, unquestioning love, he and Ellen always answer their questions with honesty – the children have grown up with a strange encyclopaedic medical knowledge, quite matter of fact about all kinds of things their peers have no idea about. Ellen and Boyd are very modern parents allowing the girls to develop understanding about things other 1950s parents are still shielding their daughters from. While Boyd is attentive and loving, Ellen is sterner, finding it much harder to show her feelings.

Kate, is fascinated by Boyd’s patients, so proud of the only father she has ever known, she is resentful of Poll’s teacher and their neighbour Miss Carter whose devotion to Boyd verges on the embarrassing. Joanna has reached the brink of adulthood, about to finish school forever, concerned about getting old she has her sights set on local swain Will. Often full of complaint about her younger sisters, she is allowed to have the bedroom she shared with Kate to herself, Kate is therefore forced to share with Poll. Poll loves to play make believe games, and sometimes Kate plays with her, although the games seem a little old for her now. Kate is very impressionable, imaginative with a wonderful sense of the dramatic, she is also prone to telling the odd lie – and digs herself into all sorts of uncomfortable holes. Like so many other great child narrators, Kate is growing up and struggling to understand everything around her – she simply doesn’t grasp the possible consequences of her lies and interference.

“The year Aunt Hat came to us, my main ambition – apart from rescuing someone from drowning or winning the Victoria Cross – was to go down to Jock’s Icecream Parlour in the main street of Monks Ford and eat as many Knickerbocker Glories as I could pay for.”

Everything starts to change when Aunt Hat comes to stay. Aunt Hat isn’t a relative, she was a good friend of Ellen in the days before Boyd came into her life. It was a different time that the younger girls can only remember dimly if at all, and Aunt Hat was Ellen’s only friend. Aunt Hat is very different to Ellen, working class, gossipy and a little indiscreet she hints at problems in the past, and helps to evoke the memory of the girls’ absent father – who they have been oddly incurious about thus far.

“She sat with her skirts lifted to the flames and looking quite ordinary. I felt a slight disappointment – only slight, because Lady Macbeth would really have been rather difficult to live up to – and then shyness. She was a complete stranger to me. She said, ‘I don’t suppose you remember your funny old Aunt Hat, do you? Well, here she is, turned up like the proverbial bad penny.
For a moment I had the queer feeling that there was someone else in the room. It was a feeling that was distantly familiar, a faint echo in my mind. Then I remembered slices of fresh bread, buttered, and stuck with brightly coloured hundreds and thousands. I could almost taste the grittiness of the sweets on my tongue: it went with grazed knees, consolation, and a strange habit of talking about oneself in the third person.”

Though Kate is almost disappointed in her first sight of Aunt Hat – having imagined her to be some kind of Lady Macbeth character she is quickly won over. Aunt Hat’s background seems wonderfully colourful to the three sisters, her husband imprisoned for beating her and her son. Temporarily homeless, Hat brings her noisy, chaotic world to the polite, ordered world of suburban Monks Ford. Aunt Hat is a fabulous character, though as it turns out it may not be Hat’s indiscretions that turn everything upside down, but the girls themselves.

Boyd’s medical practises are brought into question through local gossip, when he inherits some money from a neighbour and old friend. Miss Fantom has been living in reclusive disharmony with her brother who has never got over having to leave India. The two live in separate parts of the house, and Boyd and the children some of their only visitors. The children have often played in the Fantoms’ garden. Many years earlier, when Miss Fantom was about thirty, she befriended the lonely teenage Boyd – an innocent friendship which was naturally gossiped about. When Miss Fantom dies, Kate’s silly lies look like they could cause trouble for her step-father who has been left a sizeable amount of money by his patient.

This is one of those novel where in a sense not a huge amount happens – and yet it remains very compelling, and perfectly told. I think Bawden is at her best when portraying middle-class families, especially children within those families. Bawden manages to make this both poignant and funny – she strikes the balance just perfectly. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | May 29, 2017 |
A Little Love, A Little Learning is a brilliant book. I loved it. And if you’ve never read any of Bawden’s work for adults (she seems to best known as a children’s author) it’s probably a good place to start. It is 1953, Coronation Year, and we are in Monks Ford, a small, suburban town on the banks of a Thames tributary, about 25 miles from London. Factory hands have jobs in Slough, while office workers commute to London. It’s a perfectly drawn picture of lower middle-class life, with all its values and social mores, in that particular location, at that particular time, and Bawden captures the feelings of uncertainty and ‘not-belonging’ that can over-ride everything else when you’re young.

Our narrator is 12-year-old Kate, poised on the threshold of adolescence, trying to make sense of the world around her, her feelings, and her changing body. She lives with her sisters, Poll (7), who is going to be Elizabeth I in the Coronation Pageant, but would rather be Henry VIII, and Joanna, who is almost 18 and worries about getting old. Their mother, Ellen, loves them, but finds it hard to express her feelings. For her life is a serious business, and she has sterner ideas about bringing up children than most mothers. Their stepfather Boyd, the local doctor, is wise, kindly, loving and sensible.

In many ways he and Ellen are surprisingly modern for their time. For example, they believe in telling the girls the truth, especially with things like the correct medical terminology for parts of body, and the facts of life - but they conceal their own pasts, which impact on the present.

However, the past comes to light, and tensions surface as Kate and Joanna struggle with the process of growing up. No longer children, but definitely not adults, they are surprisingly mature and understanding about some things, but unable to cope with their own feelings or those of other people. Facts are half understood, and they fail to grasp the consequences of their actions.

Boyd’s abilities as a doctor and his standing in the community come under scrutiny when he inherits money from an elderly, reclusive woman who knew him long ago when she was a spirited young woman and he was a lonely child – a situation fuelled by Kate's lies. And the tale of Ellen’s life with the girls’ vanished father and her relationship with Boyd (which breaks the social codes of the day) is revealed when her old friend Aunt Hat comes to stay, so Joanna tracks their father down and invites him to visit.

Aunt Hat, ‘as soft and sweet as cake’, has undergone a hysterectomy and has been attacked by her husband, who is now awaiting trial for assaulting her stepson from a previous marriage. Unlike Boyd and Ellen, she doesn’t hide her past – she almost revels in it. To all intents and purposes she still loves her violent husband and excuses his behaviour. Kate and Joanna are aware that ‘she doesn’t always see things as they are, but as she would like them to be’. She, and other characters, modify the truth to suit their vision of the world.

This difference between what you feel and what you think you feel, between life as it is and life as we would like it to be, runs through the novel, raising questions about truth and illusion, delusion and lies. And there are issues about the nature of relationships, between friends, between husbands and wives, between parents and children.

The themes may be serious, but the book is funny, and sad and touching. Boyd, Ellen, Joanna, Kate and Poll pull through and emerge a little sadder perhaps, but stronger and wiser, than before, still a family, but with more self-knowledge, and more awareness of the things that matter in life. Kate, especially, develops an understanding of Boyd and what he has done for them over the years. ( )
  TheBookTrunk | Aug 8, 2015 |
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'Innocency hath its present answer
wisdom requires time'

Sir Henry Yelverton
for Austen
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The year Aunt Hat came to us, my main ambition - apart from rescuing someone from drowning or winning the Victoria Cross - was to go down to Jock's Icecream Parlour in the main street of Monks Ford and eat as many Knickerbocker Glories as I could pay for.
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By the author of "Circles of Deceit" and "Tortoise by Candlelight", this novel shows the fragility of a family's equilibrium. Three children live with their mother and are happy in the love of their stepfather. The arrival of an aunt and the adolescent worries of the girls sets up tensions.

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In this poised and attractive novel Nina Bawden reveals the fragility of happiness. It is the year of the Queen's Coronation, and Joanna, Kate and Poll, who are eighteen, twelve and six, are living in a riverside suburb of London with their mother Ellen, and their stepfather, Boyd, the local doctor. Accepting unquestioningly his wise, unstinting love, they are incurious about their vanished natural father; their lives appear safe, protected-but that safety is tenuous. The past arrives to upset the present in the person of Aunt Hat , a gossipy old friend whose husband has been imprisoned for assaulting her and who seems to bring news from a different world of chaos and drama. The real danger, however, comes not from Aunt Hat's indiscretions but from the girls themselves...

Perfectly balanced between pain and laughter, A Little Love, A Little Learning combines a touching and convincing family portrait with the lively evocation of a small community.

'A nearly tragic novel that is yet a work of such radiant vitality that the people walk of the page into the room' - Punch
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