Starling taught to speak

starling-bewick
Starling woodcut by Thomas Bewick (1809)

Eva Ibbotson The Morning Gift
Macmillan Children’s Books 2015 (1993)

I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak …
— Shakespeare Henry IV Part 1

Here is a publishing curiosity. The Morning Gift was originally written in the 1990s for an adult readership but then, to the author’s surprise, reissued as a teen read in 2007 (presumably slightly revised then by the author, as a copyright notice suggests). I can see how the temptation to repackage may have arisen: it’s a sort of Rags-to-Riches story, with the young heroine (she’s around twenty, I should add) playing a Cinderella role until she and her Prince Charming finally get together. But within the Boy Meets Girl trope, where the course of true love rarely runs smooth, there is so much more to enjoy. For a start, there’s a generous dose of autobiographical detail that lends both honesty and authenticity to the narrative.The Morning Gift opens with a paean to Vienna, “a city of myths” from which “thirteen nationalities were governed” and where music and psychology and artists and philosophers reigned supreme. Until the coming of the Nazis. Ruth Berger (like the real-life Maria Charlotte Michelle Wiesner, as Eva Ibbotson was then) came from academic non-practising Jewish stock, and had fallen in love with promising young Hungarian pianist Heini Radek. All is proceeding well until March 12th 1938, when Hitler’s Nazi Germany annexes Austria. Ruth returns to the family apartment to find it abandoned, soon to be trashed; her extended family has fled to England, her boyfriend to Hungary, but she has been kicked off a train as she is unable to prove she hasn’t been politically active.

At this point Professor Quinton Somerville, an old friend of the family from England, arrives at the apartment to hear a bird-like tune sadly played over and over again on a piano. This is the Rondo theme from Mozart’s G major Piano Concerto K453, the ‘Starling’, which Mozart had taught a caged starling (though the bird always added the pause and the G sharp) and which Ruth is despondently picking out on the piano keys.

MozartStarlingTune

To get Ruth safely abroad to England he proposes a solution, that they partake in a so-called morganatic marriage. Quin explains it thus: “The word morganatic comes from the Latin matrimonium ad morganaticum — a marriage based on the morning gift. It’s a gift given the morning after the bridal night with which the husband, by bestowing it, frees himself from any liability to the wife …” It’ll be a marriage of convenience from which they will extricate themselves in England, leaving Ruth free to marry her pianist. Or so runs the theory.

I can’t tell you how delighted and moved I was by this novel. Not only Ruth, a starling who has her own voice, but a range of believable characters, some flawed but all human; a timescale that, beginning before and ending after the war, captures societies in transition; a treatment that doesn’t neglect to address the inevitable prejudices that rear up when refugees and migrants appear in communities; an examination of tensions and class divisions between not just the haves and have-nots but also the intelligentsia, landed gentry and the upwardly-thrusting nouveau riche. The burgeoning teacher-pupil relationship is also sensitively handled, not the abusive Svengali type but rather that in, say, Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor.

Above all, Ibbotson has melded it all together with a sure touch that expertly paces the ups and downs of relationships and charts the misunderstandings, all against a background of distinctive settings and landscapes — Vienna before and during the Anschluss, Belsize Park and the fictional Thameside University in London, and the equally fictional ancestral pile of Bowmont on the Northumbrian coast.

Weaving through all like themes in a composition are Ibbotson’s own loves: classical music and natural science. And this brings us back to the iridescent starling, for the European bird which gave its name to one of Mozart’s concertos is of course, where Britain is concerned, usually a migrant that spends the winters in the UK in large gregarious flocks. Some may cavil at the noise they produce and regard them as pests; others instead marvel at their spectacular murmurations which can so uplift the heart and enrich our experience. I know which group I belong to.

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18 thoughts on “Starling taught to speak

  1. earthbalm

    Excellent post. Yet another book you’ve made me add to my books-to-read list. The murmur video and the woodcut were thoughtful additions to the review.

    1. Thanks very much, Dale, and glad you liked the starling additions!

      We once visited a starling roost in Pembrokeshire as they returned at the end of the day — an extraordinary experience, never to be forgotten, as wave after wave of starlings literally poured into the woods. The sight and sound were beyond words, and we could only manage an hour before it was all too much.

    1. Thanks so much, Lory, I tried to do this delightful novel justice. As I read it a couple of passages seemed familiar — could it be a memory of a review of yours I’d read? 🙂

      Wondering now which Ibbotson to go for next; I fancy ‘The Star of Kazan’ but what would you recommend?

      1. The Star of Kazan is a really great read. Though truthfully Journey to the riversea is good as well. There is no element of romance in either of them but you get the premonition that it might be if or when the characters grow older.

      2. Nope, I’ve never reviewed Ibbotson, though I might do one day. I remember liking A Company of Swans, with its exotic South American setting and ballet-company characters. Journey to the River Sea is one I have not yet read, but would like to. Enjoy!

        1. Sounds like I’m spoilt for choice! It’s good that all these titles are published in a uniform edition in the UK, though I rather think most of the covers are bland and unappealing.

  2. Lovely video and great review, Chris. Like others, I’ll be adding this book to my must-read list. However I have to point out that here in NYC we aren’t so enthralled by starlings (introduced 100+ years ago by a misguided avia-phile who wanted to bring all of Shakespeare’s birds to the New World: see http://www.nytimes.com/1990/09/01/opinion/100-years-of-the-starling.html for a negative view of this winged menace). Perhaps they’re trying to be NYC cool, perhaps there are just too many tall buildings, but they don’t murmur here.

    1. Yes, I’ve heard the Shakespeare story elsewhere and can understand why they’re regarded as a pest. They don’t murmur here either — more a chattering screech when en masse — so don’t know how the collective noun murmuration came into being!

      Glad you liked the review — hope you get round to understanding for yourself how much I appreciated it. 🙂

    1. Could be, Gert. They also remind me of those nature films of shoals of fish … herded into seething living globes by whales and dolphins and then picked off! Certainly not the case with the starlings though. 🙂

  3. the book sounds very beautiful. That video, of the starlings, is just wonderful too. All those twisting, bunching, almost mathematical shapes they make. One of the great mysteries, and beauties of nature. Loved it.

    1. I’m pleased so many readers like the video I shared; murmurations like these are even more magical in real life — as I saw for myself one evening crossing the Preselis — and especially at dusk, that wonderful interface between day and night.

      I do hope you also get to read the novel sometime, Arran — always timely to remind oneself about the plight of migrants and refugees displaced by circumstances beyond their control (like the poor they’re always going to be with us) and how they should be accorded the common humanity we expect for ourselves.

      1. You know, I’d quite forgotten that wonderful word, murmurations. A beautiful word, one to savour and enjoy. You are also 100 % right about our poor human migrants, of course. The absolute minimum they deserve is our sympathy, humanity, our attention and respect. In this era of that appalling crypto-fascist thug, Trump, baiting vulnerable minorities, and fear whipped up by Brexit camppaigners, it’s a reminder that can not be stated too often, or too clearly.
        Anyway, enough of politics, your lovely post was a welcome relief from it. I thanks you again, for the beautiful video, and the beautiful word

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