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REVIEW: A Song Begins by Mary Burchell

REVIEW: A Song Begins by Mary Burchell

Dear Readers,

n148656At last to the final book which Sunita loaned to me. Of all the books mentioned in the “Safe Passage” posts, I think this one garnered the most votes and fond recollections. After reading it, I can see why. The impact is that strong. For those who’ve not read it yet, I suggest that you proceed with caution in reading this review as the whole thing will be sort of spoilerish. I already knew the outcome of the book before I started and can only imagine how much more of a shock and delight the ending would have been if it had hit me broadside.

Anthea Benton is taken aback when her voice teacher informs her that Anthea is ready to move beyond anything Miss Sharon can teach her. But money is tight in the Benton household and the cost of Anthea moving to London and affording the kind of lessons which she needs to realize her gift of a voice is prohibitive.

So when her younger brother shows her a newspaper advert for a local contest with a  £500 first prize (and remember this book was first published in 1965 when this was a shit load of money), Anthea realizes this could be the answer to her prayers. As she listens to the other contestants, she’s confident that even her fairly untrained voice is the best there.

And she would have won the contest if not for the odious Oscar Warrender. A last minute coup of a judge on the part of the contest supporters, the world class opera conductor is obviously the one who persuaded the other judges to award the prize to another person. Crushed, Anthea doesn’t hold back her disappointment and is only a little embarrassed that the great man himself overheard her view of him.

So when a letter arrives shortly afterwards announcing that Warrender wants her to appear in London to audition to be his student, Anthea is shocked. But not too shocked to realize that this is her big chance. As he tells her after she sings for him, she is to put herself totally in his hands, listen to what he tells her to do then, by God, DO IT.

It will be hard. It will be long. She will need every ounce of strength and intelligence she possesses to withstand the training and hard work to become an opera singer and not merely someone who can sing. If she is a good girl, and does what she’s told, and doesn’t do what she’s told not to do, then maybe, just maybe she will become a star. But will Anthea be able to keep from strangling Warrender on her way to a Covent Garden debut? And what else will she discover along the way?

This isn’t just a book about a young woman finding love. Lots of people can write those and write them well. Rather, it’s a book about a young woman finding herself and reaching for the operatic stars – and finding love along the way. As Warrender warns her, the road is rocky and strewn with boulders and obstacles. She has the voice, Warrender also tells her, somewhat grudgingly, but is she disciplined enough to make of it what can be made? Or will she be seduced by easy praise and flattering users who will casually allow her to ruin her voice as so many others have done?

Early on, Anthea hears something a famous soprano said of Warrender (to paraphrase): that sometimes she could cheerfully kill Oscar and then she’d be the chief mourner at his funeral. And that he can make anyone sing better than they think they ever could. Anthea learns these lessons herself and we watch her do battle with her temper after some cutting remark Oscar makes or some casually dismissive statement he utters. His praise is faint and rarely heard, his anger at a mistake is great and Anthea finds him a demanding bastard. Yet, she also admits that there is something about him that inspires greatness from his singers and she knows she’s damn lucky he’s taking the time to work with her.

Still she can’t help but get angry at him when he easily brushes aside the friendship Anthea shares with a young man from home. And when he throws down the gauntlet and makes her choose between singing and family, she almost breaks. It’s here that he utters the famous lines Barb Ferrar posted earlier -

“I’m sorry about your mother”-’he did not sound in the least sorry-’”but I presume the estimable Neil Prentiss has everything in hand, as you say. They must manage without you.”

“They can’t!”

“They must!” he shouted at her suddenly. “Great heavens, do you suppose we’ve worked to this point in order to let everything go? Don’t you understand even now what it means to be a professional artist? The performance comes first, last and all the time. Understand that now and for the whole of your future. Your entire family can be ill, your husband can have left you for another woman, your house can be on fire, but if you can get on the stage and do a great performance, YOU GO! Is that clear?”

At this point in the book, I was almost ready to bust Oscar myself. The nerve of the man! Her mother is ill and he’s demanding she make a choice. Only, as the story goes on, we find out…well, I won’t say but we see that Oscar isn’t a total shit without family feelings.

There’s another part of the book which also struck me. It’s said by Anthea’s London voice coach:

“I’m afraid he is probably a pretty hard taskmaster,” the other woman admitted. “But one day you will be glad of that, Anthea. This is almost the hardest life there is, if one does it properly, and perhaps someone has to be hard with us in the very beginning. Kind words and easy applause can come later. Not at the beginning.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Anthea sighed. “But he’s pretty beastly sometimes for no reason at all.”

“Possibly. All great artists live on their nerves, and seldom suffer fools gladly,” replied Enid Mountjoy bracingly. “The general public glibly refers to this as being temperamental. If you have the temperament to put on a great performance, it’s asking too much of you that you should go home afterwards and cook the lamb chops with your own little hands. Or, in the case of a man, make yourself tamely agreeable to all and sundry.”

And this is just so true of so many opera singers. We the general audience just get to sit there and listen but they are ruled by their voices and any little thing that could affect that with which they make their living. And Mary Burchell, aka Ida Cook, had known enough singers to have seen this. All these parts of the story are so convincing because she had watched singers burn out early and destroy what made them so briefly famous. As well, she had known the singers who were disciplined enough to take their time and slowly bring along their voices, thus allowing for a long career.

I doubt that many other authors could convey this lifestyle – both the singing and the conducting – as well as Burchell. She knew the singers and, in the person of Clemens Krauss – watch for his name in the book – she knew conductors. She also knew her opera and, as portrayed by Anthea’s fellow students, Burchell had experienced camping out for tickets to Covent Garden performances and the thrill of listening to a new voice. As Anthea knows she’s in the hands of a master conductor, I read this book knowing that Burchell was telling it like it was, and in some regards, probably still is.

This isn’t an easy road to romance book. You will have to be content with knowing that the payoff will be spectacular but also long in coming. Also, Oscar will come off as a total ass several times. However Anthea does stand up to him or realizes that what he’s ordering is best for her voice. Those who don’t want to wait that long will be best advised to skip this one. But those who want to see the hard work that goes into a truly fine operatic performance and are willing to sit tight for the “I love yous” are in for a treat. B+


This book can be purchased at Amazon or other UBS stores. It is not being reprinted currently.

REVIEW: Call and I’ll Come by Mary Burchell

REVIEW: Call and I’ll Come by Mary Burchell

Dear Readers,

call & I'll comeMary Burchell wrote an astounding number of books for Mills and Boon/Harlequin before her death. And before I wrote the review of her autobiography “Safe Passage,” I hadn’t heard of her or her books. What a loss that would have been as I’m discovering that she was an amazing author.

Anna was sure she’d made a mistake in marrying Tony Roone. Not that she didn’t love him, but she felt she had nothing to give him.

As a compensation, she had made a career for herself as a singer – but found success wasn’t satisfying. Only when things went wrong did they begin to really find each other!

That sounds like such a pitiful description when measured against the contents of the book. Today I’m sure there would be something included like, “after one night of unforgettable love, Tony and Anna find themselves torn apart but the cruel demands of his society family and her shrinking belief that she could never match the glittering future that is so clearly his!” Or maybe, “to buffer her broken heart, Anna throws herself into training for a grand career on the operatic stages of Europe. Only to find that dazzling triumph can’t compensate for the chance for true love!” Of course there must be exclamation points in these blurbs because we’re talking about grand passion here.

Only the book didn’t start out as if I was going to be sucked into it like a space vortex. When Tony begins calling Anna “child,” and treating her like one, I closed my eyes and thought, “not another superior hero who comes off more like a father figure and a tiny mouse of a heroine who, despite her description as bewitching, will be pathetically grateful to him for the course of the book.” Because Anna has nothing and is nothing while Tony comes from a world in which he’d always had every advantage and known that everything would always work out.

These two are both surprised at their quick romance and each seems to know, in the secret depths of the heart, just what they’re up against. And they’re up against almost everyone. His family is openly appalled that he’s marrying this common little nobody. The biddies of the small Yorkshire village where they met clearly believe that he’s only marrying her because he “Has To,” – insert delicious shiver at the salacious gossip. And once Anna and Tony arrive in London, things only go rapidly downhill on greased wheels. What a way to start a marriage.

But even as Tony is calling Anna a child, he also feels that sometimes she’s wiser than he. I felt that despite his education and position, Anna actually knows more about life and, pardon the term, hard knocks than he can possibly imagine. She can easily see that his family use calmness and polite manners as weapons and know exactly how to insert and twist the blade to make it hurt the most. And despite the fact that I know that when you hit someone, you’ve already lost the argument, I couldn’t help but feel slightly smug when Anna smacks her way out of one confrontation.

It says something for Burchell’s writing that when Anna makes the decision to leave Tony, I could feel that she truly felt it was for the best. That she did it for Tony. Generally martyr heroines make me want to go get the rope to tie them to the railroad tracks myself but not in this case. However, it’s a good thing that Anna lands on her feet and has a talent that others are willing to foster.

I know that Burchell was a lifelong fan of opera and she uses her knowledge of that world and those people to amazing effect. As I read about Anna beginning to learn how to be an opera singer, and not merely learning to use her natural voice, I got lost in the power of it and the power of her transformation as a person. When she meets Tony again, this time he’s the one who is a little in awe while she is the one who can spare him half an hour. But they still don’t understand each other, although I can see they’re both still in love with the other, so they part again as Anna heads off to Paris as the protege of a great conductor and his lover.

This whole time, as Anna’s voice is nurtured and she sees the glamorous world which appreciates such talent, I began to feel almost sorry for Tony’s family. Sure they have a position in society which family connections has given them. They have money and status but they don’t have what Anna has! A god given talent that is bestowed on few and for a fleeting time only. They will never know the adulation that pulls performers back to the stage. As Manora tells Anna, “There is a fascination that one cannot resist, you know. I think,” she said slowly, “that is why so few of us will not or cannot listen when time says: ‘Stop now if you would be remembered at your greatest.’ ”

So, Anna and Tony are separated and appear to be headed in different directions. “Hmmmm, how will this work out?” I puzzled. The answer is to be found in another conversation Anna and Manora have about life, love and careers as opera singers. What is one willing to give up to find the kind of love and/or marriage both yearn for? Manora tells Anna and at this point in the story, after having seen the public adoration and praise with which Manora is heaped, the telling makes a strong impact.

In the last section of the book, Anna and Tony meet again but this time it is Anna who is the one with something to offer that Tony needs. And it is Anna who proves that it isn’t a person’s background or social status which gives one worth. I wondered at the unspoken condemnation of Burchell for a whole class of English society while at the same time she elevated the foreigners of the book, all of whom would never be truly accepted by that class because of either birth or marital status.

By the end of the book, Anna and Tony have a chance to start over and find the happy ending which would never have been possible had events not played out as they did. Anna’s decision will astound some, disappoint others but felt totally in keeping with the earlier discussion she has with Manora about what someone will give for the kind of love that is granted to few. And at this point, I felt that Tony might finally be worthy of such a love and equal to returning it.


This book is currently out of print.

  • Date: Nov-1973
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • ISBN: 0373017332