Updated: Apr 6
“I’m not going to say I love you or anything of that sort,” sixteen-year-old Ditto says to Helen, after whom he lusts without actually crushing on her in Aidan Chambers’ 1978 novel Breaktime (116). Breaktime was the first of six YA novels now known as the Dance Sequence, whose sophisticated accounts of British teenagers’ innermost lives—sexual, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual—explore what Chambers has called “the secrets of the body, the mind, and the heart” (Afterword 251).
“It doesn’t matter,” Helen replies (116). They have sex—Ditto’s first time—after a long conversation that shoves lust into the background of their companionship with each other. During Ditto’s post-coital doze, Helen goes and leaves a note behind her wishing Ditto, “Be loved” (127). She extricates herself from their fling—that’s all it is—without implicating her love in that wish. This twist was groundbreaking for a YA novel published in 1978. Breaktime breaks a lot of ground, sex-wise, and I want to zoom in on something spiritual that accompanies it.
Chambers has been a key figure on the British YA scene since 1968, when he became the editor of Macmillan Topliner, an imprint for fiction directed at the then-newfangled adolescent reader. Subsequently, Chambers founded his own imprint for translations of international YA fiction into English, called Turton & Chambers, and managed the Thimble Press for children’s literature criticism with his wife, Nancy. In 1978, Chambers himself became an author of Young Adult fiction with the publication of his novel Breaktime with the New Adult imprint of Bodley Head. After finishing the Dance Sequence’s six instalments in 2005, Chambers has continued to write YA fiction and theory, publishing his latest book, The Age Between, just last year. Two years ago, I had a chance to meet him.
Chambers’ literary oeuvre, specifically the creative process leading up to Breaktime and its companion novel, Dance on My Grave (1982), is the subject of my PhD project. My research involves combing through the Aidan and Nancy Chambers’ archive at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle, to identify the key authorial decisions and their motivations. On top of being an author and editor, Chambers is a lifelong teacher. Although he left secondary-level teaching in 1968, Chambers has made lifelong contributions to the teaching of literature to young people by teaching teachers, writing and speaking on pedagogical topics, and developing his “Tell Me” approach to childhood literacy education. My PhD dissertation investigates the crossover between authoring, editing, and teaching during the point in his career at which he became a full-time author, writing Breaktime and Dance.
While my talk at the conference will address lustfulness in the heterosexual cis-female gaze that Chambers drafted but edited out of Dance, let me whet your appetite for that now with a few more words on the sex scene from Breaktime. Ditto and Helen have sex just once, but Chambers narrates the act three times. While this tri-text gives the sex scene its notoriety, Ditto and Helen’s conversation before and after sex complicates things even more by muddling lust with love with transient companionship.
Chambers himself once hinted I should try reading his novels with Iris Murdoch’s philosophy of the Good in mind. As it turns out, Murdoch’s assessment of virtuousness (the platonic “Good”) and how to reach it is helpful for puzzling out love’s matrices in Chambers’ oeuvre about growing up, because both authors consider acts of love to be an essential step. Does this mean that Chambers frames growing up into adulthood as a trajectory toward virtue? Also, is it at all ironic that Chambers depicts sexual acts of love as part of the process towards reaching a platonic ideal?
When reaching for virtue, one of the “techniques for the purification and reorientation of an energy which is naturally selfish” that Murdoch offers is to pay attention, such as through companionship and conversation (53). To Murdoch, attention is “a form of love” and “a source of energy” (54). The deep attention that Ditto and Helen pay to each other during their tryst surfaces in a foreplay of wordplay on that very theme, like Ditto’s “every cell aware of Helen’s warm presence” that metamorphoses into “the presence of this moment” to invoke the idea of presentness (121). Following Ditto’s wordplay and the dialogic passage that turns Ditto and Helen’s lust into companionship, the playful tri-text narrative form of Breaktime’s sex scene also demands intense readerly attention to be deciphered.
By paying Helen deep attention, Ditto finds something like happiness through the sex and chitchat that he shared with her. This combination energizes the “just and loving gaze” of attentiveness from Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good (33). Love is not necessarily sexual in the Dance Sequence, or sex does not mean love, but (consensual) sex and love can compound into the spiritual, platonic realm when the adolescent characters pay attention to someone else’s lusts, desires, and presence — and to their own.
Chambers, Aidan. Afterword. Breaktime and Dance on My Grave. Random House, 2011.
Chambers, Aidan. Breaktime. Bodley Head, 1978.
Chambers, Aidan. Personal interview. 25 November 2019.
Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. 1970. Routledge, 2001.
Andrea Davidson is a PhD candidate at the University of Antwerp. Her talk at the Let’s Talk About Sex in YA conference will address unhappiness in the erotic love that Chambers plotted for his adolescent characters Hal and (especially) Jo in the second Dance Sequence novel, Dance on My Grave (1982).