The Blakes Come to Melling, by Margaret Biggs

‘Hello, Helen,’ said Rona, smiling at the newcomer. So that clinched the matter. This was the girl whom Libby intended to detest, come wind, come weather.

The Blakes Come to Melling was published in 1951, when the Girls’ Own genre had long passed its heyday. By the end of the fifties, publishers were refusing school stories from all but the most popular of authors. Society was changing, the genre had never been looked on with favour by critics, schools or parents, and the stories themselves were becoming old hat.

Margaret Biggs, however, is a writer who has the skill to bring true freshness and originality to a well-worn genre. The Blakes Come to Melling is, on the face of it, not an original story. The proud Laceys, forced to sell their old family home, Bramberley House, are determined to have nothing to do with the new owners, the happy-go-lucky Blakes, and the book charts the families’ changing relationships among themselves and with one another. Margaret Biggs’ skill lies instead in her portrayal of the characters, from the vague but sweet headmistress, Miss Pickering, to reserved, chilling Libby Lacey, and in her creation of the atmosphere of a small private boarding school.

For me, it’s really the characters who make the book outstanding. Mrs. Blake, a placid but vastly intelligent writer of academic tomes, regards twelve year old Susan’s suspension from school as a nice, restful holiday and Mr. Blake, who earns ten times as much money with his trashy but bestselling detective novels, is little better. In fact, the only Blake who is really concerned about Susan’s behaviour (which can be fairly outrageous) is Roddy, incidentally also my favourite of the family. This is partly because of her love of books, which leads her to reorganise the entire library in her spare time, but mostly because although she’s very quiet and intelligent and quite reserved, she doesn’t hesitate to do what she believes is right, whether that involves telling Susan off for the good of her soul or inking the skirts of two obnoxious prefects in retaliation for their unkindness to her older sister, Helen.

While the Blakes are hilarious and loveable, it’s really the family dynamics of the Laceys that keep the plot moving and the book interesting. At the centre is Libby, bitter and miserable because the Blakes are living in her old family home, her attitude fostered by her rigid mother, who is so proud and reserved that she rarely shows affection even to her own daughters. The result is that twelve year old Laura is painfully torn between her wish to please her mother and sister and her desperate desire for the warmth and affection that the Blakes give her, and which she can’t get from her own family.

Margaret Biggs’ second great strength is her realism. This may sound strange in a review of a book that’s part of a genre not generally noted for its realism, but Margaret Biggs has a firm grasp of authentic human behaviour. None of the characters is wholly good or wholly bad. Libby doesn’t have a blinding revelation; Laura doesn’t suddenly start standing up for herself; only Mrs Lacey experiences anything like an instantaneous turnaround, which is understandable since it’s her daughter who’s been lost for hours on a snowy winter night and Mrs Lacey, quite rightly, blames herself.

I didn’t come to Margaret Biggs until I had been collecting Girls’ Own books for a few years, but I knew immediately that she was going to become a favourite. Her plots might not be sensational; her characters are not inspiringly good or horrifyingly bad; there are no terrifying accidents or life-threatening freaks of weather. No one achieves magnificent heights of academic or creative fame, nor are there villains who are chased away with their tails between their legs. It’s just a simple story of ordinary people; the magic is that when we are reading about them, we cannot help but care about them.

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Author: Gwendoline Courtney

‘We are pleased to say that your story, “Torley Grange”, has been approved, and we are prepared to acquire the full copyright for Seventy-five Pounds (£75).’

(from Gwendoline Courtney’s letter of acceptance from Thomas Nelson, reproduced in Torley Grange, (GGBP, 2008)).

In the whole Girls’ Own pantheon, there is no writer better for a comfort read than Gwendoline Courtney. Her stories are warm, jolly and funny, and it’s difficult not to finish one with a happy sigh and a hot-chocolatey feeling. I feel I should mention here that of her thirteen books, I’ve read only four: Torley Grange, Sally’s Family, A Coronet for Cathie and At School With the Stanhopes. Enough to judge on, though, since I’ve enjoyed every one of them and have just ordered Mermaid House from Girls Gone By Publishers (why hasn’t it come yet? :().

Torley Grange, Gwendoline Courtney’s first published book, was accepted by Thomas Nelson three years before its publication, owing to the fact that they already had so many books for the age group in preparation. Since today it can take up to two years for a book to be published after it’s accepted, I wonder if perhaps the process was quicker in 1932. In any case, they obviously felt that she was an author worth investing in. Her next book, The Grenville Garrison, wasn’t published until 1940, but she seems to have published every year or two after that, only ceasing in 1956 with The Wild Lorings, Detectives, when, according to Marian Pope’s introduction to GGBP’s edition of Torley Grange, ‘girls and boys started to call themselves “teenagers”’.

In The Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories Sue Sims and Hilary Clare suggest that ‘She is at her best when depicting girls having to pick their way through a hostile or difficult situation’, and I’d have to agree with this. While Sally’s Family, A Coronet for Cathie and At School With the Stanhopes all have heroines with real difficulties and trials, I couldn’t help feeling that Torley Grange suffered from a heroine without enough troubles. It’s true that Molly has an old and debilitating injury to her foot to contend with, but otherwise her life is pretty much a bed of roses for two hundred pages, and it just isn’t as interesting.

In contrast, Rosalind, Sally and Cathie, the three remaining heroines, have many problems which keep their stories fresh and appealing. Rosalind has to learn to live with her much older brother, almost a stranger to her, and subsequently to run his household as well. Sally has an even greater task ahead of her when she decides to reunite her family, scattered during the War, and not only has to deal with their unexpected quirks and differences, but to turn a big, run-down house into a comfortable family home. Cathie Sidney, recovering from a severe illness, finds herself all unexpectedly the new Duchess of Montford and having to fight snobbery and unpleasantness as well as learning to manage her vast estates. Of course, they tackle these difficulties with courage, determination and complete believability.

It’s hard to define exactly what it is that makes a book a true comfort read, but every one of Gwendoline Courtney’s books manages it for me, even Torley Grange. Of course, there’s the element of triumph over adversity, but that happens in the majority of published novels. Maybe it’s because this theme is the main one. The books don’t depend on solving a mystery, defeating an enemy, high adventure or strange occurrences, but on a character struggling to overcome her own problems. If the author has made us care about that person, we will struggle with her (or him) and share in her eventual triumph as if it were our own. It gives us hope that world isn’t such a bad place after all, that the good will end well and that whatever our problems are, we aren’t helpless in the face of them. And this is what Gwendoline Courtney achieves to perfection. In addition, her writing is excellent and quietly humorous, and her characters attractively flawed and always appealing.

Have you read Gwendoline Courtney – and what did you think? I’d especially like to know if her other books are as good as the ones I’ve read!

Nine Girls’ Own Heart-Throbs – Plus One!

Literary crushes: We all have them. At least, I hope so, otherwise it’s just me and I’m going to look pretty stupid in a minute. However, I’ve heard the respective merits of Jem Russell and Jack Maynard discussed with passion, although no conclusive agreement has ever been reached (for the record, I prefer Jack of the two, but neither of them makes it onto my personal list). Sorry I don’t have pictures for everyone, but I did my best. I feel sure that many will disagree with my choices here – please feel free to comment below and fight the corner for your own particular favourite!

 

9. Neil Sheppard (Elinor Brent-Dyer, Chalet School series)

Neil’s entry here means that, most unfairly given her record in creating desirable men, Elinor Brent-Dyer has two characters on the list. But I had to put him in because he makes Grizel happy, which after fifty books and a hell of a hard life, I think she deserves.

 

8. Grant Rossiter (Jean Estoril, Drina series)

Grant is very lovely. He’s sensible and sweet, and waits patiently for Drina to decide she really does want to marry him. But he doesn’t get a higher spot on here, because…well, he’s just not very interesting. None of those dark-blue sparkling eyes and sensitive musician’s fingers. Sorry, Grant.

 

7. Dickon Sowerby (Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden)

He tames animals and takes birds and foxes around with him. He brings gardens to life and makes people happy and alive again. Need I say more?

 

6. Fatty (Enid Blyton, Five Find-Outers series)

Frederick Algernon Trotteville – I love him for many reasons. He can disguise himself perfectly as anyone from a waxwork of Napoleon to an elderly gipsy woman. He’s quite intelligent, a tiny bit up himself and can spout doggerel poetry as though pouring water from a jug. Also, when the other Find-Outers are mean to Bets and laugh at her, Fatty is always kind and encouraging, which is something that always appeals to me.

 

5. Tom Dudgeon (Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons series)

Because, frankly, he’s awesome. He sails in a no-nonsense, I’ve-done-this-all-my-life-and-this-is-the-way-life-is way and boats are pretty much the centre of his life. Yet he sacrifices his boats-are-all-important principles to save a coot’s nest across which a large and obnoxious motor cruiser has moored. Also, despite being the oldest in the Coot Club, the doctor’s son and very much the one in charge, he isn’t bossy or annoying, and he facilitates Dorothea in her detecting admirably and is entirely unthreatened by her magnificence. I am convinced that they ended up together.

 

4. Patrick Merrick (Antonia Forest, Marlows series)

I really like Patrick. Partly because all of Antonia Forest’s characters are so brilliantly drawn that it’s almost impossible not to believe in them as real people (I do suffer from Fiction Confusion quite badly), but also because I just like him. He’s interesting and intelligent and has fabulous, slightly eccentric hobbies such as falconry. I also like the way he’s happy to talk completely openly about his religion – he’s from a strongly Catholic family. My only gripe with Patrick is – why Ginty?

 

3. Teddy Kent (L. M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon series)

She thought Teddy could have whistled her clear across the world with those three magic notes.

Firstly, he’s tall, dark and handsome: ‘…she was acutely aware of his tall, boyish straightness, his glossy black hair, his luminous dark-blue eyes.’ Secondly, he’s a brilliant artist, famous for his pictures of beautiful women – every one of which has just a tiny bit of Emily in it. Thirdly, there are all those years of sobbingly miserable separation, when each of them loves the other and can’t or won’t say so. Not to mention his crazy mother, who does her best to put a spanner in the works and for a long time succeeds. And then that gorgeous scene at the end where he confesses, ‘I’ve been trying all my life to tell you I loved you.

 

2. Kester Bellever (Elinor Brent-Dyer, Chalet School series)

Normally Elinor Brent-Dyer’s not particularly good at men, but Kester Bellever is something special. He’s only a minor character, but he is uniformly lovely (there are no pictures of him, but we think the young David Attenborough does the trick). He first shows up taking little Cherry Christie out for the day, and then it turns out that he’s a famous naturalist. But it’s the way he treats Annis that really gets me swooning. After she runs away, he finds her climbing his cliffs to escape the tide and ties up her ankle, carries her to his hut, puts her to bed and makes her soup. And then he makes her tell him what’s wrong and takes her back to school. And finally, “Kester Bellever faced Miss Annersley with his shy smile. ‘I see it’s not necessary to ask you to be gentle with that poor kid,’ he said. ‘I’m glad the school’s got such a Head.’

Sigh.

 

1. Sebastian Scott (Lorna Hill, Sadler’s Wells series)

His eyes were blue – not light blue, but dark, and sparkling, and slightly on the slant. His hands fascinated me. They were strong, and slender, and very sensitive, and he moved them about continually as he talked. I’d never seen anyone with hands like that. In fact I’d never seen anyone like him at all. I wondered what his name was.

What? Oh, sorry…

Yes, Sebastian, my first and greatest literary crush (the one I used to sob into my pillow for at the age of fourteen), is indisputably number one on my list. If he rolled up waving a wedding ring I would be up the aisle before you could say “arrogant bastard”. Which he isn’t. He’s funny and clever, and very imaginative and sensitive. Also, he adores Veronica and even though he says awful, unforgiveable things after throwing an almighty strop because she forgets about his concert, and then refuses to apologise, she is just as furious and they still love each other and are madly happy together. And he is fabulously flamboyant and eccentric.

 

PLUS – The Amazing Tristan Denny

Because what’s not to love about a vague, eccentric musician who is ‘…the weirdest creature the girls had ever seen. He was tall and gaunt, with long brown hair falling wildly into his eyes and on to the wide collar of his shirt. He wore an enormous brown bow at his open shirt-throat. There was something untamed about him, and his vivid pink-and-white skin added to his unusual looks.

The Schoolgirl Refugee, by Olive C. Dougan

Fear lent Trudi wings

The colour went from her cheeks, her eyes grew wide. For instead of a letter was only a piece of paper with the sinister sign of the Swastika drawn upon it.

I make no apology for the fact that my second review is of one of my favourite books rather than of something new or famous. The Schoolgirl Refugee was the first Girls’ Own book I bought after those of Elinor Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham, and not only do I have a thoroughly soft spot for it, but I think it’s an interesting and unusual book in its own right.

Fifteen year old Trudi Streiff emerges from six weeks of illness and isolation to find that she is no longer allowed to associate with her Jewish friends. Not only that, but her brother is wanted by the Nazi government and her father is sending Trudi away to the Maxwells, her mother’s relations in England, so that she will not suffer for her family’s misdemeanours. But life in England is just as hard as it had become in Germany, and Trudi soon finds herself caught up in a terrifying adventure.

Olive Dougan is sparing with the details of exactly what was going on in Germany at the time the book is set – so sparing, in fact, that it seems impossible to date the book more precisely than to sometime between 1933 and 1935 (probably) – but she amply makes up for this by her skill in drawing Trudi’s emotions at every stage of her journey.

Suddenly Lili’s grasp tightened. She began to talk away at a greater rate, trying vainly to keep her friend’s attention to herself and away from the school door… Lili’s whispers were urgent, her grasp was firm. Trembling and with tears in her eyes, Trudi watched her two friends come out together. And she saw how the girls nearest to them drew away, fell into sudden silence, or giggling, made whispered comments which could yet be heard. Each insult, each harsh word or rude gesture struck poor Trudi’s heart as if it had been meant for her.

Trudi’s character is particularly appealing because she isn’t the usual type of schoolgirl heroine. She’s not especially pretty, and neither is she good at games. Instead she is hard working and intelligent, and her life in Germany has in no way prepared her for the very different attitudes she finds in her new school. Hard work is not appreciated here, and Trudi is ostracized by her cousin Jean, most of the form following her example.

Again, as Trudi’s life becomes more frightening, her character doesn’t change. The girl who was terrified to the point of hysteria when she received a threatening letter doesn’t suddenly become cool and calm in the face of kidnapping and interrogation. She’s not savvy enough to avoid being followed, and she knows she won’t be able to hold out forever under questioning. She isn’t courageous enough to escape down a drainpipe – “All very well for boys, or some wonderful heroine, but not for a girl like herself.” When she does eventually escape it is more through luck and desperation than cunning or courage.

Olive Dougan is equally skilled in drawing lesser characters. Jean Maxwell takes an instant dislike to her quiet cousin, which is only compounded by her realization that her brother Richard is becoming increasingly close to Trudi. In the meantime, Phyllis, Jean’s best friend, finds herself torn between her loyalty to Jean and her desire to help Trudi, whom she rather likes. The way she manages this difficult balancing act is both amusing and exasperating, but always interesting. Most of the villains, sadly, are little more than cardboard cut-outs, though Nurse Schmidt rises above the rest as a truly threatening presence, and Trudi’s panicky fear of her comes across strongly and unsettlingly.

Both a thrilling adventure and a strong comment on friendship and loyalty, The Schoolgirl Refugee succeeds, I think, on both levels. Perhaps the ending overstretches itself a little in making everything right, but that is a feature of the genre and most readers wouldn’t expect anything different. Great heights of literary merit are not to be expected, but the battered condition of my copy testifies, I think, to the number of times I’ve read and enjoyed The Schoolgirl Refugee.