Voirrey stood still, holding her bicycle. She was alone and free. She could have at least three hours, perhaps more, in which to see the North – the North that pulled so strongly – and Aunt Mona Quilliam.
Mabel Esther Allan’s school stories are mostly notable for their school settings, which are nearly unique in the Girls’ Own genre for being radically progressive and usually co-educational, placing more emphasis on nature and responsibility than on organised sports and discipline. In some of her own autobiographical writings, reproduced as an introduction to Fidra Books’ recent edition of The School on North Barrule, Mabel Esther Allan explains that after suffering throughout her schooldays from a lack of understanding of her severe visual impairment, she seized with enthusiasm on the educational ideas of A. S. Neill, worked out practically in his own school, Summerhill, and reproduced them in her own, fictional, establishments. Although the invariable success of her schools can become a little tedious, the stories are still enjoyable simply for their difference from the usual pattern of Girls’ Own books.
Barrule House, featured in The School on North Barrule, is no exception: there are, seemingly, only two children who are not genuinely and perfectly happy at the school. These are Voirrey herself, the heroine of the story, who finds even the free and easy atmosphere of Barrule House a struggle at first, and her brother Andreas, who hates everything about the school and wishes only to return to his old grammar school at home. Despite the fact that staff and other pupils acknowledge that Andreas is ‘difficult’, there is never any suggestion that the school might fail in its mission to make him, as every other pupil, a sensible and responsible member of the community.
Mabel Esther Allan, like all the best authors, Girls’ Own or otherwise, has a natural skill for creating appealing characters. Voirrey is likeable and interesting, even her sometimes irritating obsession with becoming a member of the Manx Club (the club to which all the school members who are native to the Isle of Man belong) rounding her character a little to make her slightly less than perfect. Christian is perhaps even more interesting because we only see her from Voirrey’s point of view – fascinating, appealing, changeable and a bit mysterious. Unfortunately Mabel Esther Allan doesn’t pay so much attention to her background characters, most of whom are uniformly charming and equally dull. Voirrey’s brother Andreas might have made a convincing antagonist if he had been allowed a greater role than that of trouble-maker and irritant, but even his cursory reformation at the end of the book presents very little in the way of character development. The shadow of nasty Aunt Mona Quilliam hangs over much of the story, but her eventual appearance is something of an anti-climax, and she barely appears as a real character.
For me, the greatest appeal of The School on North Barrule is Mabel Esther Allan’s extraordinary ability to convey a sense of place. I don’t have much sense of geography and my imagining of places is pretty much non-existent, so it’s a real treat to read an author who can bring a landscape to life in my mind. It’s not just the way she describes the scenery, but Voirrey’s emotional reactions to the Isle of Man heighten the atmosphere and bring an extra spark of life: “Voirrey stood on the top of a sand-dune, staring towards the shore, queerly held in an unbelievable stillness. The waves washed on an empty sandy beach that stretched away north and south into the bright distance, and across the sea was the Mull of Galloway, and, northwards, the Scottish hills… In that still, important, eventless moment she seemed to understand living as she had never done before.”
I sometimes find Mabel Esther Allan’s unquestioning faith in the progressive school ideal a little hard to swallow – surely there must be some disadvantages, even if they are vastly outweighed by the advantages of self-discipline and self-expression? – but I do appreciate the originality of her stories. The School on North Barrule isn’t the most exciting or complex school story, but it has a nice plot, a couple of interesting characters and it brings the magic of the Isle of Man truly to life.