“‘You’ve heard of the Wizard of Oz, of course. Well, obviously, the opposite of wizard is ozard, isn’t it?’
Jennings conceded the point.
‘That shepherd’s pie we’ve just had was supersonic muck so it’s wizard, but this school jam’s ghastly so it’s ozard. Everything ghastly is ozard; being a new chap’s pretty ozard for a bit, but you’ll get used to it when you’ve been here as long as I have.’”
Jennings Goes to School, the first of the Jennings series, was published in 1950. At this point children’s books were still wholesome and pure, staying right away from difficult issues like divorce or sexuality. The Jennings books obeyed this rule even after the revolution in children’s literature that began in the 60s and is still continuing today. They are unusual in that few school stories were written to be deliberately humorous, and indeed the boys’ school story genre had long been in decline by the 50s. However, the Jennings books, like any really good series, succeed in rising above petty considerations of genre.
The character of John Christopher Timothy Jennings himself is precisely what is needed for a story of this sort. He is intelligent, impulsive and imaginative, and takes himself and his occupations incredibly seriously. He’s rarely much upset by getting into trouble, even in his early days at Linbury Court, and as Mr. Carter explains, is “like a cork in water … you can push him under, but the next moment he’s bobbing about on the top again.” A significant amount of the humour in the book comes from Jennings’ tendency to take things literally, and this continues throughout the series.
Darbishire (Charles Edwin Jeremy) is an excellent foil for Jennings. An earnest, cautious and bespectacled young man, he is more fearful of getting into scrapes than his friend, but is generally drawn into Jennings’ schemes with the result that he receives his fair share of trouble. He is given to quoting proverbs and, like his father, speaks in a “welter of glistening consonants”.
The rest of the boys at Linbury Court have few distinguishing features, especially this early in the series. Temple is top in Latin and prone to handing out threats of “bashings-up”. Atkinson, like Darbishire, is definitely a follower (and for some reason I always see him as terribly skinny), while Venables is a pleasant but undeniably generic boy. The others are mere ciphers in the background at this point and mostly appear to call Jennings or Darbishire “Mud” or laugh uproariously in Mr. Wilkins’ class.
The plot of Jennings Goes to School is fairly episodic in nature. Not that this matters, because each episode is hilarious. My own particular favourite is the one in which Mr. Wilkins ends up dangling down the side of the school on the end of a rope, though the episode of the Thing is almost as funny. The later books tend to contain more of a continuing narrative, though Jennings Goes to School still feels well structured, and any loose ends are nicely tied up.
The language and humour of Jennings Goes to School is highly popular with children, but also with adults.. Much of the book is written from Jennings’ perspective but enough is from Mr. Carter’s or Mr. Wilkins’ that we get a distinct impression of the adults’ view of the boys. I get the feeling that the book is probably written as much for adults as for children. This may, of course, be because I didn’t discover Jennings Goes to School until I was an adult so I have never read the book as a child. Certainly it seems that the book (and the later books in the series) are as enjoyable to adults as they are to children. Having said this, much of the humour is distinctly childish – for example, Mr. Wilkins’ frequent exclamations of “I – I – Corwumph!”
All in all, Jennings Goes to School is an excellent read for both children and adults; splendid if you need something light and not too challenging, and want a good laugh.