In Defence of Elinor Brent-Dyer

“You know that you are all forbidden to read any of this author’s works while you are at school. There is a reason for that, Vera.” (The Rivals of the Chalet School)

 

She’s sexist.

She’s classist.

She’s religious.

She’s unrealistic.

She’s too realistic.

 

 

Well, yes. She was a writer. She was a human being. She was also born in 1894; what do you expect? There are some attitudes that always will and always should be unacceptable, but I think it’s a mistake to criticise authors too heavily for being products of their time. And while she wasn’t by any means a revolutionary, Elinor Brent-Dyer was fairly forward-thinking. There were few children’s writers during the Second World War who would have dared to write:

There are many in Germany, more in Austria, who hate [Nazism] as we do. Theirs may be a martyrdom which, in God’s great mercy, we may be spared… And remember: this is the least we owe to those German and Austrian members who are ‘carrying on’ amid such terrible doings as we read of, and we must pay our debt faithfully. Let us pray.” (The Chalet School Goes to It)

Of course, Elinor Brent-Dyer’s attitudes were often typical of her era. Countless Chalet School girls and mistresses give up the careers they have or aspire to in favour of marriage, motherhood and home-making. The School’s founder, Madge Bettany, retires from her position when she marries. Neither Frieda Mensch nor Marie von Eschenau express a desire to do anything but marry after they leave school. And, notoriously, Daisy Venables gives up her highly successful career as a doctor – ‘“The one who’s won all the medals and things?”’ – at the end of Carola Storms the Chalet School in order to marry, a ‘sacrifice’ which rarely fails to raise an outcry among fans. It’s sad indeed, yet we should remember that Elinor Brent-Dyer is still highly unusual among Girls’ Own authors for allowing Daisy to become a doctor at all, let alone the sort of doctor who wins medals.

Even the uncontested heroine of the series, Joey Bettany/Maynard, is not only a wife and mother but also the author of a string of best-selling books. Her successor, Mary-Lou Trelawney, never marries at all but enters a career in archaeology. Even Len Maynard, becoming engaged at the end of the series, insists that she’s going to go to university and get her degree before getting married. And that’s not to mention the numerous Chalet School mistresses who remain at the School, happy and fulfilled, for many years. Hilda Annersley, Nell Wilson and Matron Lloyd join the School in the Tyrol years, and are at the centre of the School’s existence; the power and authority rest completely with them. To me the Chalet School is a symbol of quiet, consistent female power, and the fact that Elinor Brent-Dyer advocates not solely the path of marriage or that of a career, but both, depending on the choice of the individual, is empowering even today and would have been vastly more so for girls reading the books as they were published.

Class is another issue that’s hotly debated by Chalet School fans. How did Elinor Brent-Dyer really feel about it? Certainly the message that is most often and directly repeated is that ‘when you come to the root of matters, it’s you – you – YOU that matters all the time – what you are!’ (A Problem for the Chalet School). The books feature a variety of working class people, from the simple, traditional peasants of the Tyrol to no-nonsense Granny Learoyd and strong, silent handyman Gaudenz of the Swiss years.

Most interesting to Chalet School fans are the opposing heroines of A Problem for the Chalet School, Rosamund Lilley and Joan Baker. There’s a huge split in opinion on the subject – is Elinor Brent-Dyer highlighting the difference in personality between the girls so as to make a point about character rather than background being the important thing, or is she distinguishing between a deserving and an undeserving type of working-class, essentially saying that the working classes are acceptable so long as they know their place? My own opinion is more the former than the latter. In the genteel world of the Chalet School, Joan is far more handicapped by her attitudes than Rosamund, who is able to fit in quite easily. I find Joan’s subsequent development fascinating. She doesn’t simply conform to Chalet School mores but, while still changing and maturing, remains her own person. Some readers feel that Joan never achieves authorial approval, but I’d disagree with that. Richenda Fry rather turns up her nose at Joan, but that seems to reflect as much on Richenda as it does on Joan, and although she’s clearly tactless towards Naomi in Trials for the Chalet School, this is a one-off and she isn’t the only offender. I think Elinor Brent-Dyer’s portrayal of Joan is an ongoing and sympathetic representation of a person who is unable to become simply another genteel, middle-class young lady, but who is accepted in the community despite her differences to it.

I’m not sure, frankly, that I even need to make a case against Elinor Brent-Dyer being too religious. Some people don’t like it; that’s their tough shit. Skip those bits or don’t read the books. Having a Christian faith was a lot more acceptable then, and she deals with it sensitively and sometimes uniquely. I’m thinking of The Highland Twins at the Chalet School, when Miss Annersley and Miss Wilson have a big disagreement over whether it’s appropriate to allow Fiona Macdonald to use her second sight in an attempt to ‘see’ Jack Maynard, who has been lost at sea. Interestingly, it isn’t Catholic Miss Wilson who wins the argument (although Elinor Brent-Dyer had by this time converted to Catholicism), but Miss Annersley, who decides that Joey’s need is great enough to override her own concerns about the experiment. There are many times in the series when girls and mistresses feel the need to turn to God, and while some readers may be uncomfortable with this, it comes across as very authentic. So long as the author is truthful to herself, I don’t feel that I can take issue with the way she presents Christianity.

Many fans seem to struggle with a feeling that Elinor Brent-Dyer’s writing has a tendency to be unrealistic, and it’s true that she does have her unfortunate moments (yes, I will name my daughter after someone I met years ago for a few weeks…). My feeling is, however, that this is at least partly a result of the fact that the world is a very different place from the one she was writing in, and it can be challenging for modern readers to believe that life could genuinely have been like that (cold baths in the mornings? Yes, really!). But at her best, she creates characters and situations with a depth and complexity rarely equalled in the Girls’ Own world. I’m just going to pick out a few examples.

The obvious one is The Chalet School in Exile. There are few readers who would deny that this is a truly exceptional book. The description of the attack on Herr Goldmann is brief but pulls no punches: ‘Down the side street there came an old man with a long, grey beard, plainly running for his life. A shower of stones, rotten fruit and other missiles followed him. Stark terror was in his face, and already he was failing to outdistance his pursuers.’ It’s quiet, gentle Robin who races out of the Gasthaus to defend him, but her friends follow and moments later the schoolgirls and Miss Wilson, the mistress in charge, are the focus of the hostility of the attackers. Even more chillingly, it’s not faceless Nazis who have perpetrated the attack, but people the girls have known and been friendly with throughout their schooldays. And, despite their courage, the girls can’t prevail against the mood of the mob – they are rescued from the immediate danger by the parish priest, but they never go home, instead escaping across the mountains into Switzerland. As though to reiterate the horror of the situation, we later learn that Herr Goldmann, his wife and the priest who helped the girls to safety have all been killed by the mob, making their actions ultimately pointless. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing for a children’s book of that era, and should not be underestimated.

There are many other instances of strikingly realistic writing from Elinor Brent-Dyer. There’s Simone’s jealousy of Joey and her other friendships, Grizel’s painful reaction to her unhappy childhood, the singing in the cellars during the air-raid, Jacynth’s grief for her Auntie, Kathie’s struggles in her first time as a school-mistress, Grizel’s depression after the failure of her venture in New Zealand, and the ongoing bullying Jane Carew suffers at the hands of Jack Lambert.

In fact, some Chalet School readers complain that Elinor Brent-Dyer is too realistic, that she can’t have meant the bullying in The Chalet School and Jane to have been so real and that the School should have detected it sooner, dealt with it better. Yet as it stands it’s a grim storyline that rings a lot truer than, say, the change of heart that Naomi undergoes in Trials for the Chalet School. It also makes the gradual maturing of Jack in the later books a little more interesting and realistic – far more so than that of her mentor, Len, who barely needs to grow up at all. The argument of people who dislike such realism is that storylines like this are so strongly in opposition to the whole ethos of the Chalet School that they can’t accept them as being consistent with the rest of the series. My own feeling is that such flashes of stark honesty bring depth and truth to the books. I know I wouldn’t enjoy Elinor Brent-Dyer’s writing so much if they didn’t exist.

Each of these topics has been the subject of endless discussion among fans – I’m just contributing my own penn’orth here, so please feel free to comment and tell me whether you agree, disagree or have no idea what I’m even talking about!

To All Appearance, Dead, by Liz Filleul

 

In a trembling voice, she informed them all that she’d just received a phone call saying that Valerie had died on her way to the hospital.

The time is the twenty-first century, the place, Cotterford Manor in Warwickshire. And the event is ‘Tales Out Of School’, a conference dedicated to Girls’ Own literature and school stories. To All Appearance, Dead isn’t itself a Girls’ Own book, but it’s set firmly in the world of fans and collectors, and readers who are part of that exclusive world will enjoy Liz Filleul’s gentle sending up of the enthusiasms and traditions of Girls’ Own fans.

Sally Meredith, a dedicated fan and editor of Australian Collector, finds herself at ‘Tales Out of School’ with a couple of interviews to conduct for her magazine and the rest of the time to enjoy for herself. But when abrasive book dealer Valerie Teague is taken ill in the middle of the folk dancing evening and later dies in hospital, Sally starts investigating her death and soon finds herself in the middle of an intriguing puzzle.

To All Appearance, Dead is a slow-paced read with a plot that’s complex enough to hold the interest and a continual stream of thoroughly enjoyable Girls’ Own references. In fact, the whole flavour of the book is rather old-fashioned, with a strong hint of Girls’ Own: ‘I say, Sally, do you fancy a drink after supper?’ asks Richard (the sole significant male character). And while Girls’ Own books very rarely deal with murder, the way Sally rushes around investigating Valerie’s death is strongly reminiscent of the schoolgirl hunting for the secret passage with only the most flimsy of clues to help her, while Sally herself faces a similar lack of danger to any Girls’ Own heroine single-handedly capturing some unlucky burglar.Despite the gentle enjoyability of the book, I found myself disappointed in it. After pondering over this for a while, I realised that while the plot and even the writing (though it could do with some stringent editing) are excellent, the characters fell far short of what they could have been, and for me it has always been the characters that make a book. Sally, the heroine, is quite likeable, but she has few distinguishing characteristics and none of those interesting flaws that make for a heroine one can really connect with. The victim, Valerie Teague, is precisely the opposite and seems to have no sympathetic traits whatsoever. The back-up cast is, in general, flat and uninteresting, while the policemen are frankly ridiculous.

The character for whom I felt most sympathy was Margaret. When we first meet her, she is quiet and mostly remains in the background. Subsequently there are a number of fairly obvious references to Margaret wearing long sleeves in the hot weather, which means it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when she admits to Sally that she self-harms. This plays an important part in the book’s plot but it also seems to become Margaret’s overriding characteristic, so that the discovery of other antisocial and even criminal behaviour seems simply an addition to the self-harm and apparently causes very little surprise. It isn’t, of course, uncommon for people to turn out very different from the way one perceives them on first acquaintance, but I felt that Margaret’s character wasn’t explored as deeply as it could have been, with the result that it all feels very superficial and disappointing.

Unfortunately most of the characters suffer from this lack of attention. One of the standard components of a novel is supposed to be character development, but I didn’t feel that a single character in To All Appearance, Dead really changed as a result of their experiences. Sally doesn’t seem to become emotionally involved with her investigation and we rarely experience her thoughts or reactions, which means that it’s difficult for us to know how she is feeling. Most of the characters disappear as soon as their function in the plot has been fulfilled, and a number of people’s stories are left oddly incomplete, including Margaret’s. I found this particularly frustrating because up until that point she had played an important part in the story and I felt that she and Sally had developed a relationship, which simply fell, unacknowledged, by the wayside.

Having said all that, I did enjoy reading To All Appearance, Dead. It was a cosy, amusing story with a reasonable plot and numerous pleasing Girls’ Own references, and I think most Girls’ Own fans will like it for the engaging and recognisable world that Liz Filleul skilfully builds. It could have benefited from some rigorous editing and some hard work with the characters, but on the whole, I recommend it as a light, entertaining read.

 

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.

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.

Antonia Forest’s Kingscote: Spring Term, by Sally Hayward

‘On Monday morning, much to the School’s surprise, Miss Keith said grace and then told everyone to remain seated as she had something of paramount importance to say.

“In that tone of voice,” Miranda whispered with relish, “it can only mean an execution.”’

 

‘I can’t remember a time when Autumn Term and End of Term were not sitting on the bookshelf,’ writes Sally Hayward in the foreword to her sequel to Antonia Forest’s series of books about the Marlow family, and it shows. She doesn’t just manage to capture Antonia Forest’s style, in language, plot and characters, but also courageously introduces some significant character developments of her own.

The Attic Term, last of the school stories, finishes with quite a few dangling ends. Sally Hayward continues the uncertainty between Nicola and Esther, caused by Esther’s last-minute failure to sing Nicola’s solos, on just the right note – there are no angry quarrels, just cringeworthy and painfully realistic awkwardness.

Similarly, the parting of Patrick and Ginty is, I think, entirely faithful to Antonia Forest. Indeed, Ginty’s storyline is probably Sally Hayward’s bravest and most controversial development. In The Attic Term, Mr Merrick comments that ‘I think it’s evens whether she goes to the good or to the bad. But I doubt if it’ll be very spectacular either way’, and a few lines later refers to Ginty as the Lady of Shalott: ‘”She has a lovely face, God in his mercy lend her grace”.’ In many ways Mr Merrick is right – Ginty does move a little towards the bad, but in no dramatic fashion. It’s fascinating to watch her gradual descent from shamed fibbing about the telephoning scandal of the previous term – which leads to difficulties in her relationship with Patrick – which leads to her reading his private letter to Nicola – which leads to her terrified lying in an attempt not to be found out, and eventually to the horrible showdown with her best friend Monica. It makes convincing and painful reading, and while I felt that Antonia Forest probably wouldn’t have taken Ginty down this route, there was, and still is, a continual lurking feeling that she just might have. She certainly wouldn’t have shied away from doing so if she’d wanted to; that much is evident from the boundary-breaking, trope-crushing originality of the Marlow stories.

Tied into Ginty’s storyline is the final maturing of Ann – probably the part of the book I felt was least consistent with Antonia Forest’s style, simply because I can’t help the feeling that she didn’t much like Ann and that, in her mind, Ann would always be pretty much the same person. But I enjoyed Sally Hayward’s ideas about how Ann might change, and certainly the manner in which it happens is entirely plausible. Most poignant, I felt, was the moment when Lawrie, in careless irritation, asks Ann, ‘Why didn’t you go to the Chapel and ask Him?’ and Ann’s shocked realisation that that had never even crossed her mind.

There are many other enjoyable elements to the book – Nicola’s singing lessons with Dr Herrick and her spiritual musings in the cathedral. Her resumed closeness with Patrick (I particularly enjoyed him persuading her, quite cleverly, to buy a new horse). The French Play that Miss Keith insists upon for Open Day is a challenge for both Lawrie in the starring role and Tim as producer. And Lawrie herself faces a personal trauma which she deals with in typical Lawrie fashion. Perhaps with a few too many italics and Marlow-isms, but altogether a worthy sequel to Antonia Forest and a really entertaining book in its own right.

(With thanks to Clarissa of GGBP for providing the cover image).

Girls’ Own: the obsession begins

My name is Abbey, and I read children’s books.

I started off with Postman Pat, moved on to Ragdolly Anna, and continued with A Little Princess, What Katy Did and Anne of Green Gables. My first serious collection was Arthur Ransome, beginning with Winter Holiday and ending, regretfully, with Coots in the North. From there I moved on to Just William – a more satisfying collection to build, since it contains thirty-eight books as opposed to the thirteen in the Swallows and Amazons series.

When I was nine years old I found The Chalet School at War in the school library, but since it begins with the staff discussing events that happened not only in the previous book, but during the Second World War (which I had not yet studied), it left me cold. A couple of years later my Mum completed my Just William collection with William and the Pop Stars and suggested that I borrow Mary-Lou of the Chalet School from the town library. I suspect that she now regrets this, seeing where it led, but I did as she proposed, and thus was an obsession born. I began collecting the Chalet School towards the end of the time Armada were reprinting the books, so among my first were Reunion, Future, Adrienne, Two Sams and Prefects, as well, of course, as most of the earlier books, and I do retain a soft spot for some of these later ones.

I was sixteen when I started my first job, in a second-hand bookshop. I got books for half-price, and guess where most of my wages went? After extensive, if furtive, searching on the internet, I found that Elsie Oxenham was a promising candidate for lovers of the Chalet School. The bookshop had two Oxenhams – Robins in the Abbey, a Seagull hardback, and The Abbey Girls at Home, one of the notorious Children’s Press reprints. The latter being a quarter of the price of the former, I bought it, read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

That was just the pointy end of the proverbial wedge. I began to collect feverishly. At first it was just the famous names – Elsie Oxenham, Angela Brazil, Dorita Fairlie-Bruce and Enid Blyton. Then I found The Schoolgirl Refugee by Olive C. Dougan, still one of my favourites, A Rebel Schoolgirl by Frances Carpenter, Terry’s Best Term by Evelyn Smith and many, many others. Now I have more than eight hundred Girls’ Own books and my collection is constantly growing. And at last I have succumbed to the self-indulgent temptation to talk continually about them on the internet.