Whyteleafe: A School with a difference

"Haven't you any money at all?" asked Thomas.

“Haven’t you any money at all?” asked Thomas.

Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl books are not Girls’ Own in the traditional sense, for the school includes boys as well as girls. Having said that, they fit many of the Girls’ Own traditions and tropes, and for such “simple” books (as they have often been called) are surprisingly interesting, as well as simply jolly good stories.

The majority of Girls’ Own schools are fairly similar to one another. They feature medium sized schools of between fifty and two hundred girls, run along traditional lines which are more or less still in use today. Misdemeanours are punished by lines, order marks or of course incarceration in the San. Rules are many, varied and unchangeable, not to mention frequently broken, and activities for each part of the day are carefully prescribed and controlled.

With the Naughtiest Girl books, though, Enid Blyton broke a mould which was later to be smashed to smithereens by Mabel Esther Allan. Whyteleafe is perhaps the only one of her three best-known schools which could have dealt with such a problem as naughty, spoiled, selfish Elizabeth Allen. The change in Elizabeth’s character is nicely dealt with and feels emotionally realistic, and some at least of the secondary and minor characters are appealing. But it’s the setting that really makes the Naughtiest Girl books so fascinating

The school is what is often described as “progressive”. The children make the rules, but they are also responsible for enforcing them as well as for sorting out other problems the children might have with one another or with school arrangements. This happens in weekly Meetings led by a Jury of Monitors and two Judges, William and Rita. The latter two are presented almost as God and Goddess in their own small realm (there are many Goddesses in Girls’ Own literature, and Rita is typical of them).

As previously mentioned, Whyteleafe School is also co-educational. This was almost certainly a practical measure on Enid Blyton’s part, since the stories were originally published in Sunny Stories, aimed at both boys and girls. Even so, it’s original for a school story of its time. Even more impressive is the fact that the school, while containing both boys and male masters, is run by two women, Miss Belle and Miss Best. Women and girls have equal power with men and boys, and often the balance of power in fact seems to lie with the females of the school – a hugely empowering message at a time when there was still great discrimination against women.

On the other side of the argument, one must wonder what parents and relations made of their children being made to give up all their money to be donated to a school pot and divided among the pupils. One can see the appeal of this socialism in action and the theoretical fairness of it, but surely it’s not realistic that either children or parents would not resent it.

It has been suggested that Whyteleafe was if not actually modelled on, then at least influenced by, A. S. Neill’s famous progressive school Summerhill. Summerhill, run almost entirely by the students, seems to have been enough of a success that it is still going in more or less the same form today. Whyteleafe is not so radical in its outlook – it seems unlikely that Miss Belle and Miss Best would have permitted the school to banish all rules (as happens periodically at Summerhill, only for them to be soon reinstated when chaos palls). Classes are compulsory at Whyteleafe, unlike Summerhill, although at times a higher level of tolerance of misbehaviour is shown than in many Girls’ Own books. For example, when on her first night Elizabeth claims she has a guinea-pig with a face like Miss Thomas’s she is neither “sat on” nor punished, though disapproval is shown by her classmates.

Of course there are some similarities with other more traditional Girls’ Own schools. Whyteleafe may be more tolerant in some ways, but its pupils do not hesitate to administer their rules as strictly as any other schools. Some of these, as in all fictional (and indeed real) schools, seem entirely unnecessary – such as that which states that no one except a monitor may have more than six items on her dressing table. This rules is so strictly enforced that three photographs of Elizabeth’s are confiscated on her first night, which seems rather harsh even as a result of the rudeness she exhibited on that occasion.

“Harry was very pleased and thumped Elizabeth on the back.”

One of Whyteleafe’s greatest similarities to most Girls’ Own school is the way in which pupils’ better qualities are drawn out and lauded. This is something which many Girls’ Own schools claim to do, although Enid Blyton was particularly keen on it. Courage in particular is highly valued – a very Girls’ Own virtue. The delight of the entire school when Elizabeth bravely stands up and declares her intention of staying at school is huge and heartwarming, as it is when it is discovered in The Naughtiest Girl is a Monitor that it was she who rescued a small boy from drowning.

But while values may be similar in all schools and stories, that doesn’t stop Whyteleafe from being one of the most original and forward-looking schools in the entire Girls’ Own genre. Enid Blyton is often condemned for her traditional values and simple writing, yet simple writing frequently makes for a good rollicking story. As for traditional – Whyteleafe shows that she was entirely capable of breaking all the moulds she wanted to when she felt it appropriate. There is no doubt that Whyteleafe is, even today, a school with a difference.

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Trebizon: An Overview

Anne Digby’s Trebizon books were mostly written in the 1980s, but they share many of the tropes and traditions of the Girls’ Own genre. The sporty heroine with a talent for writing and a penchant for solving mysteries, the group of friends, the kind, wise headmistress, even the rivalry between school houses. I only read the later books in the series a few years ago, but since Secret Letters at Trebizon and Fifth Year Friendships at Trebizon were reprinted by Fidra Books they’re much easier to get hold of.

We start with First Term at Trebizon (1978), perhaps the Trebizon book that conforms most strongly to the Girls’ Own tradition. The action begins almost immediately, with Rebecca encountering powerful prefect Elizabeth Exton and suffering the usual friendship difficulties before settling down with those who, with their sportiness and general jolliness, are clearly the right crowd. Elizabeth Exton is a splendid villain, although she suffers from a lack of characterisation which is probably a result of the shortness of the book. Interestingly, although Elizabeth is caught and expelled for her dishonest activities, the usual end-of-the-book reform is absent, which although realistic might be unsatisfying for some Girls’ Own fans.

Second Term at Trebizon (1979) takes friendships as its theme. Rebecca’s friendship with Tish Anderson and Sue Murdoch was cemented in the first book when they backed her up against Elizabeth Exton, but this term sees their acknowledged leader, Tish, being strange and rather unpleasant to Sue. Rebecca can’t help trusting Tish, which hurts and alienates Sue even more, and Rebecca’s resolve to trust her friend is tried to the limit before everything is finally sorted out. Again, the book’s too short to allow for more than one major plot, but the theme of Second Term allows for significantly more characterisation of the main characters than First Term.

In Summer Term at Trebizon (1979) it’s Rebecca’s worries about her academic success that come to the fore. She is intelligent, but, like many Girls’ Own heroines, her weak point is maths. Unfortunately, the new maths teacher, Mr Maxwell is young, good-looking and conceives a strange liking for unpopular Roberta Jones, spending all his time coaching her and leaving Rebecca to struggle. The second thread is the raising of money for a charity and the subsequent mystery (again, a popular Girls’ Own theme) of who has stolen the Second Form’s money. It’s interesting, though, that while ‘Max’ is clearly the villain of the piece, not all of his influence is bad – Roberta blossoms under his attention and becomes much nicer as a result.

The main theme of Boy Trouble at Trebizon (1980) is obvious from the title, and here Anne Digby really diverges from the Girls’ Own tradition, where boyfriends at the age of fourteen are unheard of. In fact, it’s hardly a romance and, while Rebecca is jealous of Robbie Anderson’s liking for Virginia Slade, the major focus of the story is her instinctive trust of Robbie and determination to continue helping him, even though he comes across as a bit of an idiot. So does Rebecca’s tennis coach, David Driscoll, who also engages in a half-hearted and slightly creepy pursuit of Rebecca. Rebecca herself, despite her youth, is the one who seems sensible and mature in this book.

More Trouble at Trebizon (1981) continues the theme of boys and parties but with the added frisson of adventure – another staple of the Girls’ Own genre – when Mara, daughter of a rich shipowner, returns to school with a bodyguard. The secondary plot revolves around Lucy, the youthful genius who arrives in the Third Form at the beginning of term and ends up contributing to the adventure in no small way. Mara has been a minor character up until this, the fifth book in the series, but More Trouble at Trebizon finally allows us to get to know her a little better.

The theme of sport is one that has been important all through the Trebizon series, but in The Tennis Term at Trebizon (1982) it finally comes to the fore again, with Rebecca working blindingly hard at her tennis and making it onto the school tennis team. In addition, there’s a mysterious hoaxer in the school and Rebecca finds herself under suspicion. It’s all good, traditional, Girls’ Own stuff with a couple of nice twists and a healthy dose of coincidence.

The first and only holiday book in the series, Summer Camp at Trebizon (1982) starts oddly with an irrelevant adventure for Rebecca. As soon as she returns to school, however, the story starts properly, and the theme seems to be social issues. The girls are helping out an organisation who give holidays to city children. It’s a little implausible that in the entire camp there is only one child who gives trouble, and the sweet and sugary resolution is also hard to swallow, but the archaeological backdrop and the sun and sea mean Summer Camp is still an enjoyable read.

With Into the Fourth at Trebizon (1982) we return to the theme of friendships. Mara has to move into a single room down the corridor to make space for Swedish Ingrid, and is angry and upset because she feels left out, while Rebecca is frustrated because Ingrid starts clinging to her. In addition, Rebecca’s extra tennis coaching means that she can’t see as much of Robbie as she’d like, and the crowning blow comes when it seems that Ingrid has stolen Robbie from her. There’s another of those syrupy endings, but Anne Digby’s writing is just about engaging enough to make up for that.

Once again returning to previous themes, The Hockey Term at Trebizon (1984) is all about sport. Rebecca and her friends are obsessed with the upcoming hockey sevens tournament and Rebecca’s confidence in her tennis is knocked by brilliant Joss Vining. The second plot thread belongs to new girl Fiona, who appears to have second sight (a not unknown idea in Girls’ Own literature). As might be expected, this turns out to be trickery, but Fiona is redeemed by the discovery of her secret talent as a footballer – a typically Girls’ Own redemption. I don’t care for sports storylines, so this isn’t one of my favourite Trebizon books, but it’s still a fun read.

Fourth Year Triumphs at Trebizon (1985) once again starts with sport – by this time it’s Rebecca’s main interest. Tish’s running is also a major thread, since she conceives the plan of running to Mulberry Island and back during an extra low tide. The book’s second plotline concerns a film that’s being made of Trebizon, and Rebecca’s dawning realisation that it’s going to be a damaging mass of untruths. Once again, the dramatic conclusion is a little unlikely, but it certainly makes for a sensational story and is no less plausible than many traditional Girls’ Own stories.

The Ghostly Term at Trebizon (1990) is even shorter than the previous books and departs from the sport theme, as Rebecca breaks her wrist at the beginning of term. Most of the plot, which is surprisingly vague for Anne Digby, revolves around Rebecca’s struggles with her tennis and her meeting with old friend Cliff, inspiring much jealousy from Robbie. The theme of ghosts takes a secondary role and provides the traditional mystery for Rebecca and her friends to solve. Academic work also rears its head again, finally, in this, the eleventh book in the series.

The academic theme is once more important in Fifth Year Friendships at Trebizon (1990), when Rebecca finds that she is going to have to make a choice between being a professional tennis player and applying to enter a top university. Rebecca’s almost implausible brilliance is really highlighted in this book, although it’s no more extraordinary than that of many Girls’ Own heroines. This plot, and the secondary one about a misguided pair of twins, makes for a slightly meatier plot than that of The Ghostly Term at Trebizon, with Rebecca working extremely hard and not always dealing well with the pressure.

The real mystery of Secret Letters at Trebizon (1993) is that someone is going through Rebecca’s possessions in secret. She and her friends go to a lot of trouble to discover the culprit and it’s interesting that when they finally succeed the twist at the end seems to be entirely for narrative suspense rather than a logical development of character or even to prove a moral point, as some traditional Girls’ Own stories might try to do. The book ends with the Cliff/Robbie/Rebecca situation still unresolved, a storyline which has now continued for quite a few books.

The final book in the Trebizon series, The Unforgettable Fifth at Trebizon (1994) begins with Rebecca and Tish finding that they can’t go for their usual morning run because Mulberry Island and the headland are being sold to the Tarkuses, long-term enemies of Trebizon. There are many dramatic twists in the plot, but by now it’s fairly obvious how this storyline will end. Perhaps more interestingly to devoted readers of the Trebizon books, Rebecca is eventually forced to make a choice between Robbie and Cliff and passes her GCSEs not, fortunately, with implausible brilliance, but well enough to make a satisfying end to the book and the series.

 

The shortness of the Trebizon books – most of them come in at around 120 pages – means that there is very little opportunity for complex plotting, and most of the character development takes place over a number of books. Instead, each book concentrates on a specific problem to be solved by Rebecca and her friends, while themes such as academic progress and Rebecca’s increasing skill at tennis are usually spread across the series.

The Trebizon books, although they appear to deal with more adult themes than most Girls’ Own books, seem, in style and structure, to be aimed more towards younger readers. Although there is a certain amount of character development across the series, the majority of the girls and staff remain shadowy, with only one or two distinguishing characteristics. The plots are simple and the language plain and unchallenging. Anne Digby also develops an irritating habit of constantly foreshadowing future events. For example, in Secret Letters at Trebizon, Rebecca’s History results are mentioned as being the most important of all but the reason for this isn’t explained until afterwards – rather odd, since this is hardly significant as part of the book’s plot.

Despite these flaws, however, the Trebizon books are a light and entertaining read that doesn’t take up too much time and is interesting for both its similarities and differences to the traditional Girls’ Own genre. I especially recommend the first three or four in the series as nice, sensible books that are a little different and yet pleasingly familiar.

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!

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!