Mary-Dorothy Devine – Interview with a Heroine

Mary-Dorothy Devine, Elsie OxenhamFollowing on from my very successful chat with Madge Bettany, today I’ll be talking to Mary Dorothy Devine, featured in Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey Girls books, about what makes her – and of course her books – tick.

 

 

 

 

Mary-Dorothy, could you start by telling us a little about what led you to writing in the first place, please?

Oh, I’d love to. As a matter of fact, I think I’d really been a writer all along, but that wish was crushed by my father – not that he meant to do it, of course, but he was such a brilliant man himself and he didn’t want to me to end up disappointed and saddened. And of course he really did think my stuff was rubbish.

And what sort of writing method do you use? Plotter or pantser? Research before or after?

Plotter or what? That’s certainly a term I’ve never heard before! I think I understand what you mean, though, and the truth is that I rarely plot a book really thoroughly before writing it. I usually have some idea of what will happen, but beyond that, no. I feel that I’m simply a loudspeaker – the characters have their own lives and they speak through me. I just write down what they do and say. As for research, I feel that I’m doing that all the time. There’s rarely a time when there aren’t girls in this house somewhere, so I’ve always got young people around me. You see, I didn’t start writing my things down again until I met Joy and Jen.

I’ve heard a bit about that. Can you tell me how it was from your point of view?

Magic. Quite simply, it was magic. As though a part of me that had been shrivelled and wasted just grew buds and came alive. Like spring arriving after you think winter has become eternal. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world.

But things weren’t always perfect between you and the Abbey girls, were they?

(pauses) No, that’s true. I’ve thought a lot about that, and I’d really rather not discuss it now. All I’ll say is that it was at least as much my fault as theirs – I had unrealistic expectations of them and that never makes for a good or a true friendship.

Of course. In that case, could you perhaps tell us a little bit about your life now?

Well, as you know, I’m Joy’s secretary. But that doesn’t take up all my time by any means. I spend plenty of time writing – and correcting, and I can tell you that that is not by any means such a joy! Apart from that, I like to spend plenty of time with anyone who happens to be visiting. Joy is so hospitable and such a delightful hostess; there’s almost always someone or other here, and most of them are old friends. It’s marvellous to talk to them and to hear stories about the girls before I ever knew them.

And I believe that you’ve been able to help a few other people yourself.

(looks a little embarrassed) Oh, I don’t know about that. I mean – yes, I do try to help people. I feel that it’s the least I can do, really, when Joy and Jen helped me so tremendously when I was just a shell, a shadow of a person. It took me a little while to realise it, but once I did, I simply had to go on and think and learn so that I could help others.

That’s good to hear. So what has been your greatest challenge in life?

Bringing up Biddy; there’s no doubt about that. I wasn’t so very much older than she was, and I simply had no idea about life at all. I really wasn’t a fit person to be in charge of a fifteen year old girl. Fortunately I was rescued before I could make a real mess of things.

Now, finally, could you tell us a bit about what you see for yourself in the future? Is there a husband on the horizon?

Certainly not! I doubt I’ll ever get married; not at my time of life. In any case, I’m quite happy as I am. I believe that for many people marriage does what folk dancing and the Abbey girls and – well, just living here and having this life – have done for me. I don’t need a husband; my life is full already and more happy than I could possibly have imagined.

And after that I don’t think there’s really much more I can say. Thank you so much for talking to me today, Mary Dorothy.

Thank you.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed finding out a little bit more about Mary Dorothy Devine today. Watch this space for more interviews with heroines!

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The Sexiest Mistresses at the Chalet School

Today we have a post from a highly esteemed guest – those of you who like to read Girls’ Own fanfiction will surely be familiar with Finn’s Brothers in Arms and Tea and Militancy. She has also just started her own wonderful blog, Outskirts of the Twenties. Finn joins us today to guide us through the tricky process of selecting a mistress from those available at the Chalet School.

 

When Abi asked me to compile a list of the sexiest Chalet School mistresses, I thought, that should be easy. After all, Nell Wilson is one of the most attractive women in fiction, isn’t she? But then I got to thinking about it and realised that, while my own idea of sexy is someone with a wicked tongue (steady on at the back!) and a steely determination, that might not appeal to everyone. Therefore, dear reader, I have changed my brief (oh, do be quiet)! Instead of a top ten list, I have devised a pick-your-own set of sexy attributes, and have classified our mistresses accordingly. Without further ado, here are my suggestions!

Beauty

Beauty is a conventional, though highly subjective form of sexiness; it is also not a great deal of use in refining our search for sexy CS mistresses, since so very many of them are amazingly attractive, with elusive beauty and clear complexions, not to mention their terribly trig outfits.

But there are a few that stand out in their appearance. Con Stewart is a fiery-Beautytressed siren, and tall with it; Biddy O’Ryan with her tumbling black locks and petite Irish beauty, is another stunner; Grizel Cochrane, small, curly-haired and fair, is described as very good-looking, though I suspect some of her beauty is lost from her face, given how miserable she seems to be much of the time.

See also:

Kathie Ferrars – petite, fresh, young (see also Unavailability, below)

Hilda Annersley – check out those eyes! (see also The Dominatrix Effect, below)

Gillian Linton – quietly pretty, prettily quiet (see also Wholesome Health, below)

Madge Bettany/Russell – elusive, elfin, climbs trees, what’s not to like? (see also CookeryThe Dominatrix Effect, below)

Everyone else, really, apart from Nell Wilson. And even she’s pretty damned hot (speaking entirely subjectively, of course).

Sarcasm

It may be the lowest form of wit, but sarcasm is a sign of a sense of humour, and a GSOH is one of the sexiest traits around (look in any Personals column and Sarcasmyou’ll see I’m right). Furthermore, it can be an immensely useful teaching aid (I am minded of a friend of mine who, in his first piano lesson with a very eminent teacher, played through his piece and, after he finished, had the following sympathetic remark: “Darling, I’m so sorry about your disability.” “What disability?” sez he. “Well,” sez, the Eminent Personage, “your left foot seems to be entirely useless!”). Anyway, there is very little as sexy as watching the person you fancy doing their job well, so here is my sarcastic selection.

Nell Wilson is the greatest proponent of the fine art of sarcasm in the Chalet School novels, but Grizel Cochrane comes a close second (though perhaps with rather less of  genuine sense of humour than Nell). Pam Slater is also known to be rather cutting, what with her references to back-street slums and being a tartar in lessons.

See also:

Mollie Maynard – known to be scathing about Joey’s bad mathematics (see also Wholesome Health, below)

Ivy Stephens – she may have taught juniors, but she still had a tongue on her. (Tongue! Filthy!)

Matron Lloyd – a sharp tongue and a starched uniform, nothing more need be said (see Starched Uniforms, below).

Frenchness

Because there’s nothing that says “sexy” like a real French accent, especially Frenchnessuttered with those low tones favoured by the Chalet School. And if Allo, Allo is anything to go by, you never know WHAT they might be wearing underneath those trig tweeds!

Jeanne de Lachennais is the first really sexy French CS mistress, but Julie Berné wins points for being a genuine Parisienne (we ALL know what they get up to in Paris! Phwoar!)

See also:

Simone Lecoutier – she had “gifted French fingers” – golly! (see also Cookery, below)

Thérèse Lepattre – she utters ejaculations in French. Filthy! (see also The Dominatrix Effect, below)

Wholesome health

Wholesome healthNow, this might be an unusual selection, but there are some people that go for wholesome as a sexy characteristic in a woman. I don’t know whether it is the underlying suggestion of the domestic bliss to come, the rosy glow (not sweat, dear, never sweat!) that comes from a woman whose energies are focused entirely on healthy, strenuous exercise, or the delight that one gets from corrupting such innocent purity, but it seems to have done it for lots of the chaps in the series and, as such, deserves to be counted.

Hilary Burn merits a mention on this list, as there is nothing more robustly
healthy than a games mistress, and all that anatomical training she did will have been more concerned with muscle groups, digestion and the respiratory tract than with the reproductive system. Also in this group are Mollie Maynard, the English rose of the Tyrol days, who went home to look after her mother, and Ivy Norman, the Kindergarten sweetheart who didn’t like big girls.

See also:

Biddy O’Ryan – despite her Irish wildness, she panicked when her hat blew away (God forbid a man should see her hair!) (see alsoBeauty, above)

Gillian Linton – the artist chap she married wanted to paint her like one of his French girls (see also Frenchness, above.)

Unavailability

UnavailabilityAs we all know, nothing is as guaranteed to spark attraction than knowing someone is off limits. Nancy Wilmot and Kathie Ferrars are the obvious couple in this category; their predecessors in the Tyrol days, Nell Wilson and Con Stewart, are also valid entrants.

See also:

Hilda Annersley – any woman who gets herself the nickname “The Abbess” is flying high in the skies of unavailability (see also The Dominatrix Effect, below)

Any CS mistress who is married. By the end of the series, that’s quite a lot. Take your pick.

Cookery

A handy skill as regards domestic bliss – the way to a person’s heart, and all that – but this category has an extra sexy edge to it: food and sex go together like strawberries and cream, chocolates and champagne, chilli sauce and…no, wait, let’s leave chillis out of the bedroom.

DIGITAL CAMERAIn this category: Anna Mieders, a woman who can bring a banquet to bed, and whip up a mean breakfast the morning after. Also Matron Lloyd – there are more uses for jam than simply spreading it on toast.

See also:

Madge Bettany/Russell – a woman with a gift for sweets and desserts. (see also Beauty, above, The Dominatrix Effect, below)

Simone Lecoutier – she has her own cookbook – what couldn’t she knock up? (see also Frenchness, above)

Karen and Anna – not technically mistresses, but I’ll stretch a point if they’ll bring some of their famous featherbeds of whipped cream.

Starched Uniforms

UniformsOne for the connoisseur, but uniforms have been known to drive people wild with lust. Matron Lloyd is the obvious choice for this category, but special kudos must also go to Gertrude Rider for having such a filthy surname.

See also:

Margot Venables – mother of six, so she must have had something going for her.

Barbara Henschell – ooh, Matron!

Gwynneth Gowland – so good, they named her twice.

Special exclusions from this category:

Matron Webb, for having a voice like the whistle on a steam train.

Matron Besley – Nurse! The screens!

The Dominatrix Effect

Another category for the specialist. Teachers are attractive simply by their authoritative role, and headmistresses are mistresses with added authority, and canes. Steady on.

DominatrixThe obvious candidate is, naturally, Hilda Annersley, a woman able to reduce a child to tears with a mere glance of her grey eyes. EBD never tells us what went on in those “sessions with the headmistress”, but I’m fairly sure Colonel Black didn’t keep coming round just to advise her on blackout regulations.

See also:

Madge Bettany – something must have kept Tristan Denny coming round at all sorts of unearthly hours to “talk about the madrigal society” (see also BeautyCookery, above)

Thérèse Lepattre – thigh-high boots and a French accent – oh, wait, is that my imagination? (see also Frenchness, above)

Mabel Bubb – a “strict disciplinarian” who wanted to whitewash the windows. I think we all know why…

So there we have it – my listings for the sexiest mistresses in the Chalet School series. I hope that by narrowing down your favourite traits you can pick out your own sexy CS mistress. As for me, I’m off to the Auberge with Nell Wilson, but before I go, there’s just time for my:

Special Category

No list of sexy CS anything would be complete without a mention of Joey Maynard. It is suggested that pregnancy is a very attractive trait in a woman – something to do with the appeal of obvious fecundity – and Joey was certainly pregnant enough times to draw attention to herself, wanted or unwanted. And the number of pregnancies does suggest that she and Jack Maynard spent a fair old amount of time in the bedroom. Goodness knows how they fitted it into the day. Perhaps she had all the San doctors on a rota – actually, that might explain the very varied colouring of her offspring. Whatever her secret, it could well be that Joey Maynard was the Sexiest Chalet School Mistress of all!

 

Once again, don’t forget to take a trip over to Finn’s blog, Outskirts of the Twenties!

Veronica Weston (The Sadlers Wells series, by Lorna Hill)

I stared down at the frock and thought of dear Mrs. Crapper making it all by hand because she hadn’t got a sewing-machine, and, if the stitches were rather big and uneven, it was only because her eyes weren’t what they had been. I felt I simply couldn’t bear Fiona making fun of it.

(A Dream of Sadlers Wells)

 

It’s hard to believe, but Veronica Weston takes the lead in only two of Lorna Hill’s Sadlers Wells books. Impulsive, warm-hearted, intelligent and completely obsessed with ballet, she and her world feel real in a way that few Girls’ Own heroines do. There are many reasons for this – Lorna Hill’s complete mastery of writing in the first person, her sensitive, real and often humorous portrayal of place and atmosphere, her immense skill in creating believable and fascinating characters, and of course Veronica’s own personality, which might be impulsive, illogical and occasionally exasperating but is certainly never dull. As it happens I enjoy ballet books, but I think I would have loved the books about Veronica even if I hadn’t given two hoots about the world of ballet.

In the eleven pages of the first chapter, Lorna Hill paints Veronica’s personality so strongly that it’s as though we have known her for years.  Her imagination and sensitivity come instantly to life in her visualisation of the train as an animate being and her warm description of the London she is leaving. Her rather black-and-white view of the world is neatly juxtaposed against Sebastian’s far more liquid one as they discuss smoking on trains:

“Women do smoke nowadays, you know,” said the boy pleasantly.
I glanced at him suspiciously, but he didn’t look as though he were being sarcastic.
“It was a non-smoker,” I told him severely.
He looked at me with raised eyebrows.
“I’m afraid you’re what you might call a bit temperamental, my child.”
 

We learn, too, of her interest in the arts and of course her devotion to ballet as she confesses her determination to be a dancer. And at the end of the chapter there is a moment of real vulnerability when Sebastian teases her about her father, unaware that he has recently died. The whole chapter vividly brings to life her open personality, her zest for life and her emotional nature.

To me she will always be the little girl in the cotton frock who danced with bare feet outside my window.

Many Girls’ Own heroines are frightfully honourable, fighting for the honour of their country/school/friend and disdaining anything that smacks of not playing the game. Veronica, refreshingly, doesn’t give such notions the time of day. Indeed, she complains bitterly that the only books her cousins possess are this sort of story, as opposed to “a book about Ballet, or even The Children’s Encyclopedia.” But she does have her own principles; Marcia Rutherford’s studied nastiness not only horrifies her but also takes her by surprise. Even so, it never occurs to her to tell on Marcia, or on any of Fiona’s many unpleasant tricks. And of course, kindness to animals is paramount in importance – not normally given to violence, Veronica pursues and pushes into a pond a youth who gives her favourite monkey a lighted cigarette.

Kindness in general is a strong redeeming feature of Veronica’s. In most books Mrs. Crapper, Veronica’s landlady in London, would either be a figure of fun or make Veronica’s life a misery, but described by Veronica she comes across as a loving, caring person, putting her most precious possessions in Veronica’s room to make her feel at home (even though they are only hideous-sounding gifts from Margate) and sighing sadly over her long-lost husband who ‘went to the dogs’. Arriving in Northumbria, Veronica’s assumption that gates should be opened by herself rather than the chauffeur is met with shocked disapproval by her snobbish Aunt June, although her willingness to help is rewarded months later. As Perkins puts it:

“Well, miss,” said Perkins, wiping his face with a red and white spotted hankie and getting back into the driving-seat, “I sees it this way. When you comes to Bracken, you offers to get out of the car and open the gates for me. That was the very first thing you does. Remember? ‘I’ll do it, Perkins!’ you says. ‘Don’t you bother, Perkins,’ you says. Well, I says to myself that very day – if I can do anything for that youngster, you bet I will!”

Veronica can, when she’s thinking, be sensitive to the feelings of others. There’s a tiny scene in Veronica at the Wells where Veronica, watching Sebastian, suddenly realises how much he minds his cousins living in his ancestral home. She is also, of course, highly sensitive to beauty, especially that of the Northumbrian landscape which she quickly grows to love. Her feelings are often expressed in ballet; she dances Les Sylphides on the grass in her cotton frock as a response to Sebastian’s piano playing, and on another occasion makes a beautiful arabesquein the snow. These sharp emotional reactions can also be less beautiful, and Veronica frequently resorts to shouting, sobbing and foot-stamping. In fact, on the occasion on which Fiona paints faces on the toes of a pair of ballet shoes owned by Madame Wakulski-Viret, Veronica’s old ballet teacher, she shakes Fiona, boxes her ears and has to be dragged off her by Sebastian.

In addition, while Veronica is genuinely caring and can sometimes be sensitive, she’s often quite unperceptive and occasionally selfish. This is probably partly due to her youth – a fourteen-year-old girl today might be quite likely to notice a dawning romance between two of her housemates, but a girl in the 1950s might be less likely to think along those lines, especially someone like Veronica, who seems quite young for her age. By the end of Veronica at the Wells she has matured enough not only to realise that Sebastian will never apologise to her, but to put it aside and understand what his gesture means. She remains, however, completely ineffective in a crisis and almost faints when she briefly thinks she has been thrown out of Sadlers Wells, just as when Stella fainted she merely screamed for help and stood to one side sobbing. It’s not hard to imagine her wringing her hands.

Of course, Veronica’s main motivating force throughout the books is ballet. Undaunted by the lack of facilities at Bracken Hall she practises in the bathroom, using the towel-rail as a barre. Later she plucks up the courage to ask Aunt June for proper ballet lessons and from then on it’s ballet all the way, and we begin to see Veronica’s serious dedication to her art: “Every time you perform is important when you’re a dancer,” she tells Fiona, and it’s a mantra she never fails to live up to. Neither, when Madame Viret turns up at Lady Blantosh’s Garden Fête, does Veronica fail to make the most of the opportunity – within hours Madame Viret has persuaded Aunt June that Veronica should become a professional dancer and arranged an audition for her. This, of course, leads to the dramatic conclusion of the book during which Veronica and Sebastian ride through a night of thick fog so that Veronica can reach the train station in time. Again, in Veronica at the Wells, it never occurs to her to stay and dance in Sebastian’s concert even though he makes it clear that for her to refuse will end the friendship between them – her chance to shine in the world of ballet is of paramount importance.

I practised in the big nursery bathroom, using the towel rail as “barre”

Of course, that doesn’t mean she isn’t hurt by the rift this causes between herself and Sebastian – she mentions it more than once, and in No Castanets at the Wells, narrated by Caroline, we see letters from Veronica in which, without success, she attempts to heal the divide. In her own book, Veronica at the Wells, she mostly concentrates on her slow, painful progress up the ladder of ballet, her eventual success and, of course, the final reconciliation with Sebastian.

In subsequent books Veronica is frequently mentioned as one of the best dancers of the day, her lyricism much lauded, and often spoken of in the same breath as Margot Fonteyn. She re-emerges briefly in Dress Rehearsal, which features her daughter Vicki as a talented but unenthusiastic dancer and a very different character from Veronica herself – sensible and self-sufficient, though with her mother’s generosity and kindness of heart. In the final chapter we see Veronica finally realise that she has been selfish in expecting Vicki to become a dancer just because her mother is one. Typically of Veronica, once she realises it she has no hesitation in expressing it and in doing everything that Vicki asks her to:

It seems, she thought, that whatever you do, your heart must be in it – whether you are a secretary, a bus-conductor, or selling something in a shop. And especially is this true in some of the more exacting professions – nursing, for instance, music and ballet.

I do regret that Lorna Hill didn’t write more books about Veronica, because for me she’s the most appealing of all the Wells heroines. I like her kindness, her loving nature, her limitless ambition and her imagination, but I also love her impulsiveness and lack of insight. I think most of all I love her almost complete lack of introspection and self-analysis. She’s not the sort of heroine like Joey Bettany, who gets lectured on her responsibilities as a natural leader, or like Darrell Rivers, who is painfully aware of her violent temper and works hard to control it. Instead she pirouettes through life, her blithe assumption that whatever she does she is always acting for the best so convincing that we almost believe it. Above all, she’s entertaining, and that’s what one always needs from a heroine.