Review: Juniors of the Chalet School, by Katherine Bruce

70_juniors_of_the_chalet_school__42692-1480431225-1280-1280Rosalie held up a hand in protest. “I won’t hear it! This term will be such a peaceful one that it will be spoken of forever in the annals of the Chalet School’s long and glorious history! Future prefects will envy us for our weeks of inaction and the ability to get our work done in prep without disruption. We will have no illnesses or accidents or – or anything!”

Chalet School fill-ins are a mildly controversial topic, but I’ve always enjoyed fanfiction and I generally like seeing how other people view the characters and interpret situations both explicit and implicit. Juniors of the Chalet School by Katherine Bruce is one of the less usual ones, since it takes place during a published term, covered in The Princess of the Chalet School. As the author points out in her foreword, the juniors hardly appear in Princess, and I enjoyed the fact that she took the opportunity to tell the story from the point of view of the younger girls. It mostly revolves around the juniors’ conflicts with Matron and Grizel – they seem to have been a combative bunch that term! – with, of course, the traditional folk tales and natural (not to mention unnatural) disasters.

I must confess that I especially revelled in the fact that Matron Webb really was thoroughly evil. She bullies the girls. She tries to bully the staff. I forget whether or not the school had a cat at this point, but if it did she would certainly have kicked it. This, of course, makes the juniors’ treatment of her (we only see the older girls’ activites as they affect the little ones) entirely understandable and perfectly justified – and means that the reader can sit and enjoy Matron’s come-uppance with no regrets.

I’ve said this before, but for me one of the most important things in any novel is characterisation, and happily Katherine Bruce’s efforts in this direction are more than acceptable. The characters are all quite consistent with Elinor Brent-Dyer’s creations, and Robin (sorry, the Robin) is both consistent and quite bearable, which is an impressive achievement when you come to think about it!

Grizel, too, is more than bearable in Juniors of the Chalet School, which I’m glad about because she’s one of my favourite characters in the series. She’s complex and interesting and tries desperately hard and fails and tries again and is just very human and refreshing. Actually, in Juniors I felt rather sorry for her. At the start of term, Madge asks her to live with and supervise the juniors, giving her perhaps five minutes of guidance and then never bothering to check up on her for the rest of the time. Even the rest of the staff who live at Le Petit Chalet don’t seem interested in seeing how things are going or whether Grizel or the juniors are doing all right with the arrangement, until Grizel is driven by the juniors’ rebellion to beg for help from Juliet. Of course, such situations are only too common at the Chalet School – teenaged girls are regularly expected to have the wisdom of a sixty year old!

Altogether, I think Juniors at the Chalet School is a very worthy addition to the growing collection of fill-ins published by Girls Gone By Publishers. It’s very jolly and light-hearted, trots along at a decent pace, and has some good characterisation. I skimmed the description of the masque but that, of course, is a traditional Elinor Brent-Dyer experience! Definitely recommended for anyone who likes a fill-in that fits in well with the Chalet School canon.

(Image nicked from Girls Gone By Publishers)

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Review: Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge

Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge‘You’ve heard of the Wizard of Oz, of course. Well, obviously, the opposite of wizard is ozard, isn’t it?’

Jennings conceded the point.

‘That shepherd’s pie we’ve just had was supersonic muck so it’s wizard, but this school jam’s ghastly so it’s ozard. Everything ghastly is ozard; being a new chap’s pretty ozard for a bit, but you’ll get used to it when you’ve been here as long as I have.’”

Jennings Goes to School, the first of the Jennings series, was published in 1950. At this point children’s books were still wholesome and pure, staying right away from difficult issues like divorce or sexuality. The Jennings books obeyed this rule even after the revolution in children’s literature that began in the 60s and is still continuing today. They are unusual in that few school stories were written to be deliberately humorous, and indeed the boys’ school story genre had long been in decline by the 50s. However, the Jennings books, like any really good series, succeed in rising above petty considerations of genre.

The character of John Christopher Timothy Jennings himself is precisely what is needed for a story of this sort. He is intelligent, impulsive and imaginative, and takes himself and his occupations incredibly seriously. He’s rarely much upset by getting into trouble, even in his early days at Linbury Court, and as Mr. Carter explains, is “like a cork in water … you can push him under, but the next moment he’s bobbing about on the top again.” A significant amount of the humour in the book comes from Jennings’ tendency to take things literally, and this continues throughout the series.

Darbishire (Charles Edwin Jeremy) is an excellent foil for Jennings. An earnest, cautious and bespectacled young man, he is more fearful of getting into scrapes than his friend, but is generally drawn into Jennings’ schemes with the result that he receives his fair share of trouble. He is given to quoting proverbs and, like his father, speaks in a “welter of glistening consonants”.

The rest of the boys at Linbury Court have few distinguishing features, especially this early in the series. Temple is top in Latin and prone to handing out threats of “bashings-up”. Atkinson, like Darbishire, is definitely a follower (and for some reason I always see him as terribly skinny), while Venables is a pleasant but undeniably generic boy. The others are mere ciphers in the background at this point and mostly appear to call Jennings or Darbishire “Mud” or laugh uproariously in Mr. Wilkins’ class.

The plot of Jennings Goes to School is fairly episodic in nature. Not that this matters, because each episode is hilarious. My own particular favourite is the one in which Mr. Wilkins ends up dangling down the side of the school on the end of a rope, though the episode of the Thing is almost as funny. The later books tend to contain more of a continuing narrative, though Jennings Goes to School still feels well structured, and any loose ends are nicely tied up.

The language and humour of Jennings Goes to School is highly popular with children, but also with adults.. Much of the book is written from Jennings’ perspective but enough is from Mr. Carter’s or Mr. Wilkins’ that we get a distinct impression of the adults’ view of the boys. I get the feeling that the book is probably written as much for adults as for children. This may, of course, be because I didn’t discover Jennings Goes to School until I was an adult so I have never read the book as a child. Certainly it seems that the book (and the later books in the series) are as enjoyable to adults as they are to children. Having said this, much of the humour is distinctly childish – for example, Mr. Wilkins’ frequent exclamations of “I – I – Corwumph!”

All in all, Jennings Goes to School is an excellent read for both children and adults; splendid if you need something light and not too challenging, and want a good laugh.

Review: The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr

The Glass Bird Girl by Esme KerrIf we don’t get some results by the end of term we might decide you’re in the wrong job. I trust you’ve already pulled out of the play – the best servants remain invisible, and you weren’t sent to Knight’s Haddon to lark about onstage. I shall be telephoning your headmistress this week to keep myself informed.”

The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr is a rather lovely book. It’s a contemporary school story with more than a hint of mystery, but it reads a bit like a story of an earlier period. This is partly the fault (or, some might say, the advantage) of the setting. The girls at Knight’s Haddon school are not permitted mobile phones, computers, tablets or any other device, and they wear a distinctly old-fashioned uniform. In addition, Edie has not been sent to the school for normal reasons, but to find out (as she puts it in her own mind) whether someone is stealing another girl’s pencils. One Prince Stolonov is afraid that his daughter Anastasia is being “horribly teased” and insists on importing a girl into the school to investigate the possibility. This, of course, leads Edie to discover the much deeper and darker mystery that is going on in the school.

Edie herself is a delightful character and it is undoubtedly she who makes this book. She’s not much good at standing up to people, never, one suspects, having had much chance to do so. Like Harry Potter, she is sent to school after having led a miserable life in her aunt’s house (the book opens with her cousins cooking and forcing her to eat her own pet fish). But shy and awkward as she may be, she has a strong streak of determination and courage which allows her to end the book with a triumphant flourish.

The other girls in the school are mostly a bit bland. Sally is pleasant, Phoebe unpleasant, and the rest somewhere in between. The only one who stands out is Anastasia, who is peculiar by any standards, though quite appealing. Interestingly for a book aimed at 9-12s, it’s the adults in the story who come across most clearly. First there is the ineffectual Aunt Sophia, then the slightly creepy Cousin Charles, who is both benefactor and boss, with the power to instantly withdraw the new, fragile security that school gives to Edie. There’s Miss Winifred, sweet but not altogether supportive, and Miss Mannering, who is rumoured to be going through the menopause. Finally and most importantly comes Miss Fotheringay, who fits the role of goddess very well. She is a little remote, has striking looks and seems to understand Edie in a way that no one else can. But even she is hiding her own secrets.

The plot is interesting and nicely managed, although it does rather jump from almost no action to very little else with only minimal build-up. But that’s quite typical of books aimed at this age group and is only to be expected from what is actually a shortish story. Most of the conflict for the reader comes not from the mystery surrounding what is happening to Anastasia’s belongings, but from the danger that Edie will be removed from Knight’s Haddon and not be able to solve the said mystery. Having said that, when the plot gets going it does so with a vengeance and no one could complain that the book is dull!

I’d thoroughly recommend The Glass Bird Girl for those who want a light, unchallenging read and who have enjoyed books such as the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton or the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer. I read it on the recommendation of Robin Stevens (author of Murder Most Unladylike) and have not been disappointed.

Review: First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

First Term at Malory Towers, Enid BlytonMy school,” thought Darrell, and a little warm feeling came into her heart. “It’s fine. How lucky I am to be having Malory Towers as my school-home for so many years. I shall love it.”

First Term at Malory Towers is the story of Darrell Rivers’ first term at Malory Towers. It was written in 1946, around the time that Enid Blyton wrote some of her best-loved fiction. Darrell arrives at Malory Towers determined to work and play as hard as she can, but she finds that it’s not as easy as that, and soon she is losing her temper and getting into trouble as well as playing pranks and having fun.

My opinon is that Enid Blyton writes some of the most realistic school stories that there are. Her characters are spot on. They aren’t as complex as some other school story writers’ characters, for example Elinor Brent-Dyer’s, but they behave just as real people do. Darrell, the heroine, is a genuinely interesting creation. At first she seems like a normal, jolly schoolgirl, excited to be going away to school and eager to be popular. It isn’t until more than a quarter of the way into the book that we, along with the rest of the characters, learn that she has a violent temper. Shortly afterwards we’re given another surprise when we find that she’s courageous enough to own up to her own greatest failing and apologise unreservedly for it. This is something she struggles with throughout her school journey, and we are eventually privileged to see her overcome it.

The plot is unremarkable, but perhaps that in itself is remarkable. There are no avalanches, snowstorms, or floods (Elinor Brent-Dyer), no secret passages or spies (Dorita Fairlie-Bruce), no fires (Angela Brazil) or sudden rises to fame (Elsie Oxenham). Instead we see a relatively small prank (Gwendoline’s ducking of Mary-Lou) blown up into an enormously important incident which results in misery for Darrell and a huge improvement on the part of Mary-Lou, not to mention unfortunate results for Gwendoline herself, all because of that young lady’s desire for revenge. The other main piece of plot, which revolves around quiet Sally Hope, is equally interesting and brings more challenges for Darrell. Her temper once again comes to the fore, and this time she isn’t so eager to put herself forward to admit her mistake and struggles to do the right thing.

Enid Blyton’s language is undeniably simplistic, but is this necessarily a bad thing? It leads to a less interesting story and means that the reader is rarely challenged (one of my favourite things about Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series was that it constantly made me run to the dictionary to find things out), but it also makes for a nice, easy, relaxing read. And yet there’s something about Enid Blyton’s use of language – she can really tell a story. It might not be challenging but it’s interesting and gripping, and younger readers in particular simply don’t want to put it down.

So, not complex, subtle or challenging, but holding an undeniable something, Enid Blyton’s First Term at Malory Towers is definitely worth another look.

Review: Murder Most Unladylike, by Robin Stevens

Murder Most Unladylike - Robin StevensIt was awfully fun too, creeping about behind the others’ backs and pretending to be ordinary when all the time we knew we were detectives on a secret mission to obtain information.

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens takes place in the 1930s at Deepdean School for Girls. Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong have set up a secret Detective Society. So far the most exciting thing they’ve detected has been The Case of Lavinia’s Missing Tie (case closed). But that’s before Hazel discovers the body in the Gym – which then disappears!

Murder Most Unladylike might have only been published in 2014, but it is a classic school story nonetheless. Many of the elements are there: midnight feasts, pranks and pashes. But it’s also a classic murder mystery, with clues, red herrings and an ultimate, Agatha Christie style, showdown with the suspects at the end. The period detail isn’t overdone, but what there is is very convincing and makes the story and its setting feel completely authentic.

Our heroines, Daisy and Hazel, are beautifully drawn. Daisy appears, on the surface, to be the typical English schoolgirl, blonde, blue-eyed and obsessed with sport. Hazel, on the other hand, is stolid and unsporty but equally intelligent. Together they make the perfect detecting team and it’s hardly surprising that they get to the bottom of the mystery before the police do – particularly as they have an excellent head start!

The book starts briskly – the body has already come and gone by page 20, and things don’t slow down after that. Every chapter brings some new clue, suspect or twist in the plot. Having said that, the useful Suspect List which appears every so often helps the reader to keep track of what’s going on so there’s none of that getting lost in the details which can happen in the best of detective stories.

There are one or two more modern elements to Murder Most Unladylike, aside from the fact that there is a murder in a children’s book at all. There is the fact that the narrator is not just a foreigner but from ‘The Orient’. It’s rather interesting, because it gives an outsider’s view of the school and its traditions, as well, of course, as highlighting the low-level bullying that would undoubtedly have gone on. In addition, there is the romantic part of the plot and especially the mention of two girls ‘canoodling’ in the laundry cupboard. Very racy stuff for the 1930s!

Murder Most Unladylike is supposed to be for the 9-12s, but I can’t imagine anyone reading it and not enjoying it. It’s certainly a must for anyone who enjoys school stories of any kind. Buy it now, is my advice!

Review: Sara Gay – Model Girl

Sara Gay - Model GirlSara Gay – Model Girl was published, along with its three sequels, in 1961. In many ways it’s very different from most Girls’ Own fiction, though it also has its similarities. Of course, it was published towards the end of the Girls’ Own era and clearly takes into account the rapid changes in society at that time. In addition, the writer was a prolific romance writer (Janey Scott is a pseudonym for Roberta Leigh) who continues to produce books even today, and this has obviously influenced the writing of the Sara Gay stories. But the descriptions and dustjacket illustrations make it clear that Sara’s adventures are still aimed at a teenage audience and the purchaser can be sure that certain values will be a part of the story, just as they had been for decades previously.

The story of Sara Gay – Model Girl concerns the unfortunately named Sara Gay (surely no relation to Tom Gay of the Chalet School!), who has just won a beauty contest she entered as a joke and who is finally allowing herself to believe that she really could become a model, the career she has dreamed of for many years. There are, of course, many trials and tribulations along the way, but Sara remains cheerful throughout and the ending is almost pure Girls’ Own.

Sara Gay – Model Girl is, objectively speaking, fairly shallow and predictable, yet for me it holds an enormous charm. Of course, there’s the natural appeal of a young girl floating around in beautiful gowns, learning to make herself pretty and defeating her enemies in the process, but that isn’t the only reason I love the book.

Firstly, I actually enjoy the fact that appearance is all-important, that a love of clothes and an interest in make-up are unashamedly celebrated rather than condemned as shallow and vulgar:

“She wants me to wear pretty clothes and go to lots of parties with loads of men.”
“But that’s what everyone wants.”
“Well, I don’t. I hate parties and clothes bore me. I expect that sounds crazy to you, but I can’t help it. My idea of a wonderful time is to live on a farm and ride and fish and help look after the animals. What I’d really like to do is be a vet.”
Sara stared at Marion in astonishment. How could any girl not love beautiful clothes?

I must confess to being more on Marion’s side of the argument than Sara’s, but even so it’s pleasant to see such a different idea embraced. Even more shocking, perhaps, is the fact that bras and bikinis are not only freely mentioned but even worn (or not worn) by the glamorous but honourable heroine, thus placing them very firmly in the Approved camp. Even a question regarding a teacher’s boyfriend is quite clearly a slightly euphemistic way of calling him her lover.

Yet, despite all this, traditional values are still espoused and highly important. Nasty girl Nina gets her comeuppance, losing even the friendship of debutante Diana, who in fact turns out to be a thoroughly nice person. The secondary heroine, Marion, has a nice character arc during which we find out the reasons for her unpleasantness and see her coming to an understanding with her mother and a place of far greater peace.

Family values are a central motif of the story, with Sara’s lower-middle-class but wholesome family contrasted against the opulence and unpleasant, stifled atmosphere of Marion’s upbringing. Sara thoroughly disapproves of Marion’s dishonesty, although her moral dilemma surrounds Marion’s boyfriend rather than, for example, cheating in an exam or deceiving a mistress. Still, she says quite clearly and firmly – as would any Girls’ Own heroine – that it is not she, but Marion, who should be ashamed of her family.

Sara Gay – Model Girl isn’t the subtlest or most thought provoking of reads, but it is fun, light and wholesome, containing most of the traditional Girls’ Own values and many of its tropes while bringing a fresh and (for the time) modern feel to the story – there’s even the lightest hint of romance to come at the end, which although not unknown is rare enough to be fun. Sara herself is a charming character, never grumpy but somehow still real. I recommend it for a very enjoyable read.

 

For further reading on the Sara Gay books, there is a very interesting essay here which can be downloaded in pdf format. It focusses on the portrayal of a young girl growing up in the world of fashion.

A Trio of Terrors

There are a very few Girls’ Own stories which really ought to become classics. Most are in that middle range of poor-but-okay to really-pretty-good. And there is a handful that ought to have been consigned to the wastepaper bin before they even reached an editor’s desk. Today I intend to poke fun at three of these books.

Patricia, Prefect by Ethel TalbotPatricia, Prefect by Ethel Talbot

Patricia, Prefect is painfully mawkish, with much embracing, a little kissing and some romantic and meaningful dancing. The eponymous Patricia is a model prefect at the beginning of the book, clearly a product of Chad’s school’s brainwashing ways. She and the school in general are almost cruel to new girl Veronica in their efforts to force her to conform, and it’s not hard to imagine other girls going through the same misery before knuckling down. Patricia becomes torn between the way she knows, from her time at Chad’s, things ought to be and the feeling that these ways cause too much pain to be right.

As a plot it’s quite promising, and the book does have some interesting and revealing moments. Sadly the excessive sentimentality (a failing to which Ethel Talbot was much prone) means any reader should keep a bucket to hand, for it will surely be needed.

The ending is worst of all – I won’t give it away to any readers who haven’t read the book, as it’s unusual for the genre. However, the last words of the story give an idea of the breathless, high sentimentality that can be expected throughout the book:

“It was the memory of Pat, standing as she had stood, alone, against the opinion of the prefects’ room; standing for what was right so far as she knew it to be right; standing for Veronica, in spite of all her faults, just because she was outside – a memory of Pat fighting like a fearless untrained warrior for her cause.”

Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea MooreJudy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore

Judy, Patrol Leader reads rather like a long advertisement for the Guides and is filled with wholly implausible adventures. On page 26 Judy spots a cat burglar breaking into her new school, and by page 29 she has locked him into the school pantry. Forbidden to speak of this adventure, she remains undaunted, and by page 45 is rescuing two girls who have been caught by the tide (explaining as she does so, “I know about knots; I’m a Guide.”). Ten pages later she is forgiven by those who had disliked her and a new Guide company is proposed. In the meantime, her domestic efforts have inspired her uncle’s landlady to turn over a new leaf.

A little later she saves a baby who is having fits, although two pages later a portion of the cliff descends upon the house, trapping Judy and the two children. Cheerfully, she dries the baby, feeds the children and puts them to bed, then proceeds to whistle a Guide tune which allows the rescuers to know that she is alive. Her first words upon rescue are “Please tell Billy’s father that the baby came out of her fit. One up for the Child Nurse Badge!” After this, of course, the school can no longer resist the starting of a Guide company. Even the snag of finding a campsite is overcome by Judy’s rescuing of the local landowner from drowning in a pond. Later on she and her best friend find a hoard of long-lost treasure belonging to Judy’s uncle and uncover a band of smugglers during the same adventure.

Certainly there isn’t a dull moment, but mad escapade on top of impossible adventure is not a good setting for character development, and there is barely any plot besides these continuous thrills. It’s good for a laugh but not much else.

The Hoax of a Lifetime, by J. Radford-EvansThe Hoax of a Lifetime by J. Radford-Evans

The Hoax of a Lifetime is the first in a series which, thankfully, only reached a total of three books. It has been suggested by the authors of The Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories that the heroine (Brenda Dickson) was designed to replace Bessie Bunter as a popular periodical heroine – periodicals where were Brenda began and should have remained.

A single sentence of the book’s blurb reads “’The Hoax of a Lifetime’ introduces ‘The Spider,’ a mysterious duchess, the girl with a red-hot poker, the ‘Love Your Neighbour’ Club and the newcomer who plans to tear through the school like a tornado.” Which pretty much sums up the entire book, although it doesn’t make plain the level of thrill and violence which ensues. The most memorable scene for me was one in which a girl is forced out of a high window by a fourth-former wielding a red-hot poker. This young woman, happily, is dealt retribution with a cricket bat.

The heroine, Brenda, is of course a splendid type. When at the end of the story a friend complains (with complete justification) that the punishment was not severe enough for the villains, Brenda heroically points out that “Miss Muggins didn’t know about that red-hot poker nightmare. I made the kids promise not to tell. It wouldn’t have done any good, Dorothy, you know that.”

Not for the faint-hearted, this is, if possible, even less realistic than Judy, Patrol Leader, though probably better for laughs if that’s what you’re after. Don’t expect realistic characters, complex plots or convincing dialogue. Violence and the highest of high-jinks are what you will get.

Review: JP of the Fifth by Margaret Griffiths

JP of the Fifth, Margaret Griffiths

JP of the Fifth was written by Margaret Griffiths and published in 1937, during what might be called the heyday of the school story, and it is an excellent example of that genre. Like all the best school stories it is filled with adventure and excitement, appealing characters and almost no lessons. Published as a very satisfying fat hardback with thick pages, it is a handsome book to own and is beautifully illustrated by Terye Hamilton, whose sensitive drawings only add to the feeling of the book.

The story begins with the meeting of the two Joans (one of whom is conveniently called Pat) on the train to school. They switch identities so that Pat can fail a scholarship on Joan’s behalf (Joan being too intelligent to do so for herself) in order that Joan may go and live away from her hideous stepmother, and here begins all the confusion. The exchange turns out to be fortunate, for otherwise the plot against sweet, gentle Joan might have succeeded and she be defrauded of her rightful inheritance.

J.P. of the Fifth revolves around Pat, who is known as J.P. for her trademark judicial expression. It is Pat who suggests the change of identies, Pat who keeps Joan up to the mark throughout, Pat who suffers the greatest pain of guilt, Pat who is kidnapped (twice) in mistake for Joan. Fortunately she is well up to all of these challenges. Her heroic character leads her to leap to Joan’s defence in the first place (despite her father’s warning just minutes before that “you cannot champion the cause of every lame dog you meet”. Her determination to do her best for Joan leads her to continue the deception as long as she is able, and her inherent honesty and integrity lead her to confess bravely when the time comes. Finally, her tremendous courage and strength of character enable her to survive two kidnaps, one involving a bang on the head and the other a dose of chloroform and a fall into a canal, arriving back at school quite as chipper as she left it. It seems that her only flaw, and one that is common to many Girls’ Own characters, is impulsiveness and lack of forethought. Pat is a little too perfect for realism, but she is still an appealing character.

The minor characters are equally engaging, occasionally more so. Joan herself (known as Goldie, for her hair) is sweet and clever but rather colourless. Daisy Acland (Dimples), on the other hand, is my personal favourite. Also impulsive and heroic, but much younger, she is instrumental in the apprehending of the criminals and solving of the mystery. She also has an excellent turn of phrase:

“Now J.P. is an English gentlewoman. She knows what’s done.”

”What do you mean, you impudent little creature?” blazed Julie. “English? I’m as English as you are.”

”You may be English,” replied Daisy superbly, “but you are not what I call a gentlewoman.”

Then there is Miss Hammond, who adequately fills the role of Goddess in this particular story – she is beautiful and intelligent; she suspects the identity swap long before anyone else does, and tempers justice with mercy perfectly. The schoolgirl villains, Julie and Molly, are an interesting pair. Julie gets more page time but is, in the end, redeemed by her extreme repentance, whereas Molly tries to push all the blame onto Julie and quietly vanishes. Kate O’Halloran, who seems to be the ringleader of the adult villains, is also nicely portrayed. She is tall and dignified, intelligent and quick-thinking, and it seems that her plan might really have worked if it hadn’t been for the confusion between the two girls. Certainly she creates a very plausible menace throughout the story, and one that is in no way lessened when she appears in person.

The writing is perfectly adequate to the tale and Margaret Griffiths creates a lively, exciting atmosphere and has a delightfully gentle sense of humour. There are a few things that jar strangely, though. She has a slightly irritating habit of putting information in dialogue where it doesn’t quite work – there is a (peculiarly well-spoken) tramp who describes a plot to one of its originators quite unnecessarily. Not to mention the fact that the girls appear not to think it necessary to mention the first attempted kidnapping, nor the fact that they have seen one of Joan’s supposedly disappeared guardians near the school. I can’t help feeling that the whole adventure would have been a lot more realistic but also a lot duller if they had done the proper thing!

This is one of my favourite Girls’ Own stories and I think my love for it comes from the wonderfully portrayed characters. Even the heroine is thoroughly likeable despite her perfection, and the others are quite delightful. I’d recommend this one to anyone who wants a good thrilling read of a book that’s a perfect example of its genre.

Review: The Children who lived in a Barn, by Eleanor Graham

The Children who lived in a Barn, Eleanor Graham“No begging, borrowing or stealing… On pain of homes, orphanages and adoptions.”

There’s a strange appeal for children in stories that allow them to live their lives without the interference of adults. Characters like the Famous Five and the Swallows and Amazons gain their freedom in this way, building their own worlds in which they are the masters of their fate. Fictional children don’t usually have this luxury any more except occasionally in the fantasy genre – the fashion is for gritty, realistic stories where young people struggle to cope or lead a normal life without adults to help them (take Shade’s Children, a science fiction story by Garth Nix, an eerie, unsettling story set in a world where there are no adults). The Children who lived in a Barn (recently reprinted by Persephone Books) treads a path between these extremes, and Eleanor Graham builds an almost-believable story while still retaining the magic of a world where children are their own adults.

There are no thrilling adventures here, no mysteries or pranks. This is a straightforward tale of five children – Susan, the oldest, is only thirteen – whose parents go missing in a plane crash, leaving their offspring alone in the family home. This would be bad enough, but days later they are forced to leave when the landlord decides to sell the house. A local farmer comes to the rescue and offers them a barn, and the rest of the book deals with the trials and challenges of their life in the barn – how they feed themselves, cope at school, earn money and stave off the interference of the officious, would-be helpful women of the village.

Of course, it’s not perfectly realistic. It is hard to believe that five children between the ages of eight and thirteen would really be allowed to live alone for months in a barn, even during the summer. A number of individuals, including the unpleasant District Visitor, do hover around making the threat of ‘homes, orphanages and adoptions’ uneasily real, but even so a certain suspension of disbelief is necessary.

Even to believe in the possibility of the children genuinely being able to support themselves alone requires a fair stretch of the imagination. Eleanor Graham makes it as easy as she can for us by making it clear that the children do get a lot of help – shopkeepers give them food (and haircuts) in exchange for services, Farmer and Mrs. Pearl give them the barn and help out with the laundry, while everyone at school – even their fellow pupils – rallies round to make gardens, knit clothes and make life as easy as they can for the children. They even get a plausible motivation, in the general resentment against the Dunnets’ landlord for turning the children out when their parents were gone.

It might be more Swallows and Amazons than Shade’s Children, but The Children who lived in a Barn is slightly redeemed from its lack of realism by its characters. Sue, the oldest of the children, is intelligent, courageous and good humoured, but she also has times of irritability and rebellion. Robert can be responsible and handy, but it takes him some time to understand how serious their situation is and even then he is a bit of a wild card. The twins, Sam and Jumbo, are amusing though not notable, and Alice, the spoilt youngest, finds barn life uncomfortable and is often selfish and whiney. They are all believable characters and I particularly like Sue, who faces up to the challenge of being in charge of five children living in a barn – and of trying to live a normal life, not a Famous Five summer of ginger beer and picnics. But none of them are actually brilliant – they are sufficient for the story, but they don’t transform it.

For me, what really brings the story to life is the challenges the children face and the manner in which they overcome each one. Eleanor Graham gives us the details in abundance and to me they are all fascinating. How did the children feed themselves properly when they had almost no money? How did they keep the barn tidy and clean? How did they clothe themselves? What about haircuts? Did they really bother going to school when their parents weren’t there to make them? The hay box, the school gardens, the choirboys, Alice’s disastrous dress – each challenge is met head on, chin up, and vanquished one way or another.

Of course, this situation couldn’t last for very long without becoming completely implausible. It’s one thing for the children to live in a barn successfully over the summer, but during the winter it would have been impossible. Eleanor Graham acknowledges this through Sue’s mouth, while behind the scenes the District Visitor and her cronies are arranging to have the children split up and shipped off to homes. The ending is a mad mixture of deus ex machina and jaw-dropping coincidence, but this doesn’t matter too much because its only purpose is to bring about the necessary conclusion. The real strength of the story is not its ending, but its middle – the way the children meet and overcome the challenges of their situation; the way they experience each day and somehow, despite everything, not only survive but are happy. It might need a leap of faith or two, but altogether it is a fascinating story for children and adults alike.

Review: Girls of the Hamlet Club, by Elsie J. Oxenham

“But to some of us it means the question all have to decide sooner or later, whether they’ll just have a good time and please themselves and get all they can and care for nothing else, or whether they’ll put more important things first, and – and care about other people, and try to do great things in the world.”

 

 

First published in 1914, Girls of the Hamlet Club has never been easy for collectors to find, with the result that many Elsie J. Oxenham fans, including myself, have never owned a copy until the book was recently republished by the Elsie J. Oxenham Society. This thick, sturdy paperback is beautifully produced, from the glorious coloured illustrations, each with its own plate, down to the choice of font, which is clear and easy to read but with a distinctly old fashioned feel, which brings a pleasurable period feel to the experience of reading the book.

The book’s heroine is Cicely Hobart, a lively, confident, fourteen-year-old, who starts the Hamlet Club as a way of rebelling against the unpleasant snobbery of her new school in Wycombe. The girls soon discover the charms of folk dancing as a means of entertaining themselves and they practise diligently and devise a folk themed entertainment for Cicely’s grandparents. Their real challenge, however, comes when the rich town girls find themselves in an impossible situation and the Hamlet Club must decide how much they really want to heal the huge divide in the school.

Any book worth reading covers many different themes, and Girls of the Hamlet Club is no exception. Snobbery is, of course, a major topic, as are tolerance, forgiveness and self sacrifice. But for me the over-arching theme, which includes and surpasses all of these, is that of choices. By the time the first hundred pages are over, Cicely has had to make two significant, life-changing choices: The first is, of course, to stay at Whiteleafe so that she can be near her grandparents, and it’s not an easy decision for her to make, for they have not treated her now-dead mother well and Cicely feels no loyalty towards them. The second is made when, on her first day at her new school, she determines to support and defend Dorothy Darley, who is thought by most of the school to be a cheat, although Dorothy herself denies the charge. Shortly afterwards, and perhaps most momentously, she declines the offer of the leaders of the school to become a member of their clubs because of their resolve to exclude the poorer members of the school from their society, simply because of their lack of money.

Other choices abound throughout the book. Before Cicely makes her own first decision, we hear the story of Margia Lane’s self-sacrifice. Subsequently, each member of the Hamlet Club has to make the choice that she will abide by the rule ‘to be friendly to everybody – everybody’, which of course includes the rich ‘Townies’. Then comes Cicely’s decision to keep her own affluent background quiet, and later one of the Townies, Madeline, has to decide whether to try to befriend the Hamlets or not. Then, finally, comes the greatest choice of all: most of the cast of the school play succumb to measles and the Hamlet Club, knowing that they could easily provide an evening’s entertainment to replace the play, must decide whether to give up their precious secret for the sake of the school.

Elsie Oxenham was at the peak of her powers at the time of writing Girls of the Hamlet Club, and her plotting and characterisation are excellent. Cicely is a delightful character – just bossy and noble enough to be less than perfect, but still lively, charming and kind. The secondary characters are equally appealing, particularly Miriam, Marguerite and Georgie. Dorothy Darley, while falsely accused, is no drooping damsel but rebellious and selfish, admitting herself that she can be nasty on occasion. On the other side, Hilary Carter, the imposing leader of the Townies, is actually rather a pleasant girl if one overlooks her prejudice against the scholarship girls, and she certainly eats her words quite graciously at the end of the book. There’s not a single character who is too good to be true, nor one who is too bad.

There is never a dull moment in Girls of the Hamlet Club – the chapters are short and the story fast moving, but Elsie Oxenham takes time to pause and savour the beauty of an October morning, or a warm scene beside a fire in the winter, and her descriptions of folk dancing, both hidden away in Darley’s Barn and the more elaborate entertainment devised for Cicely’s grandparents and the school, are enchanting. It’s a real gem in the Girls’ Own genre and I, for one, am grateful to the Elsie J. Oxenham Society for reprinting it so that fans can enjoy the book once more.