The School on North Barrule, by Mabel Esther Allan

Voirrey stood still, holding her bicycle. She was alone and free. She could have at least three hours, perhaps more, in which to see the North – the North that pulled so strongly – and Aunt Mona Quilliam.

Mabel Esther Allan’s school stories are mostly notable for their school settings, which are nearly unique in the Girls’ Own genre for being radically progressive and usually co-educational, placing more emphasis on nature and responsibility than on organised sports and discipline. In some of her own autobiographical writings, reproduced as an introduction to Fidra Books’ recent edition of The School on North Barrule, Mabel Esther Allan explains that after suffering throughout her schooldays from a lack of understanding of her severe visual impairment, she seized with enthusiasm on the educational ideas of A. S. Neill, worked out practically in his own school, Summerhill, and reproduced them in her own, fictional, establishments. Although the invariable success of her schools can become a little tedious, the stories are still enjoyable simply for their difference from the usual pattern of Girls’ Own books.

Barrule House, featured in The School on North Barrule, is no exception: there are, seemingly, only two children who are not genuinely and perfectly happy at the school. These are Voirrey herself, the heroine of the story, who finds even the free and easy atmosphere of Barrule House a struggle at first, and her brother Andreas, who hates everything about the school and wishes only to return to his old grammar school at home. Despite the fact that staff and other pupils acknowledge that Andreas is ‘difficult’, there is never any suggestion that the school might fail in its mission to make him, as every other pupil, a sensible and responsible member of the community.

Mabel Esther Allan, like all the best authors, Girls’ Own or otherwise, has a natural skill for creating appealing characters. Voirrey is likeable and interesting, even her sometimes irritating obsession with becoming a member of the Manx Club (the club to which all the school members who are native to the Isle of Man belong) rounding her character a little to make her slightly less than perfect. Christian is perhaps even more interesting because we only see her from Voirrey’s point of view – fascinating, appealing, changeable and a bit mysterious. Unfortunately Mabel Esther Allan doesn’t pay so much attention to her background characters, most of whom are uniformly charming and equally dull. Voirrey’s brother Andreas might have made a convincing antagonist if he had been allowed a greater role than that of trouble-maker and irritant, but even his cursory reformation at the end of the book presents very little in the way of character development. The shadow of nasty Aunt Mona Quilliam hangs over much of the story, but her eventual appearance is something of an anti-climax, and she barely appears as a real character.

For me, the greatest appeal of The School on North Barrule is Mabel Esther Allan’s extraordinary ability to convey a sense of place. I don’t have much sense of geography and my imagining of places is pretty much non-existent, so it’s a real treat to read an author who can bring a landscape to life in my mind. It’s not just the way she describes the scenery, but Voirrey’s emotional reactions to the Isle of Man heighten the atmosphere and bring an extra spark of life: “Voirrey stood on the top of a sand-dune, staring towards the shore, queerly held in an unbelievable stillness. The waves washed on an empty sandy beach that stretched away north and south into the bright distance, and across the sea was the Mull of Galloway, and, northwards, the Scottish hills… In that still, important, eventless moment she seemed to understand living as she had never done before.

I sometimes find Mabel Esther Allan’s unquestioning faith in the progressive school ideal a little hard to swallow – surely there must be some disadvantages, even if they are vastly outweighed by the advantages of self-discipline and self-expression? – but I do appreciate the originality of her stories. The School on North Barrule isn’t the most exciting or complex school story, but it has a nice plot, a couple of interesting characters and it brings the magic of the Isle of Man truly to life.

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To All Appearance, Dead, by Liz Filleul

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Blakes Come to Melling, by Margaret Biggs

‘Hello, Helen,’ said Rona, smiling at the newcomer. So that clinched the matter. This was the girl whom Libby intended to detest, come wind, come weather.

The Blakes Come to Melling was published in 1951, when the Girls’ Own genre had long passed its heyday. By the end of the fifties, publishers were refusing school stories from all but the most popular of authors. Society was changing, the genre had never been looked on with favour by critics, schools or parents, and the stories themselves were becoming old hat.

Margaret Biggs, however, is a writer who has the skill to bring true freshness and originality to a well-worn genre. The Blakes Come to Melling is, on the face of it, not an original story. The proud Laceys, forced to sell their old family home, Bramberley House, are determined to have nothing to do with the new owners, the happy-go-lucky Blakes, and the book charts the families’ changing relationships among themselves and with one another. Margaret Biggs’ skill lies instead in her portrayal of the characters, from the vague but sweet headmistress, Miss Pickering, to reserved, chilling Libby Lacey, and in her creation of the atmosphere of a small private boarding school.

For me, it’s really the characters who make the book outstanding. Mrs. Blake, a placid but vastly intelligent writer of academic tomes, regards twelve year old Susan’s suspension from school as a nice, restful holiday and Mr. Blake, who earns ten times as much money with his trashy but bestselling detective novels, is little better. In fact, the only Blake who is really concerned about Susan’s behaviour (which can be fairly outrageous) is Roddy, incidentally also my favourite of the family. This is partly because of her love of books, which leads her to reorganise the entire library in her spare time, but mostly because although she’s very quiet and intelligent and quite reserved, she doesn’t hesitate to do what she believes is right, whether that involves telling Susan off for the good of her soul or inking the skirts of two obnoxious prefects in retaliation for their unkindness to her older sister, Helen.

While the Blakes are hilarious and loveable, it’s really the family dynamics of the Laceys that keep the plot moving and the book interesting. At the centre is Libby, bitter and miserable because the Blakes are living in her old family home, her attitude fostered by her rigid mother, who is so proud and reserved that she rarely shows affection even to her own daughters. The result is that twelve year old Laura is painfully torn between her wish to please her mother and sister and her desperate desire for the warmth and affection that the Blakes give her, and which she can’t get from her own family.

Margaret Biggs’ second great strength is her realism. This may sound strange in a review of a book that’s part of a genre not generally noted for its realism, but Margaret Biggs has a firm grasp of authentic human behaviour. None of the characters is wholly good or wholly bad. Libby doesn’t have a blinding revelation; Laura doesn’t suddenly start standing up for herself; only Mrs Lacey experiences anything like an instantaneous turnaround, which is understandable since it’s her daughter who’s been lost for hours on a snowy winter night and Mrs Lacey, quite rightly, blames herself.

I didn’t come to Margaret Biggs until I had been collecting Girls’ Own books for a few years, but I knew immediately that she was going to become a favourite. Her plots might not be sensational; her characters are not inspiringly good or horrifyingly bad; there are no terrifying accidents or life-threatening freaks of weather. No one achieves magnificent heights of academic or creative fame, nor are there villains who are chased away with their tails between their legs. It’s just a simple story of ordinary people; the magic is that when we are reading about them, we cannot help but care about them.

The Schoolgirl Refugee, by Olive C. Dougan

Fear lent Trudi wings

The colour went from her cheeks, her eyes grew wide. For instead of a letter was only a piece of paper with the sinister sign of the Swastika drawn upon it.

I make no apology for the fact that my second review is of one of my favourite books rather than of something new or famous. The Schoolgirl Refugee was the first Girls’ Own book I bought after those of Elinor Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham, and not only do I have a thoroughly soft spot for it, but I think it’s an interesting and unusual book in its own right.

Fifteen year old Trudi Streiff emerges from six weeks of illness and isolation to find that she is no longer allowed to associate with her Jewish friends. Not only that, but her brother is wanted by the Nazi government and her father is sending Trudi away to the Maxwells, her mother’s relations in England, so that she will not suffer for her family’s misdemeanours. But life in England is just as hard as it had become in Germany, and Trudi soon finds herself caught up in a terrifying adventure.

Olive Dougan is sparing with the details of exactly what was going on in Germany at the time the book is set – so sparing, in fact, that it seems impossible to date the book more precisely than to sometime between 1933 and 1935 (probably) – but she amply makes up for this by her skill in drawing Trudi’s emotions at every stage of her journey.

Suddenly Lili’s grasp tightened. She began to talk away at a greater rate, trying vainly to keep her friend’s attention to herself and away from the school door… Lili’s whispers were urgent, her grasp was firm. Trembling and with tears in her eyes, Trudi watched her two friends come out together. And she saw how the girls nearest to them drew away, fell into sudden silence, or giggling, made whispered comments which could yet be heard. Each insult, each harsh word or rude gesture struck poor Trudi’s heart as if it had been meant for her.

Trudi’s character is particularly appealing because she isn’t the usual type of schoolgirl heroine. She’s not especially pretty, and neither is she good at games. Instead she is hard working and intelligent, and her life in Germany has in no way prepared her for the very different attitudes she finds in her new school. Hard work is not appreciated here, and Trudi is ostracized by her cousin Jean, most of the form following her example.

Again, as Trudi’s life becomes more frightening, her character doesn’t change. The girl who was terrified to the point of hysteria when she received a threatening letter doesn’t suddenly become cool and calm in the face of kidnapping and interrogation. She’s not savvy enough to avoid being followed, and she knows she won’t be able to hold out forever under questioning. She isn’t courageous enough to escape down a drainpipe – “All very well for boys, or some wonderful heroine, but not for a girl like herself.” When she does eventually escape it is more through luck and desperation than cunning or courage.

Olive Dougan is equally skilled in drawing lesser characters. Jean Maxwell takes an instant dislike to her quiet cousin, which is only compounded by her realization that her brother Richard is becoming increasingly close to Trudi. In the meantime, Phyllis, Jean’s best friend, finds herself torn between her loyalty to Jean and her desire to help Trudi, whom she rather likes. The way she manages this difficult balancing act is both amusing and exasperating, but always interesting. Most of the villains, sadly, are little more than cardboard cut-outs, though Nurse Schmidt rises above the rest as a truly threatening presence, and Trudi’s panicky fear of her comes across strongly and unsettlingly.

Both a thrilling adventure and a strong comment on friendship and loyalty, The Schoolgirl Refugee succeeds, I think, on both levels. Perhaps the ending overstretches itself a little in making everything right, but that is a feature of the genre and most readers wouldn’t expect anything different. Great heights of literary merit are not to be expected, but the battered condition of my copy testifies, I think, to the number of times I’ve read and enjoyed The Schoolgirl Refugee.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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