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.

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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.

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.

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.

Interview With a Heroine: Madge Bettany

This is the first in a new series of posts in which I’ll be interviewing Girls’ Own characters and finding out a little bit more about them. My first guest is a particularly exciting one – please welcome Lady Russell, better known as Madge Bettany, the founder of the famous Chalet School!

 

 

So, Madge, what made you decide to start a school, and in Austria, of all places?

After our Guardian died we hadn’t much money – not enough, really, to pay for school fees for Joey. I’d always been good at teaching but I knew that even if I got a post as a schoolmistress there still wouldn’t be enough money to pay for Joey’s education. And then there was the question of her health. England wasn’t good for her, and neither were a lot of places. So I considered all the possibilities, and at last I came up with what seemed the perfect solution.

And you went ahead and did it! Surely you must have been nervous?

Of course! I was terrified. It wasn’t so bad while we were making all the preparations and enjoying ourselves travelling over, but once Dick had left us and I realised what I’d done, I had a lot of sleepless nights. By that time, though, it was too late – I couldn’t funk it; I simply had to ride it out and try to make my mad idea a success.

Tell us about your greatest challenge?

Getting used to running a school – there were so many things I simply hadn’t thought about. Prayers, for example, for Protestants and Catholics. And I had to learn many of the local customs very quickly because so many of our first girls came from the Tyrol and Europe, and of course their parents expected certain things, such as chaperonage, which were less important to us in England.

We all know about your romance with Doctor Jem Russell. Tell us, did you feel any regrets about giving up your school to marry him? How did you feel about your future life?

Naturally I found giving up the Chalet School very difficult and painful. I’d invested a huge part of my life – and Joey’s – into starting it and making it a success, and then, just as it was becoming what I’d envisaged, I found myself having to make a choice. And it didn’t just mean giving up the school, but also seeing far less of Joey. We’d barely been separated before that. Oh, I was terrified!

Did you ever consider continuing as Head of the Chalet School after you were married?

Hardly. Of course if it happened these days I don’t suppose I would consider giving the school up, but things were very different then. Married women simply didn’t have jobs, and they certainly weren’t Headmistresses! I still kept in close contact with the school and was involved in all the important decision-making, but it wasn’t the same. No, I had to make a choice, and I still believe I made the right one.

Your husband has been very successful in his career – has life after the Chalet School matched your expectations?

I certainly never anticipated becoming Lady Russell! It was bad enough when the horrible children started addressing me as ‘Frau Doktor Russell’, but when it came to ‘Lady’ – well! Joey was a disgraceful tease about it. But I wouldn’t be without my family; they are my most precious possessions now. As I said, I have no regrets.

Sir James Russell has retired now and you emigrated to Australia some time ago. What is the best thing about your new life?

Oh, we’re thoroughly enjoying retired life! I’ve brushed up on my Guiding skills and started helping out with the local Guides, and I’m also doing a little teaching at one or two of the local schools. Jem, having complained about being too busy for his entire career, found that he was bored stiff as soon as he retired and has taken up farming instead, as a sort of hobby. He spends all his free time at a farm nearby and has taken to wearing one of those odd hats and talking in an Australian accent.

It sounds as though you’re both thoroughly enjoying life! Tell me, what’s your biggest goal at the moment?

I don’t really have any huge goals at the moment. Simply to live a life that is worth living.

Well, that’s something for us all to aspire to! Thank you for being with us today, Madge.

Thank you.

That’s all from Madge and me today. I hope you’ve enjoyed finding out a little bit more about her as much as I have – and watch this space for the next in the ‘Interview With a Heroine’ series!

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.

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.

 

Author: Gwendoline Courtney

‘We are pleased to say that your story, “Torley Grange”, has been approved, and we are prepared to acquire the full copyright for Seventy-five Pounds (£75).’

(from Gwendoline Courtney’s letter of acceptance from Thomas Nelson, reproduced in Torley Grange, (GGBP, 2008)).

In the whole Girls’ Own pantheon, there is no writer better for a comfort read than Gwendoline Courtney. Her stories are warm, jolly and funny, and it’s difficult not to finish one with a happy sigh and a hot-chocolatey feeling. I feel I should mention here that of her thirteen books, I’ve read only four: Torley Grange, Sally’s Family, A Coronet for Cathie and At School With the Stanhopes. Enough to judge on, though, since I’ve enjoyed every one of them and have just ordered Mermaid House from Girls Gone By Publishers (why hasn’t it come yet? :().

Torley Grange, Gwendoline Courtney’s first published book, was accepted by Thomas Nelson three years before its publication, owing to the fact that they already had so many books for the age group in preparation. Since today it can take up to two years for a book to be published after it’s accepted, I wonder if perhaps the process was quicker in 1932. In any case, they obviously felt that she was an author worth investing in. Her next book, The Grenville Garrison, wasn’t published until 1940, but she seems to have published every year or two after that, only ceasing in 1956 with The Wild Lorings, Detectives, when, according to Marian Pope’s introduction to GGBP’s edition of Torley Grange, ‘girls and boys started to call themselves “teenagers”’.

In The Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories Sue Sims and Hilary Clare suggest that ‘She is at her best when depicting girls having to pick their way through a hostile or difficult situation’, and I’d have to agree with this. While Sally’s Family, A Coronet for Cathie and At School With the Stanhopes all have heroines with real difficulties and trials, I couldn’t help feeling that Torley Grange suffered from a heroine without enough troubles. It’s true that Molly has an old and debilitating injury to her foot to contend with, but otherwise her life is pretty much a bed of roses for two hundred pages, and it just isn’t as interesting.

In contrast, Rosalind, Sally and Cathie, the three remaining heroines, have many problems which keep their stories fresh and appealing. Rosalind has to learn to live with her much older brother, almost a stranger to her, and subsequently to run his household as well. Sally has an even greater task ahead of her when she decides to reunite her family, scattered during the War, and not only has to deal with their unexpected quirks and differences, but to turn a big, run-down house into a comfortable family home. Cathie Sidney, recovering from a severe illness, finds herself all unexpectedly the new Duchess of Montford and having to fight snobbery and unpleasantness as well as learning to manage her vast estates. Of course, they tackle these difficulties with courage, determination and complete believability.

It’s hard to define exactly what it is that makes a book a true comfort read, but every one of Gwendoline Courtney’s books manages it for me, even Torley Grange. Of course, there’s the element of triumph over adversity, but that happens in the majority of published novels. Maybe it’s because this theme is the main one. The books don’t depend on solving a mystery, defeating an enemy, high adventure or strange occurrences, but on a character struggling to overcome her own problems. If the author has made us care about that person, we will struggle with her (or him) and share in her eventual triumph as if it were our own. It gives us hope that world isn’t such a bad place after all, that the good will end well and that whatever our problems are, we aren’t helpless in the face of them. And this is what Gwendoline Courtney achieves to perfection. In addition, her writing is excellent and quietly humorous, and her characters attractively flawed and always appealing.

Have you read Gwendoline Courtney – and what did you think? I’d especially like to know if her other books are as good as the ones I’ve read!

Nine Girls’ Own Heart-Throbs – Plus One!

Literary crushes: We all have them. At least, I hope so, otherwise it’s just me and I’m going to look pretty stupid in a minute. However, I’ve heard the respective merits of Jem Russell and Jack Maynard discussed with passion, although no conclusive agreement has ever been reached (for the record, I prefer Jack of the two, but neither of them makes it onto my personal list). Sorry I don’t have pictures for everyone, but I did my best. I feel sure that many will disagree with my choices here – please feel free to comment below and fight the corner for your own particular favourite!

 

9. Neil Sheppard (Elinor Brent-Dyer, Chalet School series)

Neil’s entry here means that, most unfairly given her record in creating desirable men, Elinor Brent-Dyer has two characters on the list. But I had to put him in because he makes Grizel happy, which after fifty books and a hell of a hard life, I think she deserves.

 

8. Grant Rossiter (Jean Estoril, Drina series)

Grant is very lovely. He’s sensible and sweet, and waits patiently for Drina to decide she really does want to marry him. But he doesn’t get a higher spot on here, because…well, he’s just not very interesting. None of those dark-blue sparkling eyes and sensitive musician’s fingers. Sorry, Grant.

 

7. Dickon Sowerby (Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden)

He tames animals and takes birds and foxes around with him. He brings gardens to life and makes people happy and alive again. Need I say more?

 

6. Fatty (Enid Blyton, Five Find-Outers series)

Frederick Algernon Trotteville – I love him for many reasons. He can disguise himself perfectly as anyone from a waxwork of Napoleon to an elderly gipsy woman. He’s quite intelligent, a tiny bit up himself and can spout doggerel poetry as though pouring water from a jug. Also, when the other Find-Outers are mean to Bets and laugh at her, Fatty is always kind and encouraging, which is something that always appeals to me.

 

5. Tom Dudgeon (Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons series)

Because, frankly, he’s awesome. He sails in a no-nonsense, I’ve-done-this-all-my-life-and-this-is-the-way-life-is way and boats are pretty much the centre of his life. Yet he sacrifices his boats-are-all-important principles to save a coot’s nest across which a large and obnoxious motor cruiser has moored. Also, despite being the oldest in the Coot Club, the doctor’s son and very much the one in charge, he isn’t bossy or annoying, and he facilitates Dorothea in her detecting admirably and is entirely unthreatened by her magnificence. I am convinced that they ended up together.

 

4. Patrick Merrick (Antonia Forest, Marlows series)

I really like Patrick. Partly because all of Antonia Forest’s characters are so brilliantly drawn that it’s almost impossible not to believe in them as real people (I do suffer from Fiction Confusion quite badly), but also because I just like him. He’s interesting and intelligent and has fabulous, slightly eccentric hobbies such as falconry. I also like the way he’s happy to talk completely openly about his religion – he’s from a strongly Catholic family. My only gripe with Patrick is – why Ginty?

 

3. Teddy Kent (L. M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon series)

She thought Teddy could have whistled her clear across the world with those three magic notes.

Firstly, he’s tall, dark and handsome: ‘…she was acutely aware of his tall, boyish straightness, his glossy black hair, his luminous dark-blue eyes.’ Secondly, he’s a brilliant artist, famous for his pictures of beautiful women – every one of which has just a tiny bit of Emily in it. Thirdly, there are all those years of sobbingly miserable separation, when each of them loves the other and can’t or won’t say so. Not to mention his crazy mother, who does her best to put a spanner in the works and for a long time succeeds. And then that gorgeous scene at the end where he confesses, ‘I’ve been trying all my life to tell you I loved you.

 

2. Kester Bellever (Elinor Brent-Dyer, Chalet School series)

Normally Elinor Brent-Dyer’s not particularly good at men, but Kester Bellever is something special. He’s only a minor character, but he is uniformly lovely (there are no pictures of him, but we think the young David Attenborough does the trick). He first shows up taking little Cherry Christie out for the day, and then it turns out that he’s a famous naturalist. But it’s the way he treats Annis that really gets me swooning. After she runs away, he finds her climbing his cliffs to escape the tide and ties up her ankle, carries her to his hut, puts her to bed and makes her soup. And then he makes her tell him what’s wrong and takes her back to school. And finally, “Kester Bellever faced Miss Annersley with his shy smile. ‘I see it’s not necessary to ask you to be gentle with that poor kid,’ he said. ‘I’m glad the school’s got such a Head.’

Sigh.

 

1. Sebastian Scott (Lorna Hill, Sadler’s Wells series)

His eyes were blue – not light blue, but dark, and sparkling, and slightly on the slant. His hands fascinated me. They were strong, and slender, and very sensitive, and he moved them about continually as he talked. I’d never seen anyone with hands like that. In fact I’d never seen anyone like him at all. I wondered what his name was.

What? Oh, sorry…

Yes, Sebastian, my first and greatest literary crush (the one I used to sob into my pillow for at the age of fourteen), is indisputably number one on my list. If he rolled up waving a wedding ring I would be up the aisle before you could say “arrogant bastard”. Which he isn’t. He’s funny and clever, and very imaginative and sensitive. Also, he adores Veronica and even though he says awful, unforgiveable things after throwing an almighty strop because she forgets about his concert, and then refuses to apologise, she is just as furious and they still love each other and are madly happy together. And he is fabulously flamboyant and eccentric.

 

PLUS – The Amazing Tristan Denny

Because what’s not to love about a vague, eccentric musician who is ‘…the weirdest creature the girls had ever seen. He was tall and gaunt, with long brown hair falling wildly into his eyes and on to the wide collar of his shirt. He wore an enormous brown bow at his open shirt-throat. There was something untamed about him, and his vivid pink-and-white skin added to his unusual looks.

The Schoolgirl Refugee, by Olive C. Dougan

Fear lent Trudi wings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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