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.

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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.

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.

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!