Review: The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Whyteleafe: A School with a difference

"Haven't you any money at all?" asked Thomas.

“Haven’t you any money at all?” asked Thomas.

Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl books are not Girls’ Own in the traditional sense, for the school includes boys as well as girls. Having said that, they fit many of the Girls’ Own traditions and tropes, and for such “simple” books (as they have often been called) are surprisingly interesting, as well as simply jolly good stories.

The majority of Girls’ Own schools are fairly similar to one another. They feature medium sized schools of between fifty and two hundred girls, run along traditional lines which are more or less still in use today. Misdemeanours are punished by lines, order marks or of course incarceration in the San. Rules are many, varied and unchangeable, not to mention frequently broken, and activities for each part of the day are carefully prescribed and controlled.

With the Naughtiest Girl books, though, Enid Blyton broke a mould which was later to be smashed to smithereens by Mabel Esther Allan. Whyteleafe is perhaps the only one of her three best-known schools which could have dealt with such a problem as naughty, spoiled, selfish Elizabeth Allen. The change in Elizabeth’s character is nicely dealt with and feels emotionally realistic, and some at least of the secondary and minor characters are appealing. But it’s the setting that really makes the Naughtiest Girl books so fascinating

The school is what is often described as “progressive”. The children make the rules, but they are also responsible for enforcing them as well as for sorting out other problems the children might have with one another or with school arrangements. This happens in weekly Meetings led by a Jury of Monitors and two Judges, William and Rita. The latter two are presented almost as God and Goddess in their own small realm (there are many Goddesses in Girls’ Own literature, and Rita is typical of them).

As previously mentioned, Whyteleafe School is also co-educational. This was almost certainly a practical measure on Enid Blyton’s part, since the stories were originally published in Sunny Stories, aimed at both boys and girls. Even so, it’s original for a school story of its time. Even more impressive is the fact that the school, while containing both boys and male masters, is run by two women, Miss Belle and Miss Best. Women and girls have equal power with men and boys, and often the balance of power in fact seems to lie with the females of the school – a hugely empowering message at a time when there was still great discrimination against women.

On the other side of the argument, one must wonder what parents and relations made of their children being made to give up all their money to be donated to a school pot and divided among the pupils. One can see the appeal of this socialism in action and the theoretical fairness of it, but surely it’s not realistic that either children or parents would not resent it.

It has been suggested that Whyteleafe was if not actually modelled on, then at least influenced by, A. S. Neill’s famous progressive school Summerhill. Summerhill, run almost entirely by the students, seems to have been enough of a success that it is still going in more or less the same form today. Whyteleafe is not so radical in its outlook – it seems unlikely that Miss Belle and Miss Best would have permitted the school to banish all rules (as happens periodically at Summerhill, only for them to be soon reinstated when chaos palls). Classes are compulsory at Whyteleafe, unlike Summerhill, although at times a higher level of tolerance of misbehaviour is shown than in many Girls’ Own books. For example, when on her first night Elizabeth claims she has a guinea-pig with a face like Miss Thomas’s she is neither “sat on” nor punished, though disapproval is shown by her classmates.

Of course there are some similarities with other more traditional Girls’ Own schools. Whyteleafe may be more tolerant in some ways, but its pupils do not hesitate to administer their rules as strictly as any other schools. Some of these, as in all fictional (and indeed real) schools, seem entirely unnecessary – such as that which states that no one except a monitor may have more than six items on her dressing table. This rules is so strictly enforced that three photographs of Elizabeth’s are confiscated on her first night, which seems rather harsh even as a result of the rudeness she exhibited on that occasion.

“Harry was very pleased and thumped Elizabeth on the back.”

One of Whyteleafe’s greatest similarities to most Girls’ Own school is the way in which pupils’ better qualities are drawn out and lauded. This is something which many Girls’ Own schools claim to do, although Enid Blyton was particularly keen on it. Courage in particular is highly valued – a very Girls’ Own virtue. The delight of the entire school when Elizabeth bravely stands up and declares her intention of staying at school is huge and heartwarming, as it is when it is discovered in The Naughtiest Girl is a Monitor that it was she who rescued a small boy from drowning.

But while values may be similar in all schools and stories, that doesn’t stop Whyteleafe from being one of the most original and forward-looking schools in the entire Girls’ Own genre. Enid Blyton is often condemned for her traditional values and simple writing, yet simple writing frequently makes for a good rollicking story. As for traditional – Whyteleafe shows that she was entirely capable of breaking all the moulds she wanted to when she felt it appropriate. There is no doubt that Whyteleafe is, even today, a school with a difference.

Find Your Inner Heroine!

You might be a Joey-hater and a Dimsie-lover; perhaps you find Darrell excruciating and Jen delightful, but have you ever wondered which of them you most resemble? Discover your inner heroine today by answering these simple questions!

 

 

 

1. We’re often told that appearance isn’t important, but it’s worth thinking about. Are you…

a) Blessed with big brown eyes?

b) Black-haired, and you look jolly nice in your new school uniform?

c) Pale, thin, and fragile looking?

d) Yellow-haired with very blue eyes?

 

2. You’ve just arrived at your new school, uniform crisp, nightcase neatly packed and tuck-box full. How are you feeling?

a) Is it going to be like the stories? Is it? Is it?

b) A little warm feeling comes into your heart and you are glad the school is going to be your home for the next few years.

c) You want to do everything and be friends with everyone!

d) You’re looking forward to everything most frightfully, though you have to be brave too, as it’s your first time away from home.

 

3. There’s never a huge amount of free time at school, but when it does come along, how do you like to spend it?

a) In launching crusades against whatever kind of silliness is currently rife in the school.

b) In playing tennis and lacrosse as frequently as you’re allowed, or in perpetrating silly pranks.

c) Oh, you’ll do anything really – read, write, sing, dance, play games, climb mountains, rescue people – so long as there are plenty of friends to enjoy it with you.

d) In learning folk dancing and playing cricket – if only you could decide which you prefer!

 

4. What is your attitude towards the crush, or Grande Passion?

a) Unhealthy nonsense! Launch a society against it immediately.

b) Actually, you don’t really understand the question…

c) You’re profoundly uncomfortable with any kind of sentimentality and think it’s all a lot of rot.

d) You haven’t really thought about it. The fact that you and your best friend refer to one another as husband and wife is irrelevant.

 

5. You find out that someone is planning to cheat in a school exam. What do you do?

a) Cheating of any kind is a terrible sin and a crusade must be launched against it immediately.

b) Catch the cheat in the act in the middle of the night and physically attack her.

c) What tosh! No decent schoolgirl would do something like that.

d) Exams? What do you mean, exams?

 

6. So what do you feel that the future holds for you?

a) Marriage, a herb garden and a rather restrained two children.

b) Going to university and then becoming a writer.

c) Eleven children (plus wards) and a string of best-selling books.

d) Marrying a Title and producing eight children.

 

7. Most real heroines marry eventually. What is your dream man like?

a) A sensitive, gentle, war-wounded doctor.

b) Man? Gosh!

c) A solid lump of comfort (and a doctor).

d) Jolly, semi-invisible and titled.

 

8. And how, briefly, would you describe your own character?

a) Apparently cheeky but actually simply endearing, with a habit of launching crusades.

b) A frightfully jolly schoolgirl with a talent for writing.

c) A sensitive, highly-strung dreamer, a natural leader and eternal schoolgirl.

d) Jolly, yet also a fount of wisdom and a strong motherly instinct.

 

Now, add up how many As, Bs, Cs and Ds you scored, and check the results below to discover your inner heroine…

 

Mostly As – Dimsie Maitland (Dorita Fairlie Bruce)

‘Well!’ exclaimed Erica in a shocked voice, ‘I’ve always known you had plenty of cool cheek, Dimsie Maitland, but I never thought the day would come when I’d see you advising Miss Yorke as to who should be moved up and who shouldn’t. You’ll certainly be expelled one of these days!’ (Dimsie Moves Up)

Your youthful charm and habit of addressing even the headmistress as though she is a contemporary and equal carries you through many sticky situations. You are prepared to indulge in mischief so long as it isn’t deceitful in any way, and you have a heroic streak which can lead you into some unfortunate and dangerous situations.

 

Mostly Bs – Darrell Rivers (Enid Blyton)

The girls stared at Darrell, who shook back her black curls and gazed with clear eyes at Katherine. Why, they hadn’t needed to have a meeting at all! They hadn’t needed to judge Darrell and set her to make amends. She had judged herself and made amends herself. The girls looked at her with admiration and Mary-Lou could hardly keep still. What a wonderful person Darrell was, she thought! (First Term at Malory Towers)

You are intelligent, courageous and honest, but you also have a hot temper which you struggle to control. You throw yourself into school activities with enthusiasm and, while you don’t always get everything right, you learn from your mistakes and are a popular member of your form.

 

Mostly Cs – Joey Bettany (Elinor Brent-Dyer)

To make matters worse, Miss Maynard, the mathematics mistress, had brought back for Joey a copy of The Appalachian Nursery Song-Book, and Joey had sung them in season and out of season, till even the donor of the gift was beginning to regret that she had ever brought it. (Jo of the Chalet School)

Delicate and highly-strung, your impulsive behaviour continually gets you into trouble. You are a natural leader and your friendliness and liveliness means that you are well-liked throughout your school career. With a highly-developed imagination and a habit of acting without thinking, you are inclined to end up in more scrapes than you need to.

 

Mostly Ds – Jen Robins (Elsie Oxenham)

“She’s the only girl in a family of brothers, and they call her Jen at home. She won’t be dancing; you need to learn the dances, and Jen is so very new. But I shouldn’t wonder if she becomes a dancer quite soon; she’s made for it, and she’s light on her feet. Perhaps cricket will claim her, however; it’s too soon to say.” (Schooldays at the Abbey)

You’re a tomboy with a love of mischief and adventure, but you also have a deep love of beauty and the quiet, contemplative atmosphere of the Abbey ruins draws you strongly. You love making new discoveries, and this can sometimes lead you into unfortunate situations, but you are able to learn and grow through all your difficulties.