Sara Gay – Model Girl was published, along with its three sequels, in 1961. In many ways it’s very different from most Girls’ Own fiction, though it also has its similarities. Of course, it was published towards the end of the Girls’ Own era and clearly takes into account the rapid changes in society at that time. In addition, the writer was a prolific romance writer (Janey Scott is a pseudonym for Roberta Leigh) who continues to produce books even today, and this has obviously influenced the writing of the Sara Gay stories. But the descriptions and dustjacket illustrations make it clear that Sara’s adventures are still aimed at a teenage audience and the purchaser can be sure that certain values will be a part of the story, just as they had been for decades previously.
The story of Sara Gay – Model Girl concerns the unfortunately named Sara Gay (surely no relation to Tom Gay of the Chalet School!), who has just won a beauty contest she entered as a joke and who is finally allowing herself to believe that she really could become a model, the career she has dreamed of for many years. There are, of course, many trials and tribulations along the way, but Sara remains cheerful throughout and the ending is almost pure Girls’ Own.
Sara Gay – Model Girl is, objectively speaking, fairly shallow and predictable, yet for me it holds an enormous charm. Of course, there’s the natural appeal of a young girl floating around in beautiful gowns, learning to make herself pretty and defeating her enemies in the process, but that isn’t the only reason I love the book.
Firstly, I actually enjoy the fact that appearance is all-important, that a love of clothes and an interest in make-up are unashamedly celebrated rather than condemned as shallow and vulgar:
“She wants me to wear pretty clothes and go to lots of parties with loads of men.”
“But that’s what everyone wants.”
“Well, I don’t. I hate parties and clothes bore me. I expect that sounds crazy to you, but I can’t help it. My idea of a wonderful time is to live on a farm and ride and fish and help look after the animals. What I’d really like to do is be a vet.”
Sara stared at Marion in astonishment. How could any girl not love beautiful clothes?
I must confess to being more on Marion’s side of the argument than Sara’s, but even so it’s pleasant to see such a different idea embraced. Even more shocking, perhaps, is the fact that bras and bikinis are not only freely mentioned but even worn (or not worn) by the glamorous but honourable heroine, thus placing them very firmly in the Approved camp. Even a question regarding a teacher’s boyfriend is quite clearly a slightly euphemistic way of calling him her lover.
Yet, despite all this, traditional values are still espoused and highly important. Nasty girl Nina gets her comeuppance, losing even the friendship of debutante Diana, who in fact turns out to be a thoroughly nice person. The secondary heroine, Marion, has a nice character arc during which we find out the reasons for her unpleasantness and see her coming to an understanding with her mother and a place of far greater peace.
Family values are a central motif of the story, with Sara’s lower-middle-class but wholesome family contrasted against the opulence and unpleasant, stifled atmosphere of Marion’s upbringing. Sara thoroughly disapproves of Marion’s dishonesty, although her moral dilemma surrounds Marion’s boyfriend rather than, for example, cheating in an exam or deceiving a mistress. Still, she says quite clearly and firmly – as would any Girls’ Own heroine – that it is not she, but Marion, who should be ashamed of her family.
Sara Gay – Model Girl isn’t the subtlest or most thought provoking of reads, but it is fun, light and wholesome, containing most of the traditional Girls’ Own values and many of its tropes while bringing a fresh and (for the time) modern feel to the story – there’s even the lightest hint of romance to come at the end, which although not unknown is rare enough to be fun. Sara herself is a charming character, never grumpy but somehow still real. I recommend it for a very enjoyable read.
For further reading on the Sara Gay books, there is a very interesting essay here which can be downloaded in pdf format. It focusses on the portrayal of a young girl growing up in the world of fashion.