Review: Sara Gay – Model Girl

Sara Gay - Model GirlSara 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.

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Mary-Dorothy Devine – Interview with a Heroine

Mary-Dorothy Devine, Elsie OxenhamFollowing on from my very successful chat with Madge Bettany, today I’ll be talking to Mary Dorothy Devine, featured in Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey Girls books, about what makes her – and of course her books – tick.

 

 

 

 

Mary-Dorothy, could you start by telling us a little about what led you to writing in the first place, please?

Oh, I’d love to. As a matter of fact, I think I’d really been a writer all along, but that wish was crushed by my father – not that he meant to do it, of course, but he was such a brilliant man himself and he didn’t want to me to end up disappointed and saddened. And of course he really did think my stuff was rubbish.

And what sort of writing method do you use? Plotter or pantser? Research before or after?

Plotter or what? That’s certainly a term I’ve never heard before! I think I understand what you mean, though, and the truth is that I rarely plot a book really thoroughly before writing it. I usually have some idea of what will happen, but beyond that, no. I feel that I’m simply a loudspeaker – the characters have their own lives and they speak through me. I just write down what they do and say. As for research, I feel that I’m doing that all the time. There’s rarely a time when there aren’t girls in this house somewhere, so I’ve always got young people around me. You see, I didn’t start writing my things down again until I met Joy and Jen.

I’ve heard a bit about that. Can you tell me how it was from your point of view?

Magic. Quite simply, it was magic. As though a part of me that had been shrivelled and wasted just grew buds and came alive. Like spring arriving after you think winter has become eternal. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world.

But things weren’t always perfect between you and the Abbey girls, were they?

(pauses) No, that’s true. I’ve thought a lot about that, and I’d really rather not discuss it now. All I’ll say is that it was at least as much my fault as theirs – I had unrealistic expectations of them and that never makes for a good or a true friendship.

Of course. In that case, could you perhaps tell us a little bit about your life now?

Well, as you know, I’m Joy’s secretary. But that doesn’t take up all my time by any means. I spend plenty of time writing – and correcting, and I can tell you that that is not by any means such a joy! Apart from that, I like to spend plenty of time with anyone who happens to be visiting. Joy is so hospitable and such a delightful hostess; there’s almost always someone or other here, and most of them are old friends. It’s marvellous to talk to them and to hear stories about the girls before I ever knew them.

And I believe that you’ve been able to help a few other people yourself.

(looks a little embarrassed) Oh, I don’t know about that. I mean – yes, I do try to help people. I feel that it’s the least I can do, really, when Joy and Jen helped me so tremendously when I was just a shell, a shadow of a person. It took me a little while to realise it, but once I did, I simply had to go on and think and learn so that I could help others.

That’s good to hear. So what has been your greatest challenge in life?

Bringing up Biddy; there’s no doubt about that. I wasn’t so very much older than she was, and I simply had no idea about life at all. I really wasn’t a fit person to be in charge of a fifteen year old girl. Fortunately I was rescued before I could make a real mess of things.

Now, finally, could you tell us a bit about what you see for yourself in the future? Is there a husband on the horizon?

Certainly not! I doubt I’ll ever get married; not at my time of life. In any case, I’m quite happy as I am. I believe that for many people marriage does what folk dancing and the Abbey girls and – well, just living here and having this life – have done for me. I don’t need a husband; my life is full already and more happy than I could possibly have imagined.

And after that I don’t think there’s really much more I can say. Thank you so much for talking to me today, Mary Dorothy.

Thank you.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed finding out a little bit more about Mary Dorothy Devine today. Watch this space for more interviews with heroines!

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

In Defence of Elinor Brent-Dyer

“You know that you are all forbidden to read any of this author’s works while you are at school. There is a reason for that, Vera.” (The Rivals of the Chalet School)

 

She’s sexist.

She’s classist.

She’s religious.

She’s unrealistic.

She’s too realistic.

 

 

Well, yes. She was a writer. She was a human being. She was also born in 1894; what do you expect? There are some attitudes that always will and always should be unacceptable, but I think it’s a mistake to criticise authors too heavily for being products of their time. And while she wasn’t by any means a revolutionary, Elinor Brent-Dyer was fairly forward-thinking. There were few children’s writers during the Second World War who would have dared to write:

There are many in Germany, more in Austria, who hate [Nazism] as we do. Theirs may be a martyrdom which, in God’s great mercy, we may be spared… And remember: this is the least we owe to those German and Austrian members who are ‘carrying on’ amid such terrible doings as we read of, and we must pay our debt faithfully. Let us pray.” (The Chalet School Goes to It)

Of course, Elinor Brent-Dyer’s attitudes were often typical of her era. Countless Chalet School girls and mistresses give up the careers they have or aspire to in favour of marriage, motherhood and home-making. The School’s founder, Madge Bettany, retires from her position when she marries. Neither Frieda Mensch nor Marie von Eschenau express a desire to do anything but marry after they leave school. And, notoriously, Daisy Venables gives up her highly successful career as a doctor – ‘“The one who’s won all the medals and things?”’ – at the end of Carola Storms the Chalet School in order to marry, a ‘sacrifice’ which rarely fails to raise an outcry among fans. It’s sad indeed, yet we should remember that Elinor Brent-Dyer is still highly unusual among Girls’ Own authors for allowing Daisy to become a doctor at all, let alone the sort of doctor who wins medals.

Even the uncontested heroine of the series, Joey Bettany/Maynard, is not only a wife and mother but also the author of a string of best-selling books. Her successor, Mary-Lou Trelawney, never marries at all but enters a career in archaeology. Even Len Maynard, becoming engaged at the end of the series, insists that she’s going to go to university and get her degree before getting married. And that’s not to mention the numerous Chalet School mistresses who remain at the School, happy and fulfilled, for many years. Hilda Annersley, Nell Wilson and Matron Lloyd join the School in the Tyrol years, and are at the centre of the School’s existence; the power and authority rest completely with them. To me the Chalet School is a symbol of quiet, consistent female power, and the fact that Elinor Brent-Dyer advocates not solely the path of marriage or that of a career, but both, depending on the choice of the individual, is empowering even today and would have been vastly more so for girls reading the books as they were published.

Class is another issue that’s hotly debated by Chalet School fans. How did Elinor Brent-Dyer really feel about it? Certainly the message that is most often and directly repeated is that ‘when you come to the root of matters, it’s you – you – YOU that matters all the time – what you are!’ (A Problem for the Chalet School). The books feature a variety of working class people, from the simple, traditional peasants of the Tyrol to no-nonsense Granny Learoyd and strong, silent handyman Gaudenz of the Swiss years.

Most interesting to Chalet School fans are the opposing heroines of A Problem for the Chalet School, Rosamund Lilley and Joan Baker. There’s a huge split in opinion on the subject – is Elinor Brent-Dyer highlighting the difference in personality between the girls so as to make a point about character rather than background being the important thing, or is she distinguishing between a deserving and an undeserving type of working-class, essentially saying that the working classes are acceptable so long as they know their place? My own opinion is more the former than the latter. In the genteel world of the Chalet School, Joan is far more handicapped by her attitudes than Rosamund, who is able to fit in quite easily. I find Joan’s subsequent development fascinating. She doesn’t simply conform to Chalet School mores but, while still changing and maturing, remains her own person. Some readers feel that Joan never achieves authorial approval, but I’d disagree with that. Richenda Fry rather turns up her nose at Joan, but that seems to reflect as much on Richenda as it does on Joan, and although she’s clearly tactless towards Naomi in Trials for the Chalet School, this is a one-off and she isn’t the only offender. I think Elinor Brent-Dyer’s portrayal of Joan is an ongoing and sympathetic representation of a person who is unable to become simply another genteel, middle-class young lady, but who is accepted in the community despite her differences to it.

I’m not sure, frankly, that I even need to make a case against Elinor Brent-Dyer being too religious. Some people don’t like it; that’s their tough shit. Skip those bits or don’t read the books. Having a Christian faith was a lot more acceptable then, and she deals with it sensitively and sometimes uniquely. I’m thinking of The Highland Twins at the Chalet School, when Miss Annersley and Miss Wilson have a big disagreement over whether it’s appropriate to allow Fiona Macdonald to use her second sight in an attempt to ‘see’ Jack Maynard, who has been lost at sea. Interestingly, it isn’t Catholic Miss Wilson who wins the argument (although Elinor Brent-Dyer had by this time converted to Catholicism), but Miss Annersley, who decides that Joey’s need is great enough to override her own concerns about the experiment. There are many times in the series when girls and mistresses feel the need to turn to God, and while some readers may be uncomfortable with this, it comes across as very authentic. So long as the author is truthful to herself, I don’t feel that I can take issue with the way she presents Christianity.

Many fans seem to struggle with a feeling that Elinor Brent-Dyer’s writing has a tendency to be unrealistic, and it’s true that she does have her unfortunate moments (yes, I will name my daughter after someone I met years ago for a few weeks…). My feeling is, however, that this is at least partly a result of the fact that the world is a very different place from the one she was writing in, and it can be challenging for modern readers to believe that life could genuinely have been like that (cold baths in the mornings? Yes, really!). But at her best, she creates characters and situations with a depth and complexity rarely equalled in the Girls’ Own world. I’m just going to pick out a few examples.

The obvious one is The Chalet School in Exile. There are few readers who would deny that this is a truly exceptional book. The description of the attack on Herr Goldmann is brief but pulls no punches: ‘Down the side street there came an old man with a long, grey beard, plainly running for his life. A shower of stones, rotten fruit and other missiles followed him. Stark terror was in his face, and already he was failing to outdistance his pursuers.’ It’s quiet, gentle Robin who races out of the Gasthaus to defend him, but her friends follow and moments later the schoolgirls and Miss Wilson, the mistress in charge, are the focus of the hostility of the attackers. Even more chillingly, it’s not faceless Nazis who have perpetrated the attack, but people the girls have known and been friendly with throughout their schooldays. And, despite their courage, the girls can’t prevail against the mood of the mob – they are rescued from the immediate danger by the parish priest, but they never go home, instead escaping across the mountains into Switzerland. As though to reiterate the horror of the situation, we later learn that Herr Goldmann, his wife and the priest who helped the girls to safety have all been killed by the mob, making their actions ultimately pointless. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing for a children’s book of that era, and should not be underestimated.

There are many other instances of strikingly realistic writing from Elinor Brent-Dyer. There’s Simone’s jealousy of Joey and her other friendships, Grizel’s painful reaction to her unhappy childhood, the singing in the cellars during the air-raid, Jacynth’s grief for her Auntie, Kathie’s struggles in her first time as a school-mistress, Grizel’s depression after the failure of her venture in New Zealand, and the ongoing bullying Jane Carew suffers at the hands of Jack Lambert.

In fact, some Chalet School readers complain that Elinor Brent-Dyer is too realistic, that she can’t have meant the bullying in The Chalet School and Jane to have been so real and that the School should have detected it sooner, dealt with it better. Yet as it stands it’s a grim storyline that rings a lot truer than, say, the change of heart that Naomi undergoes in Trials for the Chalet School. It also makes the gradual maturing of Jack in the later books a little more interesting and realistic – far more so than that of her mentor, Len, who barely needs to grow up at all. The argument of people who dislike such realism is that storylines like this are so strongly in opposition to the whole ethos of the Chalet School that they can’t accept them as being consistent with the rest of the series. My own feeling is that such flashes of stark honesty bring depth and truth to the books. I know I wouldn’t enjoy Elinor Brent-Dyer’s writing so much if they didn’t exist.

Each of these topics has been the subject of endless discussion among fans – I’m just contributing my own penn’orth here, so please feel free to comment and tell me whether you agree, disagree or have no idea what I’m even talking about!

To All Appearance, Dead, by Liz Filleul

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Blakes Come to Melling, by Margaret Biggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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