Review: Juniors of the Chalet School, by Katherine Bruce

70_juniors_of_the_chalet_school__42692-1480431225-1280-1280Rosalie held up a hand in protest. “I won’t hear it! This term will be such a peaceful one that it will be spoken of forever in the annals of the Chalet School’s long and glorious history! Future prefects will envy us for our weeks of inaction and the ability to get our work done in prep without disruption. We will have no illnesses or accidents or – or anything!”

Chalet School fill-ins are a mildly controversial topic, but I’ve always enjoyed fanfiction and I generally like seeing how other people view the characters and interpret situations both explicit and implicit. Juniors of the Chalet School by Katherine Bruce is one of the less usual ones, since it takes place during a published term, covered in The Princess of the Chalet School. As the author points out in her foreword, the juniors hardly appear in Princess, and I enjoyed the fact that she took the opportunity to tell the story from the point of view of the younger girls. It mostly revolves around the juniors’ conflicts with Matron and Grizel – they seem to have been a combative bunch that term! – with, of course, the traditional folk tales and natural (not to mention unnatural) disasters.

I must confess that I especially revelled in the fact that Matron Webb really was thoroughly evil. She bullies the girls. She tries to bully the staff. I forget whether or not the school had a cat at this point, but if it did she would certainly have kicked it. This, of course, makes the juniors’ treatment of her (we only see the older girls’ activites as they affect the little ones) entirely understandable and perfectly justified – and means that the reader can sit and enjoy Matron’s come-uppance with no regrets.

I’ve said this before, but for me one of the most important things in any novel is characterisation, and happily Katherine Bruce’s efforts in this direction are more than acceptable. The characters are all quite consistent with Elinor Brent-Dyer’s creations, and Robin (sorry, the Robin) is both consistent and quite bearable, which is an impressive achievement when you come to think about it!

Grizel, too, is more than bearable in Juniors of the Chalet School, which I’m glad about because she’s one of my favourite characters in the series. She’s complex and interesting and tries desperately hard and fails and tries again and is just very human and refreshing. Actually, in Juniors I felt rather sorry for her. At the start of term, Madge asks her to live with and supervise the juniors, giving her perhaps five minutes of guidance and then never bothering to check up on her for the rest of the time. Even the rest of the staff who live at Le Petit Chalet don’t seem interested in seeing how things are going or whether Grizel or the juniors are doing all right with the arrangement, until Grizel is driven by the juniors’ rebellion to beg for help from Juliet. Of course, such situations are only too common at the Chalet School – teenaged girls are regularly expected to have the wisdom of a sixty year old!

Altogether, I think Juniors at the Chalet School is a very worthy addition to the growing collection of fill-ins published by Girls Gone By Publishers. It’s very jolly and light-hearted, trots along at a decent pace, and has some good characterisation. I skimmed the description of the masque but that, of course, is a traditional Elinor Brent-Dyer experience! Definitely recommended for anyone who likes a fill-in that fits in well with the Chalet School canon.

(Image nicked from Girls Gone By Publishers)

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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.

Review: JP of the Fifth by Margaret Griffiths

JP of the Fifth, Margaret Griffiths

JP of the Fifth was written by Margaret Griffiths and published in 1937, during what might be called the heyday of the school story, and it is an excellent example of that genre. Like all the best school stories it is filled with adventure and excitement, appealing characters and almost no lessons. Published as a very satisfying fat hardback with thick pages, it is a handsome book to own and is beautifully illustrated by Terye Hamilton, whose sensitive drawings only add to the feeling of the book.

The story begins with the meeting of the two Joans (one of whom is conveniently called Pat) on the train to school. They switch identities so that Pat can fail a scholarship on Joan’s behalf (Joan being too intelligent to do so for herself) in order that Joan may go and live away from her hideous stepmother, and here begins all the confusion. The exchange turns out to be fortunate, for otherwise the plot against sweet, gentle Joan might have succeeded and she be defrauded of her rightful inheritance.

J.P. of the Fifth revolves around Pat, who is known as J.P. for her trademark judicial expression. It is Pat who suggests the change of identies, Pat who keeps Joan up to the mark throughout, Pat who suffers the greatest pain of guilt, Pat who is kidnapped (twice) in mistake for Joan. Fortunately she is well up to all of these challenges. Her heroic character leads her to leap to Joan’s defence in the first place (despite her father’s warning just minutes before that “you cannot champion the cause of every lame dog you meet”. Her determination to do her best for Joan leads her to continue the deception as long as she is able, and her inherent honesty and integrity lead her to confess bravely when the time comes. Finally, her tremendous courage and strength of character enable her to survive two kidnaps, one involving a bang on the head and the other a dose of chloroform and a fall into a canal, arriving back at school quite as chipper as she left it. It seems that her only flaw, and one that is common to many Girls’ Own characters, is impulsiveness and lack of forethought. Pat is a little too perfect for realism, but she is still an appealing character.

The minor characters are equally engaging, occasionally more so. Joan herself (known as Goldie, for her hair) is sweet and clever but rather colourless. Daisy Acland (Dimples), on the other hand, is my personal favourite. Also impulsive and heroic, but much younger, she is instrumental in the apprehending of the criminals and solving of the mystery. She also has an excellent turn of phrase:

“Now J.P. is an English gentlewoman. She knows what’s done.”

”What do you mean, you impudent little creature?” blazed Julie. “English? I’m as English as you are.”

”You may be English,” replied Daisy superbly, “but you are not what I call a gentlewoman.”

Then there is Miss Hammond, who adequately fills the role of Goddess in this particular story – she is beautiful and intelligent; she suspects the identity swap long before anyone else does, and tempers justice with mercy perfectly. The schoolgirl villains, Julie and Molly, are an interesting pair. Julie gets more page time but is, in the end, redeemed by her extreme repentance, whereas Molly tries to push all the blame onto Julie and quietly vanishes. Kate O’Halloran, who seems to be the ringleader of the adult villains, is also nicely portrayed. She is tall and dignified, intelligent and quick-thinking, and it seems that her plan might really have worked if it hadn’t been for the confusion between the two girls. Certainly she creates a very plausible menace throughout the story, and one that is in no way lessened when she appears in person.

The writing is perfectly adequate to the tale and Margaret Griffiths creates a lively, exciting atmosphere and has a delightfully gentle sense of humour. There are a few things that jar strangely, though. She has a slightly irritating habit of putting information in dialogue where it doesn’t quite work – there is a (peculiarly well-spoken) tramp who describes a plot to one of its originators quite unnecessarily. Not to mention the fact that the girls appear not to think it necessary to mention the first attempted kidnapping, nor the fact that they have seen one of Joan’s supposedly disappeared guardians near the school. I can’t help feeling that the whole adventure would have been a lot more realistic but also a lot duller if they had done the proper thing!

This is one of my favourite Girls’ Own stories and I think my love for it comes from the wonderfully portrayed characters. Even the heroine is thoroughly likeable despite her perfection, and the others are quite delightful. I’d recommend this one to anyone who wants a good thrilling read of a book that’s a perfect example of its genre.

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.

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.

The School on North Barrule, by Mabel Esther Allan

Voirrey stood still, holding her bicycle. She was alone and free. She could have at least three hours, perhaps more, in which to see the North – the North that pulled so strongly – and Aunt Mona Quilliam.

Mabel Esther Allan’s school stories are mostly notable for their school settings, which are nearly unique in the Girls’ Own genre for being radically progressive and usually co-educational, placing more emphasis on nature and responsibility than on organised sports and discipline. In some of her own autobiographical writings, reproduced as an introduction to Fidra Books’ recent edition of The School on North Barrule, Mabel Esther Allan explains that after suffering throughout her schooldays from a lack of understanding of her severe visual impairment, she seized with enthusiasm on the educational ideas of A. S. Neill, worked out practically in his own school, Summerhill, and reproduced them in her own, fictional, establishments. Although the invariable success of her schools can become a little tedious, the stories are still enjoyable simply for their difference from the usual pattern of Girls’ Own books.

Barrule House, featured in The School on North Barrule, is no exception: there are, seemingly, only two children who are not genuinely and perfectly happy at the school. These are Voirrey herself, the heroine of the story, who finds even the free and easy atmosphere of Barrule House a struggle at first, and her brother Andreas, who hates everything about the school and wishes only to return to his old grammar school at home. Despite the fact that staff and other pupils acknowledge that Andreas is ‘difficult’, there is never any suggestion that the school might fail in its mission to make him, as every other pupil, a sensible and responsible member of the community.

Mabel Esther Allan, like all the best authors, Girls’ Own or otherwise, has a natural skill for creating appealing characters. Voirrey is likeable and interesting, even her sometimes irritating obsession with becoming a member of the Manx Club (the club to which all the school members who are native to the Isle of Man belong) rounding her character a little to make her slightly less than perfect. Christian is perhaps even more interesting because we only see her from Voirrey’s point of view – fascinating, appealing, changeable and a bit mysterious. Unfortunately Mabel Esther Allan doesn’t pay so much attention to her background characters, most of whom are uniformly charming and equally dull. Voirrey’s brother Andreas might have made a convincing antagonist if he had been allowed a greater role than that of trouble-maker and irritant, but even his cursory reformation at the end of the book presents very little in the way of character development. The shadow of nasty Aunt Mona Quilliam hangs over much of the story, but her eventual appearance is something of an anti-climax, and she barely appears as a real character.

For me, the greatest appeal of The School on North Barrule is Mabel Esther Allan’s extraordinary ability to convey a sense of place. I don’t have much sense of geography and my imagining of places is pretty much non-existent, so it’s a real treat to read an author who can bring a landscape to life in my mind. It’s not just the way she describes the scenery, but Voirrey’s emotional reactions to the Isle of Man heighten the atmosphere and bring an extra spark of life: “Voirrey stood on the top of a sand-dune, staring towards the shore, queerly held in an unbelievable stillness. The waves washed on an empty sandy beach that stretched away north and south into the bright distance, and across the sea was the Mull of Galloway, and, northwards, the Scottish hills… In that still, important, eventless moment she seemed to understand living as she had never done before.

I sometimes find Mabel Esther Allan’s unquestioning faith in the progressive school ideal a little hard to swallow – surely there must be some disadvantages, even if they are vastly outweighed by the advantages of self-discipline and self-expression? – but I do appreciate the originality of her stories. The School on North Barrule isn’t the most exciting or complex school story, but it has a nice plot, a couple of interesting characters and it brings the magic of the Isle of Man truly to life.

To All Appearance, Dead, by Liz Filleul

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

The Schoolgirl Refugee, by Olive C. Dougan

Fear lent Trudi wings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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