This is a book of four short stories (not four full-length books), about four different new girls in the same form as Darrell, Sally & co, and with an eye to increasing diversity in GO books. They’re not classics, but they’re not bad – although the quality does vary from one to another. I’ll just say a bit about what I thought of each one, in case anyone’s interested!
The Secret Princess by Narinder Dharma – this was the third one in the book, but I’m putting it first because I thought it was the best. Whilst I think it’s a little unfair that people criticise Blyton and other GO authors over the lack of non-white characters in their books, given that they were living and writing in a predominantly white society, I take the point that the lack of diversity in the books can make some readers feel excluded I also take the point that, whilst the UK at that time wasn’t the multicultural society that it was today, girls would have come from other parts of the Empire/Commonwealth to attend British boarding schools.
The protagonist in this story is Sunita, an Indian girl who’s attending Malory Towers whilst her dad, a leading scientist, is working in the UK. Without wanting to post a lot of spoilers, Gwendoline Mary mistakenly gets the idea that Sunita’s the daughter of a maharajah, and Sunita and the other girls play along with it. It’s brilliantly done, because, whilst it makes the point that the character is Indian, it doesn’t in any way make her seem “other”: she’s just one of the gang with Darrell and the others, taking part in a practical joke. I do feel a bit sorry for Gwen, who must be the most maligned character in GO literature, but she does ask for this one with her snobbery, which rings very true to how Enid Blyton wrote her. Very good story.
Bookworms by Lucy Mangan – this is just a light tale in which Darrell becomes friendly with the girl in charge of the library, and starts reading some well-known books – Noel Streatfeild and CS Lewis are both name-checked! Alicia gets jealous, and various pranks are played. It’s hardly a classic GO tale, but it does play cleverly on the fact that GO characters are usually in with the in crowd, captains of the lacrosse teams, etc, whereas those of us who grow up reading GO books are more likely to be like Eustacia Benson in the Chalet School books – sat in a quiet corner with our noses in a book! It flows very nicely, and it’s an entertaining little story.
A Bob and a Weave by Patrice Lawrence – hmm. I think the author of this maybe tried too hard not to fall into the trap of making an ethnic minority’s ethnicity the be all and end all of the character, if that makes sense! I’d read an interview in which the author talked about how she’d spoken to a number of black women, mainly originally from Nigeria, who’d attended British boarding schools, and that was what I was expecting to be reflected in the story. However, the fact that the character, Marietta was mixed race, was only mentioned once, in a vague reference to her having dark skin like her mum – and even that could have been taken to mean that she was Asian, or white with olive skin, rather than that she was black. There were references to her hair, and I think we were meant to read that as her having a traditional African hairstyle; but it really wasn’t clear, and I’m not sure I’d have picked up on it at all had I not read the interview. I don’t want to read stories in which a character’s ethnicity is the only thing about them, and I certainly don’t want clichés or stereotypes, but, given everything that’s been said about making GO books more inclusive, if you’re going to write about a black or mixed race character then you do need to make clear the fact that she’s black or mixed race. Take Margot in the Trebizon books – her being black is not an issue in any way, but the reader is aware of her West Indian heritage. This just seemed to miss the mark, somehow – although probably with the very best of intentions.
Marietta’s story was that her family worked in a circus, and that she didn’t want the other girls to find out about it. It felt like a bit of a copy of the Carlotta and Eileen stories in the St Clare’s books, but I suppose it was very Blyton. I just didn’t feel that it worked that well. But that’s just my humble opinion, and other people may think it’s great!
The Show Must Go On by Rebecca Westcott – in this one, the new girl, Maggie, is Gwendoline’s cousin … but she’s a poor relation, having her fees paid by Gwen’s parents. And she makes her mark early on by pointing out that it’s not actually normal “to have all your meals cooked for you and your clothes washed for you while [sic] you swan about the place, riding your ponies and sketching in art books”. That’s definitely not something Enid Blyton would have written 🙂 – although it’s probably something I’d have longed to say had I ever gone to Malory Towers, not that I’d have had the nerve! What is very Blyton is that the girls are supposed to be putting on a show, none of them can think of anything much to do, and, whaddaya know, it turns out that Maggie is a brilliant dancer. There’s also a rather Brent-Dyer-esque plot involving an accident and a rescue. And, hooray, for once, an author actually lets Gwen reform and become part of the crowd. I think this is the one which would have worked best as a full-length book – it was a good story, but it felt a bit rushed.
So there we are! And Malory Towers is very much in the news at the moment – I’ll be seeing the musical in September, and will probably be writing about that, if anyone’s interested!